Famoudou Don Moye:
Drawing on Tradition
by Rick Mattingly
Famoudou Don Moye was in New York recently to appear at a benefit for Outward Visions, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to fostering the growth and recognition of contemporary creative music. Moye took time out from his busy schedule to sit down and talk about his music.
RM: Did you come from a musical family?
FDM: My father was a drummer, but he was not a professional musician. He had a regular job and played drums on the side. Then I had some uncles who used to play in territorial bands in upstate New York. Most of them got out of the music business as they got older, though. Also, I used to stay with my grandmother who was a cook in a place where a lot of groups would come. I never actually met the musicians, but being around them provided me with a musical atmosphere in my early years.
RM: How did you become personally involved with music?
FDM: Through my cousin who played tenor sax, vibes and drums. He’s the one that actually got me my first pair of sticks. He would take me around to hear different people and let me listen to his records.
RM: Did you take lessons?
FDM: Yes, I started taking lessons when I was about 8. A few years later I joined a drum and bugle corps and that’s when I really got into the technical part of drumming. I also learned how to read better in that situation. Eventually, I ended up playing with the Crusaders of Rochester, New York. They were national champions. We went all over New York state, as well as Canada, Boston and Washington, D.C. So that was a good experience for travelling, working with a group of people, and learning about technique.
RM: What were you listening to in those days?
FDM: I was mostly involved with drum and bugle corps marching music, but in our household my mother had a large record collection. She tried to give me a total musical background. She would listen to a lot of classics, plus Duke Ellington, rhythm and blues, and the popular music of the time. And then I heard whatever the people around me were listening to, which was a wide variety of black music. So I did not have a certain kind of music I was listening to, in the sense that I could say something like, “Oh yes, I listened to Duke everyday.” It was not like that. I was just listening to whatever was in the atmosphere. Plus I was singing in the choir and playing in the school band. So I had a wide variety of experiences.
Photo by Tom Copi
RM: At what point did you move from drum and bugle into different things?
FDM: While I was still in high school I had access to a set but I wasn’t really playing it that much. I was mostly learning conga and bongos at that time. But then when I went away to college I got a set of my own and started playing it on a regular basis. My first college was Central State in Ohio. It was like a little country school, which was cool at that time, because I didn’t have the distractions of a big city. I would get up and go to my classes and the rest of the time I would be playing and rehearsing. I was in a percussion ensemble with two friends named Syd Smart and DeDe Anderson. There was also a rehearsal band and in town there were a few clubs where we could go and sit in with the bands. Eventually I changed schools because there was not enough happening in Ohio. There were good teachers in the music department and they were very helpful but I felt I needed an urban environment. So I went to Detroit.
RM: Were you able to find what you were looking for?
FDM: As soon as I got there I fell right into a good situation at a place called the Artists’ Workshop. They had music going on all the time. One of the people there that really helped me a lot was a trumpet player named Charles Moore. I used to go over to his house everyday and work with him, getting into research, studying the music, listening to records, analyzing charts, and stuff like that. I really started getting into the music more and actually getting gigs. I could always get by on my conga playing but in Detroit I started getting into situations where I could play drums, too.
RM: By this time, were you starting to focus in on any particular type of music?
FDM: I was playing a lot of different things: blues, pick-up gigs, a little rock here and there; but mostly, I was interested in so-called jazz. That’s why I spent as much time as I did with Charles, because that is what he was into. All the musicians around there were. I was trying to pick up what I could.
RM: Where did the African influence in your playing come from?
FDM: That influence goes back to the people I was around when I was in Ohio. There was a guy there who had been to Africa for a couple of years and he knew a lot of rhythms. Syd Smart also turned me on to a lot of things. Then when I was in Paris, I met a drummer from the Congo named Titos Sompa. He had a dance company at the American Center for Students and Artists. He used to give classes there, so I learned quite a few things from him about dance and movement. Then I was influenced by a drummer from Senegal named Mor Thiam. I worked with him in 1970 when I came back from Europe. He taught me quite a bit about hand drum technique. One other person who was very important was a guy named Atu Murray. He is a black American, but he had lived in Ghana for extended periods. I learned a lot from him about the art of making drums, how to cure skins and mount them on the drums, and the functions of different instrument in religious ceremonies and regular entertainment. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama, and I still go down there every now and then and spend a couple of weeks with him, just dealing with the drums.
RM: You mentioned Paris. How did you happen to go to Europe?
FDM: I had been playing with a group called Detroit Free Jazz. We had this money we had made and the opportunity to travel, so we decided to go to Europe and find out what was happening. We went over there and got work right away. We worked in Holland, Switzerland, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Yugoslavia. After about a year, the group dissolved, so I went first to Copenhagen and then to Rome. I was doing a lot of studio work in Rome and playing conga drum with dance companies. I also worked with some people like Gato Barbieri and Steve Lacy. Eventually, I decided to go to Paris because that was the center for the kind of music I was involved in. Some of the people there were Archie Shepp, Ornette Coleman, the Art Ensemble and Cecil Taylor. I had met Joseph Jarman from the Art Ensemble in Detroit, so he was somebody I could try to get in touch with in Paris. When I got there I fell into a working situation right away.
RM: How did you actually become a member of the Art Ensemble?
FDM: The whole process took about a year and a half. They were auditioning drummers at the time, so they called me up and I went out and played a couple of gigs with them. For a while, I was working with them, as well as, with other groups. Eventually, I was working with them all of the time. One thing led to another and I found myself going back to the States as a full-time member of the Art Ensemble.
RM: Did you have to make a lot of adjustments?
FDM: Oh man! Whew! Talk about adjustments! You see, my range of information was kind of limited. The Art Ensemble was involved with a lot of areas of music that I wasn’t familiar with. Initially, I was in semi-shock because I had to go in there and try to deal with these things. I was doing everything I could just to do my part. My whole thing had to be restructured because I was not really comfortable with improvisational forms. The situation was good, in that, it really opened me up, but it was hard because I always felt that my inexperience was holding back the total development of the group. But they were patient with me and everybody was very helpful. Apparently, they saw some potential in me that could be worked with. We were playing a lot and rehearsing constantly, so I was able to evolve and develop quickly.
RM: How did you influence the other members of the group, and what was their influence on you?
FDM: My hand drumming and conga playing brought a new element to the group. It was an enhancement of an already percussive situation because the Art Ensemble had been working without a drummer for about 4 years. So I was dealing with people who had a very percussive approach to their playing. It made it easier for me to come in there, because if there were sections in which I was weak, I could get a little help from somebody else. For instance, I could not deal with the pure simplicity of rock that well. But Lester is a master of that whole thing, having worked with people like Little Milton, Albert King, and the Impressions. He understood the rhythmic structure so I got a lot of help from him on how to do it. In his own way, each member contributed towards my being able to function in the group. Malachi knows all the be-bop changes from having worked around Chicago with all kinds of people, so I was learning the little subtleties about bop from him. That’s why I feel like I was able to learn quickly. I had all this help there constantly.
RM: When you returned to America with the Art Ensemble you joined the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians.
RM: How did that affect your development?
FDM: The AACM was like the Art Ensemble in the respect that there were all of these different musical personalities that I could call on for different things.
RM: What situations did you become involved with in Chicago?
FDM: I was working with about 6 different bands plus doing things on my own. One organization I worked with was the Sun Drummers. The group was founded by Atu Murray. We made all of our own drums. We played around the community a lot, doing workshops and things for school children, in addition to playing for dance troups. That was an outlet for all of my other types of percussion. So I had a whole scene in Chicago of playing all day, everyday. Plus, I was travelling with the Art Ensemble.
RM: What is it about the Art Ensemble that you find appropriate to your musical goals?
FDM: The Art Ensemble situation is important because of the function everybody has within the group structure. Each person can express himself as a soloist whenever it is musically appropriate. You don’t have to be relegated to a position of an accompanist. But it works both ways. It is a situation of leading and accompanying, simultaneously. Sometimes we might all be playing, but it’s about what the bass is doing. Another time everyone might be playing about what I’m doing. When you look at the total picture, the accompanying and leading functions cease to be important. We have created a whole musical structure that is uniquely our own. We try to deal with the total realm of great black music. That’s what we call what we do: Great Black Music—Ancient to the Future. We try to have at our disposal the world body of black music. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re trying to copy different forms. I can’t even begin to master all of the different forms, but I’ve isolated certain ones and I’m working and researching and studying them as a way of broadening my musical approach. Being in the Art Ensemble gives me a good opportunity to use a lot of these things because we deal with such a wide spectrum of music.
RM: How are the members of the Art Ensemble able to function as a group, while maintaining strong individual identities?
FDM: The essential element of that whole thing is respect. Everyone respects very much what everybody else is doing as an individual. Since we have been together for so long, we know where everybody is at. We realize that each person has to have a certain amount of leeway to realize his own ambitions, both within the Art Ensemble and on his own. So we purposely structured our whole thing in such a way as to allow the maximum realization of this. That means having the Art Ensemble work as much as possible, but at the same time, leaving some time open for each member to develop his own personal career outside the group. That makes the group concept that much stronger. What happens is, I get energy from working with the Art Ensemble. Then I take that energy into my own projects which, in turn, gives me another kind of energy that I can take back to the Art Ensemble. The two of them constantly help each other. A lot of groups get into dissension because the respect element is lacking and, also because of the concept of, “I am the leader and you are the sideman, and we are doing it like this . . .” We don’t have these problems. Everybody is the leader and the sideman simultaneously.
RM: It seems to me that the concepts that make the Art Ensemble work could be applied to a general social philosophy.
FDM: This is an aggressive society. One of the ways we have found to get around the negative forces in our environment is through collective mind. One mind has a certain strength, two minds double the strength, three minds triple the double, and so on. We have the strength of 5 minds focused on the music. We’ve encountered a lot of negative forces, but they have never been able to overwhelm us because if one person is weak in some department, then another element of the 5 minds enters and supports that weakness in a positive way. It is a constant give-and-take support system.
RM: How do you apply these concepts to the music?
FDM: We try to be in tune with the universal laws, and the way to do that is to have a spiritual approach to the music. When the music is striving toward things that are of the higher level, then that eradicates a lot of the negative elements. Everyone has a choice between positive and negative. The spirituality and discipline of music helps us to make a better choice. If I can isolate an element of truth within my music, approach it spiritually, and deal with all the work that is involved, then I’ll never have to worry about anything. This is all very abstract. I have strong feelings about it, but it’s hard to communicate that feeling through words.
RM: How do the make-up and costumes fit in with what the Art Ensemble is doing?
FDM: Each person in the group is free to do whatever he wants to reflect his own personal thing. I deal with the colorful, African, 3rd World type of projections because that’s the type of energy I’m trying to draw on. The face painting is from the roots of our African tradition. So, when I incorporate these things into what I am doing, I’m creating my own symbolic structure. Each member of the group has his own structure system, and these different structures all add up to the ritual of the Art Ensemble. I use the ritual and symbolism to help me evolve up to a high enough level to deal with the music. Another thing we do is have a moment of silence before we play, so we can focus the energy in the room onto what is happening on stage. Also, we face the East for spiritual guidance. The energy of the sun comes from the East and a lot of other spiritual energies are concentrated in the East, so that becomes part of our ritual. All these little things add up to what we are trying to do.
RM: In ancient times, music, art and theater were all combined. The Art Ensemble seems to be carrying on that tradition.
FDM: Right. In the ancient tradition of art and black music, a musical presentation was not just about music. It was about all the different elements of life. These days, music is just considered entertainment. But we think of it as more than that. We think of it as an emotional, or even religious, experience. It can be educational, too. And then we can get down and get funky. So it’s all those things. Then when you add the theatrical element, you get a total projection. The music is first for us, but all of these other elements enhance it and help take it up to a higher level.
RM: The Art Ensemble uses an amazing variety of instruments.
FDM: People think we’re crazy. All these years we’ve been carrying this stuff around at our own expense, plus setting it up. I was in the group for 9 years before we had a roadie. The reason why we went to all of this trouble is that now we’ve got all of these sounds there all of the time. We can move in and out of different situations and color them the way we want to. It’s hard work, but the results have been worth it.
RM: It must be hard to arrange all of your instruments in such a way that you can still get to them easily.
FDM: I’ve had to invent different kinds of stands and set-ups so that I can essentially keep playing and deal with all the little side effects without losing the flow. I’ve observed a lot of percussionists who are really good, but they always have one problem: they will be right up in the height of the music and when they want to change the color they have to stop and reach down on the floor to pick something up. So I have been working on trying to keep it happening constantly, by developing independent co-ordination and by having the correct set-up. So far, I’ve been pretty successful, but now I’ve got so much stuff that there’s no way. I’m going to keep working on it and figure out some different ways. For the last 7 or 8 years, a guy in Chicago named Clarence Williams has been helping me work out different ways to make everything more concentrated. Also, just from watching different cats, I’ve seen things I don’t want to be doing and have been able to eliminate them.
RM: Do you use a lot of combination mallets?
FDM: For a long time, if I did something that needed two different things, I would hold them both in my hand at the same time. But one of the projects I’ve been working on is putting things together. I might have a stick on one side and a mallet or a shaker on the other side.
RM: I notice you use brushes quite a bit.
FDM: Yeah. It’s effective. There is a whole world of color in the brushes.
RM: I also see you switching back and forth between matched grip and traditional.
FDM: I’m more adept at traditional grip, but I use matched grip anytime I’m in a situation where that will be effective. I don’t even think about it. I’m just concerned with getting the best sound.
RM: Would you describe your set-up?
FDM: I’ve got a set of Rosewood Sonor drums. The bass drum is 18 inches; I’ve got 12 and 13-inch mounted toms, 14 and 16-inch floor toms, and 6 and 8-inch bongos.
RM: What about heads?
FDM: I use Remo Ambassador coated heads. I went out to their factory and looked through everything they had. I used skin heads for a long time, but we have been travelling so much that they were too much trouble. I use two heads on all my drums. I like that fuller sound. I’ve used one head sometimes but, generally, I like the roundness of the two headed sound.
RM: Have you ever tried Fiberskyn?
FDM: I have not had time to really work with them, but I have had a couple nothing like a skin head. I really know about skin heads from playing conga. I can’t imagine playing a conga with a plastic head on it.
RM: What kind of congas do you use?
FDM: If given a choice, I prefer to not even use congas. I prefer hand drums that have no metal at all on them. They are easier on your hands, plus, the range of sound is more flexible. For a long time, I used fiberglass congas because they do not break when you are travelling. But I’ve got the right kind of cases now, so I don’t have to worry about my instruments anymore. Now if I find an instrument that gets the sound I want, I don’t care what it is made of, I’ll use it.It’s not like I’ll never use a fiberglass conga. They are okay. Obviously, the reason that they were developed is so that you can control the sound of the drum more. You don’t have to heat the heads, you just turn a wrench. If I could find a way to use my traditional instruments without cooking the heads every day, I would. But I can’t always do that so, then, I use the fiberglass. You have to use whatever is best for a particular situation.
RM: Do you use Paiste cymbals and gongs?
FDM: Yes. I’ve got a 20-inch sizzle, a 20-inch dark ride, an 18-inch dark crash, a 20-inch Chinese cymbal, 15-inch dark hi-hats, and a little 8-inch bell cymbal. I’ve also got a whole rack of cup chimes and gongs. I use 8 gongs, ranging from 36 inches down to 16 inches. Also, I use sound plates, finger cymbals and things like that.
RM: What about your miscellaneous instruments?
FDM: I use Latin Percussion shakeres, tambourines, agogo bells, and all that. Then I’ve got all of my bird calls, whistles, bike horns, bells and stuff. Plus, I’ve got all of my traditional drums, ballophones, gourds and shakers. All of those are hand made by me or somebody else. They have no metal or nails or anything like that.
RM: Do you ever use any electronic percussion?
FDM: I never have. See, we are not an electric group. The bass does not even use a pick-up. So if I were to introduce an element of electronics, it would wreck havoc with out internal balance. Plus, with all of our different instruments, the Art Ensemble can create so many sounds that we don’t need synthesizers. And then, what if the lights go out? We were playing at a festival in Vienna and the power went out for about 10 minutes. We just kept playing. We didn’t have cats looking around for the switches. Then the lights came back on and people thought it was part of our thing. I don’t have anything against electronics per se, it’s just not my thing. The guys who do it can have it. If you need an acoustic player, you can call me.
RM: Ancient musicians used to make their instruments out of things around them, such as gourds and logs. I find it interesting that you use some things from your environment, such as the bike horns and whistles.
FDM: The reason you see those things is because we are dealing with contemporary sounds. Just like when I want a traditional sound, I use a traditional instrument. So, when I want a contemporary sound, I have to use an instrument that will produce that sound.
RM: Even with all the instruments you carry, it seems like it would be hard to cover the wide variety of sounds your music requires.
FDM: It is a problem, and I’m still trying to figure out ways to do it. On the drum set for instance, I don’t want to have just that one sound. So I am experimenting with some drums carved out of logs that have skin heads. I’m going to try to incorporate them into my set so that I can get a wider range of sound. On the last tour, we were doing some things with funk. Now I could play the music on my regular set, but it was not really the correct sound. So I had an extra bass drum, snare, cymbal and hi-hat, that were all taped up to get the funk sound. Some nights, we did not even play the tune and the drums just sat there. But if I needed that sound, I had it.
RM: When I saw the group play, you did not use any microphones. Do you ever have to use them?
FDM: Whenever possible, we play totally acoustic. Up to now the places we have generally played in have had good acoustics. In Europe, especially, we’ve played in a lot of symphony halls and opera houses. These are old buildings that were designed for acoustic music. Recently, however, we have been playing in larger places, so we have to use mikes. Usually, I have one mike on my right for the congas, another mike on the left for the chimes, ballophone and all of the little stuff, and a mike overhead for the drums and gongs. When we do a sound check, we tell the engineer, “Just set the balance at a basic level and then you can go home. If there are any volume adjustments to be made, we will make them with the instruments.” If somebody in the group is playing too loud, he will know it and make the adjustment himself. He doesn’t need a sound man to “bring down mike 3” or something.
RM: Have you ever had problems with recording engineers, in terms of getting the sound you want in the studio?
FDM: You would not believe the problems. It’s like some of these cats hate drummers. You try to tell the guy what you want and then he feels like “you can’t tell me anything. This is my job and I know what I’m doing.” So, then if you let them do it, it sounds bad. I have to be diplomatic. I approach him in such a way that I get what I want and he feels good about it. ECM is a better situation. Jack DeJohnette got Manfred (Eicher) together in a lot of ways about what drums need to sound like on record. And Manfred is a bass player, so he is sensitive to the relationship between percussion and bass, and how it relates to the rest of the group. Even though we had a little trouble with the engineer on the first record we made for them, it was minor, compared to the hassles we’ve had with other engineers who refused to cooperate.
RM: When you play on someone else’s session, does the leader take charge of dealing with the engineer?
FDM: Not always. It would be a lot easier for me if the leader would go in and say, “I want the drums like this.” But some of the people I’ve recorded with did not even know what drums were supposed to sound like. Then I have to step over to the side and tell him how it’s supposed to be. I feel like I’m being a drag because I’m trying to take over somebody’s session. If that starts happening, I just say, “Hold it. You have to get this together or get somebody else.”
RM: Do you alter your drums to try and get a live sound in the studio?
FDM: I’m still learning about that. I’ve run into some engineers who know how to do it but, generally, I’m not trying to get the same sound in the studio that I get live. For me, recording is recording, and live is live, and the two don’t meet. If people can do it, more power to them. I’ve never had a recorded sound that I was totally happy with. ECM has come close. Ralph McDonald has all the right stuff to capture the essence of what percussion is about and I’m sure there are others who can do it, but I’ve never been in a recording situation that had the finances behind it to make it happen. I’ve always been on a jazz budget, which means: get the most with the least.
RM: Manufacturers of records and stereo equipment run ads that say, “This will put you right in the concert hall.” Meanwhile, the latest thing in percussion equipment is a drum head that “gives you the studio sound.”
FDM: Records are just a limited way of presenting the music. The basic thing is live music. The closer I get to that on a recording, the better. But I’m not interested in having the recorded sound on stage.
RM: Your solo album is entitled Sun Percussion – Vol. I. How many volumes will there eventually be?
FDM: Sun Percussion is the general name for the whole series. Volume I is the solo album. Volume II will probably be a duo or trio. Volume III might be with a whole lot of drummers. Then Volume IV might be another solo. I’m going to do different kinds of things, Sun Percussion in all of its different representations. The concept is that we draw all of our energy from the sun. That’s what my whole theme is about.
RM: What was involved in doing a solo album?
FDM: I was able to get a musical statement out and at the same time, learn the mechanical structure of producing an album from step one to the end. Also, that was the first album out on the Art Ensemble’s own label. Unfortunately, the technical quality of that album is not what I wanted it to be, but at the time, it was the best thing I could get together. I’ll never allow the sound quality to be like that again. The next one will have to be as close to perfection of sound as I can get. I’ll do whatever the situation requires. I want everything I do under my own label to be on the same quality level as the recordings the Art Ensemble did on ECM. That is the standard that I’m aiming for. You have to learn about quality and now I know how to get it. Basically, it takes cash.
RM: I’m interested in the titles of the pieces on that album. What is Saba Saba?
FDM: That is from the East African Swahili tradition. It’s the seventh day of the seventh month. They have a big festival every July and this piece is centered around the energy connected with that.
FDM: That is the name I have for Henry Threadgil. He’s a saxophone player and a percussionist. He invented an instrument called the hubkaphone, which is made from differently tuned hubcaps.
FDM: That was from when I was working with the Sun Drummers in Chicago. This was one of the compositions I wrote for a percussion trio I used to work with all the time. One member was named Oye and the other was Kewu. The title is a combination of our names.
FDM: That means brother in the Senegalese language. I was invoking the spirit and feeling that I have gotten from a percussionist I had met, who was the spiritual drummer with the Ballet Nationale from Senegal.
FDM: Olosolo is a derivitive of Olosodon, which is a rhythm from Mali and Guinea. It is the strong man’s rhythm. I don’t have the exact, specific information about it, but this is my interpretation of what it’s about. They have a tradition where the wrestlers come out and are accompanied by drummers. Then there is a marriage ritual where the strongest man gets the woman, or something like that. This is my interpretation of the energy around that.
FDM: That is from Muhal, Bowie, Favors, Jarman and Roscoe. I was calling on the energy around them for that composition.
RM: Pioneer Song?
FDM: That was evoking the spirits of all the pioneers of great black music who
have already gone on to the next level. I was calling on the people I was familiar with, like Coltrane, Duke, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, and people like that.
RM: How much of your music is written and how much is improvised?
FDM: Each composition has a set framework. I try to deal with all types of compositional form. Some of my music has a strict structure that does not vary, while on others I leave room for improvisation within the structure. The composition Olosolo, for instance, is a strict rhythm with about 10 different parts. I can play one part, and then another part, and another part, and add another part to that, and mix and combine parts and still be within the formal structure of the tune. Scowiefamuja is a drum set solo. I have certain elements that I use inside of the solo. I might not start with one of them, but at some point during the solo I will use them. Saba Saba was highly improvised. Basically, it was sound relationships, but even the sounds were structured. Part of the problem is that you can’t accurately notate a lot of this stuff. I didn’t write much before, but I’m getting into it more because that is another extension of knowing your instrument. Sometimes I’ll do things like shake a rattle with one foot, step on a bike horn with the other foot, turn a ratchet with one hand, beat on something with the other hand, and maybe be blowing a whistle. So how do I notate that? I would just have to come out and show somebody what to do.
RM: A lot of the things you play sound very different, yet they often seem to have a traditional structure.
FDM: That is my approach to a lot of the stuff. Like, I can be playing a regular time thing, but instead of a sock on 2 and 4, I might use a shaker on 2 and a little horn on 4. It’s the same rhythmic structure, but the sound varies. This is what we do with a lot of our music in the Art Ensemble. We do standard versions of a lot of things, but with wierd instrumentation. That’s just one way of extending the music.
RM: What are the problems involved in being an artist and making a living?
FDM: A lot of people think that just because you are doing something different, you have to be a “starving artist.” That is not true. I’ve never had a job outside of playing music and I’ve never been hungry. I have always had a place to stay. It has not always been the most comfortable situation, but I’ve always been able to do what I had to do. Somebody else might not be willing to accept the things I was willing to accept, but I never did anything that I was not comfortable with. The true struggle comes in the practice room, facing those drums everyday for 10 hours. You cannot do that if you are worried about the next meal. There was a long time in which I did not have much money, but rather than sitting around, being negative about it, I tried to put positive energy into my situation so that I could move on to the next level. You’ve got to psyche yourself out so you do not even think about it.
RM: Were you able to maintain your instruments?
FDM: I always made sure I had the best instruments that I could get for that time. When it was time to budget, I would always take care of the instruments first, and then I would cut something else out. If it was a matter of buying a good pair of sticks or going to a movie, I would get the sticks.
RM: I suppose it was helpful being around other musicians who were trying to do the same thing as you.
FDM: Once you make the commitment, you have got people to help you. I’ve never had to be alone. That is where the AACM was important. I was around people that were doing the same thing I was, and being successful at it. Now I’m not talking about material success, but the success of being able to see a thing develop and grow. That gives you the strength to get through and survive. We are just like everybody else. We have families, children, and homes we are trying to pay for. But we made a commitment to the music and dealt with that commitment first.
RM: I can easily imagine how the members of the Art Ensemble must have supported each other over the years. Have you been in other similar situations?
FDM: That is the kind of situation I have been involved in throughout my whole musical career. The drum and bugle corps was a cooperative situation where everybody shared everything. If it was time to get uniforms, we went out and did a thing together. Everybody contributed and everybody got the benefits. The Artists’ Workshop in Detroit was a cooperative venture. So are the AACM and the Art Ensemble. Even when I’ve travelled around alone doing freelance work, I have gone by the principles I learned in the cooperative situations. You have to be willing to share all the things that come in. That is the whole secret. If one cat is selfish or greedy, then that puts a negative influence on the whole venture.
RM: How does the Art Ensemble balance artistic goals with the demands of day-to-day living?
FDM: We deal on plans. We have 1-year plans, 3-year plans, 5-year plans, even 10-year plans. If you are just living from day to day, then you might do something, and 2 or 3 weeks later you realize that it was a mistake. But if you have a plan, then the day-to-day struggle becomes easier because you do not have to succumb to little pressures. You just stick with the plan. I’ll give you an example. The Art Ensemble did not record for 5 years at one point. We had previously been involved in a recording situation with a major label, but it was essentially fruitless for us. We were developing the reputation as some kind of underground group. We needed a situation with a company that could put us more in the mainstream. For a long time that did not happen. Our offers came from small labels who paid small bread, had inadequate recording facilities and little or no distribution. We would have just been a number in their catalog. Sure we needed the money, but we followed our plan which basically was: just cool it until the right situation comes along. In the meantime, concentrate on rehearsing and playing as much as possible. So we got some money together and went to California for 2 or 3 months each year to rehearse. We went to Europe at our own expense. We bought a bus to carry our equipment and two dogs to guard the bus. That gave us the independence to go wherever we needed to go. Getting the bus was part of a 3-year plan we had going. Finally ECM came along with the right concept of what they wanted to do with the music and we took it. We had followed our plan and we ended up in a beneficial situation. It just happened to take 5 years. The things we do are no accident, we sit down and plan.
RM: What is your overall goal?
FDM: That gets back to our theme of “Great Black Music – Ancient to the Future.” We draw on the ancient knowledge and try to transmit it into the future. That’s why I took the name Famoudou, which comes from an ancient drum tradition. I’m trying to symbolically evoke that energy into what I am doing.
RM: Do you think that a thousand years from now, a young player might take a name like Elvin?
FDM: Yeah. Or Max. It’s conceivable that they will be trying to keep that tradition going. That is what I am doing. I don’t teach as much as I could because we’re traveling so much, but it is our responsibility to pass the tradition on to future generations. The energy of the future is there, but if we don’t tap into it, we will lose it.
RM: Does all of this have anything to do with reincarnation?
FDM: That’s part of it. I’ve had certain personal experiences that give me reason to believe in these things. Sometimes when I’m playing, I really play some ancient stuff. I don’t know where it comes from. The only thing I can think is that it comes from the Higher Forces. When I was younger it shocked me, but now I’m relaxed enough to where I can go with it and see where it’s going to take me. We are just transmitters of the music. The only thing we can do is tune ourselves up to the highest level possible to be able to transmit this energy. So I try to lose myself to the music through complete discipline and control. I don’t know how it happens. I’m just glad it happens to me.