Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste

Zigaboo Modeliste

Story by “Pistol” Pete Kaufmann
Photos by Jay Blakesberg

How is it that his drumming approach is so unusual yet so fully representative of the breadth of New Orleans’ remarkable rhythmic legacy? In his first-ever Modern Drummer cover story, the Meters’ legendary beatsmith provides more than a few clues—and heaps of timeless wisdom.

I flash my ticket stub to the frazzled security guard, who gives me a quick nod of approval and ushers me toward an elevator. “Take it to the seventh floor,” he says. I maneuver myself into the ancient-looking contraption with a throng of fresh-faced twentysomethings, many of whom are donning Phish apparel.As the rickety old beast fights to climb each story, the distant sound of pulsating music gradually gets louder. Fifth floor. Sixth floor. The vibrations from the bass are now traveling through my boots. Seventh floor. Ding! As the elevator doors slowly open, I recognize the song, now blazing at full volume, as “Africa” by the Meters. The drums sound powerful, primal, yet modern at the same time. I shimmy my way through the crowd to get a better look at one of the most influential funk drummers who’s ever graced a stage.

Somehow, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste is bringing it just as hard in 2013 as he did when he first came to prominence in the late ’60s with the New Orleans funk institution the Meters. Strength, finesse, and the ability to weave in and out of unique yet commanding grooves like a champion fighter are among the traits that have made him a top influence on a hugely diverse group of drummers. It would be nearly impossible, for instance, to imagine what the playing of monsters like Little Feat’s Richie Hayward, Wynton Marsalis’s Herlin Riley, or Lettuce’s Adam Deitch would sound like without Modeliste’s influence. In interviews, major players like Galactic’s Stanton Moore and the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Chad Smith regularly note Zigaboo’s impact—not only on the art of drumming, but on all of contemporary groove music.

Like fellow rhythmic magicians such as Tower of Power’s David Garibaldi, Bob Marley’s Carlton Barrett, and James Brown’s Clyde Stubblefield, Modeliste has an approach that’s deeply nuanced yet immediately gratifying. And as with all great groovers, when you hear Zig play, you want to play like him. He’s timelessly cool.

The band performing tonight at the Grand Ballroom in New York City is the Meter Men, a recent variation on the original group’s lineup that, besides Modeliste, features founding members Leo Nocentelli on guitar and George Porter Jr. on bass, along with Page McConnell of Phish on keyboards—which at least partially explains the dress code of my elevator mates.

“Africa” comes to a rousing end, and Zig grabs the mic. “How many of y’all like New Orleans music!” he shouts. The crowd goes berserk. Then comes a kick-and-snare groove that, ironically, many in tonight’s audience likely first heard as a sample on the Beastie Boys’ 1989 track “B-Boy Bouillabaisse” but which in fact has its roots in New Orleans’ pre-jazz history. The legendary drum intro permeates the old ballroom, infecting young and old. The crowd has been magically transported to the streets of New Orleans, smack-dab in the middle of a Mardi Gras Indian parade.

Modeliste holds the audience in the palm of his hand as he enthusiastically sings “Little bitty boy, with a heart of steel/You can’t boogie now, but your sister sure will/Feel-good music, I’ve been told/Good for your body, and it’s good for your soul/Gonna do it now…!” The crowd joyfully frolics and chants the chorus in unison, cups of beer in hand: “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey pocky a-way!”

“Feel-good music” has been an integral part of New Orleans culture from as far back as anyone can tell. Although Modeliste hasn’t lived in the city in over twenty years—he currently resides in Oakland, California—the culture of his hometown is imbedded in his DNA. It’s his foundation. And it’s his continuous energy source. Fifty years into his professional career, Zig remains busy fronting his own groups (he retains bands based in New Orleans, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area) and contributing to other musicians’ projects. He also has his own record and publishing companies. And this year he released a long-awaited instructional DVD, The Originator of New Orleans Funky Drumming. From the looks of it, the sixty-four-year-old master of funk and R&B isn’t ready to slow down at all. Zigaboo Modeliste remains the “fire on the bayou,” blazing his way through modern-day music while paying respect to his roots and his colorful past.

MD: How did you get your nickname?

Zig: It was mostly out of dark satire. It was supposed to be a derogatory name. When we were coming up we used to have a thing called ribbing—who could out-rib the other person—and I was the king! When I was a kid, a friend of mine said, “You look like a zigaboo” or something like that, and everybody started laughing. The word got out that people were calling me Zigaboo, and it just stuck. The people at my school never based it off anything racial; it was just a cool name they never heard before. Now I wear it like a badge.

MD: What was it like growing up in New Orleans when you were a kid discovering drums?

Zig: Around 1957, maybe a little earlier, was when I first started listening to music on a regular basis. But basically I’m a product of the ’60s, when I was in high school.

MD: Earl Palmer left New Orleans around 1957, when you were still a kid, right?

Zig: Earl Palmer was pretty much gone and entrenched in session work out in California. Earl’s story was fascinating because he started out as a professional dancer. That cat was doing paradiddles with his feet! He made that transition from being a dancer to a drummer. I kind of got a little bit of that too.

When I was young and going to parties, I was an extremely good dancer. That was the spiritual and physical thing that made me gravitate toward R&B. In the 13th Ward we were going to parties, dancing, the girls…you know. There was this song by James Brown called “Good Good Lovin’,” and it had a drum break that was the bee’s knees. [The James Brown box set Star Time lists Nat Kendrick as the drummer on the track.] At parties everybody loved that record. You put that record on and all the dudes in the room were trying to play the drum part on their legs. I thought, This is some unusual, crazy stuff goin’ on here.

MD: Was that one of the turning points when you really started getting into music and rhythm?

Zig: Exactly. That’s the earliest thing I can remember. Then I started around the house, playing on the sofas and coffee tables with my hands. I tried to convince my parents to get me some drums, because that’s what I wanted to do. But they weren’t really thrilled about it. It took a while for them to get that I was really serious, but then they bought me a beautiful marching parade drum. Then I started trying to learn how to play the drums, doing little rudiments here and there.

Joseph Zigaboo ModelisteMD: Was Fats Domino’s Smokey Johnson one of your influences around that age?

Zig: New Orleans had a few other drummers around before I even knew about Smokey, local guys like June Gardner, Eugene Jones, and Clarence Brown, who were all very tasty players. They had a different spin on the music that was being played down in New Orleans. I started playing gigs and clubs at an early age, so I got to see a lot early on. Most of the bands I played in were with the elder statesmen.

MD: What kinds of gigs were you playing around that time—R&B, Dixieland?

Zig: If you played with a band that was really working, you had to play a little of everything. You couldn’t get hired in the French Quarter if you didn’t know something about jazz or Dixieland. It was a mandatory part of New Orleans culture, like Mardi Gras music.

MD: Your approach to drumming sounds rooted in the beats of the Mardi Gras Indians.

Zig: That’s definitely one of the highlights of the way I think and play—I stay true to my roots. I play the Mardi Gras Indian and second-line rhythms, and I also play against those rhythms and try to create different scenes as I perform. Regarding my drumming, some people ask me, “What is it you’re doing, and where do your ideas come from?” First you need to understand the cultural aspect, so you can start at the beginning, the foundation. After you learn and develop the foundation, it’s about being creative.

MD: Most drummers make one of your most famous beats, “Cissy Strut,” more complicated than the way you actually play it. Instead of using two hands alternating on the hi-hat [RLRL], which gives the groove more of a forward motion, like “Hey Pocky A-Way,” they use one hand, which gives it a choppy feel.

Zig: It wasn’t meant to be a sleight of hand or anything tricky. I use both hands on the hi-hat often. At the time, I was caught up between doing New Orleans music and fatback drumming. I really loved fatback drums and wanted to mix it all together.

MD: On your new DVD, you mentioned you were sent home on your first gig when you were nine or ten years old because your band didn’t play well.

Zig: The guitar player only knew one or two songs, three at the most. He talked this lady into letting us come over and play. These people were upper middle class and had this whole thing in their backyard—a Hawaiian barbecue. But man, after we got to about three songs—and we played them as long as we could play ’em—we had to start all over. After maybe an hour it was time for us to take a break, and the lady sent us home. She was so disgusted—but she was very nice. [laughs] I said to myself right then and there: Man, if I’m going to continue, I’m going to have to do better than this!

MD: Another turning point in your life.

Zig: That would be a turning point for anybody. Either you’re going to quit right there on the spot or continue. There are other musicians that have had to overcome a lot of things regarding music. I have friends that have seen a lot of adversity and wanted to quit on many occasions because they just got frustrated, or didn’t have time to practice, or didn’t have a place to practice, or didn’t have anything to practice on. You have to develop perseverance, and you really have to have a lot of patience.

MD: What did you work on when you would practice?

Zig: To perfect something requires a lot of trial and error. I worked on the snare drum a lot, and when I finally did get a set of drums, I worked on trying to develop groove and consistency—something very simple but consistent. I’d start with backbeats, and then I’d add the hi-hat. But that wasn’t the style that I was asked to play when I got my first professional job. They wanted me to play blues on the ride cymbal. I had to learn all of these bones. And then once I got all of those things down it was just a matter of practice and stability in tempo.

MD: So you practiced things that were required of you to work, as well as your own ideas.

Zig: Yes. I relied a lot on the bass player too. On a gig, drummers and bass players have to almost be meshed together so they can really create the effect of what they’re trying to accomplish. Bass players tend to love me because I give them a lot of space to do what they do. I try not to get in their way, so we can grow together in the song. And that makes it that much more enjoyable, because we accomplish things together.

MD: On your DVD you use the term staying at home in regard to playing with the bassist. One player “stays at home” and holds it down, while the other “goes out” and plays a little more. Can you elaborate?

Zig: I hear some drummers today that sound like they didn’t come to the gig to play with the band. It seems like the attitude is that the band has got to catch up with what they’re doing. I would rather not be doing a whole lot of stuff—just play very basic and simple, until I know positively that the bass player gets it. There’s no sense going up there tinkering, trying to do a whole bunch of different things, when you and the bass player are not on the same page. So I’ll “stay at home” and just play real simple until we decide, musically, that we’re ready to experiment together. That makes our musical adventure more rewarding.

MD: I think of George Porter Jr.’s “staying at home” bass line and your busier bass drum parts on the Meters’ “Dry Spell.” You’re playing some heavy bass drum. Certainly those kinds of syncopated beats would have required a lot of practice between the hands and feet.

Zig: A lot of the stuff I was doing was really just exercises—paradiddle exercises, and some of it was broken up—but a lot of it was kind of linear. I was playing longer phrases by incorporating my fills into my grooves. That’s what made it different and interesting.

It also depends on the bass player. A lot of bass players are frustrated guitarists. They want to play a thousand notes, and then the bottom just slips away. When that happens, the foundation disappears. Each instrument is different for a reason; they have different functions. Drum and bass, we are the foundation, and you have to know how to apply when it’s time to apply and how to reserve when it’s time to reserve. But during the time when I was doing that, I didn’t hear any other drummers attempting to play [linear phrases] in that manner.

And I was really trying to emulate somebody who I admired immensely, and still do. I watched him a bunch of times, but I could only take away so much from what he did. So I used that and tried to incorporate linear phrases into my own playing.

MD: Who did you learn that from?

Zig: Smokey Johnson. He was one of those drummers you run across once in a lifetime. He’s still living in New Orleans. He doesn’t play anymore. [Johnson suffered a stroke in 1993.] He played with Fats Domino for years. Fats had some real famous drummers, like Idris Muhammad and of course Earl Palmer.

MD: How did you develop your signature hi-hat barks, opening the hats on 2 and 4 and on the “e” and “a” of random beats, like on “Sophisticated Cissy”?

Zig: That all came from Smokey Johnson. He could do stuff on the hi-hat and incorporate that in his playing. He was a much better drummer than I am, really phenomenal. He wasn’t even playing that genre of music. He was playing other stuff.

MD: Wasn’t Smokey playing in a big band at the time?

Zig: He played in jazz groups, funk groups. But the last thing he did, I guess—you know, to get seniority and the bigger salary—was tour with Fats. When you’re off tour you play around town or do whatever you want to do, till it’s time to go back on tour again. I played in Art Neville’s band [the Neville Sounds] when I was younger. I lucked out and started doing gigs with them. Art couldn’t find the drummers he needed, and I was in the neighborhood. Most importantly, Art thought I was good enough to play in his band.

When we first started, it was a little rough, because I didn’t have the experience that I needed at the time. Art took a chance and was very patient with me until I learned to play the stuff he wanted me to learn to play. Some nights he would hire Smokey to play on the gig, and I would be there watching and I’d play a few songs. Smokey really played the kind of music that we were trying to play at the time.

MD: So Smokey Johnson was like your teacher?

Zig: Smokey never sat down and taught me, because that wasn’t the way it was done back then. Your biggest teachers were those two things you got on the side of your head. Nobody saw any videos; they didn’t have iPhones or any of this electronic stuff where you can just dial up anything.

Music is a language that transcends and travels through all countries and borders. Music doesn’t need a passport. All it needs is some people with ears who want to know what it’s really about, or what they perceive it to be about. It’s got nothing to do with rudiments, nothing to do with time signatures, but it’s got a lot to do with what you hear. When you go to a concert, you listen. There’s no professor or expert you’re taking to the concert—it’s your ears you’re taking to the concert.

MD: Early on, the Meters backed up Lee Dorsey. You must have been a teenager when you played on those early records.

Zig: I got in at around seventeen years old. I was doing recordings when I was sixteen.

MD: On your DVD, the great R&B leader Deacon John Moore says that you were around fifteen or sixteen when he first hired you.

Zig: Deacon John was like a chameleon—man, that’s the first time I got on a gig where we played all genres of music. But he did all the work! I had to learn songs I would never dream about playing, so it opened up my musical vocabulary. We were doing country and western…he might break down and do some polka!

MD: A lot of your drum practice was playing gigs—learning on the bandstand.

Zig: That’s the best way—the apprenticeship. Practicing at home is good for endurance and being more specific about what your delivery is going to be and all. But it’s nothing compared to playing in an ensemble. When you’re playing in an ensemble, everyone in the band develops a sound. That’s what went down with the Meters. We didn’t start off as a touring band or a showcase band; we were playing small gigs.

MD: And you were backing up artists in the studio for [famed New Orleans performer and producer] Allen Toussaint.

Zig: We did a lot of studio work for Allen and his projects. Lee Dorsey, Eldridge Holmes, Betty Harris, Curly Moore, Ernie K-Doe, and Robert Palmer were some of the artists who came through. We got that opportunity because we were in the right place at the right time. We were all on Bourbon Street playing a gig that was five sets a night, six nights a week. Play for forty-five minutes, off for fifteen minutes.

MD: You really had an opportunity to develop your style playing six nights a week.

Zig: Exactly. That’s the thing that knocks off the intimidation and gets your chops together. And if you’re doing that with the same personnel, you learn to speak to one another. They know pretty much what you’re going to do, and you have a good idea of where they may be going. You’ll see cats that have been playing together for so long, and when one musician does something different, the other musician starts laughing because they added something to the musical equation.

MD: Tell us about your relationship with bassist George Porter Jr.

Zig: George and I started off together in Art Neville and the Neville Sounds. It was me, George, Leo Nocentelli, and Cyril, Art’s younger brother, who was a drummer but decided to play congas and be more of the frontman. We did that for a year or so, then we went to the French Quarter for a more lucrative deal—more nights, more money—and with that, you’d develop certain things. You couldn’t play too loud, you had a tip jar…. People would come in and they’d want you to play “St. Louis Blues,” “Hello, Dolly,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” songs like that. The whole idea was to be able to play all these songs on call for the people to enjoy.

MD: Looking back on your long career, do you ever listen to certain songs you played on and say, “Oh, man, I should have done this or that”?

Zig: Well, hindsight is 20/20; it’s easy to criticize yourself about your earlier work. I’m sure all artists do that—I know I do. But I don’t take it too serious. The information I had at the time was all I could draw from. With Allen Toussaint, he had a distinct method for the drums that he wanted to hear, so it was about acquiring the patterns that he wanted. Even though the parts were very simple, people have a way of explaining stuff that gets you very confused. So you just try to do your best.

MD: Today producers use Pro Tools to manipulate parts. Back then it was all about getting a perfect take.

Zig: That’s true. Back then you had to do as many takes as it took to get a good track. You still were able to overdub, but the main thing was the continuity of the track itself, keeping the tempo as stable as you could get it from the beginning to the end of the song. Whatever breaks the songs had, you had to nail them. If you were overthinking, you could fall apart.

MD: On all those older records, from Lee Dorsey to Earl King to the Meters, your drum sound is very recognizable. Your snare is high pitched and your cymbals sound so trashy. Was there a specific sound you were going for?

Zig: My whole snare drum sound was about getting in real tight while trying to have a meaty sound. I had drums that almost sounded like metal drums—tink, tink. Even though you could hear the snares, you’d hear that metal sound when you’d attack it. That was something I got used to hearing. I also recorded on different kits—some on a Slingerland kit, some on a Ludwig, and some on a Premier.

MD: So on those Meters records you weren’t always playing on the same drumkit?

Zig: We did different sessions. We recorded a lot of it down in New Orleans at various studios. Cosimo Matassa had the big studio at the time. Anybody who was anybody recorded at Cosimo’s at the time that we started. I think we also recorded in Atlanta, and we might have cut a little bit in Miami, but the majority of it was done in New Orleans. After that, Allen Toussaint bought his own studio and we started recording there.

MD: After the Meters, you played with Ron Wood’s band in the late ’70s, the New Barbarians.

Zig: Charlie Watts sent me Ron’s album Gimme Some Neck, which Charlie had played on. [All of the Rolling Stones—Watts, singer Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, and Wood’s predecessor Mick Taylor—appear on the 1979 album, along with other musicians, including drummers Jim Keltner and Mick Fleetwood.] The record company wanted to work the album by going out on the road, but Charlie didn’t want to do that. So they called me in to do the tour. Working with Keith and Ronnie was cool. I had never played a gig where I was playing all rock. I don’t know if I handled it well, but it was a new experience, and I appreciate being asked to do it.

MD: You sang in the Meters. When did you start singing lead on gigs?

Zig: I’ve been doing it for a while. Some of it has been because of economics, but a lot of it has to do with control. Singing was a necessary thing I had to do with my own band, because the first things people want to hear when they see me play are Meters songs—I guess because of my origins. Fortunately I sang on a lot of the Meters songs that were popular, like “People Say” and “Funkify Your Life.” I got a chance to do that because Art didn’t want to. He wasn’t that kind of singer. He was a person with a beautiful voice—a balladeer. He came through the doo-wop era.

MD: That’s you singing on “People Say” and “Funkify Your Life” on the albums? What other Meters songs did you sing lead on?

Zig: “They All Ask’d for You,” a few others. I don’t really look at myself as a singer; there are so many things I can’t do. I just use whatever strengths I have and try to stay as true to the art form as I can.

MD: The group on your DVD sounds great. Bassist Jimmy Earl was in Chick Corea’s Elektric Band II in the early ’90s and plays in Jimmy Kimmel’s house band now.

Zig: When I go down to Southern California, I’m fortunate to use those heavy-duty musicians from Jimmy Kimmel’s band. Those guys can do anything as far as I’m concerned. Jimmy Earl’s my main man. I call him Governor Earl—he loves that name too. And guitarist Toshi Yanagi, organist Greg Mathieson, they’re fantastic. Greg came there on the fly and helped me put that video together. Also, Don Lombardi and all the cats at Drum Channel did an excellent job on that DVD and should be commended. It turned out even better than I thought it would. In the past a few people approached me about doing an instructional DVD, but I just didn’t see myself doing that at the time. But this time I thought, why not?

MD: Tell us about JZM Records and Jomod Music Publishing. What inspired you to start those?

Zig: The record company name is my initials: Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste. I call myself a drummer, but I’m trying to work my publishing. My wife, Kathy, is a very astute businesswoman and helped me organize all of these different things that we have in motion. She deserves a lot of the credit for putting this stuff together while using a minimal amount of money.

At the end of the day, what I started seeing was how music was being used in movies and commercials. The residual part of it—your piece, as a writer—is so minuscule compared to the publisher’s. And the question is: Who has the physical ownership of the track? Take Earl Palmer and Hal Blaine, who played on all of these hit “British sound” records in Los Angeles in the ’60s, making those groups big. Earl and Hal were the most recorded drummers at that time. The British artists…I’m not saying they couldn’t play, but they didn’t have the expertise to record in the studio like these guys. If Hal and Earl had a point system for the recording sessions they were on, they would’ve been paid a lot more money. The record company wouldn’t have missed that money.

A lot of those gifted musicians—it’ll bring tears to your eyes. What happens to great musicians, it challenges you in a poetic way…the ones we don’t even hear about. You hear them on the radio and you don’t know it’s them. That’s one of the reasons for starting my record and publishing companies.

MD: You’ve been in the music business for a long time now, and you’ve touched a lot of people’s lives doing it your own way.

Zig: Music is truly a language. You could be from New York and I could be from Florida, and we could say the exact same sentence, but due to our accents, based on where we’re from, it’s going to sound different. Every person has their own internal clock, their feel, and that’s something you really can’t teach somebody. I try to do my best to speak the language that people are interested in hearing. And so far I’ve been very successful at doing just that. In my golden years I hope I can still play with the same tenacity until I get ready to hang it up.

Zig’s Setup

Joseph Zigaboo ModelisteModeliste plays DW Collector’s series maple drums. He’ll use different numbers of toms depending on the situation, such as the three-up/two-down setup shown in the photos, but his standard arrangement consists of a 5.5×14 snare, 8×10 and 9×12 toms, a 16×16 floor tom, and an 18×22 bass drum. Zig’s typical array of Sabian cymbals includes 14″ Hand Hammered Bright hi-hats, a 21″ Hand Hammered Dry Bell ride, a 21″ Vault Universal ride, a 17″ HHX Stage crash, a 16″ HHX Evolution crash, a 15″ HHX X-Plosion crash, and an 18″ China. His Evans batter heads include a 14″ Power Center Reverse Dot on the snare, clear EC2s on the toms, and an EQ4 on the bass drum. His hardware is from DW’s 9000 series, and he plays Vic Firth 5A sticks.