Kwaku Dadey is the quintessential African master drummer. He comes from a family in Africa that has a rich musical background. There have been master drummers in Kwaku’s family for well over five generations. Kwaku is a musician who not only carries on the great traditions taught to him by the masters, but also seeks out and creates new traditions for music and the ancient art of drumming.
In performance, he is a joy to hear, and at the same time, nothing short of astounding. Often Kwaku will play several complex polyrhythms at the same time. However, he does not play to show off his technical proficiency; instead, when Kwaku Dadey plays his drums, they sing melodies which are connected by a beautiful web of rhythmic unity. The best way to describe his personality is to think of a perpetual smile. He is a good-natured man, who truly loves life and respects his fellow man. In short, just being around Kwaku Dadey is pure inspiration.
Kwaku came to the United States in 1968 and settled in San Francisco. In addition to his busy teaching schedule, Kwaku has performed and recorded with Paul Winter, Louis Bellson, John Handy, Quincy Jones, Buddy Rich, and the San Francisco based band, Third World. He has just completed an unpublished book entitled Master Drummer. The book is based on a story told to Kwaku by his mother concerning an African master drummer in the 1400s.
The author would like to express his heartfelt thanks to George Marsh for his invaluable advice during the writing of this article.
CB: What is your family background and how were you introduced to African drumming?
KD: I was born in Ghana, West Africa on April 6, 1946. My grandfather was a master drummer and a very powerful man in society. My father was also a master drummer, and a highly acclaimed musician and percussionist in Africa. He brought peace and harmony to the society, and was a very, very strong man in terms of the social structure. My mother was a master folklorist and told stories in the oral tradition. I have four brothers and five sisters, and everybody in the family is musically inclined. My youngest brother is a very good dancer in Africa today.
I started playing drums when I was about three years old, following the example of my father. He would take me to different ceremonies and events, and I would listen to and learn the folklore.
CB: When you were a child, did your parents tell you that you were going to be a drummer, or were you subtly edged into it?
KD: I was kind of edged into it. But it was mostly my decision. My parents saw that I was very interested in the instrument and, even though they disciplined me at times, they still gave me the okay to go ahead.
CB: How important are the drums to African culture?
KD: In Africa the drums are viewed as a mediator between the people and the social structure. There is no occasion during which you would not hear a drum. The drums are viewed as a life force. There are drum pieces about everything—death, life, marriages, fishermen—everything.
CB: What is African classical drumming and how old is it?
KD: Classical African drumming goes way back in time. I would say it’s been part of our existence for thousands of years. I presently play classical drumming pieces that are around ten-thousand years old. But there are other pieces that go back even further in time. We have religious music and we have secular music. A lot of the secular music is derived from the religious music. However, all the religious drumming is classical drumming. Masters learned the religious drumming and the process for learning it is always the same. So, classical drumming has always been part of the social foundation. It’s timeless.
CB: What is your definition of an African master drummer and how does an individual become one?
KD: Well, in order to become a master drummer, you must first be an apprentice and play for a long time. You then attend the school of drumming and study with traditional masters. Finally, you get to the point where you start performing by yourself and the masters acclaim you. You may not already have a master in your family, but you can elect to go to school to become one. You learn the folklore, the dance, music, religion, traditions, and oral tradition. In a sense, you become a historian. Drumming is a collective art in Africa. There is a sharing of the knowledge, and you make sure that you spread it. You become a wandering minstrel, and like a troubadour, you move from one place to the next, playing, sharing stories. Everywhere you go, you’re also learning from the people. You transfer this story here, and it becomes that story over there. You move from one area, take the story the people from that area give you and transfer it over to another area. So, it keeps on moving in a circle.
CB: So in a sense, each master is an innovator.
KD: Yeah, yeah. Your drumming style is automatically determined. It comes out. In other words, you can study drumming for 30 or 40 years, and your style becomes a unique part of you. For example, I can play a certain story, and play it differently, yet it has another group’s meaning.
CB: George Marsh and Steve Mitchell, among others, have studied classical African drumming with you, and they have applied it directly to the drumset. This is a rather unique learning experience. Could you explain how it’s done?
KD: What I do is break the drumset down, and assign a rhythm to each drum in the set that otherwise four or five drummers would be playing. It not only becomes a polyrhythm, but it also becomes a rhythm that sings.
CB: Could you explain this concept further?
KD: A rhythm that sings means that when you play the drum, you are attaining three basic elements—rhythm, melody and harmony. This is the concept that I apply to the trap set. Basically, one person is sitting there doing all those things; in short, you have multiple rhythms which consist of a basic rhythm played by the bass drum and the other rhythms which are added over the basic rhythm. Every drum is playing something different, but there is a unity that binds the whole.
CB: If I may regress for a moment, the concept “a rhythm that sings” is a bit foreign to the western world. In this culture, we are taught to separate the terms “rhythm” and “melody.” What you’re saying is that rhythm and melody are not separate, but instead they are one and the same.
KD: Yeah. If we look at rhythm as a process of infinity, which it is, there is constancy of rhythm everywhere and in everything that is around man. From my African point of view, there is no separation between language and music. It’s all one.
African language is very musical and we have used the drums as a communicative instrument for thousands of years. The drum is built on our language, and language has rhythm, melody and harmony. If the language has those elements, then the drum can attain them. In other words, if the language is musical, it thereby has harmony to it, and if I transfer the language onto the drum, I should attain harmony.
CB: Would you say that because the African dialects are more rhythmic than say, English, they are easier to transfer onto the drums?
KD: Yes, that’s the way I teach. When I teach trap drummers, I show them single rhythms, and to me that means a polyrhythm. I want my students to know what the motion of a polyrhythm is, whereby the snare drum is playing a call and response with the bass drum, the bass drum is playing a call and response with the floor tom, the hi-hat is playing a call and response with the snare, and so on and so forth.
Language is, of course, very important to drumming. We’re looking at a society where the drums are highly respected. You carve a drum in such a way that you communicate with the drum. You can ask the drum to play language for you, and the drum will play language as you’re playing it. There are multiple forms of language, and each language has a musical connotation to it. There’s no separation between the language and the drum. This is a very important concept to me, and I think drummers should become aware that as they’re playing and getting into the polyrhythmic tone of drumming, they’ll find out that they just don’t stand behind the drum; they are the drum. And that’s when the flow begins, because they hear the language and they’re hearing the drum.
CB: Could you define the term “polyrhythmic tone”?
KD: Polyrhythmic tone is built on the language, and the folklore is based on the tonality of the language. Everything that you play has been tuned to the language and the flow.
CB: How divergent are the techniques for drumming in Africa? Do they vary from tribe to tribe?
KD: There are differences in the various social structures. For example, you have the Ashanties, Ewes, Fons, and Yoruba peoples, and they all have different forms of the houses (schools of drumming). In other words, they all have different ways of playing the drums. Some tribes will emphasize one particular drum over the other drums. For instance, the Atompan drums, which are the big mama and papa drums, are used extensively by the Ashanti. On the whole, in Africa, people use all the drums but they emphasize different ones.
CB: Is there any written notation in Africa for its traditional music, or is the music learned in the oral tradition.
KD: Since ancient times, this music has always been learned in the oral tradition, with one generation passing it on to the next. I’m beginning to notate some of the pieces, but it takes quite a long time to do that and put a book out. If I can do it piece by piece, then I’ll be able to get some things published.
CB: I imagine that it’s quite difficult to transfer some pieces into western notation, because certain subtleties of the music don’t translate at all.
KD: That’s right. You miss some things. I’ve always liked the concept of the way Africans teach. They teach you not only how to play, but also how to hear the music. Listening is very important. One of the best ways to play is to listen and think. As you’re playing you think, and the music comes out of your hands. Hesitation is not very advisable.
CB: Steve Mitchell mentioned that you once told him, “If you have to count it, then it’s not worth playing.” Is that statement correct?
KD: When you are counting and trying to play at the same time, the whole flow of the rhythm is not the same. What you want to do is get yourself in the position where you don’t think about the rhythm—it just comes, and you are with the rhythm. A lot of students spend too much time trying to count and read, and they lose a lot of the feeling. If you break time into too many particles, putting it back together is always rough.
CB: At the present time, are you teaching any courses?
KD: Aside from private lessons, I’m also teaching in the non-western program at San Francisco State University. I just finished teaching a 15-hour seminar, and next semester, I’ll be teaching two courses. One course is entitled “Percussion of West Africa.” It will cover the origins, polyrhythms, time signatures, harmonies, and religion of that region—the whole spectrum. The other course will be on the music and dances of Africa. It will cover not only the percussion of West Africa, but also the influence African music has had on other cultures, such as Brazil and America. It will be a very involved course. I’ll also be assisting in another course that deals with the music of North Africa.
CB: Do you see any drawbacks in the way that music is taught in the West, particularly in the teacher-student relationship?
KD: I think there should be more communication between teachers and students. Students have come to me and remarked that some of their teachers were not communicating with them. Some teachers would just give them their lessons and send them on their way.
That’s not a good attitude to have if you’re teaching someone to play the drums. Drummers communicate, and communication is particularly important in a learning situation. The student and the teacher should always communicate. When I first started to study the drums, if my teachers had not shared their time and knowledge with me, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I did learn. Sometimes my lesson would be over, but they would have me stay with them so that we could not only talk about drumming, but other things as well.
CB: How would you define your teaching philosophy?
KD: My teaching philosophy is that I not only become a teacher to the student, but I also become the student’s friend. I not only talk about drumming with my students, but I also discuss life with them.
CB: Could you also elaborate on your philosophy of playing the drums?
KD: There are several aspects to my philosophy. When I sit down and begin playing, I try to avoid having any external problems. I try to solve them before I play. Sometimes I meditate. I try to understand the problem, and by understanding it, I can usually solve it. Sometimes I meditate for hours at a time. The purpose of playing is to get out of yourself and be part of the whole experience. So I try to avoid external problems because they affect me internally and hinder my movement in terms of playing.
Also, sometimes I won’t eat until I finish playing. Louie Bellson told me that he has to eat three hours before a gig, and I immediately understood his statement. I like to play when I’m light. I don’t like too much weight on me when I play.
I also tell people not to play the drums when they are mad, because you play drums in order to bring about happiness and goodness. When you are playing, you try to go from the dimension you are in to a higher level.
Also, if you play the drums, you should learn something about all the different types of drums, because drums are all related. Knowing about the relatives is always important. I’ve had a lot of trap drummers come to me to learn conga drums. In the process, even though they were using their hands instead of sticks, they could transfer what they had learned onto the drumset. It’s like a tree with many branches. It’s one tree, but each branch has something that feeds the other.
CB: Do you think that there is more communication among drummers than among musicians who play other instruments?
KD: I think so. I’m not being biased, but I think that it is easier for drummers than it is for other types of musicians to form friendships with each other.
CB: Over the years, I’ve noticed that drummers share a communal feeling and generally do not compete with each other.
KD: Competition and greed do not belong in drumming because they limit the learning process. The more you share, the more you get back in return. However, I’d still like to see more communication.
CB: Whenever I’ve seen you perform, I’ve noticed that your technique in playing the congas is not only unique, but different from the Afro-Cuban technique. Could you describe these differences?
KD: In the type of drumming I learned, the hand strokes are totally different from Afro-Cuban hand strokes. The way I attain a “pop,” flam, or something similar is totally different from the Afro-Cuban technique. I don’t lift my hand as high, yet I can get my sound out. Also when I’m playing, I don’t play with a lot of force because of the polyrhythmic aspect and the fact that I’m utilizing all of my hand. The way I play is, in part, a result of my natural ability. Also, my uniqueness is the result of what I have learned from many masters.
CB: How many masters have you studied with?
KD: Twenty. And each master had an individual style. One thing they all helped me with was utilizing my own style of playing. They all knew my style. If I were to go to Ghana today and play, they would know who I was by my playing style. It’s my own sound and it’s a gift.
CB: As an African, how do you perceive and define the influence of Africa on jazz drumming?
KD: Africans have always played jazz. When you have a drummer, a vibe player, which in Africa we call a Balofon, and a cowbell player, you have jazz. However, I define jazz as a direct American product. Jazz as we know it today is American. But the influence of jazz is African. Some people might ask, “How can you view it in that way?” When I look at the music of Brazil, Cuba, and the Carribean, there are places in these areas that speak African languages. The common denominator of those areas is the religious base which has brought in the African heritage. While it’s true that the music belongs to the individual country, the heritage of the music is African. It’s the same thing with jazz. Jazz is spiritual and it’s from the heart. It allows for improvisation, and it is not like a clean-cut rhythm where you just play 4/4. In short, jazz allows you to improvise and put the individual heart in the music.
CB: At the present time, what’s the state of music in Africa?
KD: Even though Africa has contributed a lot in terms of music, the African people are now getting back a lot of music from different countries. High-life music is still popular. However, today American music is doing very well in Africa. Brazilian music is now getting into Africa and Afro-Cuban music has always done well there. So, there is mutual trading on a musical level going back and forth between Africa and other countries. But, the traditional music never changes.
CB: Is the American drumset used very much in Africa?
KD: Yeah. It’s used in the secular music like high-life and dance music. In these types of music, the American drumset is heavily emphasized. However, it’s hard sometimes for Africans to obtain the instrument. Sometimes drummers have to go to Europe to get it. Otherwise they have to wait a long time if they order the set, and the cost is high because of the import tax.
CB: I recently obtained a copy of your album entitled Kwaku Dadey. I found it to be an interesting album, not only because Louie Bellson was playing on it, but also because of the way you were influenced by a variety of cultures. What are your feelings about the record?
KD: There is a long story about this record. It sprang from an idea that came to me while I was with Paul Winter doing an album called Common Ground. I was teaching his rhythm section, and at that time, I started to put my ideas into perspective. On the album I had 65 musicians and I used different choirs, including preschool children.
I’ve lived in different countries, and have been influenced by their different social structures and cultures. I’ve lived in Switzerland, England, Italy, Australia, and in this country. I would say that music is the inverse of language; it has no boundaries. What I’ve tried to do is put out an album about heritage. Basically, it has a lot to do with my heritage and using different frameworks of the things I have learned or acquired in my existence.
CB: What is it about the drum that makes it special to you?
KD: It’s life. Like I always say, if you’re listening to music and there is a great drummer playing, and his playing doesn’t move you, then there is nothing that will move you. It’s a life force. The drum is a strong foundation in music. The drum is a heartbeat. Sometimes I think very deeply about that idea. The drum is part of me, and I play a call and response with the drum.