Omar Hakim


Electric Jazz: 1985 (co-winner)

Don’t try putting a label on Omar Hakim. Warner Bros, tried it a couple of years ago: They wanted to promote Hakim as a multi-instrumentalist/singer, but before the album could be made, Omar accepted an offer to become Weather Report’s drummer. Okay, so that gig defined what Hakim really was: a modern jazz drummer. The readers of this magazine confirmed that by voting Omar to the top of the Electric Jazz category in the last Readers Poll. But at the same time as the poll results were being published, Omar was in the studio making a rock ’n’roll album with Sting.

I’m reminded of the old axiom about doubling: If you’re going to play more than one instrument, you have to play them all well enough so that no one knows which one is your specialty. Omar approaches different musical styles the same way. Hear him with a jazz group, and you’ll assume that he has spent his life playing jazz. Hear him on stage with Sting, and you’II swear that Omar came up playing rock. But Hakim is not forcing himself into different situations or doing some sort of musical role playing. He simply grew up with a wide range of musical influences and experiences, and now he’s able to draw from all of them. Buddy Rich doesn’t like the idea of drummers who “specialize” in one area; to him, you either play drums or you don’t, and if you do, it means you play in any situation. Omar Hakim plays.

RM: You and Danny Gottlieb both won the Electric Jazz category in our most recent Readers Poll, which was the first time that we had that category. We went through a lot of thought trying to split jazz into some different categories, in order to reflect the different styles. We came up with Big Band, Mainstream Jazz, and then we wanted something modern-sounding. We thought that the word fusion might sound a little dated, so ultimately, we came up with Electric Jazz. Whether you want to call it that or not, how do you see the “modern” jazz in relation to the total picture?

OH: I look at electric jazz the same way that I look at bebop compared to swing. Swing represented dance music. Bebop involved the breaking up of the time, and all the syncopations of the snare drum, bass drum, and hi-hat. I look at bebop as being funky swing. In the same respect, I think the new jazz is kind of an offshoot of the dance music we have now. We’re taking that same feeling but we’re syncopating it with things from what people call funk. The new jazz is, to me, taking the existing popular rhythms that people are dancing to and stretching them rhythmically. We’re adding polyrhythms, syncopation, and a lot of other things that are making it interesting. A lot of bebop musicians or traditionalists might say, “Give me a break. That’s not jazz. What are you doing?” But to me, it is jazz. Maybe in another ten years, they will hear it as that. I really like the stuff that Al Foster did on Miles Davis’s Decoy album. I like the way Miles played on that album, and I like the way Al felt the rhythm on that album. The music that Joe [Zawinul] and Wayne [Shorter] write is really some different jazz based on rhythms that are now, instead of standard swing or bebop rhythms. I’m glad that they’re pushing it ahead rhythmically.

RM: Playing with Weather Report, you’re certainly on top of current jazz. Interestingly enough, you are also at the top of current rock by virtue of your work with Sting. Most musicians follow a fairly straight path. They decide at an early age, “I’m going to play jazz,” and so they verse themselves in Jo Jones, Max Roach, Elvin Jones, etc., and pursue that direction. Then, you have the rock people who go back to Hal Blaine, Charlie Watts, etc. What kind of personal path did you follow that allows you to be at the top of both areas of music, or do you see a difference?

OH: I always loved to listen to music. I grew up listening to Philly Joe, Elvin, Max Roach, and Buddy Rich. These were my favorite drummers. Also, my dad is a player, so I would do gigs with him. We were primarily doing bebop stuff and some of the funkier jazz stuff as well. But there were also a lot of rock bands and funk bands in my neighborhood. So when I wasn’t working with my dad, I would be rehearsing with those groups as well, and learning that music. When I’d listen to the radio, if I got tired of hearing an R&B station, I’d turn to a rock station. If I got tired of listening to that, I’d listen to the jazz station. I always had an interest in listening to a lot of different kinds of music. I was fortunate enough to be in a musical community of a lot of different types of players of different backgrounds. I had a bass player friend who knew reggae inside out, and I would jam with him. It was the same with the rock stuff. I worked in one of the local bands, and we learned those tunes. To me, it was just fun. I didn’t want to lock myself in. Now when I look at it, I’m happy that, instead of putting my foot down and saying, “Well, I’m this. This is the only kind of music that’s happening,” I’ll just say that I’m committed to music. I won’t say that I have a diehard commitment to jazz, or a diehard commitment to rock. I’m a musician, and I want people to think of me as a person who will bring a good feeling and commitment to music, as opposed to any one style.

But to learn different styles, you do have to study and know the ingredients that make different musics what they are. You just can’t go from playing jazz all your life and try to play rock. It’s not going to work, and vice versa. If you’re a rock drummer, there is some study and understanding that you must have in order to play jazz. But when you get it, you find that it helps you as a musician, because there are things you are going to learn in jazz that are going to give you something when you take them into the rock field. And there are things that you will learn from rock or from reggae that will give you an edge in jazz, too.

So that’s how I look at music and drum- ming. I just try to bring all my music references to a situation, and if that situation has a base, I will work from that base. In the case of Weather Report, it’s deeply rooted in the harmony part of jazz. A lot of the rhythm is jazz as well. When I say jazz, I mean the improvisational part of the music. To me, jazz means that you will improvise or compose on the spot. You go up on stage, and instead of just doing a song that you’ve rehearsed, you will get on stage every night and compose in front of the audience, right before their eyes. Maybe for a lot of musicians learning a variety of musical styles will bring some other magic to the music they make. Ultimately, what I’m saying is that I see it as all one thing, with a slight attitude change.

RM: When you look specifically at the work you’re doing, what are you drawing from in terms of influences, as far as either drummers or types of music are concerned?

OH: I could probably say who influenced me. I really enjoy listening to Elvin Jones’s work. Do you know what? I feel funny naming drummers, because my problem is that I listen to so many people, and I am like a sponge with music. For me to credit a small handful of drummers would be ridiculous, because I listen to everybody. But maybe in general, my early influences as a kid were those five or six jazz drummers that I named before, and then on top of that, I was a big fan of Billy Cobham. I was also a big fan of the stuff that Lenny White was doing with Return To Forever. I really enjoy Jack DeJohnette’s work. I enjoy a lot of the work of my peers as well. I love the stuff that Terry Bozzio’s doing with Missing Persons, and the stuff that Steve Smith did with Journey. I’m a listener, man. Like I said, I’m a sponge. I buy a lot of records. Also, I carry a big case of tapes with me on the road and just listen to what’s going on.

RM: You mentioned Elvin. When I listen to the new Weather Report album or the Sting album, it would be hard for me to say, “This guy’s listened to Elvin.”

OH: Right. That’s why it’s ridiculous for me to name people. My thing was that I listened to everybody. It’s funny; in the early days of learning a musical instrument, you have your idols and heroes, and you learn their music. You don’t develop your own style until you learn other people’s styles to find out what makes them happen. After a while, you kind of dig the thought pattern. It’s like learning how to write. Before you can sit down and write a poem, you have to learn how to read. You study other people’s writing, and learn to read from their writing. You take all that influence from the textbooks you read as a kid and the magazines you’ve read. Then one day, you sit down to write a poem yourself, and it doesn’t necessarily sound like any of those authors that you’ve read. It’s your expression from your mind, heart, and soul. So maybe that’s how I think of music and how I approached it as a player. Maybe what I’m saying is that I’m really influenced by my whole environment, musical and otherwise. I’m influenced by people who aren’t drummers. I think that shapes my mind, too. When I hear a trumpet solo off a Clifford Brown record, I might like to sit down and emulate that on a drumset. I might hear a guitar solo that has a feeling and a thought that I want to capture. It won’t sound the same on my instrument because I’m a drummer and that musician is a guitar player, but there’s a feeling that happens—a mode of expression that I could certainly capture.

Plus, I was just thinking, too, as we were talking. Do you know those little dance theaters around New York City where the kids go to learn African dance, modern dance, and tap? I used to play percussion for those things. I would play congas, timbales, and Latin things. I think that also helped me get something else, so when I sat down to play my drumset, I had that consciousness of playing parts, because Latin music is heavy into parts. You have like six or eight drummers playing parts, but when it comes together, it sounds like a big rhythmic train.

I think the best thing a musician can do is to have as many musical experiences as possible. With each one, try to understand the things that make that music what it is. I think it’s more the perception of the musician than something being engraved in stone, “This is what it is.” If you put Max, Buddy Rich, Elvin, and Philly Joe together, they’re all from the same era— they’re all basically playing the same music—but they don’t sound alike, because their sound is based on their individual perceptions of the music that they’re playing and the way they fit their own personalities into that environment. Those are the differences between me, Peter Erskine, and Terry Bozzio. We’re all from the same era basically, but we have our own ways of seeing it from growing up in different parts of the world and listening to different things.

RM: That brings up an interesting point. You mentioned earlier that you have to know the individual styles, so you will know what you’re drawing from. Furthermore, you just brought up the point that, looking at one style of music, you could pull out Max, Buddy, Elvin, and Philly, and although they all represent a certain style, none of them sound the same. So, for people who decide that they want to investigate various styles, they have to make sure that they don’t just pick one drummer from each style.

OH: Right, because you would be missing out on so many great things—little nuances that each drummer has. You would ultimately develop your favorite, but there are so many that it would be a shame to miss out on any of those musicians. That’s exactly what I meant; I think you kind of summed it up. When the ’70s rolled around, Mahavishnu came down, Billy was playing this music that was a combination of the energy of rock and the rhythmic meter of Indian rhythms and Eastern Oriental things, and that was exciting. Then when Lenny White happened—the music that Lenny, Stanley Clarke, Chick Corea, Bill Conners, and Al Di Meola were making together—that was unbelievable stuff. There was a lot of exciting music.

RM: So for anybody who’s just coming up in the ’80s, they can’t just go back and listen to Billy. They also have to listen to Lenny, Alphonse Mouzon . . .

OH: Narada Michael Walden, Jack DeJohnette, Tony Williams—the Tony Williams Lifetime was an era in itself. For me, it seems like yesterday when I think of those guys.

RM: Yeah, for me too. I have to keep reminding myself that there are a lot of people who started playing in the ’80s. They probably think of the ’70s the way I think of the ’50s.

OH: Right, you and me both. They’ve got to listen to that stuff.

RM: Moving on to the present, it’s safe to say that you’re pretty much on top of current styles. How does one stay on top of trends as opposed to chasing them?

OH: [Laughs] Oh, that’s interesting. I really don’t know. I guess you just have to be open-minded.

RM: Is there anything that you consciously do to stay on top of things?

OH: I go to clubs and listen to people play, but not just jazz clubs. I go to all kinds of clubs. I just like to listen to musicians play. And I try to keep my chops and reflexes up so that I can cop what I’m hearing. Never rest on your laurels, so to speak. A lot of musicians make one good record and that’s it. Yeah, that was hip but there are young musicians right now learning that stuff, and they’re going to take it and move on. So I think the thing is always to be ready to change. Take what you have, and be challenged by your own mind and by what you’re hearing. Put yourself in situations where you’re forced to stretch yourself. It has nothing to do with chops. It has to do with keeping that eye open, so that you could benefit from learning how to play simple things the way you would benefit from learning how to play something technically demanding.

Lately, I’ve been playing with Sting, and there’s a discipline needed to play that music that is very different from the discipline needed to play highly demanding technical stuff. But it still takes that same kind of concentration to make simple grooves feel great, and make people want to scream and move. That’s stretching me. I’ve been fortunate in playing with Weather Report and having to make that music work. There would be like ten or 12 parts on a page, and Mino and I would have to divide them between four legs and four arms. On the other side of that, Sting will play this tape for me and say, “I want to make this music happen, but I want these kinds of rhythms.” It’s easy to do what you always do, but to go somewhere else and try to make a different situation happen takes a lot of concentration. I think that will always keep your mind stretched. Then you realize the beauty in keeping your mind open, because otherwise you would be missing out on all these great experiences.

RM: It sounds like you’re talking about the difference between drawing on your past experiences as opposed to leaning on them.

OH: Exactly.

RM: One of the current influences in music is the use of electronics. I’ve usually seen you behind acoustic drums. How involved are you with electronics?

OH: I use them. I love them, man. I’m so happy for the electronic thing. I write music, and I’ve used electric keyboards for some of the tapes that I do. So I was aware of the synthesizer approach to music, and I was happy to see the drums. I’ve been using them more on records than I have been live. Like with Weather Report, we were using electronic stuff on the records. But primarily I left it to Mino to deal with the electronic stuff live. What I was doing was meshing the tradition from the cymbal standpoint to the funkier kind of power of the real drums. It worked with what Mino was doing as a percussionist, and I let him do the sounds. Sometimes we would switch risers at a gig, and I would go over to his riser and play some of the electronic drums myself. So I have used the drums, but I haven’t endorsed a kit yet, because I’ve been waiting for that combination of durability and range of sound that will make me very happy about putting my name on a kit, saying, “This is my favorite,” the way I would endorse Zildjian cymbals. Electronic drums are like keyboard synthesizers. Joe Zawinul owns an Oberheim, a Prophet, and an Emulator, because when you’re talking about electronics, each instrument has definite characteristics that make it what it is. It’s great to hear them in combination with each other. Right now, on stage with Sting, I’m using a combination of Simmons and Dynachord drums, and I intend to add a Cooper Sound Chest as well, because that’s the way I’m hearing it. I think that, with the combination of these three instruments, I’m finally going to get what I want to get out of an electronic situation. But I always keep the real drums close by, because there’s a power in real drums that will never be replaced, even though it will always be nice to hear it augmented by electronic stuff. So I’m totally into it, and happy that the drum technology is finally catching up with guitar and keyboard technology.

RM: Any predictions about where things are going, either equipment-wise, drumming-wise, or music-wise?

OH: There will be a 24-track digital Walkman soon, [laughs]

RM: Okay, let’s stay with electronics for a second. Do you think this is starting to peak or do you think that, as incredible as the things are that we’ve seen over the past couple of years, we’re just on step one?

OH: It’s on step one, not from the technology standpoint, because it’s all there, but it’s on step one in terms of application. When I say application, I mean how to incorporate it into a set. Everybody’s coming up with different ways now. But the neat thing about it is that maybe it won’t be like the drumset where the snare drum and tom-toms are kind of in a very traditional place and you learn to play it like that. I think the electronic age of drums will allow drummers to really individualize their sound, like when you see Terry Bozzio on stage with that set he has. That is totally new, and it works perfectly for him. I think the technology is there right now to do anything that we want to do sound-wise, because that’s already been kind of proven with keyboards. So now I just think we’re coming up with applications, and I think, as the years go on, we’re going to see a lot of different ways of using this stuff. Drummers are using triggering devices and different shaped drumsets, and being more visible. I have a feeling that we can do whatever we can think of right now. It’s a great moment.

RM: What about musically? Are there any trends you’ve become aware of that you think are going to be important?

OH: It’s hard to say. The whole industry right now is based on trends, and they’re not musical ones. But musician-wise, when you look at drummers and the way we’re progressing, I think it’s due to the electronic thing. The level of musicians that this decade is turning out is definitely different.

RM: Is there any one particular type of music that’s producing these musicians, or do they tend to come from all areas?

OH: They do for me, maybe only because I’m a fan of different kinds of music. Again, I could go back and name people that I was really digging—Stewart Copeland, Mel Gaynor. I heard him and I flipped. It wasn’t what he played; it was how it felt when he played it. I listen to that. Whenever I hear a record and there’s that something in the person sitting behind the drumkit, I always feel it off the record. When I heard that Simple Minds record, I said, “That is a hot drummer.” I knew immediately, just from his feel. Stewart Copeland always killed me. When I first heard the Police, I went, “Wow, who is this guy?” because he swings so hard. I really enjoy his playing a lot.

RM: I’ve always suspected that the reason Copeland sounds so unique is because he didn’t grow up in this country listening to the same music that the rest of us grew up with.

OH: Right. I think it’s from his traveling as a child—living in the Far East, and living here and there, hanging out with kids. Every country has a music that the people dance to and that they like to sing to. They all have their own folk songs. You start to learn all these things. You start to dance with different musics and all of a sudden you’ve learned that groove. Then, you move to London and hear rock ’n’ roll, and then you move to New York and you hear all this bebop. It’s got to turn your head around and make you appreciate more than just what’s in front of you. Stewart is a damn good example of what I mean. Especially the drums—because you have to remember that people have always communicated with drums. There was an alphabet that tribes understood with drums. Then those same people would play drums for enjoyment—for social things. You could go all over the world with a drum and hang out with drummers. The common thing is that instrument, but what you will play will be another language just in the drums themselves. It’s just amazing. When you see the Latin drum community, the African drum community, and the reggae community, it’s like language. It’s like learning French, Spanish, and English. It’s kind of the same thing. The people who know more languages always have an edge.

RM: That’s a good comparison, especially for what music demands now, unless you’re in a stylized band that’s only going to play, say, blues. But these days, no matter what type of band you play in, they may suddenly say, “Let’s do a reggae feel in this one.”

OH: Sting did one on his album that was a lot of fun to do. I was really glad that I did that record, because I get a kick out of doing things that people don’t expect from me, especially coming from the Weather Report band—Weather Report being the thing that got me more well known than stuff I did before that.

RM: There was also a little “ching chinga ching” on that Sting album.

OH: We kind of did that for fun. It was a goof kind of thing, but we had fun with it.

RM: Well, I smiled when I heard it.

OH: We were cracking up when we did it. Yeah, that’s it I think. The trend is drummers becoming more multilingual, using an analogy of language and music. A drum is a very worldly instrument. There’s a drum in every culture. There isn’t a guitar in every culture or a keyboard in every culture, but every culture has a drum. And all those drummers appreciate drums. No matter what kind of drum you have, if you go somewhere else, they’ll look at your drum and say, “Man, that’s great. Let me see it,” and they’ll play it. Drummers just have another kind of rapport that’s international because of that special instrument.