Adam Rudolph

Adam Rudolph

Spirit of the Drum

Story by Jeff Potter
Photos by Paul La Raia

In the liner notes to the album Turning Towards the Light, Adam Rudolph comments on one of his compositions, explaining, “a triple-diminished cosmogram is explored.” Of another track, he notes, “In this orchestral narrative, entities of macro or micro electro-magnetic formulations glow.” Lost yet? That’s okay. Rudolph’s main concern is that his listeners—and the musicians performing his compositions—experience the music with open ears, hearts, and minds. There’s substantial complexity in Rudolph’s art, but go with the flow (and the groove); above all else, he values the spiritual results.Rudolph is a seeker. From street drumming to formal education to rhythm quests around the world, the percussionist, composer, and conceptualist has sought the connectivity between global traditions, and in the process he’s developed his own unique approach to hand drums. 

After touring with Don Cherry in 1978, Rudolph returned to his native Chicago and, along with Gambian kora player Foday Musa Suso, formed the pioneering Mandingo Griot Society, a unit mixing world rhythms with jazz and R&B. Rudolph has since collaborated with many international masters, including Hassan Hakmoun, L. Shankar, Ali Jihad Racy, and Badal Roy. He’s also performed with jazz notables such as Pharoah Sanders, Herbie Hancock, Sam Rivers, Wadada Leo Smith, and Lester Bowie. And he enjoyed a fruitful twenty-five-year partnership with Yusef Lateef up until the reed player’s passing in 2013. The two toured and recorded extensively, exploring lengthy improvisational duets on their vast palette of international instruments.

Rudolph’s unique rhythmic/compositional concepts have been most fully realized by three ongoing ensembles he spearheads. Since 1992, Moving Pictures has highlighted his eclectic writing and expressive, interactive hand drumming that organically mixes jazz and world music with experimental daring. Go: Organic Orchestra was launched in 2001 from Rudolph’s desire to create an orchestral approach to world music. He’s traveled the globe creating various aggregations of “Go,” teaching musicians his concept of “cyclic verticalism” and supervising the ensembles with his conducting style, which mixes structure with spontaneous improvisation. The newest “Go” configuration, captured on the ethereal Turning Towards the Light, is the Go: Organic Guitar Orchestra, an eleven-piece, all-guitar, all-star ensemble that includes Nels Cline, Rez Abbasi, and Joel Harrison.

But the most drum-centric of Rudolph’s groups is Hu: Vibrational, whose fourth release, The Epic Botanical Beat Suite, offers an intoxicating tableau of layered percussion played by Rudolph, Brahim Fribgane, James Hurt, Matt Kilmer, Tim Kieper, Keita Ogawa, and Tripp Dudley, along with special guests including bassist Bill Laswell. It’s a grooving meeting of world rhythms, jazz, and experimental hip-hop.

“That record is a milestone for me,” Rudolph says. “It’s the first time I’ve really been able to have players of that caliber lay down the rhythms that I’ve been composing all these years on such a high level.”

Here, Rudolph enlightens MD readers on rhythm, cycles, and the sacred.

MD: Your ensembles are founded in your personal rhythm concepts.

Adam Rudolph

Adam: The percussionists who play in the new Hu: Vibrational play in the New York version of Go: Organic Orchestra as well. So over time they’ve learned my concept of rhythm. I call it “cyclic verticalism,” which is explained thoroughly in my book, Pure Rhythm. I use graphic notation that I’ve developed, depicting boxes that are pulse based. The book covers the same concepts that I teach through my percussionists in the Go: Organic Orchestra and the same way I organized rhythms on the Hu: Vibrational record.

In a nutshell, cyclic verticalism has to do with combining what I call “vertical rhythms”—layered polyrhythms that you might find in certain West African and diasporic drumming—with rhythm cycles that you might find, for example, in the concepts of North Indian drumming. It’s a way of combining those to generate “signal rhythms.” Those are, for instance, shorter bell patterns found in clave or bell patterns that organize West African and Central African drumming.

I generate my own signal rhythms, which are combined to make “ostinatos of circularity”—big cycles that circle around in layers of rhythms, like you might find in Javanese gamelan music. That’s how I generate the form of the music.

I compose these rhythms and teach them through the percussionists in the Go: Organic Orchestra and Hu: Vibrational. I demonstrate the parts to them, but what I’m looking for them to do is bring their own ideas, as well as determine what instruments they might orchestrate the parts with and apply their own feel and vibration to it. For example, Brahim Fribgane is an incredible Berber percussionist from Morocco. He took those rhythms I provided and put a sort of Moroccan “language” on them that makes them distinct. And I want every musician to do that.

In my teaching, I believe this: If you can sing it, you can play it. Once you’ve internalized it, you can then figure how you want to play it. Every oral tradition of drumming is based upon learning to sing it or dance it. The mathematics are important because they help us extrapolate concepts and adapt them to our own ideas. I always say rhythm has three aspects: mathematics, language, and dance.

So I get the percussionists to first learn to sing the patterns. Also, they can look at the paper and see the notation that is shown in Pure Rhythm. I don’t use Western notation. For example, one of the pieces on the Hu: Vibrational record is in a twenty-one-beat cycle that I often use. [See the chart at right.] It’s comprised of five, seven, and nine moving against seven triplets. On the graphic representation, you can see where those triplets line up against that twenty-one-beat cycle.

I want the musicians to be as free as they can be, as long as they can keep the functionality of what they have to do and make it groove. I’m not into writing a bunch of complicated rhythms just for the heck of it. I want them to groove and have their own breath, form, and shape.

MD: The Epic Botanical Beat Suite is more electronic than previous Hu: Vibrational releases.

Adam: My idea on this one was to do some extreme processing in the mix. The idea from that came to me from this: Many African instruments have an extra rattle or a snare to “complexify” the overtones. Those are sometimes referred to as the “voices of the ancestors.” There’s a layering, a shadow rhythm that echoes from the primary rhythm of what you’re hearing. I wanted to create that overtone layer using modern technology.

MD: Your interactive conga style evolved differently from the typical “rhythm section” approach.

Adam: It was never my desire, even when I was a teenager, to be a great Cuban-style hand drummer or Latin drummer or tabla drummer. I studied all of those traditions. But I’m of the Charlie Parker school, where you have to live it in order to play it. I grew up around blues and jazz and black music on the south side of Chicago, so I wanted to reflect my experience, my environment. I wanted to figure out my own way of approaching the hand drums. When I practiced, my ideas led my technique. I’ve been much more influenced by things I heard from Elvin Jones and Tony Williams—trying to figure how I could play that concept on the hand drums.

MD: You’ve cited conga player Big Black as a major influence.

Adam: Big Black invented a way of approaching hand drums that was completely different from the Afro-Caribbean way. We became friends. He showed me a couple of fundamental ways of approaching the hand drums that completely liberated my thoughts and allowed me to play more spontaneously and develop my own voice over time. I was able to dialogue with the form and with other musicians much more spontaneously, instead of being locked into a pattern.

There are two important threads for me regarding drums. One of them is developing my language as a hand drummer. The other part is being a rhythm composer. That’s something that’s not always given its due—great rhythm composers like Doudou N’Diaye Rose from Senegal, or [Indian harmonium and tabla player] Jnan Prakash Ghosh, or my tabla teacher, Pandit Taranath Rao. In America, a great rhythm composer would be someone like James Brown.

MD: Your conga playing includes lots of finger technique. How did you integrate that?

Adam: I didn’t do it in a conscious way. Over time you just have to be inventive. I’d been serious about tabla for many years, so I had the finger technique. I’m always working to combine the finger technique with the flat-hand technique, which is the more traditional way of striking the conga or djembe. The short answer is “I’m still working on it.” [laughs] Also, I use thinner goatskins on my drums, because they’re more responsive to the fingers.

MD: The spiritual aspect of drumming has obviously been as important to you as technique.

Adam: I believe that intentionality is the basis of approaching the drum. If you play with the hands, there has to be a certain mindfulness and intentionality and respect, because you’re moving from silence to sound. In a way, it’s a sacred act. You’re moving from what they call in India nada brahma—which is the un-struck sound, also called sese in the Kongo culture—and moving into audible vibration. So when you strike the drum, you’re creating om, because you’re bringing all of these overtones into being. Hand drums are incredible; they’re the only instrument with that direct of an experience. That feeling, skin on skin—it’s direct in how it affects your body. I’m a longtime practitioner of yoga; it’s about body, mind, spirit. When you strike the drum, that energy is going directly into your hand at the same time that the vibrations are going into your body and ears. That’s some powerful stuff.

Tools of the Trade

“What I call my ‘handrumset,’” Adam Rudolph says, “consists of three vintage Valje congas, a djembe made in Ivory Coast, [five] Moroccan tarija drums, a larger doumbek, a zabumba drum that I got in Bahia [that acts as a bass drum], and [a pair of] Igbo bells from Nigeria. I play all handmade drums, many of which I get from Motherland Music in L.A. On the Hu: Vibrational CD I did not play this setup, as that album featured group drumming that I composed. The cymbal I use was given to me by the Crescent company. I play this setup standing up, and it’s the primary one that I use when I play live.

Adam Rudolph tools

“Like many percussionists, though, I have many instruments that I play—kalimbas of several kinds, cajon, udu, gongs, talking drum, bata, cymbals…. You can see more complete lists in the notes for some of my duet recordings on the CD release pages. On those recordings and in my concerts I also play two stringed instruments: a sintir from the Gnawa [people] of Morocco and a mouth bow. I also do overtone singing, which I learned in 1975. And now I use electronic processing live, which I started doing with Jon Hassell in the 1980s, although I studied electronic music at Oberlin from 1972 to 1976.”