Master Percussionist: Oregon’s Collin Walcott

It was really one of the major lessons of my life when I first started to study Indian music with a guy from Pakistan who was studying psychology at Indiana. He showed me the basic stroke for the sixteen-beat pattern called tintal, analogous to a basic ride beat, say, when you have the sock on two and the bass drum on one, dum-chick-a-dum-chick-a-dum. I said. “Show me some of that fast stuff.” He said, “Some people play the simple thing so beautifully that that’s all they play.” That was to me an incredible moment: first, that anybody would use the word “beautiful” in relation to drumming, and secondly, the notion that the beautiful was what was important. It’s not the speed and all the flash; it’s the beauty and the feeling and the grace with which you play. Obviously, in the India tradition there are some incredibly fast drummers, but the best ones play it cleanly, and that’s the criterion for judging them. That was a major turning point for my whole way of thinking about drumming. It was a musical thing, and it wasn’t just to show off your ratamacue.

That was also the great thing about studying with George Gaber. He was really concerned about the music. We spent weeks, hours a day, practicing triangle. Experimenting with different kinds of beaters, different diameters, different lengths, using brass, using steel, hitting the corner of the triangle, the middle of the edge, the side. There are twenty different sounds you can get out of a triangle just on those considerations. That has had a big effect on me, especially in the case of Oregon, because I do a lot of color playing.

I used to carry a set of traps with Oregon, but they’re just so overwhelming. You have to play with chopsticks in order to be quiet enough, and that’s so frustrating. If you’re going to play those drums, you have to be able to hit them so that they’ll sound.

HH: I last saw you play the small drumset with Paul Winter in ’72.

CW: Yeah, a snare drum, a bass drum, a hi-hat, and some cymbals—and that’s about all I can handle anyway. I never really got into trapset.

HH: You’re in a unique position in that respect. There seem to be few musical forms attractive to young audiences wherein a percussionist plays with subtlety.

CW: I realize also that there are not many groups where there’s just a percussionist; usually the percussionist is in conjunction with a drummer. The drummer is driving the band, and the percussionist just gets up once in a while and shakes something. There are not many situations where the driver is a percussionist. So I’ve gone through lots of different changes. For example, regarding the technique of tabla playing: I have to play it a lot heavier than is usual for a tabla player. In the context of Indian music, he would he playing much lighter. Even though it sounds loud, and it’s still cooking, the actual pressure is pretty light. It took a while adjusting to t h a t .

And in Indian music it’s a different placement of the beat: it’s either laid hack or straight on. The other guys in Oregon were coming more out of a j a z z tradition and were accustomed to that sort of on-top thing, and they were most at home in the triplet swing thing, in which I wasn’t at home at all. When we first started playing we had a lot of rhythm problems. Their switch to a kind of laid back duple and my trying to get sort of an on-top swing was a real challenge. It took years to find a place where we were all comfortable. It’s really just starting to come together.

HH: How did you become associated with Ravi Shankar?

CW: I met him through the House of Musical Traditions, which used to be in New York and which is now in West Virginia. They deal mainly in Oriental and strange instruments. In New York during the late 6O’s they were selling sitars and tablas. That was right when the rage was happening and I started working at the store. They got in touch with Ravi’s managers to see if they could set up a situation where Alla Rakha would teach a tabla class in the store once a week. The store also gave my name to Ravi’s managers as somebody who knew Western notation and Eastern notation so I could help him transcribe examples for a book he was going to write about Indian Music. After I had graduated from Indiana. I studied ethno musicology at UCLA. so I had learned Indian notation. That’s how I met Ravi, and then later they said. “Would you mind driving him to the airport?” Maybe he liked my driving, because the next week they said. “Ravi wants you to go on the road with him.” That was a couple of years, traveling around.

HH: As his road manager.

CW: Right.

HH: And of course you would study with Alla Rakha during this period.

CW: Actually, I spent most of the time with Alla Rakha. because Ravi and Kamala, the woman who played the tamboura, were together, and Ravi doesn’t smoke or drink. So Ravi and Kamala would go off to their place and have room service, and Alla Rakha and I would go off and have a drink and then sit in the room and go dag-a-diggit-ada- dag-a-diggit-a-da on the tabletop. So I really had more actual instruction on the tabla than I ever had on sitar.

HH: Needless to say. your training has borne fruit.

CW: It’s coming. Still, by Indian standards. I’m barely a beginner.

HH: You also traveled rather extensively with Paul Winter.

CW: Yes. for about a year or a year and a half. It may seem longer because we were involved with what ended up to be three records. We made the Road record, which was “Oregon” plus Paul Winter and David Darling; and then the Icarus album, which was the same hand except that Paul wanted to use electric bass. And then there was a reissue, sort of a “Best of called Sundance or something like that, which had cuts off of the other two records and, I think, one of the older ones before we had joined.

HH: How well did the members of Oregon know one another before the Paul Winter gig?

CW: Ralph and Glen have known each other since college; it’s been something like nineteen years they’ve been playing together. They came to New York in the late 60s. I grew up in New York. I met Glen first, and Glen said. “Hey. I have this guitar-player friend who I’d really like you to meet,” and that was Ralph. The three of us got together and played a few times. I had met Paul Winter, and then Ralph and Glen met Paul. Paul came to hear Ralph playing in a club, asked Ralph to play, and said, “Do you know anybody else?” Ralph said. “Oh. yeah, Glen and Collin.” So the three of us joined the Consort in January 1970. Paul McCandless was already in the Consort. We all just hit it off!

HH: Have you used bar percussion instruments to any extent since Indiana?

CW: No. I’m not that much of a player, and Ralph and Paul are both such incredible melodic virtuosos, that there’s not much room for another lead melody instrument.

I have played a thing like that in the trio with Don Cherry and Nana Vascon celos. I have about twelve bars off of my old marimba, a pentatonic scale of about two octaves, and I’ve sort of strung them together into this thing that’s two feet wide without resonators, and I just lay it on a pillow. It sounds kind of like an African ballophone. I’ve carried that around with Don and Nana. It’s been very good for that, but that music is different. I’ve never used it with Oregon.

On Oregon’s Moon and Mind record I have a hammered dulcimer, which is like a santir (a trapezoidal Middle Eastern dulcimer). It’s pretty hairy taking that on the road because it has something like ninety-two strings, and we already have almost a hundred strings to get in tune for each show. To add another hundred would be too much. That’s kind of like a mallet instrument. It’s great as a drummer to be able to drum on a thing that brings out notes, and I kind of play it that way. running up and down. I can’t really play melodies.

HH: What teachers, records, and books do you know to be useful to the Western percussionist wishing to study tabla?

CW: There’s one record out—I think it’s called 42 Tabla Lessons—on Folkways. It has a booklet and a record. That, from what I understand, is very good, the best thing around, (Ustad Keramatullah Kahn, 42 Lessons for Tabla, compiled and written by Robert S. Gottlieb, with a Foreword by Ravi Shankar: Folkways CRB12)

There are teachers in New York, such as Vasant Rai. The main center for Indian music in America is out in San Rafael, just north of San Francisco; the Ali Akbar Khan College of Music. Alla Rakha teaches there when he’s around.

HH: Can you give a brief introduction to basic tabla technique?

CW: It’s hard to explain it in words. There are, basically, “rudiments.” There are maybe ten basic strokes on the right drum, the high one (tabla, daina, dayan, etc.) Having your ring finger resting on that little black spot (ghab) cuts out the “undertone” of the thing—for the stroke on the very edge, which gives that high, rim-shot kind of sound (ta). Then hitting towards the spot, not actually on it, gives more of an open kind of sound (tin). It’s like with congas, where you think of a slap, a straight tone, a thud, and a pop. You could say that on the tabla, the edge sound is kind of like the pop, the middle sound is sort of like the tone, and then there are different ways of getting this heavy slap or thud kind of thing.

All the rolls involve hitting that spot. The rolls do not, except in one case, involve a double left; they’re double rights and single lefts, like a triplet, and they’re alternating with single rights and single lefts. There’s very little doubling of the left hand. So the main sort of 4/4 straight roll is R L R R L R R L, or take terekete ta ke. That roll can get ludicrously fast. All the ke sounds are a closed sound on the low drum, the left one (banya, bhaya, bayan, etc.), like a thud or a slap. And on the left drum all the ge sounds, as in gerenage, are the open boo-ah or bo-oo-bo kind of sound.

Then there are all the combinations of possible strokes. It’s been interesting for me, recently, getting back into Western ideas on the tabla. I’ve been working a lot with paradiddles lately. That first page of Stick Control is just an incredible gold mine of material for tabla and conga. You start mixing up slaps, tones, and thumps, as to where they come in the paradiddle, and you get wonderful patterns. I’ve also been trying to do Brazilian, reggae, and wawongo patterns on the drums, setting up a cowbell pattern on the right tabla and then playing the tumba part on the banya. I’ve spent a lot of time with Nana Vasconcelos in recent years, playing Brazilian music and trying to play samba on the tabla, using the banya as the surdo and the tabla as the cowbell. It’s far out. It’s not easy.

HH: Have you spoken with Indian drummers and gotten their reactions to these experiments’?

CW: I haven’t gotten much flak from the Indian community. I would have expected a lot more people to say, “Well, this is sacrilege.” But the people who know me, like Alla Rakha and Zakir, know that I really love Indian music and that I respect them. For them, it would be worse if I pretended to play Indian music. They get upset at people who come out and say, “Now I’m going to play Raga Such-and-such” or “I’m going to play Tala Such-and-such” and do it badly. That, to them, is awful. Just as if Yehudi Menuhin or Heifetz hears someone playing Bach on the violin badly, that’s upsetting. But that same artist can go and be thrilled at a Gypsy violinist or an Appalachian bluegrass fiddler. It’s not the same thing if it’s not bastardizing a tradition. So I haven’t gotten much criticism.

Ravi and Alla Rakha have come to hear Oregon, and they really like us; Zakir also. They appreciate that we’re really trying to do something and that we’re sincere and that we’re not trying to rip off Indian music or anything else. Actually, with Oregon we don’t use very many Indian musical devices.

HH: Do you ever find it disturbing to play the tabla in a Western setting where harmony is of greater importance and where tonal centers are likely to shift frequently?

CW: A little, but not too much. That’s why I use two of the high tabla, one tuned to D and one tuned to C#. On the D drum, the high edge sound (ta). is a D, and the open sound, when you don’t put your ring finger on the ghab (ta’ or thun), is an E; and on the C# drum, you have a C# and D#. So between the two drums there are a C#, a D, a D#, and an E, and in practically every chord you can name, one of those notes is not going to be out of place. It may not be a specific chord member, but it won’t really throw off the harmony; something is going to be consonant. This is true especially with Oregon, where the harmony, the tonality, is so complex, practically all of the chords have four or more voices.

HH: Yet when the band spells one of Ralph’s polytonal chords, all of the traditions and implications inherent in the sonority are bound in a completely recognizable trademark.

CW: Ralph is a harmonic wizard.

HH: Earlier you touched briefly on the subject of caring for the drums. Do you have any suggestions in this area?

CW: I keep the tension on them all the time. I don’t relax the tension the way a lot of people do with conga drums.

HH: You leave the tension on the congas as well?

CW: Yes, I do. I just use sixty-cent turnbuckles out of the hardware store. I could have worked it out better, and when I get some time I hope to straighten that out.

HH: Your congas actually are one conga cut in two so that you can play them while seated on the floor, correct?

CW: Yes. I figured out where I had to cut it so that one head would be an inch or two bigger than the other, and just divided that distance in half. It came out about right.

HH: Why did you choose to do it that way instead of sawing two different drums which already had heads and hardware?

CW: Well, that would have cost twice as much, for one, and it was a great fluke that I happened to get a shell; it’s not easy to get a shell without the hardware and the head on. I happened to be at Frank Ippolito’s drum shop in New York (Professional Percussion Center), and he had a Gon Bops quinto without the hardware and the head, and he gave it to me for thirty-five dollars. The way it turned out was rather sad, though, because I had spent a lot of time in that shop and talked to Frank and told him what I was doing, and he was really interested, but by the time I finished it he had just died.

HH: The heads are mounted in a manner which is quite different from the standard conga mounting.

CW: It’s that Ghanaian rope suspension. The rim is a piece of rope, and then 600-pound test nylon cord is threaded around the rope rim, up through the head, around the turnbuckle, back up through the head, around the rim, and then back down through the turnbuckle; there are three loops going across each turnbuckle. It was quite a project, figuring out how to puncture the head, and where to cut the shell so that the one head would be eleven inches across, and so on. The odd thing is that the drums work much better sitting on the floor than they do open.

HH: Why do you think that is?

CW: I guess it has something to do with the shape. I don’t understand the whole acoustical thing of barrels and waves and bouncing off and all that, but they really sound like congas when they’re sitting on the floor. When you tilt them up they don’t sound like congas anymore. They’ve really liberated me in a great way. I used to carry a full-sized conga and would have it in back of me, so that I was tied into playing either tabla or conga on a tune, which in the case of Oregon, is not always good because we’re constantly changing around and going from one world to another. This new set-up has made it just fantastic for being able to play tabla for part of the tune and then switch to the congas, and then I have that little tree of cymbals right there too so I can play a little jazzish kind of thing. I can switch all three of those textures within one tune without ever having to get up and do a whole different set-up and hassle with different mikes and all this. Also, as far as solos go, before, if the music led me into doing a solo on the conga, I would feel some kind of pressure to do a “Latin” hot quinto solo, which I don’t have the capability to do. Likewise, with the tabla, when I would go to play a table solo, I’d tend to really try to get into playing an “Indian” solo because I have that legacy in my head. Now this way, I can mix it up and just play the drums and play the songs without trying to show off my Indian licks or my Latin licks or whatever.

HH: You appear in at least two films from the 60s, one entitled Raga and another, Such Good Friends. What are they about, and what’s your involvement with them?

CW:Such Good Friends was an Otto Preminger extravaganza that I could sit through only because I wanted to see myself there. In one scene, Jennifer O’Neill was doing a sort of avant-garde production of Hamlet. They were trying Ophelia’s love song with sitar, and I was the sitarist.

The Raga movie was basically the story of Ravi Shankar’s arrival in America, as it were, where Indian music was coming from, what happened when it came to this country, and what happened to him. I was the musical coordinator, helping with the studio and all that. I was also in the movie for one brief scene where I became a disciple of both Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha, and they reenacted the ceremony of the film. A lot of people don’t recognize me because I still had all my hair.

I was involved with the score and conducted the orchestra of another movie called Charlie, an American film for which Ravi wrote the score.

In the late 60s in New York, before Oregon became a viable thing, we were all scraping around trying to make a living. I did a lot of weird jingles for shampoo and stuff like that, playing in bands in clubs, and essentially taking any gig that came.

HH: Did you do most of these as a percussionist?

CW: No, on the sitar. I graduated from Indiana in ’66, and I went out to L.A. I came back to New York in ’67, which was right about when the Indian craze was happening. I already knew something about it, and I could read Western music. A lot of the people who got into Indian music were hippies and spiritual trippers who were into it more for the experience than for the music. Fortunately, they’ve been sifted out, and now there are a lot of very serious musicians who have studied Indian styles. At that time, however, there weren’t many people who could read Western notation and play Indian instruments. So if somebody were going to write a jingle for Mountain Dew and wanted five notes of it on the sitar, I could read it. I did a lot of that kind of stuff in ’67 and ’68.

HH: I’ve often wondered what the American consciousness of Indian music would be today, had it not been embraced by the Beatles.

CW: It’s kind of gotten back to a reasonable thing now.

Ravi has been giving concerts in this country for many years. The first concert he gave was in 1957, ten years before the boom thing hit. He was starting to build an audience, and then suddenly there was this explosion, and then as quickly as it exploded, it collapsed. It was a very, very hard period for him, to be gobbled and then dropped by the American musical taste. It was pretty awful. But now it’s back to the point where he’s an accepted concert artist who can do a tour in America every year in major cities and in major halls and get a reasonable fee and a reasonably good crowd. It’s back to the people who care about the music, and not just about the fact that he met George Harrison.

HH: Having toured in both Europe and America, how do you feel about the common belief that American music and musicians are better appreciated in Europe?

CW: Well, you get a lot more money in Europe, and a lot more appreciation. After you’ve done a tour in America, playing in weird clubs with not many people, schlepping around and being ignored, it’s a great thrill to go to Europe and play all these concert halls and get ridiculous amounts of money and be treated like a hero. But after you’ve been over there for a couple of months, it’s really nice to come back to America; it’s more realistic. There’s something kind of lonely about it over there, too, because they tend to idolize the jazz musicians to such a point that they’re afraid to even come up and say hello. Here, you play in a club and people come up afterwards and say, “Hey, man let’s go have a drink or get high” or “I’m a musician” or whatever; there’s some kind of interchange. In Europe you give a concert, take a bow, walk off, wait a couple of minutes, and then go out to pack up and the place is completely empty. Then you go back to some first-class hotel and there’s nobody there. It’s funny in that way. There’s a big concern for culture.

HH: Are there current happenings within Oregon which you wish to discuss?

CW: The last project that Oregon did for Vanguard is called Moon and Mind. That is a series of duets, which was a great thing for the group to do, each guy facing off with one of the others in the studio. We’ve been doing that a lot in the concerts now, and it has opened up a lot of possibilities.

Copyright 1981 Harold Howland. All rights reserved.