On His Own Terms
Try this experiment: Mention the name Bob Moses to a drummer who’s been around a while. You’ll likely get one of two responses: “Bob who?” or something to the effect of “Oh, yeah, Bob’s the man!” We at MD happen to fall into the second category; it’s why we published his method book Drum Wisdom back in the day—and why we poached its title for our recent feature series on great drummer/ educators. This month we catch up with the musician, who’s never stopped playing, or thinking, or being a profound influence on the thousands of players who’ve fallen under his wonderful spell.
Since beginning his journey down the spiritual path, Ra Kalam Bob Moses has learned a lot about creativity, and even more about life. It’s ironic that this journey has showed him how to cover his own tracks so well. He seems to have brushed aside the lasting traces of his own “self,” or at least hidden them under the bramble and thicket that most of us are too busy to notice. His studies and practices have humbled him to the point where it seems unnecessary, inaccurate even, for him to acknowledge his original voice on the drums and his worldly contributions to music.
Today Ra Kalam will tell you that he doesn’t think of himself as a great player. When he reflects on the period in which he played mainly jazz, he says that it only sounds like he knew what he was doing because the musicians he was playing with knew what they were doing. They were doing the heavy lifting.
That’s likely not what those hearing his music would say. Ra Kalam began spiritual practice roughly twenty years ago with guitarist Tisziji Muñoz, with whom he also collaborates musically. But before that, Ra Kalam was “simply” Bob Moses: post-bop slayer, one of the great rhythmic forces in free jazz and fusion music of the ’70s and ’80s. He recorded his first album as a leader in 1968. He appeared on Pat Metheny’s debut as a leader, Bright Size Life, in 1976, then in concert and on recordings with bandleaders Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Pharoah Sanders, Dave Liebman, Jack DeJohnette, and Larry Coryell, among many others. He’s even taught at the highest academic level since the early ’80s, serving as a professor of jazz studies at the New England Conservatory of Music.
Maybe his spiritual studies have simply made him more aware of the world’s profundity, and the miracle of expression. Certainly it has helped answer questions he’s always asked about musical dogma—like the setup an improvising drummer should use, and even how one defines success.
Thankfully, his selflessness has yet to keep him from producing a lot of music. Like, a lot a lot: Moses has released seventeen albums since he launched his own label, Ra Kalam Records, roughly ten years ago. Most of these recordings are bold works whose genre is slightly tougher to categorize than his pre-spirit-path music. He takes influence from African tribal music, modal, spiritual, and straight-ahead jazz, singers on The X Factor, nature, the cosmos, kung-fu movies, windshield wipers…basically everywhere. And each album has its own identity. Yet they are connected by the current of his percussive flow: a rhythm-river, at once lyrical, melodic, torrential, dialogical, and floral. The music sometimes descends into cacophony, but Ra Kalam’s soul and intent are always discernible in the (intentional) chaos. His spiritual journey has allowed him to harness abilities most musicians take for granted, like singing, dancing, or simply listening. It’s taught him to be mindful of the swirling Foley—like skipped records and the sound of the wind rustling leaves—that surrounds us. Ra Kalam has his ears and mind open, and he’s using these elements as a foundation for his evolved music.
MD: What got you thinking about spirituality and its relationship to music?
Ra Kalam: My early exposure to Coltrane is what prepared me for Tisziji. I heard a spirituality in his playing that I didn’t hear from other jazz musicians, great as they were. Coltrane in ’61 was so radically different. It’s hard for people to understand now, because so many people have copied that free, open, modal sound. It affected me in a way no other music had. It was going somewhere beyond music, where the purpose was not musical. For a lot of musicians, they’re just music fanatics. For me, if the music doesn’t reach out and pull my heart out of my chest, I’d rather hear silence.
In one of these really down, dark times I called Tisziji and asked him if I could just come and sit with him. No guitar, no drums. I just want to sit. I remember, the first time I sat for eighteen hours straight. I was falling over, and he was sitting with perfect posture, totally relaxed but sharp—every word was perfect dharma. That began the process. Then shortly after, I got the name Ra Kalam—it’s representative of the journey and of being free of the karmic caca of Bob Moses. [That’s when] I think my music started changing.
MD: How does practicing meditation and spirituality help your playing? Is it necessary to open yourself to spirituality to be a great player?
Ra Kalam: Almost all great players are not doing that, and they’re still great players. No, this is not about music, this is about your life. Let’s face it: musicians and artists are some of the most egocentric people on the planet. They’re as removed from spiritual practice as you could possibly be! If they have a need for it, they’ll gravitate toward it. If they don’t, they won’t. I definitely had a need for it. I was suffering.
There is a huge gap between Tisziji’s reality and any normal human reality [because he is a spiritual master]. I’m trying to close that gap, trying to get closer to stillness. It’s really like prayer. Prayer mode. It’s really hard if you’re not in prayer mode; then you get to the gig, and you have to be that way. ’Trane played the way he played because he lived that way. We all have that spirit-compassion.
MD: Years ago you were known more for playing jazz music, and you used a standard four-piece kit. But since, your music has become something less classifiable, and in turn you’ve evolved your kit into something more diverse—you’ve even called it “magical.” Can you describe it?
Ra Kalam: It’s kind of like a sculpture. Many times I just go into my music room to look at it and don’t even play it. I can hear things coming from [the drums] before I touch them. They seem to already suggest music.
I don’t think in terms of brand or symmetry—a Gretsch or Tama set, or whatever. I just go drum by drum: Okay, I like this drum; it’ll make it into the set. It happens that a lot of the stuff is made and invented by Remo. I have a high regard for Remo the company and Remo Belli the man. He was a great man and a visionary. Remo manufactured things I would have invented if I knew how to make things. For example, the snare that I use is from the Mondo drumset; it’s half djembe and half snare. It’s the only snare I use now. I use a 12″ and a 10″, which I call my “snapping turtle.” It’s also easy to play with your hands, which I’ve been doing a lot more of lately. Or sometimes I’ll play with one hand and one stick.
I also use a 16″ Remo djembe turned on its side as second bass drum. The bass drum that I play more with my right foot is a floor tom made by Eames.
I have a lot of different foot combinations with my set: two bass drums, three hi-hat like instruments, tombaks to my left, and something Remo invented called a cluster drum, which is five heads in one drum. That goes next to where some people would have a rack tom; I have a timbale [instead]. Many of the cymbals are different types of Chinas. They’re mostly used for effect—I don’t ride on them.
Q: Is it necessary to open yourself to spirituality to be a great player?
A: Almost all great players are not doing that, and they’re still great players. No, this is not about music, this is about your life.
MD: Do you bring all of that stuff out when you play a gig?
Ra Kalam: Generally I bring a 12″ Mondo snare, an Eames 16″ bass drum, an Eames floor tom, a timbale, one hi-hat, and one ride.
Editor’s note: the ride is a ’60s Zildjian K that Moses has had for more than fifty-five years. He recently acquired its “sister cymbal,” another vintage K made by the same cymbal maker, Mikael Zildjian, that sounds and looks “almost as beautiful” as his original. Ra Kalam, who is not short of stories, told MD a great one in which he asked the elder of the two cymbals if “she” would mind if he “dated her sister occasionally.” The cymbal responded, “Please! I could use the break!” But back to Ra Kalam….
I bring out a very small kit. One, because I’m getting old and lazy. [laughs]. But also because the music doesn’t call for [anything bigger]. One of the things Tisziji told me: “Sound like the cosmos with the smallest kit possible.” That kind of infinity comes from you, not the drumset. So even with a small set I wind up getting as many colors as I can. The sound ultimately is in your head, so if you hear different tones, you’ll find a way to get different tones. You could play one drum…I could get a melody on the desk here. [Moses proceeds to play a melody on his desk.] A lot of people are kind of amazed at the amount of sounds and colors I get with a small kit, but I learned early on that it’s not only the drum… it’s what you’re hitting it with.
MD: It’s funny you say that, because it looks to me as if you often play with broken sticks.
Ra Kalam: They’re not all broken; they’re all in the state of becoming broken. Like all living things, we all break down eventually. I make them that way. I go to a tree and find a branch that has enough straightness to it and also one that won’t mess with the integrity of the tree [if I take it]. I love and respect trees. Of course, because they’re all handmade, each stick is different.
I have a different technique for the left hand and right hands because they have completely different functions in the music. Also, my hands aren’t equal. I know some of these great drummers who practice every day, and their left hand and right are absolutely equal, but I’m not like that. My right hand is stronger because I’m right handed. I use it more. But they have different functions.
MD: You mention the importance of dance to your playing. Can you describe how you use it?
Ra Kalam: The way you listen to music is by dancing to it. I know how to listen. When you play with people [who know what they’re doing], dance to it, see what it really is. It’s like getting in a car that’s already driving. You don’t need to do anything. That’s been my approach to all music.
It’s interesting that all these kids who say they’re into jazz know the three hundred sixty-third thing about it, but they don’t know the first thing about it: It’s not in four, it’s in two! So they’re not moving correctly. They have the wrong feel from the get-go. How do I know it’s in two? I dance to every record. Some of the students get into it, start doing it. Others look at me like I’m crazy: “What—you want me to dance?” You want to be a drummer, and that’s such a far-fetched idea? I don’t know, man…. [laughs]
MD: You say that you rarely gig anymore. Do you think you’re less likely to be hired because you have such a specific sound?
Ra Kalam: I don’t think it’s only my sound. It’s who I am as a person. I’ve always been a contrarian and a rebel spirit, and always try to be as unprogrammed as possible. I take full responsibility for that. What I learned from Tisziji, and from living long enough, is that not working very much, or not being part of the scene, is not a detriment—it’s a blessing. In fact, I think it’s enabled me to go deeper into the way I play because I don’t care if anybody likes it. I don’t care if it’s useful for anybody else. I’m playing for my own spiritual healing, which means letting go.
My credo is “Learn it to burn it.” In other words, learn it so you don’t have to play it anymore. Most musicians learn it to show it, and then they spend the rest of their life showing it and reproving that they’ve learned it over and over. “Look what I’ve learned. I’m great at it!” “Yes you are.” “Okay, here again. I’m great at it.” Over and over and over. And I’m not putting them down…that’s their choice to make. My choice is different. What heals me is to play what I don’t know, not what I know. And to play what actually can’t be known in the intellectual mind. It’s beyond the mind. That’s a different process. It’s letting go.
I’m about to turn seventy-one. Who knows how much time I’ve got. With any luck, ten or fifteen more years. So I don’t want to spend even a minute dumbing down, going backwards, or redoing something I may have done before. That’s where my joy comes in. If I were a working musician, it would be much harder to do it. I see working musicians, and they’re stuck doing what they’ve already done because people like it, and that’s how they make a living. That means they’re attached to material success, and to being liked and understood. I’m not putting anyone down; these are all choices people can make. I choose to not be attached to any of that. The freedom is worth more than anything to me.
I hardly play gigs because no one calls me to play. I don’t have a band or anything. I play in the house sometimes, but I like playing with people. For me, an hour of drums by themselves is enough. Maybe I’m a little lazy, too. But I’m getting better. I actually like my playing these days. Twenty years ago I wouldn’t have said that.
MD: Most musicians constantly talk about how they have to just keep gigging in order to get by. How do you make your living if you hardly play gigs?
Ra Kalam: Man, it’s a mystery to me how I make it. I don’t owe any money. I put out seventeen records. I’m creating all the time. I teach one day a week at NEC, and even that’s only during certain seasons. But I live in a funky house. The ceiling is coming down. I have three roommates; I would love to live with myself, but nah.
I don’t do any of the things people tell you are in the program: you gotta buy Christmas presents; Thanksgiving you gotta eat turkey. Nope. Not me. New Year’s…New Year’s? For me that’s the spring. I don’t have a smartphone. Vacation? I stay home, play the drums, paint some pictures, breathe. That’s my vacation. These are choices that people have to make.
I’m hardly a professional musician. Careers go up and down. Almost all the musicians I know are more materially successful than me. My students are more materially successful than me. But none of them seem happy. Nobody has any time. Everybody seems completely stressed; they’re all running around like madmen. I have, like, no business or hussle chops. That’s not good, and I’m not proud of that, by the way. But I know by now who I am.