(Featured Image by Francesco Sciolti)
Courtney “Bam” Diedrick grew up in Brown’s Town, St. Ann, Jamaica, only a few miles from the birthplace of Bob Marley, the leader of the Wailers, reggae’s most iconic band. Diedrick couldn’t have imagined that he’d one day be propelling the music of Marley’s youngest son, Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley.
Then again, maybe he could have. Courtney’s father encouraged all his children to play music, and—with echoes of the Wailers’ famous rhythm-section mates, brothers Aston and Carlton Barrett—Diedrick’s first bandmates were his brothers John, Ryan, and Sean. Courtney learned well enough at home to earn an invitation to study at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts in Jamaica. After graduation, he taught music at Brown’s Town High School and also connected with local bands, stoking his love for performing. Diedrick developed a hard-driving style that incorporated elements from the playing of reggae masters, from the legendary Sly Dunbar to modern marvel Squidly Cole, as well as funk and fusion players like Aaron Spears and Tony Royster Jr.
Courtney describes his introduction to the Marley family as mystical. His older brother, John, was playing piano at an airport hotel lounge in Kingston, and Damian Marley stopped in after a cancelled flight. A conversation between the two led to auditions for Courtney as well as for brother Sean; eight years later, they’re both still with Marley.
Courtney’s recording work with Damian includes Distant Relatives, his collaboration with rapper Nas, as well as the self-titled album by SuperHeavy, his supergroup with the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger, soul singer Joss Stone, guitarist and producer Dave Stewart, and Indian composer, singer, and songwriter A.R. Rahman. The drummer joined the Playing for Change organization, recording PFC 2: Songs Around the World in 2011, and the next year joined Marley for a collaboration with Eric Clapton on the single “Every Little Thing.” Last year Diedrick worked on Stony Hill, Marley’s first solo album since 2005’s Welcome to Jamrock (both albums took top honors in the Grammy Awards’ Reggae Album category). The tour behind Stony Hill is taking the Marley crew around the world in 2018. MD spoke to the drummer in the midst of it.
MD: When you’re recording an album, do you ever get the feeling that it will be remembered at Grammy time?
Courtney: Well, I do from time to time, but that’s not the main reason we’re working on it. It’s more about the message, like the impact it will have on the world on a whole. So the awards would come after the message. We want to get that out first and foremost. But yes, we do think about the Grammys, as a standard. Each song we play, we’ve got to put our all into it, our best, because you know, we have some great upcoming artists from Jamaica as well as from across the world that are doing reggae. Reggae is big, so we have to have that in the back of our minds—why we’re making it.
MD: I really like the four tracks you play on Stony Hill. These days, with an artist of Damian’s stature, it seems like it’s hard for drummers to get on many tracks.
Courtney: That’s so true.
MD: Do you try to get involved in tracks that you’re not playing on, perhaps on the programming side?
Courtney: Yes, I try to get involved as much as possible, at least get my input in. If you’re going to program drums, I’m going to do my part from a live drummer’s perspective. Certain ideas I might hear, like the feel of it or the sound, even if it’s programmed. We all have a say, all of the band members, because we’re a unit. And not just [in terms of] the drums. So if any one of us doesn’t like the sound or the feel of the bass, we get to make a suggestion. And vice-versa, any of the other guys can suggest some other pattern, feel, or sound [to me]. But also I try to worm my way into the tracks. You know, modern-day tracks are kind of overshadowing the drums, so we as the live drummers have to find a way to get our stuff in it as much as possible, even with the sound replacement. For example, “Living It Up” has live drums but also sound replacement.
MD: What do you mean by sound replacement?
Courtney: For example, if I’m playing live, for some songs the bass drum would have the sub kick instead of the live bass drum sound, or the snare would have an 808 sample, but I play it live.
MD: You take a hip-hop approach on “Living It Up,” the way you drop out on the 4 sometimes. Then on other songs you have to translate the programmed parts into the live realm.
Courtney: Exactly—to make it so you get the best of both worlds, the live and programmed feel.
MD: Do they take actual sounds from the album and send them to you to trigger?
Courtney: My brother Sean produced a few tracks on Stony Hill, so he triggers sounds, but for now we’re not using the drum machine or drum pad onstage. Instead we use the Pork Pie snare drum. I mean, Rastas don’t use pork, so we don’t really like to talk about the name of the drum, but after every show someone comes to me and asks, “Yo, what is that snare? Where did you get it?” It doesn’t even sound like a real snare. It’s deep and has the 808 sound, but it’s live at the same time, so it just blows everybody’s mind. Do you know Damian Marley’s version of [Dennis Brown’s] “Promised Land” [“Land of Promise” from Distant Relatives]? Yeah, that snare, that’s the sound it has. No one would imagine that’s a live snare. So we’re doing live drums. And personally, I prefer to use all live sounds. I’d prefer to have a million real instruments in front of me than to be hitting rubber. Not that it’s not cool, but that’s what I prefer. I prefer getting the oxygen out of the instruments, you know—it’s more…live.
MD: Describe how your mindset changes between recording and the live show.
Courtney: Well, live we have a lot of mixing, a lot more excitement. You know, in Jamaica you have dancehall music. There’s a lot of that boom, boom…boom, boom, boom, that kind of bounce. Usually on the album we don’t have much of that, but once you’re going live you’ve got to mix it that way. When we’re in the studio it’s more laid-back. It’s cleaner and more focused on the concept of the music and the lyrics. But in terms of fills and all, they’re pretty much the same.
MD: So you could go into the dancehall groove at any time?
Courtney: Yeah, we have to pay special attention to Damian. We could be doing a track that we’ve already rehearsed with a certain arrangement, but depending on what Damian feels at the moment, he could just give this look back up at me, and instantly I know he needs this kind of a beat. He’s got different types of looks, and sometimes he doesn’t even have to look around, so we communicate without even saying a word. We automatically start mixing because of what we feel at the moment. If we hear the crowd kind of cheering on, depending on the song, we start mixing. If the crowd gets excited earlier and they really love it, we have to start mixing earlier. We have to change the arrangement because that’s like a moment that we can’t allow to pass. We’re working with the crowd, bringing them along with us.
MD: You play some of those kinds of beats on “Caution” [from Stony Hill].
Courtney: Yeah, “Caution” has both…well, it’s Sly Dunbar on the original track by Black Uhuru, “World Is Africa.” So, it’s that along with the overdub from the live drums. I’m doing the live overdubs, the fills. So there you go with a perfect track, with both programmed and live [drums].
MD: That track made me think about the discipline that’s necessary in playing reggae music. I’m not sure if a lot of people really understand that.
Courtney: I agree. The simplicity of the music is what matters. The less you play, the more you give out, the more you get the message across. Reggae expresses the hurt, the struggles of our culture, also the good times, so doing that music is emotional. A lot of discipline it takes. Even listening to Bob Marley’s songs, you can hear a lot of discipline. Some people probably look at it like reggae is so simple, and they treat it like there’s no respect in playing reggae music. But it’s not that easy. It’s heartfelt.
MD: On “Caution,” some of those beats show a rudimental background, some military-style drumming. Is that something you studied early on at Edna Manley?
Courtney: Yeah, I did. Even before I went to Edna Manley I started studying the rudiments with Deleon White [Dubtonic Kru]. Going to Edna Manley was after that, so I was a bit ahead with the rudiments. That was the icing on the cake. So each time I talk about rudiments or the fundamentals of my career, I still have to talk about Deleon White, my first instructor.
MD: How did you find Deleon?
Courtney: Well, all of my brothers are musicians. My big brother, John, was working the hotels, and Deleon was the drummer. And when I started learning drums, he was the one my brother recommended. So that’s where I started all of the rudiments. [At first] I was like, “I don’t want to learn these rudiments. I want to learn to play the drums.” And so it was a discipline from then. He would usually give me stuff from Dave Weckl, Virgil Donati, all those guys. Billy Cobham. I’m listening to all this stuff like, “I don’t understand what’s going on, all these double strokes and all that. How can this help me?” But long after, I really feel that it did the job. So that’s where everything started, and I recommend it for all drummers. A lot of people don’t pay attention to rudiments, but it’s like reading—you want to talk English, you have to learn to read, learn your alphabet.
MD: The track “Looks Are Deceiving” on Stony Hill has a raw, beautifully played drum part.
Courtney: Respect, respect, Robin. That’s a very spiritual track right there. I think that’s my favorite track on the album. Not because I’m the one that played it, but there’s just a certain feel about that track. Listening to the words, they’re powerful. Having to pay attention to the words, and having the opportunity to play that song, means a lot to me, so I took that into consideration while recording it.
MD: So the words affect how you play it.
Courtney: Oh, definitely. Because if it was something happy I would be playing happy grooves, happy fills, but the words are so spiritual, you have to think that way. I don’t know how to break down “spiritual groove” for you or “spiritual fills,” but listening to the track, those are spiritual fills, spiritual grooves. And depending on the words, or the language he’s using at that particular time, I use certain fills for that. And I can’t overdo it, because you have to complement what he’s saying, the words and the notes.
MD: The drum part has to be, would you say, respectful?
Courtney: Yep, yep. Even the drum fill [coming out of the] intro to the track. It’s a simple roll, but the sound of the snare, and the simplicity of the roll, is very effective, to me at least, to introduce that song. If someone else were to play that song, they might play a different kind of roll, not paying attention to the type of song they’re playing, but I pay attention to all of that. I listen to other people, all people.
MD: The track “Everybody Wants to Be Somebody” is great—strong and nuanced, with little touches that enhance it and make it human.
Courtney: There’s that Sly Dunbar influence. For that I have to be thinking, Okay, I’m playing, but it’s really Sly. Sly is talking through this track.
MD: What was it about Sly’s playing that grabbed you?
Courtney: Well, that deep snare, and those simple fills at times. Then he would get real technical, [as if to say] Okay, I’m simple, but if you really want to try me, this is also what I have in my pocket. So that’s Sly—you don’t want to mess with him.
MD: I’ve heard you mention Squidly Cole [Stephen Marley]. What strikes you about his playing?
Courtney: All his fills are really on point. A normal drummer would do the same fills, but it wouldn’t sound the same. Because you’re doing the fills, but you’re just not doing the fills with [the same] intention, from the heart. That’s the difference.
MD: You’ve put in a bunch of miles on the road. Could you share a couple stories about adversity that you might have overcome on the road?
Courtney: Wow, I’ve got a couple; let me try to choose the best one. We were playing the song “Move!” That [incorporates a sample of] Bob Marley’s “Exodus.” I play with in-ear monitors, so when I’m playing those tracks, I have to really be hearing. This one time the batteries went, and I was lost. And trust me, that is the worst nightmare onstage for any drummer. You don’t want to have that. So it’s very important to check your batteries. Don’t ever start a show with half battery life. So it went, and I’m talking to the engineer, trying to get him to come and fix it. They didn’t realize what happened. They were trying to turn up stuff. Before they found out, I had to cue them to put the track that I was listening to in the monitor. When the song is already playing, it’s hard for them to understand what I’m saying, so in the middle of that I’m getting upset. They’re trying to figure stuff out, Damian is wondering what’s going on, [and] the other band members are looking at me like, “Yo, you’re messing up, what’s going on?”
MD: Because they’re hearing it in their own monitors?
Courtney: Yeah, so some of them will instantly know if I’m off. So in that situation, I had to defer to one of the guys. For example, my brother would be to my left, so he knows a lot of times when I’m not hearing. We have this kind of thing when we’re playing, that if there’s anything that may be off, we would just quickly look at each other, and he would play while tapping on the keyboard, like maybe at the side of the keyboard, or maybe tap his foot, so I could just watch and keep the time. And amazingly, it works. Trust me, you can’t pay for that. Yeah, man, when I’m done I feel like buying him a drink, or, yo, if he wants a vacation I’ll pay for it. Yeah, you don’t want to get in that situation, ever. Even if I start with a full battery pack, I’m checking it halfway through a show.
MD: Do you run into problems with weather?
Courtney: Yeah, yeah, the weather changes the sound of the drum sometimes. My main snare is a 14″ Pearl Virgil Donati Signature model. I tune it to a high pitch, and if I’m in a cold area, even if you leave it on the stage for five minutes, you start to hear the sound deteriorating. And once you start playing all those reggae tracks, you’re gonna have a headache, because it no longer sounds like a reggae snare drum. And if you tune it tight, with the cold, after two songs that skin is going to crack. So what I usually do, just as I’m ready to start a show, I’ll bring the snare on the stage. I don’t have it sitting there before the show. Even while playing, like after a track stops and Damian is talking to the crowd, I’ll probably have a chamois, a cloth, and rub it around to keep the head warm.
MD: Heads are still that sensitive?
Courtney: Yeah, and especially the wood. Sometimes I have to take the snare drum to my room, take off the skin, and use a blow dryer to get the wood warm. I call it catching a flu. You know, Damian would ask, “Yo, what’s up with the snare?” And I go, “It has the flu.” So you have to give it some heat.
MD: Then you get the sound back?
Courtney: Yeah, yeah. Just like you would put the conga drums in the sun—that’s the same thing. I tighten and tighten it when I’m losing the sound. But you’re actually stretching out the skin until it can’t take any pressure, and when you hit it, that’s it, a tear. It mainly happens with the high-pitched snare.
MD: Are you still learning as a drummer?
Courtney: Yes. It never stops, and I hope I’ll never feel as if I’m “there.” I’m always developing a sound. I think I have my sound, but I still need work. I always feel the need to add to the sound that I have. People like to hear improvement. With music nowadays you have to be current. Even though your thing is discipline and you might be old school, you still want to keep current.
MD: How do you continue growing?
Courtney: Well, watching other drummers, they inspire me to really pick up my sticks. Listen to a lot of drummers. Because drummers that are not even as technical as you, they might have some simple stuff that makes them stand out. Pay attention to drummers in the genre of music that you like, and other genres too, because different genres also influence my playing.
Diedrick’s Pre-Tour Checklist
1. In-depth listening to any Bob Marley live show to keep my mind in context with our genre. Also, I keep the album we are touring on repeat so as to have the groove and feel embedded. \
2. I try to keep my head clear of all negativity so my playing isn’t affected.
3. Chill a lot with my bass player, Shiah Coore, as it’s imperative that drum and bass gel. It helps lock in the rhythm section.
4. Stock up on vitamins to keep up on the road against the long traveling and lack of proper rest.
5. Playing pool—my favorite hobby—spending time with my family, and exercising.
6. Stock up on drumsticks and extra skins.
7. Say a prayer for protection on the road.
Bam on His Influences and Recordings
Bob Marley and the WailersBabylon by Bus. It’s about the sound and mix of that particular live show and how Carlton Barrett’s fills are on point with and in the context of the feel of each song.
Black UhuruLiberation: The Island Anthology. Sly and Robby’s prolific rhythm section plus Sly’s deep-sounding snares and intricate patterns.
Damian MarleyHalfway Tree. This album to me is the perfect blend of reggae/dancehall and hip-hop, plus it made me push the envelope playing these songs live.
Dave WecklMaster Plan That was my first time hearing other drummers outside Jamaica. Most melodic drummer.
Damian MarleyStony Hill. My most anticipated album. I was able to be a part of such great talents, all on one platform.
UsherLive. I grew up listening to this album. My friends and I tried swatting all of Aaron Spears’ drum fills.
John P. KeeNot Guilty. This album is all about the drummer. Calvin Rodgers went in on this; I call it the drum dictionary for gospel.
Playing for ChangeSongs Around the World. This album has every kind of musician from all over the world, including street musicians. Goes to show that music is its own language. Unity through musical expressions.