Fifty years in, the legendary drummer is still at it for the same reason: the simple joy of groove-making with his closest friends.
MD’s January 2020 issue “Influences” column honors David Garibaldi, whose funk innovations showed us “What Is Hip” with the iconic brass-fueled band Tower of Power. Garibaldi’s classic body-moving tracks expanded the drumset vocabulary, inspiring generations of stick wielders. And through the ’90s he explored Afro-Caribbean rhythms in a modern context with the elite percussion trio Talking Drums, featuring Michael Spiro and Jesús Diaz. In addition to being a frequently awarded artist in MD polls, Garibaldi was inducted into the Percussive Arts Society Hall of Fame in 2012.
Following a hiatus from TOP between 1980 and 1989, Garibaldi reunited with the band he always considered his true musical family. Hitting the ground running, he has continued with their rigorous international touring schedule. “We call it the ‘Million Gigs March,’ he laughs. “We’re always going somewhere.”
TOP’s rousing 2018 disc, On the Soul Side, celebrates their half-century long career. And this year marks the drummer’s own fiftieth anniversary since his first TOP gig, which he proudly pinpoints as July 23 in Lake Tahoe.
With his longevity in the music business, Garibaldi is a model of perseverance. He also recently overcame a terrible personal tribulation. In January of 2017, he and TOP bassist sub (now member) Marc Van Wageningen were entering a pedestrian crossing on their way to a sold-out gig at Yoshi’s in Oakland. Unaware of a second train passing in the opposite direction, they were hit and thrown.
Rallying the same determination, focus, and positive mindset he persistently applied to his music career, Garibaldi approached the kit little by little as soon as possible and made an astonishingly quick recovery. “I was able to begin working in September, but it took quite an effort to get there,” he explains. “Thank God I was able to do it. I have lingering issues and work on them daily.”
When MD informed Garibaldi that he would be honored in an “Influences” piece, he was asked how he sees his own musical legacy. “Honestly, I don’t think about it,” he responded. “The story is still being written. The legacy is for others to decide, not me. I’m just going to keep doing what I do as well as I can do it and keep being a positive influence in the drum community—contribute to our art. That’s what I want to do.”
MD: It’s admirable that, a couple years into your Tower days, when you were already a celebrated drummer, you made a strong commitment to begin studying with teachers, which you hadn’t done previously.
David: When I was twenty-five and decided that I wanted to practice and make a commitment to study, I didn’t think about, “I want to get this particular part of my playing together.” I just wanted to play better. It was more of a total immersion into playing. I already had the funk thing going, I was already making up beats. But I had no technique. Everything was really raw. I didn’t understand about Stick Control. I’d seen those books but I never had a program where I was shown how to use those things to develop myself. I knew nothing about the discipline of learning. There was a period of studying that set me up for the rest of my music life and also all of life—learning how to make a commitment to something.
MD: I find it surprising to hear you deny having had technique. Those Tower grooves are notoriously challenging!
David: I have good ears. I can hear things easily; I assemble grooves. I was really good at copying things that I was hearing. I was always making things up, so the strength of my playing was the creative part. I always re-assembled things that I learned, but I never had disciplined study before. So that made a huge difference in the way I approached everything. My sound improved, that was the big thing.
MD: Who did you first seek out for studies?
David: I studied with a teacher in the Bay Area named Chuck Brown. The first thing he did with students was to have them build their own practice pad. The pad was about the size of a quarter and you would glue that on a block of wood. I still have mine. That became my extra appendage for a long time.
MD: What was the advantage of the tiny size?
David: Accuracy. It made everything accurate on your playing surfaces. Pretty soon, there was a little spot on the center of all my drums where the heads were worn. It’s not something I tried to do; it was just a residual affect from using the pad.
MD: Your symbiosis with legendary Tower bassist Rocco Prestia was a truly classic teaming—complex yet organic.
David: When I was first rehearsing with Tower, I was always making recordings so that I could better understand what was going on. I noticed while listening to the tapes that when I would play on my hi-hat and snare, Rocco would play very short staccato notes, and then when I’d play over on my ride cymbal, he would play long notes. So I asked him, “Do you know that you’re doing that? Why do you do that?” And he said, “Well, I just think that’s what I should do.” I mean, guys go to school to learn how to do that. And he just listened and related to the sounds. It was brilliant. But that’s Rocco; that’s his intuitive way of listening to music.
MD: Your classic groove transcriptions have been endlessly analyzed by students. But do they sometimes overlook the dynamic intricacies that made them percolate?
David: Those dynamic relationships are one of the things that first stood out to me when I listened to [James Brown’s] “Funky Drummer” and all that stuff when I was learning how to play. The thing that stood out was the sound that they were getting. I liked the licks and all, but I wanted the sound.
So when I started making up beats, I wanted it to sound like the guys I was listening to. And the only way to do that was to focus on the details of how they were getting the sound. To me, your sound is so important; it sells your ideas. If you have cool ideas but a raw sound, it doesn’t really sell the ideas, whereas something with a refined sonic approach will sound amazing. That’s what really makes all of hose beats work.
The page in my book, Future Sounds, dealing with that is the real deal, man. I still adhere to it. If you want to start building beats, the bottom-line principal is those sonic relationships between the voices.
MD: Many don’t realize that you appeared on the 1996 Tony Williams album, Wilderness.
David: At the time, I was teaching at Drum World in San Francisco. Tony, who lived in Pacifica, taught there on Saturdays as well. So after our teaching times, I got to spend time with Tony, hang out and play a little bit. When he was going to do that recording, he wanted me to come and kind of provide another set of ears, because he wanted to play more funky kind of stuff. So he brought me along to listen to what was going on. I mean, me listening to Tony Williams—come on! I played a little bit and did some percussion. We actually did a couple little solo pieces that never made it to the recording, which ended up being different from the kind of thing it started with. But still, it was a really cool experience.
MD: Longevity is the music business is an impressive achievement. What’s your secret?
David: In the tradition I came up in, it was not about freelance: you joined a band, stayed together with the same people, and made music together. That, to me, is what it’s all about: it’s a team thing. From the day Emilio Castillo [Tower of Power leader] and his brother [drummer Jack Castillo] had instruments in their hands, they called themselves “a band.” I’m not kidding. How many people do you know like that? That’s the vibe: making music together—it’s still like that. We like the idea of looking across the stage and seeing people that we know intimately and have great relationships with. That makes the music so great, so much better than if you’re just with a bunch of guys who are only there because they’re making a bunch of money. We never did that. We supported ourselves with our art. We have a business, of course. But the way we do things is still kind of an old-school hippie sensibility. We still think like that.