Legendary percussionist and performer Will Calhoun is best known for his work with Living Colour, and has participated in a variety of side projects including Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson band. While he has received more honors and awards than one can count on a single hand, few people know Will’s true expression of sound.
His new album Native Lands draws the listener into the music and the world at large. The album also features a DVD documentary of Will’s many travels while expanding his sound and musical spirit, including his ventures deep into the Amazons of Brazil, and wandering the silent deserts of Morocco. Will took some time out of his amazing life to speak with us about his travels and experiences while making the album.
AllHipHop.com Alternatives: When you were studying music at Berklee in Boston, did you ever think that music would take you to so many countries around the world?
Will: No, I didn’t. I wanted to be a musician. It was something that I wanted to do ever since I was 16. Back then, I wasn’t thinking about traveling or being successful. I obviously wanted to make a living, but my interest in research and going to college was about becoming a more informed artist. I felt like the more informed that I was, the more educated I became. The easier it would be for me to accomplish some of the things that I wanted. My influences at the time were jazz music and world music.
I’m from the Bronx, so I kind of came up in the Hip-Hop scene; the early Hip-Hop scene with Grand Master Flash and Rahiem. Berklee, I felt, was a stepping stone for me to become academically more informed in surrounding myself with international musicians. There were a lot of students from all over the world. The main reason for me going to Berklee was a means for me to educate myself. Traveling was something that I felt that I needed to do; either by the music or if I had to go out and buy a plane ticket myself. From the educational side I had to do it. I always wanted to go to Africa, the Middle-East, Asia, the Caribbean.... It was always something that I planned to do. Surrounding myself with students from South America, Europe and Asia was a way of me to learn more about the culture and the music; by surrounding myself with the people that come from those countries.
AHHA: The album, Native Lands, also includes a DVD that features you going to various countries and taking part with locals in playing the native music. It must have been quite an amazing experience.
Will: Yeah, you’re right, but it was not something that I originally planned on making in documentation. I went so deep into some places that I did write somethings down, shoot some video and take pictures. I just felt like it was important for my audience to know that this music didn’t come from osmosis. It wasn’t something that I thought of myself; there were a lot of heavy influences. For me to be with the tribes was not to just learn a rhythm and then split. It was for me to understand where the music comes from, who created it and why it was played. Some beats in certain music are only used for certain ceremonial purposes; weddings, hunting and these kinds of things.
You really have to be around the people to understand. It’s not just some funky groove that you can pull out. Being around the women, the elders and the kids; I tried to separate myself with the different age groups to get a better understanding of how the societies worked. I wanted to learn more about how the culture worked, outside of me just picking up a stick and recording someone singing. Everyone was great, and I’ve planted a few seeds where I wanted to go back. I want to return to Uruguay, Brazil and some other places to learn Condombe [traditional drumming from Uruguay] and understand more about the history of these places. I plan to do more research in the next two years or so.
AHHA: It wasn’t planned, but I guess you just ran with it, right?
Will: You want to think about it and take advantage of your options. If you go to Australia or New Zealand and are on tour, I always try to fly in early or take a few days off after the tour. If you’re that far away and are interested in any kind of musical literature or art, it’s important that you do your own research. It’s nice to do the tourist packages that are at the hotels, but it’s more important for me to put myself into the mix and experience as much as I can. The people-things on the DVD, I was obviously taken into some places by others. It would take eight or nine days to get there. I wanted to let folks really know that I was there for specific reasons and not just some tourist kid.
Being in America is deep, because it kind of lets you feel like you can get all of the answers here from the internet or the library. When you go to these places and talk to the people, its interesting how they know almost as much about America as you do or other countries. In some of the smaller countries, they’re more in tune with being educated about the world. Some of the larger ones are not. There were also a lot of eye openers for me, being around a lot of younger and older people who were very familiar with this countries politics and how it works. When you meet other artists, they’re almost like sonic activists. You meet other people in other lands that feel almost the same way you do about things.
AHHA: How has your perception of music and culture changed from when you were younger?
Will: You learn that people are people and that races don’t really exist. I think that folks are different because of their origin or where ever they migrated to. There are cultural things and religions that make people act a certain way. I just learned how life works for me. The more I began to travel, the more that I began to understand. Aborigines are some of the most intelligent people that I’ve met in my life. To be in a place where you don’t hear cars, planes buses or people walking, your mind changes. When you’re in the middle of the desert in Morocco for two or three weeks with only a camera, traveling around like a nomad; the loudest thing that you will hear are someone speaking or the wind. It has an impact on your whole mind.
My first few days out in the bush were rough. It was like a heavy-metal concert going on in my head. This was all from thinking about things; your home, you’re a musician and your family. It took me six days of silence to get that out of my head. Technology and the environments have an impact on you. A lot of these indigenous cultures are more advanced about life, the planet, spiritually and also in being free. I’m not saying that our culture is bad, it’s not a judgment thing, but you begin to notice how distracted you are. You can be distracted and exist, the system allows that but, you can’t be distracted in the outback and survive.
My perception is to approach every situation for what it is. When I’m in America or Europe, I know what that is and what it sounds like. I know what I hear when I go to those places. I understand how they function. Fortunately enough I have been able to go to places and meet other musicians that can give me an understanding of how things work. I try to be open-minded and be aware of where I am. I don’t have to adhere to the instructions of where I am, but at least I am aware of them.
AHHA: You’ve worked with a lot of people, from indigenous tribes in the Amazon, to B.B. King. What have you learned over the years?
Will: Each experience is a massive and educational leap. I’ve learned many things, not just one. B.B. King had a very relaxed vibe - there’s a lot of big respect for him as the king of the blues. It’s difficult to go into a session with him and not want to interview him. To go with someone like I mentioned earlier with the different tribes, the people and culture, you have to do the same thing with music. If I’m working with Dr. Know, I’m a Bad Brains fan; I know what that music is. Although Doc can play anything, I understand where he’s coming from. When I bring a guy like him into a scenario like the Mos-Def band or any session, I kind of know where he’s coming from. I need to have that color in the music.
Knowing who an artist is, knowing who Jaco Pastorious is, Dr. Know and B.B. King . I think when you can understand their artistry; it’s something you learn each time. I don’t try to put B.B. King in a Dr Know situation. That’s something that a lot of people in the industry over-look. Hip-Hop artists for example, they’re very focused on what the music needs. That’s why I think that art form is very successful. They’re focused in on the audience and what the music needs or doesn’t need. Sometimes the super educated musician that practiced 30 hours a day, likes to bring the scenario to the studio. But at the same time, you don’t always need that vibe.
What I learned from all those people, is what needs to happen at that moment. Do I need to play a Living Colour sound with an aboriginal vibe or a James Brown beat with Granalans? Keeping all of that on file, helps you to be open and respectful enough of what the music needs. I spent a long time with out playing. I didn’t even tell some people that I was a musician, so I could get a handle on the music. Then go back and play with them in a really respectful way. If something happens, then I can fit the music into a session.
I was almost intimidated by Jaco. He called me because he was working on Word of Mouth. He booked a trio gig, but was playing piano and had me and a bassist fill-in. He sat there with the sheet music and stopped the set periodically to write a bridge and jump it off again. I was still in college at the time and Jaco was a really reform kind of musician. He was high on life. Everything was music to him; cars, birds, water. Everything was a symphony. He loved the sound of everything. It was more than just plugging in a bass. He heard more than just noise; the universe was music to him. I think that’s why the cat was so brilliant. He heard things that the normal musician didn’t hear as music. Walking down the street with him, he would be like, "You hear that man?” He was the one that taught me to how to keep my ears open for sound.
Pharoah Sanders told me that the most important thing is sound and that experimentation. With sound is the journey. That’s what you have to go on. I started watching him play different instruments on tour and the next thing I know, I’m five years in and playing six different flutes from allover the world. He taught me to move the sonic images and sounds towards the drums. I use that in my singing, writing and compositions. He’s probably in the last five years, the most influential artists that I’ve been around.
AHHA: What was the concept for Native Lands? It’s obviously wasn’t all improvisation. Were there pre-written ideas that were later expanded upon or just all jam sessions?
Will: Native Lands was an idea. I knew what I wanted to do work with Pharoah, Markus, and Mos Def. I had to figure out a way to put the music together and then find a way of scheduling everyone to cut the tracks. I had 20 songs as a map with a list of artists. I put the list of artists together with the tracks that I wanted to do with them. I knew that I wanted to do a duo with Mos, but I knew at the same time that I didn’t want him to rap. I know that he’s great at that, but not many people know about his piano, bass and drum playing. We also jam together a lot, I just happened to record the one that’s on the record.
It was not being married to anything. These are things that I’ve really wanted to do, all of my life. I wanted to make this record as a milestone in my life from experiences. Playing with Living Colour, Hip-Hop, my instructor, seeing Elvin Jones, Tito Puente’s band and other artists; I wanted to take all of those things and explain, “Who is Will Calhoun.” I wanted to show all of the books that I’ve read, the films that I’ve seen and concerts that I’ve been to. Native Lands is an explanation of all of those things. I put it together as almost a sonic photo album. There were two things that I didn’t get to - I wanted to get two artists on the record, but because of scheduling it wasn’t possible.
I’m very happy with the album. Elvin Jones died towards the end of my recording the album. So I went back record “Three Card Molly.” Spiritually that was a way to go back and make up or those losses. It was important to me to do the Elvin tack. I don’t know how many times I've seen him play that track live, since I was 10 and the impact that Elvin Jones had on me as a drummer. It was a mapping out of me playing with the artists.
AHHA: Since the scheduling was tough, how did the label respond to the delays?
Will: When you’re recording an album on a small budget in New York City, you have to do the hustle. I didn’t have a big budget to fly guys in, but it was important to me to get this record out like I had it in my head. I have to thank Half Note Records for letting me do it that way. I did the cover, in-lay, the DVD, everything. I just handed it in to them as a finished product. A lot of people were upset that I didn’t go to a major. It’s no disrespect to anyone, but I shopped this concept around for four or five years. They were the ones to let me do it the way that I wanted.
AHHA: That’s because a lot of majors are all about the money. They can’t see the image of a brilliant jam session with various artists as worth wile.
Will: Exactly. It’s important. We have to do what we feel and do things that we see. We can’t have those things cut off by the cooperate structure. Art is life. It ma sound corny, but it’s true. You have to get those moments. That’s why Hendrix, Bird and Coltrane’s music has been around for 4,000 years. It’s an expression. A lot of people have come out with guitar albums since Jimi, but he holds a high standard on guitar playing. I look at those DVD’s all the time and still don’t know how he does it; singing and playing with one hand. I’m always awestruck.
AHHA: I’ve read that when Jimi recorded in the studio, he would sing behind a screen because he was self-conscious about his vocals. He had a great voice, but it’s interesting to learn that some one that you perceive as so amazing had those kinds of insecurities. It makes them human.
Will: Exactly, but also I’m sure he was around a lot of bad ass singers. Buddy Miles could sing his ass off. He worked with the [Isley] Brothers and others. Singing is big because we get caught up as academics in what sounds good, in what is sharp and what s flat. You may not like Macy Gray, but her voice has stuck up a chord enough to make people but those records. Sade has no competition - she can come out with a record while Janet or Beyonce have them out and sell out a tour. Jimi’s voice works for that music. That’s what when I say that you have to go for it, that’s what I mean.
There are horn players that complain, but Coltrane, Sunny Rollins and Pharaoh Sanders, all have a sound. The voice is really deep. Maybe Jimi wanted to sound differently, but for what he’s playing, his voice sounds perfect. Maybe if someone who sang harder over the chords and melodies, the sound wouldn’t have worked in his music. Maybe the emotion wouldn’t have the same because it’s Jimi lyrics, his experience; he’s coming from behid himself. He's creating the reality and drama; he’s creating the experience himself. I would prefer to hear it from him. There are exceptional singers that create a certain vibe - Jimi was/is his music.
That’s why the project came off how it did. I play some bass and guitar. After suggestions, I finally recorded some of my guitar work on this album. When I was in Brazil, I was in my hotel room and cut a track. I felt confident. I used to practice on Vernon’s guitar back-stage sometimes. After a while he told me to buy one. It’s something that I’ve begun to become confident with. It’s something different that I’m not playing on the drums.
AHHA: On the DVD, you talked about interesting style of music that you learned in Bahia, Brazil.
Will: Moroca da Tu [Brazilian drumming from the region of Bahia.] It’s just something that got under my skin, this sound, this way of playing the drums. I heard it but, it was like an explosion. It led me to some of the Amazonian music as well. I’m looking forward to studying more.
AHHA: Since you have so many musical outlets, why not start your own label and bring some of these World artists to the masses?
Will: I would like to do it, but it would obviously involve a lot of money. If not that, I would like to have a center where you could have the artist come and perform. It’s something that I’ve spent long time thinking about. I’m currently looking for investors, so it’s not something that’s out of the loop. I would like to have some sort of an import place where people not only can hear the music, but also see the art and learn why it sounds the way that it does. Hip-Hop works with its imagery. Certain elements lock in with the music.
AHHA: What do you want people to take away from hearing this album?
Will: I want them to enjoy it obviously, but I want them to get the free aspect of the record. I want them to get the openness. It’s music. It doesn’t have to be jazz, funk, rock or Hip-Hop. It’s sound. There are beats and noises it’s music. It’s a sonic connection to life.