Cora Coleman-Dunham: Dancing Queen
Calculated when she needs to be, or simply laying back and letting it fly off the cuff like her jams on Kick Snare Hat, Coleman uses her vast experience to groove-estimate every situation.
“If I can sit back in the pocket then I will,” she says. “If I need to drive I will do that or if I need to be right in the middle I’ll do that. With Beyoncé I have to be right in the middle. If I am playing with a prerecorded track with her, for instance, if there’s any other sounds that are in there, then I don’t want to flam with them so I have to be right in the middle of the beat. If I can sit back and play behind it a little bit but still keep the tempo, that’s cool too.”
In the pressurized world of televised performances and million-dollar tours, is the click her friend or foe?
“Not everything is clicked live with Beyoncé,” she says, “and with Maceo and Prince there is no click at all. With Prince I had two Roland SPD-S pads and maybe a trigger on something, but nothing on a loop.”
Trolling the Internet for Queen Cora videos is a case of not knowing which dessert to choose, but one performance stands out. She performed to a track of Beyoncé’s “Run The World (Girls)” at PASIC 2011, and again at DRUM! Night 2012, and amid the amazing snare drum rolls and power drumming that is her trademark, she briefly slammed a complicated section that included a left-hand crossover dropping 2 and 4 on the floor tom.
“It’s based off doubles with a triplet feel,” she explains. “It’s two sixteenth-notes on the kick, two sixteenth-notes on the hands. You begin with the kick doing two beats, accenting the second beat. Then you do the same thing with the right hand. Basically, once you establish the pattern accenting the second note of the beat, it’s bottom to top, feet then hands. Two on the bottom, two on the top, and accent the second beat, but in a triplet feel. And you always make sure to keep the snare hitting on 2 and 4, that way the [groove] won’t fall out. At one point you play the snare with the left hand; so kick drum twice, right hand twice, kick twice, right hand once, left hand once. Then you can crossover. Start with the floor tom and the right hand, then the next beat is going to be the hi-hat with left hand, then play the double with the kick with the same accent, then alternate and now you get the floor tom with the left hand. Then you hit the hi-hat with the right hand. Then the double with the kick.”
Another Queen Cora trademark is her incredible flow and ease around the kit, no matter how large or small the kit or how complicated, funky, loud, or low-key the music. Similarly, her inclusion of drum corps—style snare drum patterns places Coleman in the same lineage as Billy Cobham and Steve Gadd, great drummers whose snare drum mastery can be heard in the songs, “One Word” (Mahavishnu Orchestra) and “50 Ways To Leave Your Lover” (Paul Simon), respectively.
“Marching band rudiments are really the foundation of my drumming,” Coleman says. “The way I process information when I’m playing, I want to know if I am breaking down a solo or learning new music, my foundation is back to the basics. I always reference ’What is the approach here? What is the feel? Is it a dotted-eighth feel? Straight feel? Triplet feel?’ That’s my base. And when I’m listening to music I’ll count the sixteenths, or if I’m hearing the horn hits I know where they will land in the bar. I can’t get the subdivisions out of my head!”
Beyond the flash and finesse required of a proficient marching drummer, hours spent drilling rudiments and marching routines separates the men from the boys, or in Coleman’s case, the woman from everyone else!
“It’s all about the discipline that goes into drum corps drumming,” she says. “At Howard University the drum regiment was always the most dedicated. We would sit for hours working on a paradiddle or an inverted paradiddle or moving the accent around. The discipline that came from marching band also influenced my set approach. I will sit with something until it works and feels good. That’s the same way with Prince and Maceo. With Prince we’d play a groove for 45 minutes in rehearsal until it really settled. We could easily play the same groove for 30 minutes. That’s what made the music so tight and so intentional. That discipline is key, then we could play those two-and-a-half-hour shows and a four-hour jam session afterwards. The discipline that began in high school and carried over at Howard, that attention span and being able to focus and being consistent, was the foundation that made an eight-hour rehearsal seem not as taxing.”
Inheriting The Crown
Coleman’s heroes extend beyond the usual gospel chops or R&B masters to include jazz drummers, and even jazz vocalists. She names her influences as vocalist Bobby McFerrin (for his tremendous rhythmic sense), Terri Lyne Carrington, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Cindy Blackman Santana, Dennis Chambers, and, orchestral percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who is deaf.
“She really opened my approach to playing mallets and brushes and Hot Rods on the drum set. And she really influenced me in her sensitivity to vibrations. Because she can’t hear, she performs with her shoes off to feel the vibrations. It made me realize how powerful vibrations really are. Our job as drummers and how we control rhythm and how we can penetrate people’s circadian rhythms, that’s all part of her approach and it influenced my approach. I always pray that the power we’re given as rhythm makers will touch someone’s life. The presence I have on the drums, that energy, is drawn from that, just being in tune with how much power we have as drummers. Musicians can play whatever genre of music, but as soon as the drums come in everything changes. That is a powerful space to hold. All of that is the sum of my drum set playing.”