Easy Beat: New Orleans Drummers Roundtable

(Left) Stanton Moore

DRUM!: Drumming in New Orleans goes back a long way, at least 300 years. Who wants to be the historian?

Vidacovich: People tell me that it comes from the slave thing in Congo Square, a typical day of relaxing, selling, trading, life in the square – [it was like] a primitive office.

Moore: New Orleans is the only city in America that allowed the slaves to play their traditional music, in Congo Square. And then you bring in the European influences, with the bass drums and snare drums, and you’ve got cats who, either their fathers or uncles or grandfathers, or they themselves, were playing in Congo Square, and then they start picking up and playing [European] marches. And then naturally the clave kind of comes out. Herlin can talk about that.

Riley: The guys would take the basic march rhythms, and syncopate them. I think that’s where the “big four” came from, where they start accenting every second measure: One, two, three, four, one two, three, FOUR, one, two, three, four, one, two, three, FOUR. That was part of the syncopation, because before they’d play marches very straight, where each fourth note would have the same weight, the same value. The snare drummers played the cadence. So when the “big four” came into play in the mid-1800s, that revolutionized the whole concept, the feel, of the marches, and from there, more syncopation became a part of the tradition. The syncopation would be the stuff that we hear now.

Vidacovich: This “big four” thing, for me, is really important, when the syncopation entered the music. The music part of it, harmonically and melodically, is very European. The rhythm part of it is absolutely African. Because of this “big four,” because it takes two measures, that means in my mind that it’s a clave. From Africa, the most popular clave is a 12-bell clave – two measures of 4/4 – it takes 12 counts. But it’s still basically a two-measure feeling. And then if you lessen that and make it eight counts, at that point, for me, is the birth of anything fused. What makes the music really American is the fact that it took European melody and harmony and African rhythm, and made it happen.

Moore: The “big four” is also the last beat of the clave, so it’s basically cats improvising over the clave, syncopating, taking different notes and accenting them at different times, but always landing on the last beat of the clave.

Vidacovich: Basically emphasizing the weak beat before the strongest. [It’s] getting a big feeling on the weak beat right before the very strongest one that exists in eight counts of a two-measure phrase. [By emphasizing] the very weakest beat you create a tremendous syncopation with the natural balance of strong/weak, strong/weak, boy/girl, boy/girl, down/up, down/up, bass/snare, bass/snare. When you start putting anything thick and heavy on the weak beat – a feminine beat, as a I call it – that creates syncopation, it creates a rock in the boat, and that’s fun. That’s what creates the dance, and makes you want to move your hips.

Batiste: That’s where the funk comes in. And that’s one thing about being a New Orleans drummer: Because out of the tradition with the marching band, you have one guy trying to do what two guys [the bass and snare drummers] do. So a New Orleans drummer first has to practice on getting his foot together. Then he can get his chops on his hands together. Then he combines both of them. That’s what I try to do. When I heard Rebirth or some other brass band, I was just trying to play what I heard, trying to play what two guys were playing: one guy on the bass and one on the snare. Trying to actually accomplish that is kind of a task – it’s not a natural thing. [laughter] You have to work at it. Once you’ve accomplished that, you’re considered a New Orleans drummer. That’s what makes me different from any drummer outside of New Orleans.

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