Easy Beat: New Orleans Drummers Roundtable
(Left) Johnny Vidacovich
DRUM!: What are other essential elements of New Orleans drumming? What elements do you hear in somebody’s playing that identifies that person as a drummer with New Orleans roots?
Riley: For me, I think it’s a drummer that plays a drum set from the bottom up, because the bass drum is such an important part of our culture as New Orleanians. At parades, you hear the bass drum before you hear anything else. The bass drum is the heart and soul of the music. As drummers from New Orleans, the bass drum is part of our tradition, character and culture – it’s who we are. Although we all have different styles of playing, the thing that is very similar and runs through all of our playing is the dialogue between the bass drum and snare drum. We play the drum set from the bottom up, where a lot of guys outside of New Orleans play from the top down, from the cymbals down.
Batiste: A lot of drummers from outside of New Orleans, when they play a fill, their foot stops. A lot of drummers here, when they’re doing a fill, their foot is doing more than what they’re doing on top. The foot keeps going; the pulse never stops within the syncopation. You complement what you’re doing up top. Unless you’re from New Orleans, I don’t think people can grasp what that means.
Moore: What makes New Orleans different is that cats from here play in between the cracks – they play in between straight and swung. Before rock and roll, cats were coming from a jazz or blues background, and they were playing with more of a shuffle feel. Then you’ve got Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Fats Domino, and they’re playing straight-eighths on the piano. Then you’ve got [New Orleans’] Earl Palmer coming in, and he’s meeting them halfway. He’s not really playing swung, like he’s used to playing, and he’s not playing straight, like they’re playing. And then you’ve got the whole second-line thing. That all has to be phrased in between straight and swung. And that’s something I want to ask Herlin about. Of course Earl was doing that, but where do you think that came in?
Riley: Basically, with that particular rhythm, you had two rhythms happening at the same time. You had shuffle rhythms, and you had the straight-eighth thing. The shuffle’s more related to the march than the straight thing. The straight-eighth thing, that gives you a lilt, and makes the rhythm ...
Moore: ... skip?
Riley: Yeah. It has a rounder feeling to it, so it’s not straight. You can manipulate those beats a little more freely than you can the straighter, shuffle kind. You can manipulate those 12/8 beats more; it gives you more freedom to play in the crack.
Vidacovich: Getting back to the “bottom down” thing, it’s very much an unconscious thing. When I hear second-line street-beat music, the bass drum is the main voice; the snare drum is polish. Even though as drummers and musicians, a lot of us tend to be drawn to the snare drum and all of this movement, but the bottom line is it has to be a pelvic thing, and it has to be an unconscious thing, and it comes from the bass drum. What makes me unconsciously decide whether it’s good or bad is when I’m having a conversation [at a gig] far away from the music with someone who’s totally distracting me, and in the meantime I’m moving my butt. Then I know it’s the science of true, organic swing. This is it. This is the real thing. He’s really playing from the hip, from the neck down.
What makes a New Orleans drummer is an unconscious dance. And it’s primitive, and it’s pelvic. I look at drumming as a lower energy and an upper energy. I like to fuse these combinations. Playing in the cracks, for me, speaking academically, it’s a way of knowing how to manipulate a good African 12-bell, and knowing how to feel the most basic thing in drumming, two against three. Being “in the crack” is almost being confused at where I am at that point. Sometimes I just practice randomly these two things at the same time, going back and forth. It’s a trip; it starts to feel liquid.
Another thing that’s crazy but reminds me of what makes us have this “crack-y” ability, this swingy feel, is that we’re 12 feet below sea level. [laughter] That means the air is thick – it’s like living in an aquarium. Playing straight-on here is like moving bricks; if you want to play straight, you’ve got to be big and strong. A fool like me, bruh … the Latino cats laugh at me when I play with ’em. My bossa novas are like second-lines; if I’m not thinkin’, I start swingin’.
DRUM!: Do you guys still practice?
Batiste: On a keyboard.
DRUM!: Not on drums at all?
Batiste: I try to save my energy for the gigs. Man, I play with George Porter – you need all the energy you can get. [laughter]
Vidacovich: When [Porter] breaks those bass strings, you’ve got to fill that space!
Batiste: I gained the reputation of being the drummer that makes George Porter stand on his toes. I invented that. I push him. You can’t do that when you’re weak, man.