Amon: Fela Meets The Skatalites In Brooklyn
By the end of elementary school, Amon was taking lessons from Jane Varella, percussionist with The Dayton Philharmonic, who schooled him in marimba and timpani. A few years later, he was studying environmental education at Hocking College, where he met Stevie Blaha, who introduced him to hand percussion, West African, and Middle Eastern music. When he heard Famoudou Konate’s Maitre-Djembé & Ensemble Hamana Dan Ba: Percussions et Chants Malinké, it was a transformative experience. He picked up the djembe and started breaking down the parts the individual drummers were playing. He worked hard until he could reproduce every sound he heard on the album.
Loops And Hand Drums
“After I discovered hand percussion, that was it. It filled a hole in my soul. I’d play all night in any situation I could find: bluegrass, rock, folk. Every night, I’d drive an hour to and from gigs, which didn’t bode well for my academic career. Music became my life. I played djembe, washboard, Jew’s harp, sat in with bluegrass bands, folk bands, what have you. I also got interested in combining percussion with electronic music.” Amon bought a used kettledrum with a foot pedal. He’d play it like a hand drum, controlling the pitch with his foot, supported by loops and samples.
His experiments mixing electronics and percussion brought him to the attention of Sxip (pronounced “skip”) Shirey, a freeform multi-instrumentalist, circus musician, and electro-acoustic composer, who uses found objects like tampon applicators, traditional instruments, his own inventions like the obnoxiophone, and computers to blur the boundaries between music and noise, rhythm and melody. Shirley asked Amon to drop out of school and come on the road with him. He did. “Sxip had a very loose framework for each song. I had to figure it out and find my pocket fast and that’s probably why I do what I do today. I adapt very quickly.”
Shirly also taught Amon the art of Foley, a method of reproducing everyday sounds – footsteps, slamming doors, breaking glass – to enhance the mood of a piece of music. The technique started in the days of silent films, when pit musicians had to supply sound effects for pratfalls and flying pies. “It’s actually similar to some West African drumming techniques,” Amon says. “You have a solo djembe and one marking the steps of the dancers, so there’s a correlation between what I was doing then and what I do now.”
After leaving Shirley, Amon traveled for a few years following Grateful Dead and Phish and playing in drum circles and working odd jobs. At one gathering, he saw musicians laying down a solid West African pulse. He realized it was time to get serious about his playing.
Back To Africa
He moved to Chicago and studied with Michael Markus, probably the world’s greatest non-African djembe player. Markus introduced him to his hero Famoudou Konate, as well as Mamady Keïta and M’Bemba Bangoura. “They’re all from Guinea and were some of the first African drummers to come to America to teach African drumming. Konate is like Coltrane, Keïta is Miles Davis, and Bangora is Monk or maybe Herbie Hancock. They’re all superstars on the djembe.”
Amon studied with the masters for four years, playing for marathon African dance classes three or four days a week. “That’s how I got my body memory of the music,” he says. In four years he never missed a class. He also traveled to Guinea to study with Keïta. “The classes were small and regimented,” he recalls. “We played eight hours a day, every day. I knew the rhythms already, but it gave me the style and feel I needed. I also gravitated to dununs and learned how to play them. I’d jam with the local percussionists, including kids who couldn’t have been more than ten years old, and they destroyed on the dunun. They were as skinny as pencils. It didn’t look like it was physically possible for them to be doing what they were doing.”
On his return to Chicago, Amon got the kind of break every musician dreams of – he played a sold-out show with Tool at the invitation of Danny Carey. Carey liked to invite local percussionists on stage to play with the band and he chose Amon when the band played Chicago. “I remember thinking, ’I just played for 30,000 people, now what do I do?’”
The next step was a move to New York, where he reconnected with Michael Markus, who gave him a job repairing djembes and playing for more dance classes. Everything was 20 bpm faster in New York, but the pace suited Amon. Markus introduced him to Ben Moore, who was producing dance parties with DJs interested in combining live percussion with recorded racks. Amon’s work with Chris Annibell’s Afrokinetic parties and Nickodemus at the Turntables On The Hudson gatherings helped pioneer this style. His African training helped him find the perfect pocket, adding fills that augmented the records. The rhythms he’d learned in Africa and his experience playing for dance classes allowed him to guide the dancers without overplaying or grandstanding.
Keep The Tape Rolling
The energy Amon felt at New York’s dance parties was an inspiration for the Analog Players Society. “It’s hard to make music in your apartment when you live in New York City, especially if you're a percussionist. I went looking for a studio/rehearsal space and found Hook Studio in Brooklyn. I love technology and fixing sound equipment, so I started upgrading the studio, painting the walls, and making it look like a commercial studio so I could have a place to practice when I wanted to.” Amon earned his keep by keeping the vintage analog gear running; he also learned how to produce, engineer, and run sessions. He was so helpful that the studio’s owners made him a partner.
Although he loves technology, Amon’s passion is making real music in real time, as implied in the name he chose for his collective – Analog Players Society. “My session work connected me with the best players in New York and they give me the opportunity lay down a drum track, flesh it out, and play it live. By producing myself, I get to refine my recording technique and work with a diverse pallet of sounds. Since I mix and engineer everything, I get to constantly redefine my sense of what I’m trying to get out of a song.”