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Mecca Bodega: New York's Percussion Buskers

Mecca Bodega

“Rhythm is the mother tongue.” That phrase is printed on stickers that Mecca Bodega passes out to fans and is the perfect philosophy for New York City’s most gently persistent group of percussionists. No matter what the members of this band are doing, onstage or off, they seem to move through life with a special understanding of the role of rhythm.

That awareness makes them know how a group can write a deeply meaningful song using only percussion, using the same principles that apply to building a career in hypnotic music that’s constantly on exploration’s edge. “It’s looking ahead and leaving space for other things to happen,” says Mecca Bodega co-founder Paul Mueller, “while keeping the groove of the whole thing in mind. There will be spots where stuff will drop out, and you’ve got to not overplay. Simpler is better at times because you have the backbone, and that can leave space for other instruments to get on top.”

“Every instrument is an object that has a sweet spot,” adds Mueller’s brother and band co-founder, Marc. “So if you spend a little time with the object, whether it’s a piece of junk or a high-end ethnic instrument, just figure out what makes this thing speak and how you make it speak. There’s a relationship there that has to come first, and that relationship has to be brought out to the band and the other people.”

Don’t let such minimalist musings fool you, however. With the release of their seventh album, Skin, Mecca Bodega has made a move away from the lighter-than-air elevations of previous discs like Rhythm Rail, which were often led by Paul Mueller’s introspective skill on the hammered dulcimer. Now, with the advent of their own hand-built recording studio, the instruments of the drum set have become the percussive driving force, layered with rhythms from multiple corners of the world: West Africa, the Middle East, America, and beyond. The results are as entrancing as ever but with thicker centers, bigger densities, and hints of even more drumming possibilities on the horizon.

Back Above Ground

For years, Mecca Bodega has served as a prime example of how to get somewhere by following the muse. While other bands plotted to conquer the top rock clubs, Mecca Bodega exposed themselves to thousands of people yearly by going underground — playing in New York City’s subway tunnels and stations through the Music Under New York program. From there, their arresting rhythmic approach — which features djembes, dumbeks, frame drums, ashikos, congas, djun djuns, caixixi, gas tanks (in B flat), hammered dulcimer, didgeridoo, horns, and even some bass and guitar when they feel like it — has kept on going to intriguing places. From HBO’s classic Subway Stories to Spike Lee films, NPR, and an endearing reputation on the festival circuit, the band has learned how to make it all work by making things add up.

For Paul, the key to taking the band in a new direction stemmed not from a creative impulse but a technical one. By building a studio next to his upstate New York home, he found he was able not only to record the band and their ideas once they struck, he also had unfettered access to a sonically isolated room that left him free to rock out on the drum kit once again. “Whereas before I played drum kit patterns on the dulcimer,” he explains, “now on the kit I’m using one rack tom, the kick, and snare, but I’m approaching them like three separate drums. I can get different sounds out of the snare, and the way I mixed it on the CD, the snare sound isn’t the same all the way through, it’s just another drum in the vocabulary.

“When I broke it down for myself like that, it allowed me to play differently than before. It connects to an important concept for players, which is breaking habits. If these drums were three djembes on stands, I’d be approaching them differently because I’d be standing. You can totally bust all the boundaries, and that’s why we feel we’re doing something new with Skin. We’re not consciously trying to do something different, but we are trying to approach things differently so we can break our own habits. That’s so much more exciting: You’re challenging yourself and doing something more fun, instead of the same thing over and over.”

Taking A New Road

An ancient instrument that comes from the zither family, the hammered dulcimer design helped give birth to another percussively melodic instrument, the piano. With Mecca Bodega, Paul Mueller uses a hand-held hammer to strike the two-strings-per-note layout, creating beautifully ringing sustained notes and harmonies on songs like “Anytime Is A Good Time.” “I definitely feel like I progressed on hammered dulcimer for this CD,” he says. “This time, I wrote the parts out and had to actually learn it, often leading with my left hand, which I wouldn’t usually do. I didn’t want it to be the main focus, I wanted it to support, and I used delay effects and other things that I hadn’t done before.

“I think the dulcimer playing on this CD is a lot more melodic than in the past. Before, I was using it to play street music and get someone’s attention really fast, playing really rhythmic and constant. This is a completely different approach: It’s playing less and getting more out of it.”

With its multilayered gravy of percussion instruments, bass, French horn, didgeridoo, and other found elements, Skin shifts gears in a way that is more reflective of the band’s constantly rotating habits onstage and at festivals, as songs like the unusually heavy opener “Ravine” give way to mentally spatial tunes like “Flock of Mangos” later on. “Live, we have stand-up percussion areas with metals, djembes played with sticks, and we’re constantly moving through that,” says Paul. “We also use the minidisc player with effects, playing out taped travels that I’ve done. When I’m traveling, instead of taking pictures, I take a little portable DAT machine, record things, edit them down, and when we play live I bring them up with the minidisc. When people are dancing, we don’t want a point when the song’s sound stops. Instead we’ll segue into the next part improvising, so it’s a constant thing that’s going.”

“It’s interesting because we have four or five rhythmic combinations that can come from changing instruments all the time,” Marc adds. “We have the djembe up against the kick and the carpet cleaning bucket, and then [djembe master] Dr. Djobi’s on traditional drums. Onstage, we’re constantly switching.”

War Against Tourism

While the gig that helped get them international recognition — playing in the belly of New York City’s vast and heavily traveled subway system — is still important to Mecca Bodega, they acknowledge that violent world events and the resultant increase in security for public transportation has had a direct impact on the music they play there. “A lot of things are affecting the subway playing,” says Paul. “The bombings in London are a recent example. I think there’s a lot more police and military people around, and from my experience that’s actually causing more tension. In some of the areas where we play, I’ll see three police officers and two army people, and when a person who’s commuting sees that, they’re going to keep moving [instead of stopping to watch the group]. Also, when there’s nothing happening, security feels the need to do something, so if they see a crowd developing, they get nervous about that and they tend to keep things moving along.

“I think some of the military people don’t understand that when we’re in the subways playing, if people see a street musician there, they feel safer. We wouldn’t be set up there unless we feel safe. Plus, if we’re there, that means there’s music, and it helps people not think about all those things. It’s still a fun way for us to connect to people in an immediate way, sell CDs, and promote the music without any peripheral problems like club owners.”

Mecca Bodega

Building A Home Base

Fortunately for Mecca Bodega, they now have the ideal controlled environment waiting for them in the form of Sound Tree Studio. While it wasn’t an easy project — construction took three years instead of the original two- month timeframe Paul had expected — the building process proves that any drummer who’s thinking of creating a personal recording space should go for it, even if they’ve never done anything like it before. “I’ve always wanted to have a studio,” Paul explains. “Since I was a teenager, I worked as an audio engineer at a lot of different radio stations. We’ve had the opportunity to record at different studios, but because I didn’t have my own space, I wasn’t able to work on my stuff without stopping and breaking everything down.

“I just wanted to have a space that was comfortable and also great-sounding for recording acoustic instruments. It’s really hard in a lot of studios to get good drum sounds, but I’m really happy with this space. I figured it out on paper with all these formulas, but when I actually started building it, what I found is that it’s like tuning an instrument. There’s reflections going on, and although it’s small, there’s certain areas that give it space or make it sound tighter, so I can move around the room and get certain sounds.”

A natural-sounding space that mixes professional tones with a homemade vibe that comes through clearly on Skin, the making of Sound Tree benefited strongly from Marc’s daytime career as an architect, but in many ways was also DIY at its finest. “I had a good amount of prior acoustic knowledge,” Paul says, “but I also referred to some books for dimensions, and there’s a lot of information available through the companies that I bought acoustical treatments from that have different ways to build a studio within a budget in a smaller space. It’s basically just reading, applying it, and using your ears.

“My advice to anyone who wants to try this is that you’ve got to know what you’re going to go for and just focus on achieving that because you can get really lost! A lot of times, people don’t budget things like the cost of cables or connectors, and you can save a lot of money making your own stuff. Instead of buying multi boxes, I just soldered them myself. You get to be a lunatic up all night soldering over and over again, but in the end it saves you thousands and thousands of dollars. The key thing is to do it right the first time: We went overkill, with floating room-within-a-room construction, and ran enough power all over so I wouldn’t have to break a wall in the future. I also didn’t want to use it just for myself. I wanted to record other groups, so I tried to think of different situations where it could be used. Ultimately, if you try to cut corners, you’ll just have to redo it later.”

Festival Express

Outside the confines of the studio or the subway, one of the most powerful venues for Mecca Bodega’s constantly morphing, improvisational rhythms has been the festival circuit. While club stages do show up on their schedule, the band has been able to make festivals a reliable source for steady gigs and an ever-growing fan base. Since some festivals are run extremely well and others aren’t, Marc offers up a solid list of criteria for what makes them work. “The most important thing for me is that the festival creates a sense of community and place that’s nurturing,” he notes. “If they’ve considered security, quietness, handicapped needs, and food vending, then everyone at the festival knows there’s a common goal to support each other, with live music to learn and grow. The ones that suffer are the ones that miss those qualities due to a bad site, lack of promotion, lack of funding, or even lack of luck, like bad weather.”

Paul urges bands interested in hooking up with the expansive festival circuit to get familiar with the events before they attempt to get on the bill. “There’s so many types of festivals and music: bluegrass, hard rock, jam band, world music. People really have to be honest with themselves and know if their music will be a good thing at a certain festival. It can be like a club, in that the promoter wants to make a lineup that makes sense together. It doesn’t have to be one specific type of music, but something that complements each other. Also, choose an area: We play a lot in the Northeast, so we play a lot of festivals in that region as well, so the promoters will know, ’Okay, these guys will draw.’”

Just be ready for randomness when you hit the grounds. “You may play much earlier or later than you expect,” Marc says. “You have to be roadworthy and able to hang out. There’s a lot of mud and sweat, but there’s also a lot of partying. A lot of people want to go to the festival, do their show, and leave right away. We have a lot of fun, network, get other contacts, and since the playing part is fun for us, if we’re last we’ll say, ’How long can we play?’ If it’s two or three hours, the promoter will be psyched because he has entertainment that’s heavy groove party stuff that went late, so that when people go to bed they feel like they went the distance.”

They Got Rhythm

While Mecca Bodega put a great deal of thought into finding venues for their unique sound, when they get behind the drums, thinking is out and the purity of bodies in motion is in. “People can relate to dancing,” Paul says simply. “People can just dance to this stuff. They don’t have to think about it so hard, so it takes the brain out and goes to the body. When that happens, it’s easier to connect to people. A good way to get there is to play the same rhythm over and over again, until you’re not conscious of it anymore.”

“If you start to enjoy your mistakes, those are new ideas coming out,” adds Marc. “I can get in a rut, and then find that if I tried to do the rhythms with one side of my body and flip it over, something else will come out. Then I’d realize that part of my body was frozen. It’s fun unfreezing my body and going into other dimensions. One way to do that is try to do everything with your left hand if you’re right-handed: Brush your teeth, open your car door. Soap in the shower is a funny one — I always do that in the same way. You start to realize you have patterns for everything you do. Once you start to break that, it’s a whole new ballgame.”

Could more Mecca Bodegas on the planet contribute to world peace? Maybe not, but there’s no question that prolonged listening to this group’s music has a way of teleporting the mind to an actively relaxed dimension — a state that they figure will have a positive effect on the rest of you as well. “If people start to understand where some of these rhythms are coming from, we’d be more open to people’s differences,” Paul Mueller reasons. “As far as what we’re doing, though, we basically just want people to dance and have a good time when we play, just bring joy through body movement. I don’t have any grandiose vision as to where we fit in.”

Marc Mueller, however, may see something larger in what Mecca Bodega has to offer. “A lot of these rhythms we’re doing are from countries that are isolated or shunned because of political reasons,” he concludes. “But what we’ve found is that people are open to sounds from all over the world, because we are from all over the world.”

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