Amon: Fela Meets The Skatalites In Brooklyn

amon

Amon is a master of the pocket. He’s able to drop into any groove - house, reggae, West African, R&B – and add tasty fills that augment and propel the music without calling attention to himself. Years of playing djembe for West African dance classes and dance parties refined his approach and has allowed him to bring it all back to the 1, no matter how challenging the musical framework may be. How does he do it? “I honestly don’t have a clue,” he says. “My mom told me to smile and act like you know what you’re doing until you figure it out and that’s taken me some time. I tried playing electronic music, but I’m a percussionist and I like creating live music. If you’re making digital music and the power goes out, everything vanishes. You can’t take a computer to a drum circle or a campfire jam.”

Playing For The Dancers

Despite his reservations about electronic music, Amon first gained recognition for his ability to mix hand percussion and electronic music when he started playing sets with DJs at outdoor dance parties in New York City. A DJ would drop a few beats from a recorded break and Amon would answer it with a phrase from his djembe, creating a 21st century twist on the ancient African call-and-response technique. His work with DJs like Chris Annibell (Afrokinetic) and Nickodemus (Turntables On The Hudson) helped him find work as a session musician and ignited the spark that would lead to the formation of his own band, Analog Players Society.

“I was playing an Afrokinetic dance in Dumbo [down under the Manhattan Bridge overpass, a neighborhood in Brooklyn],” he recalls. “Chris dropped a Tortured Soul track into the mix and Ethan [White, the keyboard player in Tortured Soul] heard us playing his music and got in touch with me.” White asked Amon to add percussion to a few Tortured Soul remixes and offered to trade keyboard parts for anything Amon was working on. White was enlisted to join Analog Players Society on keys.

Accidents Will Happen

Amon had been composing music for years, building tracks on a 4-track recorder he kept with him on his musical journey. He showed White the ideas he had and together they sketched out the parts that the other players would add. Playing sessions had connected Amon to some of New York’s top musicians and the first APS sessions produced a couple of sparkling singles. A reggae-flavored cover of Shannon’s “Let The Music Play,” featured Amon on glockenspiel and the Nu Shooz hit “I Can’t Wait” combined an Africanized 12/8 shuffle, subliminally mixed under a bluebeat rhythm with a vocal by guest artist Cecilia Stalin (Koop). The records were selling well and work was continuing on the band’s debut, Hurricane Season In Brooklyn, when a taxi rear-ended Amon’s pick-up, leaving him with a serious spinal chord injury.

“The taxi hit at full speed and pushed my truck into an intersection,” Amon says. “I had to put the album on hold to recuperate and I still can’t practice as much as I’d like to without pain.” Amon moved a massage table into the studio and mixed the album lying on his stomach. Although there was a nine-month break between the original sessions and the final mixing and overdubs, the music on Hurricane Season flows smoothly. “I call the sound ’Fela Meets The Skatalites,’ a combination of all the sounds I’ve been influenced by from Afrobeat to hip-hop and jazz.”

Amon’s unique percussion ideas are evident throughout the album. The title lays a melodic phrase from Ann Peebles’ “I Can’t Stand The Rain” over a groove generated by Amon’s stomping and hand clapping. “Those hand and foot rhythms were picked up in African dance classes. The foot stomps are me in a bathtub and the clapping polyrhythm I made up in the control room.”

While his back injury still makes playing for long periods of time problematic, Amon is looking forward to some local live gigs, aware of the fact that a mostly instrumental album may be a hard sell. “I’m not articulate in expressing myself with words, but music gets right to your emotions and has a different effect on every listener. People [who listen to the album] have complimented us on the amazing work of the band. I write my horn lines as if they were lyrics; when we play it live, the message comes across. Will it sell? I don’t really care. If I wanted to make money on music, I wouldn’t be a percussionist and I wouldn’t own a recording studio.”

Pots, Pans, And Drum Kits

Amon was born in Dayton, Ohio, and, like many drummers, he began banging on pots and pans before he could walk. “My parents tell me I was playing rhythms before I was a year old. I had enough strength to pick up a frying pan and hit myself in the head with it. I didn’t hurt myself, but maybe that explains the sounds that are still resonating in my skull,” he says, chuckling.

His mother was a teacher, his father a scientist who worked at the microbiology lab at Wright State University. The whole family loved music and introduced him to Gene Krupa, Led Zeppelin, Simon And Garfunkel, reggae and steel pan music. He saw Pink Floyd’s movie version of The Wall when he was nine and the sound of the bass drums added another vibration to the sounds already reverberating in his head. “I never stopped playing pots and pans. When my parents saw I was serious about drumming, they bought me the basics – snare, hi-hat, and kick.” Amon saved up to buy a floor tom and cymbal and slowly built a complete drum kit. He played the kit from nine to nineteen. He chose band over football in grammar school and played in the dance band and marching band. He wasn’t a dork, but he wasn’t popular either. After school he’d go to his basement, put on headphones, and play along with records to hone his chops, leaning on prog-rock and metal – in particular, Asia, Metallica, and Zeppelin.

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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.”