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karl ackermann interview, april 2010

karl: your three releases as a leader, blood drum spirit, blood drum spirit live in china and ancestors have been described as a trilogy. each has a different feel despite some musical similarities. how do they relate to each other as a collection?

royal: i feel the three double cds represent different stages of my life, the first blood drum spirit album was directly out of my world music immersion with master artists from west africa, china, the philippines, indonesia, india and native america. the second, ancestors, was a connection to my parents and all our ancestors after my mother passed away in 1999, and it dealt with the issues of life, death, remembrance, and the human hope for transcendence. the third, blood drum spirit live in china, is a reflection of the path from that loss to a different vision of the world, myself, and what it means to be human. i guess what connects them is a personal, cultural, spiritual, and sometimes political, consciousness that itself changes through time and space.

karl: your book, west african rhythms for drumset, talks about body drumming, such as hand claps, and traditional west african drums played with the hands. why do you think there is relatively little hand drumming used in jazz music?

royal: the transference from traditional african instruments to the body was the result of the slave holocaust from the early 1500s to the late 1800s, which denied most captive peoples access to their culture and means of expression, including instruments. the use of one’s body to make sounds was eventually expanded to the use of western instruments, and in the late 1800s drums were assembled in a group played by one person due to economic and theater pit space concerns. these drums originally from marching bands, were played with sticks, and the practice continued until the present, despite the options of brushes and rarely, some hand techniques. it is likely this historical circumstance. while afro-latin jazz employs hand drums that trace to african drums, bells and rattles – for example the rumba drums and clave, as well as the afro-brazilian agogo double bell, atabaque hand drums and ganza rattles, but that is a different genre, so it may be historical circumstance.

karl: your book cites zora neale hurston’s tell my horse, which is essentially about the voodoo culture in jamaica and haiti. what is the difference between voodoo drumming and african styles of drumming?

royal: most ‘new world’ religious drumming traditions – for example, santeria in cuba, vodun in haiti, and candomble in northeastern brazil – are directly traceable to african music cultures. the meaning, ritual, and instrumentation are very similar, revealing that despite centuries of external control and denial, african music and culture remains strong. the major differences between original african and ‘new world’ african traditions are the historical, climatic, social, political, and cultural changes that happened to african peoples as they made their way to survive and thrive in the new and oppressive environment, creating new form of expression.

karl: on ancestors, you tap dance on several tracks. how do you define percussive “instruments” and would you consider tap as one of these?

royal: yes, absolutely, tap dance is a great tradition, whose contemporary form is derived from irish clog and african movements, and is a fully percussive style, only with the feet and body instead of the hands and feet, as with drumset. it adds a spatial body movement to the expression.

karl: drummers/composers, such as paul motian and george schuller, compose on an instrument other than drums. how does playing both drums and piano work in composing your music?

royal: thankfully, my mother and father, hazel and james hartigan, and uncle, ray hart, a great tap dancer in new york, gave me an early experience of tap, jazz, piano, and eventually drums, that opened me to the world of creative arts in general and african american styles in particular. the piano has been essential to how i hear tone, accent, harmony, time, rhythm, form, and space. since my work in musics of the world, mostly non-western, these have formed an even stronger and more open way of hearing all the elements of sound and movement, as well as feeling the cultural heart of each tradition.

karl: you’ve worked a number of times with fred ho who favors combining musical traditions and a political message. how would you describe your politics or social activism in relation to your music?

royal: my music focuses on what i feel is the deepest aspect of human experience, our personal, spiritual – of one doesn’t think in spiritual terms, psychological – being. part of that experience is living in the world, with its political dynamics. i believe that the history of humanity is one of transcendence over the ‘dust of life’ in art blakey’s words. and that dust has historically the unrelenting oppression of the peoples of the planet by the tiny minority of the rich, powerful, and their puppets for selfish gain. in the present scene we see the fashionable propaganda idea of the radical individual at the expense of the common good, epitomized by the capitalist notion of ownership, control, power, domination, hierarchy, ultimately unbounded ego. i personally believe, as fred does, that humanity needs the opposite for survival – the common good, a real equality of outcomes rather than theoretical possibilities that never play out, sharing, cooperation, community, all necessary if we are to continue on this planet and realize our humanity. each time i live in ghana or the philippines with the people, i remember what is means to be truly human in the highest sense. that i have to leave this garage sale called a country is an indicator of just how far we have regressed and mutated as a species.

karl: you are a composer, musician and dancer; can you describe your creative process?

royal: most of my art comes from imagination, dreams, hopes, insights from some intense experience, not a planned process. usually from something that has happened in my or others’ lives that affect me. from then it is simply a matter of finding the best way to express that so others may be open to it.

karl: what role, if any, does transcendence play in your creative process?

royal: it is the inspiration and goal of my music. this is true of african art forms and life itself, and i approach creativity in the same way, meaning and heart come first, then the styles, forms, and technique are the means to it.

karl: you are among a select group of musicians, such as george lewis, anthony braxton and jon faddis, who are significantly involved in education. part of your teaching philosophy at umass dartmouth is to “…live the music…”. as a composer, how do you apply that philosophy to your own creative process?

royal: i only teach, compose, and play what i have experienced in my life so that i can share whatever i may have learned with others as fully as possible. while i can never be at the level of master artist culture-bearers, i always try to include peoples from world cultures in my work, and make sure they receive compensation, and honor, for their gifts to us.

karl: what inspires you?

royal: all things that go beyond life, in life, yet somewhere else, in sun ra’s terms, the space without place, time without clocks, feelings without limits.

karl: what do you see as the relationship between music and spirituality in your life?

royal: they are one and the same for me. i was originally a philosophy major in college, trying to find meaning, now it is through sounds and movement, and i am still trying to find it.

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