His history is with the Afro-West Indian community and Latin community. And unflinching honesty is one of his policies. This drumming virtuoso says:
“....Why should I have to play like somebody else....I can do that; that’s their experience.... I did it already, in the way I would have experienced it as a Black Caribbean [person] playing that music; so the hybrid is very unique. Okay - so it’s done. What I haven’t explored is [sic] my foundations. So why don’t I take the Pan, take congas, like this - and bring them altogether, along with what I’ve experienced in the United States, and make that hybrid ‘me’ that’s more ‘me.’
“Many people are waiting, as I’ve learned—as a teacher—for people to bring these ideas to them in a package, a package called “University” - the package that costs over fifty or sixty thousand dollars [USD] per semester - when, they already have it. They just don’t know where the key is. And generally speaking (and I say, in a challenging way) are afraid of looking inside - within - to find it for themselves. The price could be very heavy, emotionally; but once you get past that point, it’s indelible. You can’t get rid of it. You have to be honest with yourself.”
Plain talk, bad manners, as the elders used to say. But that’s Billy Cobham - unapologetic, but necessarily so based on his many years in the business. Presently he works with the Billy Cobham Band which can ‘morph’ from quartet to septet, depending on availability, event, context. He has helmed many bands in the past including that of Culturemix, which is how When Steel Talks caught up with him twelve years ago, when Wilbert “Junior” Gill, who Cobham continues to work with, was featured on pan. His latest CD release is Broad Horizon by Billy Cobham & Frankfurt Radio Big Band.
From as young as age two in his birthplace of Panama, long before he became the world-renowned master percussionist the world is now privileged to enjoy, Billy Cobham was entranced with the steelpan. It was back in the 1940s when members of his family both played, and made the instrument. And then, a move with his family to the United States in his early childhood years to Chauncey Street in Bed-Stuy (Bedford Stuyvesant), Brooklyn, New York, and cultural influences which included jam sessions (pan was among the instruments folk played) in his neighborhood, would be formative roles in his musical path.
Cobham’s musical brilliance and methodical approach are in part homage to his father, a statistician, mathematician and piano player, and also—naturally—his mom, a tailor. And he was keen, simply, on what worked - enter his ‘open-handed’ approach to drumming - since the age of nine. He credits his then-two-year-old baby brother Wayne, still in the crib at that point, for simply being ‘natural’ and ‘sincere’ in taking the ‘shakers’ he handed the little one, and instinctively and gleefully shaking them above his head, in an open-handed fashion. Cobham was happy with that reinforcement of what he deemed ‘right’ and moved on to develop the technique, as did a couple others, and which has been adopted by many drummers in the years since.
Decades later, the unmistakable presence of Pan continues to be seen and heard in several of Cobham’s music aggregations. When he composes, he writes with special attention to the individual instruments that will feature in the piece. In this way each, including the steelpan, has its own space in the performance at all times.
In this exclusive live WST interview, hear Billy Cobham in his own words.
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Note: This August 1–6 2016 in what Cobham calls the “Art of the Rhythm Section Retreat” musicians can have ‘an immersive five-day learning experience for professional and semi-pro bassists, drummers, guitarists and keyboard players across all genres and styles’ when he leads the members of Rhythm Section Musicians and Spectrum 40 in this music and percussion retreat in Mesa, Arizona, United States.
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