The Bronx-born drummer and percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell has done quite a bit in the two decades that he has been playing as a professional. He is versatile in that he utilizes a variety of instruments, but also since he has worked in many genres he looks at his skills in a different way from many percussionists. From working with Erykah Badu and Common, to Roberta Flack and Bilal, to Lonette Mckee and Avery Brooks, he feels quite comfortable in a recording studio, at a live concert, or even with a dance theater. In a conversation with the Revivalist he shared with us some amazing details about his life. We have included excerpts of this discussion below. Enjoy!
On being exposed to drumming:
I fell in love with drumming at a very young age. My father and my uncle were studying with a gentleman by the name of Ladji Camara, who was a West African djembe player who played with a group called Les Ballets Africains. Or Joliba National. These two drum and dance organizations were out of the country of Guinea, West Africa, and they had come over here quite frequently in the 60s and the 70s to perform. And Ladji was one of the main drummers, he was the elder drummer up there. Ladji had come here first though. He had come here like in 1958, before I was even born. And my father and my uncle were studying with him in the 60s. Then I was born in 68.
Two years in, my two years on this planet, my father and my uncle were doing a performance for Northern State Prison or for Riker’s Island. My father actually brought me with my uncle and a bunch of dancers and drummers to do a performance for the inmates. I was about two and my father just put a little djembe around my neck and just had me drumming. That was my first time ever playing. I didn’t even know what I was doing. I was just mimicking the drummers that were around me.
That passion kind of grew because I didn’t really grow up with my father, so it was kind of a way for me to always be attached to him when he wasn’t around. I was around my grandmother and mother predominantly when I was growing up. So I drummed out of connection with my father cause I knew that would be something we could do together as I got older. And so every time I was around my father or my uncle specifically, my father’s brother, they would always expose me to new rhythms, and tell me about the rhythms and what they mean. Then, I started drumming with them more on a consistent basis every time we got together. It was something that we did as a bonding of males.
On how he ended up recording his first album:
I was teaching in the daytime, doing dance classes in the daytime. Then at night I would be playing in a lot of different clubs. I was doing that for years. And then as time progressed I was doing more and more records. Then I ended up releasing my own record in 2001 because one of my professors who I studied with – Andre Strobert, who actually had his own studio in his home in Brooklyn – was recording on reel-to-reel. In the late 1990s Pro Tools started becoming real strong. Pro Tools was kind of taking over and studio time was really expensive. And so pretty much what ended up happening was I couldn’t afford studio time at that time. And I mentioned it to my professor and he said “Oh, record a record at my home. You know my studio time is about $20 an hour.” I said, “$20 an hour? That’s affordable, I can do that.” And the reason why it was so inexpensive was because he was recording onto ADTX scan reel-to-reel. Which was a very old way of recording, and not too many people –hardly anybody was recording in that way at that time. So I did my first two records there, and then that propelled me of course to now my 7th record being released this year.
On performing for different audiences:
I remember one time Roberta [Flack] was asked to do a function for a fundraiser for some homeless people or some people who…either they were homeless or they were in horrible living conditions in the projects in the hood or something. And we did an actual performance in—it was almost like an open clearing where there used to be a building. But it was like rubble everywhere, and her stage manager, Ben Newberry, he managed to get some people to bring some plywood and we laid it out there, and we set up like we were setting up for Carnegie Hall and we did a performance for those people in the hood. And they were so happy that we had done that, and I was so happy that we did that because it was uplifting. Cause these were people who wouldn’t normally get a chance to see her live, and she did that. We played like maybe 2- 3 songs and just got up. She went into the limo and we went into the van and that was it. But it felt good to perform for people who don’t get an opportunity to see the music.
Cause a lot of the times we’re playing in clubs, we’re playing in concert halls, and that’s for a select people who can afford to come see us perform. But then at times we get a chance to perform because there’s some kind of funding. Or sometimes there’s not. Sometimes we can just do it because we have the opportunity to do it at a certain time, and then do a performance for some elders at a nursing home or this type of situation that I just mentioned. When you do things like that, it feeds another part of your artistry because you’re giving to people. Like I said, they don’t get a chance to see this kind of thing so they appreciate it so much more.
On his dedication to drumming:
I thank the most high for giving me the energy to still persevere and stay with wanting to perform and play the instrument. Because drums are probably one of the hardest instruments to play in regards of just setting it up. The tediousness of that, carrying it, lifting it. You know, there’s all of these other aspects besides playing the actual drums that you have to be committed to, and if you’re not committed to those aspects of the instrument then you gotta give it up. Because the carrying of it, the setting it up, the loading it. That’s like a whole other job within itself that you can’t teach someone how to do that. They have to just want it. You can’t sit in a class and say ‘ok you pack this up, you pick this up.’
Because even as I’m teaching students at the Jazzmobile and other places where I’ve taught — because instruments are already there — students are very spoiled. They don’t know what it is to carry drums, and a lot of them will say ‘oh I come from far, and I’m on the train.’ You know, I carried my drums on the train all of the time. Heavy drums, I’m talking about 28-inch bass drums, and floor toms and tom-toms. Talking about like five bags of stuff. I’d have two shoulder bags, and I’d have two drums in one hand and another drum in another. Stick bag on my shoulder with the drum case. But when you’re dedicated to what it is that you’re doing, you don’t care what you have to do. You want to get to your job, you want to be there on time, you want to set up. All of these things are involved, and then when you get to a certain level you’ll have a string of gigs where those things are done for you. Like when I was with Roberta and I was with [Erykah Badu] and these people, they had road managers who set up all of that stuff for you. All you had to do was come and perform. But still, the first few days you have to come and speak to the road manager and explain to them the setup of how your stuff is set up so that they know how to set your stuff up too. And then they have tech people who do that stuff for you, but then on occasion sometimes things are stripped down and you don’t have that.
On the magic of the first or second take:
I start hearing things that other people are playing, and I start feeling the oneness in what we’re thinking or what we’re feeling at the same time. And then something magical happens. There’s always a sense of magic that happens also in the studio I think that usually happens like the first or second take. After the first and second take, things start to become more clinical. Because now you’re starting to concentrate harder to get it right, get it right. But the first and second take in the studio is always the magical takes. Because everybody wants to get it right the first time, so everybody’s intensity is there at its strongest on the first take. And then also something magical happens. I can’t really describe it, but it’s just magical. There’s something that somebody will play. A solo that’s magical, and it’s always in that first and second take. And the moment you start listening to the third, or sometimes you work with artists who do six takes of a song, and five takes of a song. That’s when it becomes really ridiculous. But the first and second takes are usually the magical takes. Usually.
On the music itself:
I’m drawn to rhythm. I’m drawn to melody. I’m drawn to harmony. I’m drawn to different kinds of aspects of music, and I don’t really separate music from life. You know, rhythm is very masculine to me, it’s very manly. Melody is very feminine to me. And harmony is the children of them both. So it’s like rhythm, melody and harmony are like people, and children. All together it makes so much sense that those things are tied together, and I don’t really separate the two. I don’t really separate music from life. Everything is musical. From a siren sound, to a car beeping, to walking on a floor. I can hear the music in everything. I can hear the music in the way somebody chews, the way somebody speaks, the inflections, the phrasing of how they speak. I can hear the music in everything. So all of these things contribute to me coming up with something conceptually on a record.
Interview by Seve Chambers (@SChambersBK)