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!

Percussion

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.

Live Performance

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.

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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)

Comments

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/silentbearmusic Silent Bear

    Great interview of an extra-ordinary percussionist/musician. Kahlil is a one of a kind musician who is worthy of your support. He is featured on my first release, “River Drum Child,” and videos from our recent reunion concert in N.Y could be seen on youtube on the channel silentbearvideo Check out and invest in his work. You won’t be disappointed!

  • Rhonda

    Kudos to this amazing musician that the rest of the world has yet to discover. The extent of is talent is obvious when you consider the great legends of music that he has performed with; Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Erykah Badu, Valerie Simpson, Russell Gunn, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Avery Brooks and so many others. His level of commitment and artistry is evident by the numerous recordings that include his name. If you haven’t had the pleasure of hearing him, check him out on YouTube.

    • Wilson

      I’ve heard him play many times, definitely the best percussionist out there right now. His latest CD Flight is another great piece of work. He’s the TRUTH!

  • Patrice

    I have the honor of having three of his CD’s and each one show’s his extreme talent and dedication to his craft. The CD Flight is my personal favorite. But actually I love them all. Haven’t had the pleasure of seeing him perform live but hope to on my next trip to New York. Kahlil is truly a great percussionist and I look forward to hearing and purchasing more and more of his music. HE IS, “KEEPING IT REAL” EVERYONE CHECK HIM OUT THIS MAN IS CRAZY TALENTED !!

  • Jimmy Fingers

    Great interview with Kahlil! I’ve been following his work the last couple years and I must say Kahlil is a very talented and open-minded percussionist and artist.

  • http://Qbscompany.com AB

    Simply the best and this article right on point
    and consistent to Kahlil and his teachings in Jazzmobile
    Class. Love his latest CD Flight. Keep the real
    Music soaring glad your here.

  • Anthony D. Fisher

    I have only known Kahlil through his wonderful works of art and through long-distance, telephonic correspondances. I find that he has managed to tap into some areas of human harmonic resonance that if one allows interface,…could possibly unlock some latent, unremembered and unconscious forms of outward expressions that have yet to be fully and completely acknowledged by those of the “true” new age of consciousness. “Keep bangin’ and pumpin’ the “heartbeats-of-the-four winds -of-freedom” and “Thank-you”, my Brother. “Ajo”.

  • http://www.lafayettebarjazz.com tunsie

    I had the distinct pleasure of meeting Kahlil Kwame Bell when he came along as a guest for a group that was playing my JAZZ club….He impressed us so much we had him back a few times after..He fits in as others are STRETCHING Out…He also leads Very Very well….when he is playing at the Lafayette Bar,people ask me when I am bringing him BACK……I am Very FORTUNATE to have me Khalil and I am So LUCKY to be able to call him MY FRIEND……Tunsie JAZZ FEZ GRIOT

  • http://www.hiphop4kidz.com Blackfoot U-Ahk

    I have known Kahlil Kwame Bell for over twenty-five years and his commitment to writing original qualitative music is genuine and authenticate. I have all of his albums from day one. This interview is a testament of his genius work and life. He is an innovator and creator of beautiful and inspiring musical melodies.

    I purchased over ten copies of his last album “Flight”. My mom, mother in-law, and friends and family members loves his music. When the music industry taps more into original works by real musicians, Kahlil will be in the forefront like no other. Get your copy of Flight today!! .. [] = :

  • http://www.hiphop4kidz.com Mrs. Cynthia U-Ahk

    Great interview from a talented, spiritual, down-to-earth brother!! I love his music and I wish him the best! Music is life!!

  • Abu Ismail

    Peace, Blessings , The Divine Grace & Mercy surround you son, in all that you strive for. Each human being pursues an ultimate and fundemental goal in life. This goal constitutes one’s ideal, the focal point of one’s thoughts, aspirations, and activities. The loftier and nobler this goal is, the more sublime are the thoughts and deeds emanating from it.

    0 Allah! I rose up in the morning with blessings, strength, and concealment -of my deficiencies-; So complete all the blessings and strength and the concealment for me in this life and in the hereafter.

    0 Allah! Whatever blessings I or any of Your creatures rose up with, is only from You.
    You have no partner.
    All grace and thanks are due to You.

  • Chanda Pilgrim

    I love the passion that is portrayed in this article. The passion for the music, the passion with which Kahlil Kwame Bell recounts memories of his childhood and of playing with Roberta Flack. The way the writing was expressed was a little difficult to read in places. I understand the point was to keep the essence of his words, but it would have read easier in some places if it were written either as an interview, or an edited version of his words. Overall, I liked this article thank you for sharing this part of history.

    • http://Gmail Dara

      I have known Kwame for over 30 years, I’ve danced to his drum, our father’s were spiritual brothers and also played the drum together. The recognition from this article has been a long time coming and
      Kwame was destined to be a drummer, I’ve watched him teach and the passion that he displayed was energizing. He has always had the ability to reach this plauto and higher. We are so proud of you Kwame, you continue to stay in our prayers and we love you and wish nothing. but best for future, we know you have great things in store for the world.

  • Tobius Simmons

    My wife and i have had the pleasure to see Mr. Bell perform several times as a leader and featured player. Always exciting, always passionate, never cliched. His playing makes you listen. I wish him much more success in the future.

  • Benu Da Soothsayah

    I am very glad this was written. We should pay close attention to artists of Kwame’s caliber because he consistently raises the bar and brings music to new levels. He has been my personal inspiration for over 30 years and continues to keep budding artists like me on my toes. As artists, we have a responsibility for translating what is seen in todays society into musical, visual, and mental abstractions. All seven of Kwame’s albums do this in their own way, while at the same time reflect his state of being and artistry. Biggup bro, and keep the magic goin!

  • http://Gmail Dara

    I have known Kwame for over 30 years, and I’ve danced to his drum in several classes, our father’s were spiritual brothers and they also played the drum together. We became extended family, I’ve watched Kwame teach years ago and the passion he displayed in teaching was energizing. He has always had the ability to reach this plateau. This recognition is a long time coming, he deserves every bit of it, and every detail of this article is so true, it takes me way back when we were much younger. Kwame we are proud of you and we always knew you were destined for this, we love you and always keep you apart of our prayers. Keep making great music Kwame, you. are truly loved.

  • http://Gmail Dara

    kwame

  • Chris Hemingway

    Kahlil, is the truth! The 1st time I heard Kahlil was on a Sean Jones record. I thought Then this cat was Killin! Then I moved to NYC and met Kahlil through some mutual friends and with just one conversation I knew he was serious about the music and I’ve admired him ever since. Then I got the chance to play and record with him, man this cat is doing his thing and doing it well! Weather he’s playing auxiliary percussion or drum set he always brings a high level of creative soul to the experience.

  • Hakim

    Well I like the relaxing music of Kalil Kwame Bell, I thought everything I heard was good,

  • Sadiyq Parker

    I,fortunately have been a witness to the evolution of Kwame’s passion and development as a versatile percussionist from the time he first started playing with his father and uncle up to the present time. In addition to his dedication to constantly improving his skills, the love and spirit that he exhibits while playing, are gifts that I would encourage anyone who has the opportunity to see him perform or pick up one of his CDs to avail yourself of that blessing; it will be well worth it.

  • DENISE

    I have not had the pleasure to hear Kwame live but his albums take me on a trip to a melotic island where every instrument is a cool breeze of fresh island air. I can’t wait to sit in his space and hear him up close and personal. His talent and genuine sweet nature puts him in a class all his own.

  • Ayo

    Great interview of a wonderful and talented Brother. I was introduced to Kahlil two and a half years ago by my now husbands (Kahlil’s longtime friend). Had the pleasure of listening to him perform live and loved it. Two of his songs from the Album Duality(Joyous Moments and The Beauty of Kindness) are on our Wedding CD. He was introduced to my mother who fell in love with his Spirit and loves the album Flight. Definitely an artiste that is worthy of our support and deserves to be propelled to the next level!

  • http://www.brucewilliamsjazz.com Bruce Williams

    I’ve known and worked with Khalil for twenty years and he is a real pro and adds flavor to any musical situation. He is very passionate and dedicated to jazz and african american arts in general. Khalil Bell should be one to have greater recognition in the business as a percussionist, musician, and leader.

  • Calvin Jones-Bassist

    Kwame’s dedication to his craft is evident with each project that I’ve heard and participated on with him. We’ve done a number of performances over the past 12
    years and he always brings something to each one that enhances the music and inspires his cohorts. If you ever have the opportunity to talk with him, he’ll share
    his life experiences with music and music with his life experiences. They go hand in hand.

  • Baba don

    I am very proud of Kwame accomplishments
    No matter what he stays the course
    He started with me when he was 14 and manged to become on of the great ones
    I enjoy his skills as a set drummer , amazing and one finger bongo playing is truly
    Uniquely his
    My boy grown up

  • Binta Parker

    I have known Kwame since he was a young boy & have watched him grow into a beautiful,enlightened young man as well as a gifted,inspired musician. His music reflects the beauty & strength of his spirit & the power of his experiences. He found his calling and is fulfilling it. May he continue to grow and move forward on his path. Those who partake in his musical expressions are fortunate.

  • A. Hughes

    Kahlil Kwame Bell – is a great Percussionist and Composer. His music is worldly and definitely for all people. His latest CD should not be missed, when I first heard it, what it brought to me were memories of hearing recordings of Art Blakely and Coltrane. He is a powerhouse of a musician, a powerhouse of a man and a beautiful intuitive soul. Get his CD and feel the presence of musical wisdom.

    • nufi

      Mr. Bell’s compositions are rich with textural sounds that transport the mind to beautiful places. When listening to his music, you don’t know where he’s going to take you but the ride is exciting. When you arrive at the destination that he created, you are very happy for the experience. His drumming on his latest CD is skillful!
      Nufi.

  • http://www.darktonemusic.com Bruce Edwards

    I have had the pleasure of performing with Kahlil in a number of different settings, with him on traps or percussion, and found him to be right at home no matter what style of music we were playing, or what instrument he was playing.
    He handles whatever’s there with equal aplomb. I look forward to the next time we play together…………….

  • Nathifa

    Wow! There’s no faking your musical talents. You’re a natural, who has worked hard at being your best. Thanking Our Creator for harmoniously bringing forth in you, the insight to pursue your passion with such skill, dedication & commitment! Enjoyed reading this imterview. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.darktonemusic.com Bruce Edwards

    I’ve performed with Kahlil in a variety of settings, with him on both drum set and various percussion instruments, and I’ve found him to handle them all, and a wide variety of styles with equal aplomb. I look forward to making music with him again.

  • http://revivalist.okayplayer.com Nathifa

    Wow! There’s no faking your talent, Kahlil Kwame Bell. You’re a natural, who has definitely put the time in, to achieve this level and become your best! Thanking Our Creator for having allowed you the insight (from a young age), to absorb those talents & pursue musical excellence. Such a blessing that you’re able to share your experiences with others. Amazing musical artist you are! I enjoyed the interview. Thanks for sharing. God Bless!

  • johnnita

    I first saw Kwame a few months ago at the Apollo. His passion and commitment to music and percussion were portrayed immediately. His warm personality and laid back style were no surprise. What a great article…. especially how Kwame describes music…the symbiotic relationship of rhythm, melody and harmony. His success is an eloquent reminder of the value of hard work. I look forward to seeing, reading and hearing more from such a talented and gifted musician.

  • Jovan Alexandre

    Good stuff Kahlil! Lots of information. You have a very original and person take on music making. It was good top hear about your past experiences and thoughts about gigging. cant wait to play with you again.

  • Lavender

    Amazing article! You are a phenomenal artist Kahlil. You continue to entertain your listeners with your masterful eclectic sound. Your music speaks to your listener like Griot to a community, telling tales of places traveled, life experiences, and “Joyous Memories” … Thank You for sharing! May your journey continue to be abundantly blessed and prosperous. ~ Peace, Love, & Blessings~