Jerome Cooper performing at J’s Irrawaddy
MANY people are affronted by Jerome Cooper; whether he is playing
his seven instruments all at once or speaking with his customary
frankness, the response is usually the same: dumbstruck awe or
sheer incomprehension. The air is usually so thick in a room occupied
by Mr Copper that you could cut it with a knife.
Such was the atmosphere late last month when he played a concert
at J’s Irrawaddy Bistro.
Many could not believe their luck at hearing the virtuoso percussionist
weave disparate sounds into a rich tapestry of increasingly intricate
jazz rhythms — in Yangon, no less, surely the last place
you would expect to see such a performance — while the rest
found Mr Cooper’s music difficult to understand and even
Mr Cooper is no stranger to controversy, having courted it throughout
most of his 40-year career. He has revolutionised the way drumming
is talked about in the US and is still considered somewhat avant-garde
in his native New York.
So what was this musician — who has played with the likes
of jazz legends Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago —
doing in Yangon?
Mr Cooper’s performance at J’s was the culmination
of a six-week stay here, which included a month of teaching at
Gitameit (the local music school has quickly gained a reputation
for opening the ears of young Myanmar musicians to an ever-growing
array of international music styles), as well as a concert organised
by the US embassy with Myanmar traditional orchestra player Kyaw
Sein and a workshop at the American Centre.
The 59-year-old shared his insights on life, music and being
MT: How did you
end up in Yangon?
JC: I got a grant from the Helen Burke Foundation
in New York to interact with indigenous musicians. I was actually
going to go to Indonesia — because I’ve lived in Indonesia
— and I was going to go to India, which I still am. But
then the president of the record company I am with in New York
suggested I come here. He’d been here earlier this year
and had met with Kit Young from Gitameit.
So he told Kit about me and I met Kit when she came to New York.
We emailed for a while and I ended up here.
I wouldn’t have come here, but Tom said: I just came from
Myanmar and there’s a school there and they really need
to see another aspect of American music, because mostly what they
get here is hip-hop and sh*t like that, man.
MT: You came to
Myanmar to interact with indigenous musicians, so how do you find
the traditional music here?
JC: I love it. Myanmar drummer Kyaw Sein and I performed together
at a concert and he went beyond and above music. I mean I was
blown away. He is one of the best drummers here and he is classically
oriented, and we just improvised. We just went up there and played
and he really went into his stuff, man. And I though da-amn. It
was a hell of a concert.
I never really listened to any Myanmar music before I came here
but I listened to a lot of gamelan when I was in Indonesia —
they play it 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
That’s Indonesia’s classical music. Indonesian, Malaysian
and Myanmar classical music have a lot of similarities for me.
They all deal with xylophones, drums and gongs — it's all
really kind of related. Although Myanmar music leans towards Western
classical music, in that Kyaw Sein’s drums were tuned to
the 12 tones on the chromatic scale, whereas in Indonesia it is
pentatonic. But it’s all interrelated.
So in a way, when I played with Kyaw Sein I knew what he was going
to do, because I had played in Indonesia and I knew gamelan music.
MT: Any thoughts
on popular contemporary music here?
JC: Well, I’m from New York, and that’s
where it all is, so don’t ask me about the contemporary
music here. The main thing I have to say to the people here is:
You’ve got to stay in your own culture. That’s where
it is and if you can interblend that – your own culture
– with the contemporary stuff, then that’s cool, but
your stuff is incredible.
MT: Can you describe
the instruments you play, as people may not be familiar with some
of them, and also tell us why you choose to play all seven instruments
yourself instead of playing with an orchestra?
JC: My main instrument is the drums. The chiramia
(a double-reeded Honduran Indian pipe) I got when I lived in Mexico.
Actually a lot of what I am doing musically comes from a pre-Colombian
type of music. I’m coming from jazz, but with my drumming
I am thinking pre-Colombian.
The keyboard is from Japan, Yamaha (laughs), the drum set is from
America, the balaphone (a type of wooden xylophone) is from Africa,
and I have certain flutes from China that I play.
In America drummers are very oppressed and when I started drummers
weren’t even considered musicians. It used to bug me because
they used to say we’ve got four musicians and a drummer
when I was growing up.
I came up playing blues and then I moved to jazz, which is actually
the same. Then I moved to Paris in 1969 and at that time we were
into what you call “free jazz” – it was an avant
garde movement, although John Coltrane and the rest were doing
it in the 1960s. But for drummers it was the same. Everyone else
was harmonically going to new levels, but drummers – it
was just “crash bam boom”. So I went back to New York
in 1971 and I got into a group called the Revolutionary Ensemble.
Then I met this pre-Colombian drummer call Antonio Zapata in 1975.
Before that I had approached music in a Western way. I would play
the balaphone and then I would go and play the piano. But he said:
Why don’t you play them at the same time, because in Mexico
the Mexican Indians play the drum and the chiramia at the same
time. So I started working with Antonio. As a track drummer I
played four things at one time anyway — the drum set itself
is four instruments: you play the cymbal, you play the snare drum,
you play your shock cymbal or high hat and you play your bass
drum — so it was natural for me to play a balaphone and
a bass drum. It was, you know, second nature.
MT: How would you
describe the style of music that you play?
JC: You know Doctors Without Borders? Well
I play music without categories. (Laughs) But I guess you could
say I play American music – it’s definitely coming
Basically, musically I am coming from Chicago and that’s
the blues. What people play here is also the blues, they don’t
call it the blues but that’s what it is. That’s how
Kyaw Sein and I were able to relate to each other.
Even though I play some African and Mexican instruments, I play
in an American way. So I don’t play African music, I don’t
play Mexican music, I don’t play gamelan. I play American
music, but it’s an American music they don’t put out
too much, they don’t promote.
MT: Which American
musicians have had the biggest influence on you?
JC: Art Blakey, Thelonius Monk, Miles Davis.
I’ve also played with Cecil Taylor, Oscar Brown Jr, the
Art Ensemble of Chicago, Don Puller, Dooy Redmen. … I also
played for Miles. Miles is really cool, he really helped me because
he said, keep doing your solo. And so did Cecil Taylor.
MT: What reaction
did you get when you first started performing percussion solos
and incorporating other instruments in the 1970s?
JC: I went through a period where I was totally
rejected. People said: What? You can’t do that. You don’t
solo drums, you may do a drum solo, but what are you going to
do, a whole concert just on drums?
So I went through a period of total rejection but they had to
deal with me because I had played with a lot of great musicians
and I already had a name.
MT: How did the
students at Gitameit react to your playing?
JC: The reaction was … well, you know
Myanmar people, they try to be nice all the time, but you can
tell … The first concert I did here it was like, god, what
are you doing??? Boy it was tough. But over the weeks they started
But I told Kit, it would take me a year to explain to them certain
theories about improvising. I would first have to explain certain
movements and why musicians do this and that … but for what
it was, it turned out pretty cool.