In sync with the world

Legend Billy Cobham will perform at the Jaffa Jazz festival.

Bob Cobham  (photo credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE / REUTERS)
Bob Cobham
It ain’t easy getting a cultural event off the ground in this country. State support for such enterprise is generally minimal to nonexistent, and even if you do manage to scrape together the wherewithal for the launch, repeating the feat year after year can be a taxing exercise.
Saxophonist-educator Amikam Kimmelman, who founded the Jaffa Jazz Festival a couple of years ago, will present his third lineup of foreign and domestic acts September 14 to 16 at the Mandel Cultural Center in Jaffa. The three-dayer takes in 13 shows, with the artist roster featuring musicians from France, Germany, Romania, Sweden, Finland, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland and Israel.
Some of the performers are returnees, such as Dutch pianist Mike Del Ferro and French trumpeter-vocalist Jean Loup Longnon. And the festival is proud to welcome Billy Cobham. The 73-year-old drummer, who was born in Panama, grew up in the States and has resided in Switzerland for close to three decades, has been at the forefront of the global jazz community for nigh on half a century. His discography and gig history features confluences with such jazz luminaries as trumpeter Miles Davis, bassman Ron Carter and pianist Kenny Barron, as well as extra-mural forays with the likes of rock bassist Jack Bruce and fusion keyboardist Jan Hammer.
Cobham has strutted his high-energy stuff here several times over the last 30 years or so, including the Red Sea Jazz Festival, and will be kept out of mischief on his upcoming sojourn to Jaffa. All told, he will contribute his powerhouse artistry to four gigs, including the Goodbye Pork Pie Hat tribute to legendary bassist Charles Mingus; the Birdland concert salute to late Austrian-born fusion keyboardist Joe Zawinul; and Take Five, which feeds off material from the iconic eponymous record fronted by pianist Dave Brubeck.
Cobham is also in the lineup of the festival closer, which will feature all nine offshore musicians, under the artistic direction of Jerusalemite saxophonist-trumpeter Mamelo Gaitanopoulos.
There was little doubt about how Cobham’s career path would pan out from the word go. His father had a weekend gig as a pianist, and the youngster started playing drums at the tender age of four. By the time he was eight, he was proficient enough to join his dad on stage. Cobham is not completely sure that his father was his first musical inspiration, as there were plenty of influences to feed off close to home.
“I was told that I had cousins who were musical instrument makers, who lived with me and my family in our compound in the town of Gatun, near Colon, Panama. They made drums and steel pan for musicians in the black community there. When I became aware of them, I was just past two years old. I left for the USA when I was three and a half years old, so there we are,” he recounts.
He says there was a primordial motive for his choice of instrument.
“The drums are the instrument of the masses,” he posits. “They are easily accessible and obtainable.
They are an instrument of choice to communicate in order to stay in sync with the world.”
Cosmic harmony aside, it must have been quite something to hit the road at such a young age. Cobham feels that getting an early start to one’s performing career offers pluses and minuses. “When one is young, ignorance is bliss,” he suggests, although adding somewhat abstrusely, “the lessons learned always come at a price. If one understands the moral in the story, then the payment was well worth the effort to learn it.”
As Cobham moved through his musical growth gears, he says he found like-minded company in traditional settings with whom he could further his burgeoning craft.
“I was blessed in that I found a group of young people who were interested in developing their musical foundations through group study,” he recalls. “This was the drum and bugle corps who were the marching bands for festival celebrations and who paraded as representative of various institutions in communities in the USA back in those days. It was something that I was attracted to, since I could learn my rudimentary procedures which are at the foundation of all that I do to this day in performance through the drum set. This group of which I became an integral part kept me focused on the developmental aspects of music, in combination with studying music at the High School of Music and Art in Harlem, New York. I attended school there from 1959 to 1962. This was a very creative time for me,” he says.
The rock and roll tidal wave that swamped the Western world in the late 1950s and 1960s largely passed the young Cobham by.
“Coming from a Caribbean-based root, I was not very interested in rock and roll. I was interested in the music of many of the Latin musicians, such as Orlando Marin, Mongo Santa Maria, Tito Puente, Jonny Pacheco and Tito Rodriguez. My father introduced me to jazz, and I found this musical platform to be more fulfilling and hold my interest,” he explains.
The young drummer made incremental strides and even found his way onto the cast list of Davis’s groundbreaking fusion epic album Bitches Brew, which featured a stellar roster. He also enjoyed a valuable developmental berth with hard bop pianist Horace Silver. Before long, Cobham became one of the leading drummers on the vibrant fusion scene, mixing it with fellow Bitches Brew contributor British guitarist John McLaughlin as part of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, a jazz-rock outfit with Indian seasoning. All of the above came into play on Cobham’s first release as leader, Spectrum, released in 1973. Since then Cobham, one of the busiest drummers on the global jazz scene, has put out around 50 albums.
The fruits of that early endeavor, particularly the McLaughlin synergy, still resonate with the 73-year-old.
“Those were days rich with formation that I continue to study in the present. While being a part of this [Mahavishnu Orchestra] project, I was inspired to study music composition in order to become a more musical artist on all levels, a personal trait that I continue to develop within me,” he says.
When asked how he thinks his music has evolved over the years, Cobham says he prefers to just go with the flow.
“I have no answer for that past my being comfortable with where I am as a composer in comparison to where I began. In this way, every waking day represents a new adventure,” he says.
The Jaffa Jazz Festival takes place September 14 to 16 at the Mandel Cultural Center. Click Here for tickets and more information about the festival.