Will Calhoun: To The Core, Pt 1

Legendary percussionist and performer Will Calhoun is best known for his work with Living Colour, and has participated in a variety of side projects including Mos Def’s Black Jack Johnson band. While he has received more honors and awards than one can count on a single hand, few people know Will’s true expression of sound.

His new album Native Lands draws the listener into the music and the world at large. The album also features a DVD documentary of Will’s many travels while expanding his sound and musical spirit, including his ventures deep into the Amazons of Brazil, and wandering the silent deserts of Morocco. Will took some time out of his amazing life to speak with us about his travels and experiences while making the album.

AllHipHop.com Alternatives: When you were studying music at Berklee in Boston, did you ever think that music would take you to so many countries around the world?

Will: No, I didn’t. I wanted to be a musician. It was something that I wanted to do ever since I was 16. Back then, I wasn’t thinking about traveling or being successful. I obviously wanted to make a living, but my interest in research and going to college was about becoming a more informed artist. I felt like the more informed that I was, the more educated I became. The easier it would be for me to accomplish some of the things that I wanted. My influences at the time were jazz music and world music.

I’m from the Bronx, so I kind of came up in the Hip-Hop scene; the early Hip-Hop scene with Grand Master Flash and Rahiem. Berklee, I felt, was a stepping stone for me to become academically more informed in surrounding myself with international musicians. There were a lot of students from all over the world. The main reason for me going to Berklee was a means for me to educate myself. Traveling was something that I felt that I needed to do; either by the music or if I had to go out and buy a plane ticket myself. From the educational side I had to do it. I always wanted to go to Africa, the Middle-East, Asia, the Caribbean.... It was always something that I planned to do. Surrounding myself with students from South America, Europe and Asia was a way of me to learn more about the culture and the music; by surrounding myself with the people that come from those countries.

AHHA: The album, Native Lands, also includes a DVD that features you going to various countries and taking part with locals in playing the native music. It must have been quite an amazing experience.

Will: Yeah, you’re right, but it was not something that I originally planned on making in documentation. I went so deep into some places that I did write somethings down, shoot some video and take pictures. I just felt like it was important for my audience to know that this music didn’t come from osmosis. It wasn’t something that I thought of myself; there were a lot of heavy influences. For me to be with the tribes was not to just learn a rhythm and then split. It was for me to understand where the music comes from, who created it and why it was played. Some beats in certain music are only used for certain ceremonial purposes; weddings, hunting and these kinds of things.

You really have to be around the people to understand. It’s not just some funky groove that you can pull out. Being around the women, the elders and the kids; I tried to separate myself with the different age groups to get a better understanding of how the societies worked. I wanted to learn more about how the culture worked, outside of me just picking up a stick and recording someone singing. Everyone was great, and I’ve planted a few seeds where I wanted to go back. I want to return to Uruguay, Brazil and some other places to learn Condombe [traditional drumming from Uruguay] and understand more about the history of these places. I plan to do more research in the next two years or so.

AHHA: It wasn’t planned, but I guess you just ran with it, right?

Will: You want to think about it and take advantage of your options. If you go to Australia or New Zealand and are on tour, I always try to fly in early or take a few days off after the tour. If you’re that far away and are interested in any kind of musical literature or art, it’s important that you do your own research. It’s nice to do the tourist packages that are at the hotels, but it’s more important for me to put myself into the mix and experience as much as I can. The people-things on the DVD, I was obviously taken into some places by others. It would take eight or nine days to get there. I wanted to let folks really know that I was there for specific reasons and not just some tourist kid.

Being in America is deep, because it kind of lets you feel like you can get all of the answers here from the internet or the library. When you go to these places and talk to the people, its interesting how they know almost as much about America as you do or other countries. In some of the smaller countries, they’re more in tune with being educated about the world. Some of the larger ones are not. There were also a lot of eye openers for me, being around a lot of younger and older people who were very familiar with this countries politics and how it works. When you meet other artists, they’re almost like sonic activists. You meet other people in other lands that feel almost the same way you do about things.

AHHA: How has your perception of music and culture changed from when you were younger?

Will: You learn that people are people and that races don’t really exist. I think that folks are different because of their origin or where ever they migrated to. There are cultural things and religions that make people act a certain way. I just learned how life works for me. The more I began to travel, the more that I began to understand. Aborigines are some of the most intelligent people that I’ve met in my life. To be in a place where you don’t hear cars, planes buses or people walking, your mind changes. When you’re in the middle of the desert in Morocco for two or three weeks with only a camera, traveling around like a nomad; the loudest thing that you will hear are someone speaking or the wind. It has an impact on your whole mind.

My first few days out in the bush were rough. It was like a heavy-metal concert going on in my head. This was all from thinking about things; your home, you’re a musician and your family. It took me six days of silence to get that out of my head. Technology and the environments have an impact on you. A lot of these indigenous cultures are more advanced about life, the planet, spiritually and also in being free. I’m not saying that our culture is bad, it’s not a judgment thing, but you begin to notice how distracted you are. You can be distracted and exist, the system allows that but, you can’t be distracted in the outback and survive.

My perception is to approach every situation for what it is. When I’m in America or Europe, I know what that is and what it sounds like. I know what I hear when I go to those places. I understand how they function. Fortunately enough I have been able to go to places and meet other musicians that can give me an understanding of how things work. I try to be open-minded and be aware of where I am. I don’t have to adhere to the instructions of where I am, but at least I am aware of them.