Ches Smith Runs the Vodou Down


Ches Smith (center, seated), with the cross-cultural octet We All Break, explores his fascination with Vodou drumming on Path Of Seven Colors.

(Photo: Mimi Chakarova)

Drummer/composer Ches Smith got into Vodou drumming almost by accident. As a graduate student studying music at Mills College in Oakland, California, he was asked to accompany an Afro-Haitian dance class back in 2000. “I didn’t know anything about Haitian music,” he said recently from his Brooklyn home. To prepare, he went to Amoeba Music and purchased a field recording of a Vodou ceremony. “It was blazing-fast drumming … I couldn’t even tell if it was in 5/4 or 4/4.”

From that chance encounter with Haitian Vodou music grew a lifelong fascination with its complex polyrhythms and spellbinding chants, even as his career as a drummer took him in other directions. Now, more than 20 years later, Smith is releasing a groundbreaking album, Path Of Seven Colors (Pyroclastic Records), combining Vodou music with jazz composition and improvisation.

Smith recorded the work with his group We All Break, a cross-cultural octet including four jazz musicians and four traditional Haitian drummers and singers, who pool their talents to make a hybrid music that is stunningly original and mesmerizing in its ritualistic power.

In addition to Smith on drum set, the octet features three musicians at the forefront of experimental and improvised music — pianist Matt Mitchell, alto saxophonist Miguel Zenón and bassist Nick Dunston — combined with Haitian vocalist Sirene Dantor Rene and a trio of master Haitian drummers: Fanfan Jean-Guy Rene, Markus Schwartz and drummer/songwriter Daniel Brevil, who contributed several original compositions. The album’s June release was accompanied by a 50-minute documentary on the making of the album by filmmaker Mimi Chakarova.

Smith has played a variety of experimental music forms as a leader and sideman, indulging a taste for both rock and jazz drumming. When in his 20s, Smith played with rock experimentalists like Mr. Bungle and Secret Chiefs 3. In recent years, he has recorded with jazz innovators like Tim Berne’s Snakeoil, Marc Ribot, Craig Taborn, Mat Maneri, John Zorn, Nels Cline and Dave Holland.

The group’s name, We All Break, is a reference to a staple of Vodou drumming called the kase (pronounced ka-say), a break in the main rhythmic pattern introduced by the lead drummer.

“It’s designed to kinda shock the initiates, throw them off balance,” Smith said. “If they’re dancing to the beat, it kinda pulls the rug out from under them. It’s essentially polyrhythmical in nature, highlighting the undercurrent of the rhythm that was in the first part.” In Vodou ritual, disorienting the initiates in this way is supposed to facilitate an ecstatic experience in which they may become possessed by the spirits the ceremony is designed to summon.

The idea of combining religious and secular music gave Smith some pause — in fact, more so than it did his Haitian collaborators. “I had reservations, but they didn’t,” he said. “I wanted to blend the two [genres] and feature this incredible drumming, but I asked Marcus and Daniel, ‘Is this a good idea?’ They said, ‘Let’s try it.’ Daniel brought some of his friends to [our] second gig, and they approved. They saw that the drums and Haitian songs were prominent in the music.”

Smith describes his attraction to Vodou music as a physical thing. “I’m generalizing, but it felt like Elvin Jones to me — it had that kind of visceral grip on me,” he said. “It just was a feeling it gave me. I almost want to say I’d feel that way even if I didn’t play drums. The way certain rhythms went together it was really funky and powerful at the same time … and really polyrhythmic. ”

Those interests began as a young teen in Sacramento, when he and his older brother, also a drummer, would play along with rock music on the radio. “At 14 or 15, I started playing all the time, reading drum magazines; I began to realize I’d better learn the rudiments.” An early teacher made him mixtapes and got him listening to jazz drummers.

Following up on his interest in Vodou music, Smith visited Haiti, attended Vodou ceremonies and began to comprehend the music’s spiritual underpinnings.

“I saw that was the reason for all this great music. There’s a spiritual reason for all the polyrhythms and the way the drumming fits together — it wasn’t just some art thing. The average person in that community understands it, too. It’s not just for the musicians.” DB

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