Ode to the Drums of Ginger Baker

Ginger Baker, in performance with Ginger Baker’s Air Force.

Ginger Baker, one of our greatest drummers, is dead.  They say he died last Sunday, at the age of 80.  On the drums he was my teacher in spirit, a sensei from afar.

My habit these days is to go out to the barn around 3 am and talk with my drums until dawn, and Baker is always on my mind.  He hangs around the set with his lunatic smile.    On some nights I suffer a kind of insomnia that morphs into frenzy, and I sit on the drums to quell it.

The drums take me like a lover, knocking me around, throwing me down, tossing me up, barking, banging, light then heavy, hard then gentle, skittering, leaping, balancing, propulsing, always advancing, and always within the strictures of musical time.  A highly organized chaos.  And there’s nothing I can do about it –  impossible to stop such a force once you’re in the whirlwind of it.

Often I end up at 8 am out of this dreamstate in the slant morning light soaked in sweat, wet from head to toe like a man emerging from a sweat lodge, feeling gorgeous, my eyes half-blinded in the new sun, hysterical with delight, exhausted in the way you are after many sexual couplings and orgasms, and finally able to sleep.  These beats inhabit me in the manner of a spiritual possession.  They calm my soul.

Baker was among the earliest popular Western percussionists to embrace and understand the complexity of African polyrhythms.  After his two years with Cream that brought him fame and money, he abandoned his native England – abandoned the comfort and conformity of everything he knew – and moved to Nigeria, where he built a recording studio in Lagos and jammed and recorded with Afro-beat legend Fela Kuti.  He knew, before so many others knew, that to understand the beats that are the backbone of the musical forms which today we label rock, hiphop, and jazz, you needed first to understand the percussion of Africa.

For my part, having studied drums as a child and played into my teens, there was a long barren musical interregnum during which I touched not a drum at all, in my late 20s and into my mid-thirties.  I was busy being a writer, concentrating on the cold logic of the word, and I forgot music.

Then, at age 39, I discovered for the first time the djembe, the hand drum that African culture gifted to the world.  Everything changed with the djembe.  I learned the rhythms they call the kuku, the kono, the patatje, the yankadi, and knew of course that with each of these rhythms I was preparing for a return to the Western rock-jazz “trap set” – kick drum, snare, hi-hat, toms, cymbals – on which I had first discovered the beauty of beat.

It’s strange to say, and perhaps inexplicable, that re-discovering the drums after so long an absence, I learned a new way of writing, a new way of crafting a sentence with beat in mind.  I venture to say that I would never have finished my first book without drums.

Writing this, I just came back from the barn, soaking wet after three hours of practice on the set, the fog swallowing the ridgetop where I live, the mist shot through with the light of the moon.   I am alive as I’ve never been before – well, no, I am alive as I have ever been after playing drums.  I have seen visions, been swept up in a mystical relation.   All those who know the celestial music, the raging fire of the beat, the disappearance of the ego into musical syncopation – the subservience of the will to that thing Ginger Baker called, simply, “time” – will know what I’m talking about.  All those who don’t – I can’t help them.

Christopher Ketcham writes at Christopherketcham.com and is seeking donations to his new journalism nonprofit, Denatured.  He can be reached at christopher.ketcham99@gmail.com.