Drummer Dave Smith’s career as a professional musician has been wide-ranging by any standards. He has had several extended stays in Senegal and the Gambia, and absorbed the Sabar tradition, and also toured around the world touring with Robert Plant’s Sensational Space Shifters.
While the sheer amount of traveling involved could have left some people jaded, Smith’s appetite for music is as great as ever. “It’s an expanding world,” Dave Smith says. “It is unachievable to think that you can absorb everything and be all these things. But you’re influenced and inspired. There’s osmosis going on.”
Luke Franc* had a consultation lesson with Dave Smith and found out about what happens when, in Smith’s own words, he “steps back from the rollercoaster of the creative music scene” and channels this wealth of experience into his work as an educator.
“In its simplest form, drumming is low and hi sounds, long notes and short notes, soft and loud,” Dave Smith says as we set up the drums. He has a way of acutely observing the big picture but all the while staying centered in the present. Connecting his diverse body of work in such broad ways, Smith is able to transcend the boundaries of genre. As the conversation continues to flow, it moves toward jazz specifically, the genre in which his career began. Smith cogitates: “There’s no time to analyze anything. Allow yourself to be released from what’s gone. I think that’s the hardest thing.” The primary meaning of this was purely musical, yet his words have enough ambiguity that they almost feel like mantra.
A mindful outlook is a large part of what landed Smith in a Wolof village in Senegal in his final year of undergraduate study. With a fond humour he recollects naming ceremonies, dances, even an all-night wrestling match lit by a single bulb. And through it all, percussion, in this case sabar drumming, carried a special cultural significance. “There was some kind of deep rooted power in what was going on in that music. You get that in a lot of traditional music when you experience it firsthand. It makes you think, ‘What are my roots?’” It is a stark difference between a West African village and London, where Smith had lived for three plus years before this pilgrimage. Almost like a musicologist, he acknowledges how geography impacts one’s ability to master a skill.
“Shall we play?” From the first note, it’s a dance. When Dave Smith plays, there’s a power and an authenticity that can only come out of total immersion in a cultural practice. He brings all of it; every drum in the “family”, the high to the low voices, the conversational language, even the dancers’ feet. As he shows me some applications of sabar to the drum set, Smith is exacting, as one must be when translating an unfamiliar music into Western language. But eventually we are playing in duet, his visceral joy starts to shine through, and the sense that something is alive between us grows.
In a big city, it’s near impossible to know and experience everything. In a musician’s case, one must prioritize the “what” and “who” of studying to best develop one’s own voice. For someone like Smith, who didn’t have a “specialist” background, it made more sense to link jazz and sabar drumming, and he did so through the sense of community. In both, “the main thing is the collectiveness of it. There’s different things going on, there’s polyrhythms, there’s polyphony. And there’s always these layers”. Out of that link has emerged his groups Fofoulah and Outhouse Ruhabi, ensembles which likely would not have come about if Smith solely focused on becoming a traditional jazz specialist, as the conservatoire path can sometimes lead to. “In jazz you can say ‘I really want to have cymbal time like Marcus Gilmore’. That’s not going to happen! But it doesn’t mean that you can’t work on it and find your own way.”
Ironically, in Smith’s case, pulling inspiration from multiple sources has made him more “relevant” in the melting pot that is London. In fact, it was because, not in spite, of his experience with both sabar and jazz traditions that he attracted the attention of Robert Plant. “It was one of those bands where people have come together, where Robert has brought them together to feed off of everyone else’s sound.” Smith is hesitant to call the group a rock ensemble. “We never played the same show twice. Robert is very ‘in the moment’. He loves to keep people on their toes.” Alongside their new-age folk, this group has performed their fair share of head banging arrangements of Led Zeppelin classics, yet it seems as though the mentality was more improvisatory, one that lends itself to a jazz mindset.
It was in Sensational Space Shifters that the world of recording technology opened up to Smith. That experimental spirit of the group was found in the studio as well, even though it was a fundamentally different approach than a jazz combo might take. “There was a lot of sitting around and trying things, whereas in the jazz world it’s like ‘We’ve got a set of music. Two days? Yeah we can record in two days’,” Smith astutely jokes. In addition to refining his “attention to sound” while playing acoustically, working in the studio wound up coming out in Fofoulah’s latest album. “To make demos or pull some ideas or record yourself playing, it’s important. It’s another string to the bow.”
Another string to the bow. Although, it’s not a career that you can neatly tie a ribbon around, it cannot be said that Smith hasn’t achieved arguably the highest level of success in multiple styles of music. Even after all his achievements, he remains humble. “It’s important to remember that everything you do will inform your playing and you as a person. We are all students.” And between all musicians, whether they come from a remote village where ancestral practices are king, or whether they grew up in the buzz of a metropolis, there is always “a common ground”.
* Luke Franc is a drummer and percussionist from the University of Miami who has recently completed an exchange student year at the Royal Academy of Music. His consultation lesson with Dave Smith was part of an internship at LondonJazz News.