Interview with Richard Howell conducted pre: concert. Posted after concert with concert photos from the Monday, May 5, Yoshi's SF gig
After all these years of wanting to speak to you, I finally have an opportunity to speak to one of my favorite musicians and human beings. I wanted to give him some ink on the gig on Monday, May 5, because it isn’t often that we get to see him with his own group. We see him with others all the time. It’s always a pleasant surprise. I hadn’t known he played with Anthony Brown, or at least I hadn’t remembered. I knew he was with Mo’Rockin, and he’s one of the producers, and then of course UpSurge! Whose CDs he’s produced, yet to see him as leader—I think this might be my first time.
I’d like to ask you about the genre shifting. I know you sing and I noticed on Tuesday, Khalil was playing the talking drum, but I remembered you play that too. Could you talk about the genre shifting and how you use your multiple voices to speak musically as a vocalist, drummer and with what I say is your primary musical voice, the tenor saxophone.
RH: The saxophone would be my primary voice, but I am actually one who enjoys all music. I love all music that stimulates my spirit that makes me feel good. That goes from the European classical to American classical or jazz. I mostly immerse myself in the African Diaspora, West Africa, East Africa, to funk and hip hop, the jazz, I mean the rap and tap, reggae, bebop, blues. I listen to the music of North Africa. I listen to the music of West Africa. I love the music of Brazil. I listen to some of the music of Argentina. I listen to music from all over the world. I have been fortunate to have been involved in projects with West African musicians and North African musicians, hip hop artists, rap artists, swing artists—I just love the music. Free jazz, I’ve been very very fortunate.
WS: I know you have also traveled, so the music you enjoy has you actually been to those countries, like for instance Brazil and West Africa and North Africa. I know you go to Europe a lot to play in festivals there. I remember one time you told me you were at the North Sea Jazz Festival.
RH: I have been to practically every single festival in Europe. I spent some time in Mali, Burkina Faso, and I had an opportunity to play with Tumani Diabate in Mali, and I played with a group from Amsterdam called Faraa Faraa Sound in 2003. They were descendents of Suriname Africans. I got a chance to play with them and toured Africa with them. I get exposed to other music of the African Dutch.
WS: Who are the African Dutch?
RH: those from Suriname because the Dutch colonized this area in South America in the Caribbean near Guyana.
WS: Were you in Mali for a while?
RH: I was there for three weeks in 2005. I met Faraa Faraa at a trade show in Europe and they asked me if I’d play with them, and I said, definitely. They called me and told me they had a tour in Africa (in 2005). The thing was a lot of African Americans don’t want to tour in Africa. I said, I’m not one of those.
WS: They said a lot of African American musicians don’t want to travel in Africa?
RH: They’d played with a couple of African Americans who did visit Africa and didn’t like it. They were accustomed to their comforts and I’m one who is just ready to go.
WS: Are you multiple lingual?
RH: I barely speak English.
WS: You speak a lot of languages musically, that’s for sure.
RH: That is my language.
WS: Was that your first time in Africa in 2005?
RH: I was in Northern Africa approximately 15 years ago.
WS: Did you know Yassir back then.
RH: No I met Yassir less than two years ago. I worked on a project with El Hussaine Kili. I think one of the reasons I was solicited for the Mo’Rockin Project was because I already had experience in Northern African music. I introduced Omar Sosa to Northern African music through my friend El Houssaine Kili, a Moroccan vocalist and composer, whom I did production for his album in 2003 and 2004. The second album reached number one on the world music charts. It has not reached the United States, except on-line. The title of the album is Mountain to Muhammad.
I did a show in Berlin with Omar and I saw my friend there. I did that there in Stuttgart, Germany.
WS: Does he sing in Arabic?
WS: The song you sang Tuesday, April 22 at the CD release party was that in Arabic and what does it mean?
RH: Hamideen. It’s ‘counting your blessings for the things you have, giving thanks.’
WS: Did you write it?
RH: Yes I did.
WS: It was really beautiful. I could see my granddaughter singing it and the way the chorus came in, was really lovely.
Back to El Houssaine. You said you went to Africa 15 years ago and you introduced Omar to this musician. You said you were in Europe.
RH: I did this in 2000.
WS: Omar is on your San Francisco CD.
WS: I knew you played with him when you played here. How was it for you being in Africa? I know that you had read about it and played with musicians that were from Africa, African natives, but how was it being on the continent. Did it change the music in any way?
RH: It changed my life. He says emphatically without raising his voice.
WS: Talk about it.
RH: I don’t know how to describe Africa. It is different from anything I’ve ever been. There is an energy there that is really difficult to put into words. The sky looks bluer, the ground looks more colorful, the color are amazing, the people are amazing, friendly and warm—that’s my encounter, I met nothing but friendly people. I met people who welcomed me. I had people walk up to me and say, ‘Welcome my brother, welcome. Welcome home.’ That was the experience I had. I brought me to tears. I saw so many beautiful people and I saw people that reminded me of where I grew up in my neighborhood in Southern California. It really was like going home.
So yes, it did change me a lot. I listened to a lot of music there. I watched a lot of African videos. I got to listen to a lot of the drummers. I went to clubs and saw people playing. I got to play with some of the Africans. I played with an African vocal group, four singers playing a capella and they invited me to sing with them. I was scatting while they were laying down a rhythm pattern. It was awesome, beautiful.
There is music all day long.
WS: Just like they say or one sees movies…not just African culture on the continent but in the Diaspora, how you hear music all day long in all the houses, in the streets…it’s a part of the landscape.
RH: It is.
WS: It’s like life having a soundtrack. It never goes away. You never turn off the sound track. At night time you have a different kind of soundtrack.
What part of North Africa did you visit when you went there?
WS: So you knew all that history when you touched down?
RH: I was studying it then.
WS: So you knew about the BPP and the people given political asylum and how simpatico the government was towards African American concerns?
WS: But you knew about the Battle of Algiers?
RH: yes and we both laugh.
WS: When you came back home after you’d completed the album for El Houssaine, did you have any music of your own?
RH; I write music all the time, but I haven’t had a chance to perform it. I actually busy. I’m CEO of WildFire.com which is an on-line distribution company. I’ve been more involved with becoming an entrepreneur and recording on the side, tracks of my own. At the time Big Belly was around, and I was playing with that group. I was did their CDs. I did the production for UpSurge! and at the same time I was actively working with Babatunde Lea. I did some of the production on one of his albums. So I stay busy, working on other people’s projects, sharing my experiences. It’s my time now, that’s kind of where I am now. All of my knowledge that I’ve accumulated working I am seriously putting it toward my own project. So this concert on May 5, did you start the on-line media organization wildonfire.com. I started it with Daniel Ryan. It started in 2000. Now I am sole proprietor.
When did you decide this was going to be your career and that this needed to support you?
When did you know this is what you wanted to do with your life?
RH: Probably at a very young age. I grew up in Southern California and had an opportunity to play with a lot of wonderful musicians down there. I couldn’t tell you…probably when I was playing in high school and someone paid me. .I was playing baritone saxophone and alto saxophone in high school and I also played upright bass.
On the fifth I’ll be playing tenor and soprano. I still own a baritone but rarely play it.
WS: What is it about the saxophone that speaks for you? When reading your bio, I noticed you play almost everything. Why tenor sax, what can you say that you can’t say with another vehicle?
RH: Tenor itself probably chose me. It kind of came to me as I was playing alto saxophone. I enjoy the range of it. It felt could and on top of that, John Coltrane plays it.
WS: I was reading about how when you dad brought home the Coltrane records—sounded like he had a really extensive collection; he played it for you and gave you permission to play others. That must have made you feel really good that he trusted you with the albums and the stereo.
RH: My father turned me onto John Coltrane. He listened to 'Trane, but he was a little too outside for him. He just handed it to me and said, ‘You’ll probably like this better than I would.’ He was more into Duke Ellington and Count Basie and Jack McDuff and Shirley Scott and stuff like that.
My father played baritone saxophone. He played in a big band and then when he started a family he stopped playing, so I never saw him play professionally. We had jam sessions at home. My older brother and my sister sometimes played with us. My father would play piano, my older brother played drums and I would play saxophone or bass. I actually played a lot of acoustic bass. I play a little electric now, so I’m a little shy with all the wonderful bass players in bay area such as, Ron Belcher, Garrett Brown and Mark Williams and I could go on.
WS: What are your plans for May 5?
RH: This is nothing new to me, what I’m doing. I’m very very pleased to be doing this with EW Wainwright, Garrett Brown, Fred Harris and Destiny. As I traveled, it started with…I’m a composer and I wanted to hear my music a certain way. Having a budget or not having a budget I would not have the opportunity to rehearse a lot of music and not hearing the music rehearsed the way I wanted it. I made the choice of just coming on the bandstand and just playing what I feel like playing (what I call) spontaneous creativity. Sometimes it puts pressure on musicians. They have a little difficulty handling that, but I didn’t this with this group of musicians before and it was like a piece of cake. It was like ‘yeah, let’s do this!’ They totally understood what I was trying to do this spontaneous creativity which is the essence of jazz anyway. So what we will be doing on the 5th. Because this is not about me at all. We will do is pay tribute to those responsible for us being able to play this music – I will call on the ancestors—all the ancestors.