An Interview with Mark Nauseef
from the April 1998 issue of RhythmMusic

by Larry Birnbaum


What style of music does Mark Nauseef
play? Better you should ask what style
he doesn't play. The American-born,
German-based drummer, whose performing
and recording credits run from Lebanese
oudist Rabih Abou-Khalil to soul diva Thelma
Houston to jazz pianist Joachim Kühn to
classical composer Lou Harrison to the Velvet
Underground, is at home playing Indian,
Indonesian, African and Arabic music, as well
as rock, classical, soul and jazz. Rhythmically
speaking, you might say he's a master of all
trades, jack of none.

"I try to stay away from style as best I
can," Nauseef declares. "Today you're
bombarded with all these ways of learning
techniques that have been boxed as a style,
instead of realizing that there's basic
things. If you can learn how pitch works
and how rhythm works, if you can feel that
big pulse and how everything is divided in
space and time, then whether you sit in
with a Latin band or some African cats or
classical guys, it's the same language.
They're going to be dealing with pitch and
with rhythm. That's the essence."

Although he's recorded under his own
name since 1980, Nauseef is perhaps best-
known as a member of Abou-Khalil's eclectic
quintet, where he steers smoothly through an
ever-shifting stream of odd time signatures.
"Rabih goes from like 13 to 17 and then
changes the pulse," he says. "You're in 17/8,
and then you go to 3/4, so the bottom
changes, too. I was able to do it because I
studied Indian music, so I just subdivide.
I don't even see the bar lines; I just look at the
whole thing as phrasings. He'll go into a long
melody line that I can subdivide; I sing the
whole rhythm and then play it. If I tried to
read it like a Western musician, it would
probably be a little bit stiff."

Nauseef also attracts attention with his
unusual drum kit, a set of shell-less heads
that looks electric but isn't. "It's totally
acoustic," he says. "It has a suspension system
so that nothing is choking the rim. It's made
by some guys in Minneapolis called
PureCussion. They just made a hoop with a
skin in it, suspended it from this suspension
system, and my drums just sound killer. It's
totally tunable and very melodic. When I tried
other drums with Rabih's band, there were too
many overtones, and I couldn't get it to be so
melodic. Now I have a lot of different tones I
can use that fit with the oud."

On his latest, unaccompanied solo
album, With Space In Mind (M·A Recordings),
he sets the PureCussion aside in favor of
assorted Chinese, Thai and Korean drums,
gongs and bells, plus odds and ends from
Nauseef's old drum sets and a group of five
"chime boxes" designed by composer Carl
Orff. "They're resonator boxes with long
pieces of rosewood across the top,
like marimba bars but contrabass," he explains.
"They're made for children with vestigial
hearing, so they can feel the vibrations, and
they can actually tune into some kind of
music based on different feelings from the
vibration. The sound is amazing."

The album, slanted somewhere between
new-age spirituality and the classical rigor of
Edgard Varese, is one of four Nauseef has made
for M·A, a Japanese label run by expatriate
American pianist Todd Garfinkle. "The word
ma in Japanese is the space that makes things
happen," says Nauseef, "and his whole thing is
about how to use spaces. So my solo record,
the one with [oud player] Hamza El Din and
the one with [trumpeter] Markus Stockhausen
were all done in a place built by French,
German and Japanese engineers called the
Harmony Hall in Matsumoto, up in the
mountains about three hours outside of Tokyo.
You can tune the spot with hydraulics; it has
an incredible pipe organ, and there's a guy
walking around all the time with a meter to
measure the humidity in the air. And, man,
your ax sounds great in there!"

Nauseef has also cut several albums on
the German CMP label, all engineered by
Walter Quintus, featuring such artists as
Joachim Kuhn, Markus Stockhausen,
singer/bassist Jack Bruce, guitarist David Torn
and percussionist Trilok Gurtu-with musical
influences ranging from Hendrix to the
Himalayas. He appears on Abou-Khalil's last
two Enja albums and has also recorded for that
label with the trio Loose Wires and with Swiss
composer/pianist Sylvie Courvoisier. "Sylvie's
like 27 years old, teaching advanced theory at
the Zürich Conservatory," Nauseef says. "She
was commissioned to write some music for this
guy Pierre Charial, who plays a barrel organ,
like a monkey-grinder type organ, but a huge
one. So she wrote this music; they played it
into a computer and then punched holes in
mountains of cardboard. And he shoves the
cardboard through this barrel organ, turns the
wheel and, man, it's unbelievable!"

Born in Ithaca, New York, on June 11,
1953, Nauseef has a multicultural background.
"My father is Lebanese," he relates, "and every
Lebanese or Arab family always has a
darbouka, dumbek, whatever you want to call
it, in the house. My father and my uncles, five
of them, would always get together, and if
there was a wedding or something, they would
pick up these drums and play their asses off.
There was no, like, 'Oh, I haven't practiced'.
They just pick it up, and they know these
certain grooves. But from an early age I was
attracted to the traps, and I built my own set
out of coffee cans at eight or nine."
In high school he played garage-band
rock and R&B. "At that time you had to know
like Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, a1l those
things, and it was a great way to learn,
because that garage thing doesn't exist like it
did then, where cats just hung out and played
really terribly, in a way, but just trying to
catch that thing, whatever it was. At that
point I went for private teachers; I spent a lot
of time studying in New York with [jazz
drummer] Horacee Arnold, and I too studied
with Sue Evans, the drummer in Gil Evans'
band, and with Warren Smith, for mallets. And
I was teaching myself harmony with theory
books and just working it out on a keyboard
and doing ear training myself."

"When I was 18 I went to Europe with
the Velvet Underground. That's a valuable
experience, because I was listening to Elvin
Jones and Mitch Mitchell, the cats who were
the hippest players whether it was rock or
jazz. And then you realize, here's some people
who aren't interested in that stuff at all.
They're interested in a flavor, a color, some
personality. At the time I couldn't synthesize
that so well, where today it makes complete
sense to go for the sound and the color before
you go for anything stylistic."

Nauseef was in Los Angeles when he met
Joachim Kühn. "We hit it off immediately," he
recalls. "That was a big thing for me, to work
with an improviser on that level. He said,
'Man, you should come back to Germany with
me.' And we went back to Hamburg and did
this one record together, and after that I
hung out with him every day, just picking his
brain. He's the one who said, 'Hey, man, you
should start doing your own music.' That's
how my first album came about, because he
knew the guy from CMP and told him, 'Oh,
you should hear this guy.' So we sent the guy
some tapes, and I did Sura in 1980. Even on
that record, I was working with Indian and
Indonesian musicians."

He decided to settle in Hamburg permanently.
"I loved it there," he says, "because I
was doing music that would be impossible if
you tried to do it in America, and not only was
it possible but it was getting paid well and
respected. And through Joachim I was
meeting killing musicians who had a different
approach from American musicians." He
played a concert with Jack Bruce, then
replaced Billy Cobham in the touring and
recording band Jack Bruce & Friends.
Bruce, in turn, recorded on Nauseef's
album Wun-Wun, singing to
the multi-tracked sound of a gamelan
orchestra played entirely by Nauseef.
"I called the record Wun-Wun," he says,
"because the time is always 1/1 in the end.
There's all these weird time signatures,
but that one beat is always followed by the next beat."

Nauseef, an early fan of Indian music, took a growing interest
in hand drums. Trilok Gurtu, recently arrived in Hamburg from
India, showed him the fundamentals of tabla technique, and frame
drummer Glen Velez taught him to play the Egyptian riq. "I thought,
man, I'm getting bits and pieces of this stuff; I'm reading about it
and understanding it, but I've got to play hands on. It has to be a
hands-on experience."

In 1984 he won a scholarship to the California Institute of the
Arts. "I went there for two-and-a-half years," says Nauseef, "
specifically for the Ghanaian music of the Ewe tribe, North Indian classical,
Javanese classical, Balinese classical and 20th-century techniques
with John Bergamo, who had worked with John Cage, Varese, Lukas
Foss, Frank Zappa, all these people. They had this Indonesian guy,
K.R.T. Wasitodiningrat; the two African guys, the Ladzekpo brothers,
and a guy named Taranath Rao, who besides being a great tabla
teacher was teaching the pakhawaj, the drum that came before the
tabla. And then I would play with Thelma Houston, which was one of
the best experiences, because the director of that band was a Motown
bass player named Tony Newton; he had also been in Tony Williams'
Lifetime, and we reconnected much later on this record
Let's Be Generous, with Joachim Kühn.

While at CalArts, he got a phone call from Rabih Abou-Khalil in
Germany. "He had seen a record under my name, with Trilok and guys
like that, and he knew that Nauseef is a Lebanese name, so he found
out where I was living and called me, just based on the fact that I was
a Lebanese drummer living in the West." Nauseef begged off for the
duration of his studies, but when he got back to Hamburg, Abou-Khalil
called again, and the two have worked together ever since. "The first gig
I did with him was with [American bassist] Barre Phillips," says Nauseef.
"With Barre it's a free thing, and we were in a whole another world. It
was amazing for a first gig."

Besides his continuing performing and recording activity with
Abou-Khalil, Kühn, Gurtu, Courvorsier and others, Nauseef has recently
been producing albums of traditional Balinese and Javanese music in
Indonesia for the CMP 3000 World Series. "When you have a gamelan,"
he says, "the whole thing is beating, and it shimmers. In Balinese music,
every instrument is in pairs, so that they can interlock. But those two
instruments are never perfectly in tune, so you get that beating. But
you don't say these cats are out of tune; it's more the effect of pitch,
and that can be very good. Why do we have to be exactly in tune? Pulse
is the word, and then rising from the pulse come all the subdivisions,
that just go on endlessly."