This is a chapter from my book The Table that can be purchased HERE.
Rest in peace Mike Bell!
Chapter 12 – Prana meets the Beats inna Firehouse in Monterey, Kentucky
We were young men, in a percussion ensemble circa 1993 -1995 named for a Vedic word used to describe the life-giving force. A source, per definition of the word, that comes from the sun. We were a rag tag team of twenty-year olds, very much innocently – delving into conceptual organic soundscapes – very much inspired by the resurgence of world music that came after Micky Hart released his book and companion CD, Drumming at the Edge of Magic. We were winging it.
We had a didgeridoo player, blacksmith, who had mastered the circular breathing technique of the Australian native peoples. A DunDun player wild man, new to African music, photographer and deep thinker, seeker. We also had the young son of a Presbyterian minister, Zak Fry. My first percussion student. We had Leland, the friend, who would end up sticking around in NYC after the Rant tour, that ate the beat poets, and then would travel with me to the place that was founded by the Sufi, Inayat Khan’s son. Several Folks would come in and out of this group. Toby the hippie dude who disappeared. I think he split out to Bloomington, Indiana. We also had Joshua, the white Rasta, soon to become quite a hardworking man and husband. Not to mention kick ass Djembe player in his own right.
Three of our members came as a troop. High school buddies. Our Dundun, bass drum, mask wearing, philosopher – burning man, was a close friend of Eric (habibi) the blacksmith frame drum player. Some of the troop sometimes now honor me as their first teacher, and that is an honor. But we were all new to this culture. Not a study into the factual historical relevance of the Djembe, however, we were on a journey that would take us into Smoketown, Kentucky to do a presentation for impoverished African- American neighborhood kids.
We ate Monterey, Kentucky and played the firehouse in that little lonesome forgotten tobacco town. We played the Twice-Told coffeehouse many times. I suggested that we would eventually play in Egypt and all around the world. I think big. We would wear African masks and put cool Indian carpets on the stage like the Grateful Dead. We were going further, for real. Once we had a copper bullroarer fly off the rope and almost kill somebody in the audience. It was awesome,
Back in the Prana days, I was deeply studying Islam and Sufi poetry. I was playing and making bamboo flutes. I was attending the working-class mosque on 4th street in old Louisville and praying as much as I could. I was reading books written by a Sufi guru named Bawa Muhiyadeen, a lot. My wife and I would later visit the fellowship in Philly that was organized and overseen by Bawa. On our honeymoon, we would pray in the fellowship’s mosque, eat mung bean curry and read Bawa texts in his bedroom. We would then travel to the Gershwin hostel in NYC, and sleep in a Barbie themed bed. We were ecstatically in love, still are. And,
Once upon a time there was a Cat Swami. He sat in the grain house and convinced rats to follow him. He told the rats that the cats and the rats had made friends. The cat was awesome, right? He would preach fire and brimstone, the one big union, sing solidarity forever and all was good on the farm. One day, one of the fat rats disappeared. The cat told the fat rat to stay after one of the sermons, because he, the cat, thought that he, the rat, was awesome, right? um, so. Well, when no one was looking, pounce.
The other rats got the picture and figured out the moral of the story and they all lived happily ever after. Right?
That is a very simple version of a Bawa story that was in one of his Children’s books. It is a story that teaches folks to be very wary of guru’s, plastic shamans, new age bull chicken and the such. Bawa’s stories are deep and his teachings, wonderful. Nobody can find any dirt on him. No cars, women, drugs, no wild sex and other things that sometimes come with Indian guru new age crystal visions. I am not Muslim now and my Lebanese Greek Orthodox grandfather would have killed me, if he knew my wife and I got married in the mosque. I am a huge fan of Sufism and, I digress, often.
I think the important thing to mention is that none of us were music students at the college. The non-academic qualities of our group are important to this story. The living and breathing fact was that we were all struggling to figure out some relevance in a world that had lost its way. Lost its culture. I think that it is also important to mention that while some of us were studying the liner notes of all the new world music CDs we were sharing about our collective. We never called it a collective.
We didn’t have a website, email and a blog. We released a cassette. Our rehearsals were held mostly at our Dun Dun player’s house and were naturally centered around food and friendship. A dundun is a common general name for the bass drums that are the backbone of traditional west African village music from the Malinke people.
We were mixing together the rhythms that I had learned from a collection of African rhythms from two of my earliest teachers, Herbie Johnson and Musa Uthman. It is important to note that these two people were African Americans, from Louisville, Kentucky. These two folks were part of the generation of African Americans that had found African music from the previous generations. From the pan African 1960’s.
It is also important to note that the resurgence of World Music, that can be directly blamed on Mickey Hart, was fueling this group. We were adding to that mix, a study of Classical Indian music that found our group traveling to Cincinnati to a birthday celebration for Zakir Hussain’s father. If I remember correctly it was his 70th birthday and the concert was a long tabla recital with his two sons. Long, meaning over three hours. Zakir Hussain is one of the most celebrated Tabla players of his time. His father was one of the most important Tabla players of his time. Time.
Eric, our didge player and I had become very good friends. We were dropping acid, playing music for hours, talking, laughing. Eric, is a trickster, seer, magician. He was at the time a Blacksmith. His homemade Didgeridoos, made of copper, were exquisite. To make a serious point, I think Eric is one of the most talented musicians that I have ever played with. I have been places with Eric, in music, that are hard to explain. Other Worlds. Sun Ra has a song called, I’ll Wait For You. That is where we went.
It’s a far place.
Many light years in space …
I’ll wait for you,
I’ll wait for you!
Where human feet,
have never trod,
human eyes, have never seen –
I’ll build a world, full of abstract dreams –
I’ll wait for you … I’ll wait for you.
Something like that. Before Prana, I had a friend named Blue. He played the Japanese flute. Blue and I worked at the Good Neighbor Food Cooperative together. He was an ex-Marine, turned hippie, lost son of a folk musician – step son of a biker. Not just a biker, but a real one. His step-father was … well, think biker gang, Louisville Outlaws – think, Hell’s Angels. That is how Blue grew up. We met and would become inseparable. We would spend hours and hours playing our flute and drum, in the burned-out chapel upstairs from the Co-op. We named our group One Song, from a line in a poem by Rumi. Blue and I would frequently go to the place that is described in the Sun Ra poem.
To get to that place, a Sufi poet once gave perfect directions. The instructions read:
to enter that place one would need to fly through a window,
but, why do that, if there were no walls …
Something like that. Jazz musicians call this place, “In the pocket.” Miles Davis called his notes colors. Many musicians have tried to describe leaving the human world of language and place. It’s like a magic carpet ride. L.S.D helps, but like Timothy Leary had suggested in his time – once you get across the river, why carry the canoe – …
The river I was crossing with PRANA was a poem that would have many rewrites over time. Drum, Beat, Dance. The poem turned into an elaborate stage presentation called The Rhythm of Civilization. Here is one of the versions that is in my journal that I carried in my grip while eating NYC, meeting all the old farts of poetry and going to meet Baba Olatunji. The poem is Circa 1994.
Sounds that came from a
place inside you that
you didn’t know were there.
from the heart by the
hands the sweet music
flows, Sounds of a
Drum – Beat – Dance …
Children dancing on
the skin that stretches
Looking at the sun
the white heat grabs you.
Drum – Beat – Dance!
A new civilization singing …
Lonely for the flute,
I come looking
for you …
Drum – Beat – Dance …
We Celebrate, with music –
and wine, not made from grapes!
In a place, you can’t imagine.
The Marriage of flute and drum.
The Rhythm of sound.
The breath of life.
Sound and Power.
Drum Beat Dance and Sing and Dance
and Love and Life and Drum – Beat – Dance …
We started the song with forest sounds, clicks and the bullroarers. The didgeridoo drone would then lead the way to a deep six-eight pattern on the drums. I would do a flute presentation and then start into the poem. The song ended with a long flute solo and then finished with the conclusion of the poem.
When we played this song in Monterey, Kentucky, my flute, right in the middle of my solo, broke in half and fell to the floor. It was surreal. The solo that I had taken had moved me to start crying. Of all the performances that we experienced as a group, the firehouse gig was my favorite. The hash was good, the L.S.D that we took was pure and the creek we swam in was cool. I was young and with my friends. Monterey, Kentucky holds a special place in my heart. I had never experienced that sort of mystical feeling before. A deep rapture that broke my flute. Right?