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Notes on the Scene

Interview in Notes on the Scene (Fall 2006 issue)
Tony Vacca
by Rob Robinson

Drummer, poet, rhythm master and cross-continental collaborator: Tony Vacca awes crowds from grandmas to toddlers, from school auditoriums to music festivals. His sounds are deep, and so are his messages.

N: How long have you been playing the drums?

T: I started studying drums in 6th grade, but my playing started a few years before that...I was literally playing on desk-tops and pots and pans. There was always a lot of music in my house when I grew up. My parents heard and danced to the music of most of the big bands of their time. So that kind of strong rhythm and swinging sound was what I first heard. I was attracted to the sound and the feel of it all, and I guess my parents noticed. Every Christmas the one gift that I came to anticipate was some kind of toy drumset. It was just a funky toy, but it was cool with me. So by the time I was in 6th grade I hounded my parents for drum lessons, and that's how and when I really started.

N: The first time I ever got to see you play was at a Baba Olatunji benefit with Micky Hart and many others. What was it like playing for Baba?

T: That was Steve Leicach and I on that gig for Baba. We had a great time. Man, what an honor to play at a benefit for Baba Olatunji. This man has played for over fifty years, always bringing people together wherever he went. That's a high calling. It was just so gratifying to do our small part to raise some money to help him out with expenses relating to his health issues...It was a real tribute to his longevity and his vision. At the end of the program we all played together.

N: "The drum is a voice and the voice is a drum." What does this mean to you?

T: When I first wrote that song I was just saying that when we play the drum it's an extension of our voice. But there was a deeper thing going on in what I said that has taken me some time to get. It's like, "we have to play our drums more like they are our voices, and we have to raise our voices more like we play our drums. Mean what you say, and act in accordance with that." Bring the full force of your brilliance and strength to bear in pursuit of your vision. This America is only what we make it. We are each a force for change or stasis. Act out the change you want. Play your part in the world like you play your part in the music. Bring what you've got and know that it makes a difference, great and small.

N: One of my favorite musicians in the world is Massamba Diop. What's it like recording and performing
with him?

T: Massamba is one sweet and amazing cat. Right from the start, he was always about the power of the drum to take us higher. Once he joined up with Baaba Maal [over twenty years ago] he got the chance to prove and refine this power in concerts around the world.
So playing with Massamba was an affirmation for me of why I do what I do, and how it's important to play the music as I think and feel it needs to be played. Had I not been doing that, I wouldn't have met him, and Baaba. And to find another musician literally half way around the world from me, but with a similar vision, well this was just another one of life's endless miracles. We find ourselves often saying "lepp ma nanay," which means all things are possible.
Massamba brings an energy and joy into the music that only he can do. He loves representing his people, his nation. I have never seen someone anywhere, at any time who didn't just dive into what he had to offer. That's really saying something. If music is a healing force, and it is, then Massamba's medicine is his ability to light up a room with that kind of healing force. Which of course is why I gave him the nickname of "Tama Doctor."

N: Tell us about the Senegal- America Project.

T: The Senegal-America Project really started with my friendship with Massamba Diop, the tama drummer for Baaba Maal. I met him when I opened up for Baaba Maal's band. Massamba and Baaba invited me to work and study with them in Senegal. So three months later when I arrived in Senegal, Baaba hooked me up with a place to stay, and Massamba started teaching me about the tama drum. Baaba saw [our] growing friendship, and saw that I was getting very good on the tama, and included me on several of his concerts during that time. So at the end of that trip I invited Massamba to work with me in America. We've now done 16 tours in our 10 years of working together.

The American part of the project started with just me and Massamba doing festival gigs, concerts and workshops in schools. It expanded into collaborations with many other performers and artists. He has also worked with American playwrights, dancers, film-makers, and by now has worked with me at literally hundreds of schools and more festivals than I can count.

But it didn't stop there. We've done recordings together, and through Massamba's connections I've met other Senegalese musicians. There has been a lot of interest from schools in the educational potential of our project. In addition to performing our music, we do hands-on workshops [about the] music, dance, and culture of Senegal, and then make connections to those traditions here in America. We discuss and demonstrate the common ground between Senegal and America, and also address the issue of race as it pertains to our two nations and the world around us.

In December and January we took a group of 17 Americans that included teachers, musicians, artists, a story-teller, a social scientist, and a film maker to Senegal. Everyone went with a project of their own to pursue.

My own project was to create a collaborative recording that brought together traditional and innovative players from both countries. That recording is currently being mixed in hopes of finding a label interested in licensing and distributing this remarkable music. And this is just the beginning.

N: Any new recordings in the works?

T: Yes, I have two things in the works right now. The first is a "live in the studio" take with my ensemble. It's just so difficult to get the concert vibe recorded at the concert site, so we decided to bring the concert to the studio. We played our favorite set live a couple of times over two days, and then I just mixed it with a couple of overdubs. I really dig it.

The other new thing is "The Senegal-America Project." It includes several members of Baaba Maal's band, along with other singers and drummers from Senegal. We filmed the entire thing, so I am hoping to be able to put it out with a DVD.

In both cases I can only go as fast as my limited funds allow. If there are folks out there who want to support these projects, I'd love to hear from you. I love this new music, and can't wait to get it out there in the world.

N: You have a lot to say through your spoken word done to music. What messages are you trying to convey?

T: In my world, music is supposed to build strength and courage. It can open our hearts and minds and remind us of what's wrong in our world and how to begin to set that right. Or what is precious and should be kept that way. It's a social force, and whether you dance to it, listen to it, or play it, we are all part of it.

There have been times in my life when music helped me find my way; helped me regain focus, or find the courage to start or stop something. I guess one day I just realized it was time to include some of my spoken word creations in the music. Sometimes I was talking about being grateful for what I have, sometimes I was talking about the troubles we face that seem so insurmountable.

When the music is right, we feel so connected to ourselves, our world, and to each other. I thought that if I use that open feeling to share my experiences, that saying and offering those words would teach me something about myself. At the same time, those who heard my words might recognize some part of themselves in what I was saying. It's a kind of storytelling that humans have always done, and I was looking to use that force inside the instrumental storytelling that is already inherent in the music.

* * * * * *

from: Valley Advocate (Easthampton, MA)
November 29, 2001

An African Hip-Hop Group Drops the Bomb on America.
Bring That Beat Back!
Michael Manekin

..I paid a visit to Tony Vacca's Easthampton loft apartment. Vacca is a lifelong jazz devotee with a salt and pepper mullet hairdo, a tremendous assortment of African print T-shirts and a life-size black-and-white image of jazz composer Rashaan Roland Kirk hanging on his wall (pictured, characteristically, playing three saxophones at once). Vacca has collaborated with innovative jazz musicians like Yusef Lateef and Don Cherry, and spent more than three decades involved in something American record executives have labeled "world music."

In the early '90s, Vacca established a production company for his various musical projects called World Rhythms. From World Rhythms grew the Senegal America Project. Vacca's apartment doubles as an office for World Rhythms and the Senegal America Project, but when Gokh-bi travels to the U.S., it also triples as a hotel room.

That's why, when I knocked on Vacca's door, Backa was the one who answered -- completely out of breath. He and Abdou had been breakdancing on the hardwood floor, perfecting their backspins. In the kitchen, Mamadou was stirring a big pot, getting an early start on the night's dinner: yasser, a chicken and rice dish prepared with onions, tomatoes, a mess of untranslatable spices and a little kick from the secret sauce (recipe courtesy of Backa's mother).

In Dakar, members of Gokh-bi eat meals prepared by their mothers and sisters. But ever since their first trip stateside, the Gokh-bi members have been learning how to cook for themselves. Because Mamadou fast emerged as a talented chef, he has been picking up extra dinner shifts. Gokh-bi works very long days in this country, and no one in the group wants to come home to a poorly cooked meal.

This particular night, Backa was avoiding the kitchen altogether. At 20, he is the youngest in Gokh-bi, and consequently, the most susceptible to all manner of dissing. For days, he'd been bragging about his unbeatable sticky rice, and last night he finally tried to deliver. It did not go as well as he'd planned.

"Very big mistake," Mamadou said, cracking up.

At over six feet, Mamadou is the biggest member of Gokh-bi. Busting rhymes on stage, he is a fierce powerhouse; off-stage, he is a gentle giant, perpetually clowning and cracking jokes. Like all of Gokh-bi, he is a sweetheart with a mellow temperament that people in the U.S. might refer to as "Californian."

When I asked Mamadou how everyone in Gokh-bi liked crashing at Vacca's apartment, he laughed.

"It's our house -- this is not Tony's house," he said. "He's one person, and we are six."

I looked around the apartment. There were large African tapestries on the walls, a number of wooden African sculptures and several hamper-sized African baskets. Amidst the copious plant life (spider plants the height of 8-year-old children, floor plants the size of small wrecking balls), there were cots set up on the floor and extra bed pillows on the couches.

I asked Mamadou when he expected Vacca back, and he said that Vacca and his Senegal America Project partner Massamba Diop were at a school workshop; they were due back, he said, any time now.

Vacca's apartment sports a fantastic view towards the southeast, and when he and Diop finally returned, the sun was beginning to set over Mount Tom. Everyone -- Vacca, Diop, the six members of Gokh-bi -- sat down around the kitchen table, and, immediately, Vacca began talking Gokh-bi up.

"These guys invented something," he said. "They are reclaiming a certain kind of African connection to American music. Being very familiar with African music and sound, [when I heard Gokh-bi], I heard things that I'd never heard before ... I heard something that was very African and contemporary, and it was easy for me to understand that it was connected to the American rap and hip-hop movement. But this was signed 'Senegal' in big letters. It didn't sound like America; it sounded like Senegal knowing America."

Vacca tends to promote Gokh-bi like an agent, and handle them like a manager. Onstage and in the studio, where Vacca often backs up Gokh-bi on percussion, everyone is equal; offstage and outside the studio, where most of life occurs, Vacca is setting up gigs, scheduling rehearsals, coordinating press opportunities and, above all, laying out the cash. Every time Gokh-bi comes to the U.S., between plane tickets, visa fees and expenses, Vacca fronts a $15,000-20,000 investment in anticipation that the visit will make a profit. He is passionate about the Gokh-bi sound and vision, and wants to get their enterprise off the ground.

Vacca likes to tell a story about the first time he flew Gokh-bi to the U.S. When they arrived, he gave them a stack of hip-hop and funk CDs. On top was an album by the Last Poets, whom many consider the godfathers of hip-hop.

"You know the deal," Vacca said, "I mean, American kids -- ask them who the Last Poets are. Put a million dollars on the table, and they're not going to know that."

Gokh-bi not only knew of the Last Poets, they had long considered them a major influence.

Gokh-bi knows a lot about hip-hop. A few of their all-time favorite MCs are KRS-1, Chuck D and Dead Prez -- rappers with roots far into the early days of the music, who believe in hip-hop as a tool for cultural solidarity and political change.

"In Senegal," Mamadou said, "we used to try to know where the rap comes from -- the history of hip-hop. If you go to Senegal, people know that ... You have to know where the rap comes from."

Several years ago, Vacca made friends with Last Poets founder Abiodun Oyewole. And so, naturally, when six Last Poets-loving Senegalese rappers came to America, he dropped Oyewole a line. Without hesitating, Oyewole asked Vacca to drive them down to his apartment in Harlem. A few days later, Gokh-bi was performing for Oyewole in his living room, and Oyewole was going nuts.

"He's like, 'Yeah! Whoa!'" said Vacca. "And he's calling to his sons, 'Listen to this shit! Come on, get over here!'"

Later that week, Oyewole went into the studio with Gokh-bi to contribute a couple tracks to their debut.

"Understand," Vacca told me, "to them, this is Elvis."

All of Gokh-bi's songs are about roots and tradition. In many African cultures, community history is archived and expressed through griots (pronounced gree-ohs), troubadours and storytellers gifted in music and narrative. Historically, griot families pass down a people's musical and narrative expression from generation to generation.

Backa, for instance, descends from a griot family. While many members of his family must work for a living, everyone spends much of their time playing percussion, singing and dancing, retaining ancient traditions through rhythms, rhymes and movement.

"Some of these guys are doing the traditional thing," Vacca said. "Because if you're in the griot family, you're a musician. The other guys, they're 21st-century griots, you know? They're going their own way, and they're going to make music their lives."

Hip-hop itself is a kind of griot revivalism, an urban American variant on an African tradition. Whether MCs rhyme about love, drugs, police, racism, parties, money or murder, they are chronicling their experiences, as modern griots, over music. That hip-hop should have eventually wound its way back to Africa -- the birthplace of the griot -- seems like a cross-cultural inevitability.

Massamba Diop, like Backa, descends from a griot family. Well before the Gokh-bi members were even born, Diop had been living in Ginaw Rail, where he is a local celebrity.

Generations ago, one of Diop's ancestors originated the Senegalese tama drum, known in English as a "talking drum." Molded from a hardwood shell into the shape of an hourglass, and topped with dried skin from the belly of a lizard, the tama drum is a Senegalese griot's chief accoutrement. Although "talking drums" exist in Nigeria and other West African nations, the Senegalese tama drum is renowned the world over -- and Senegalese tama drum players are known especially for their skills.

Diop is a master tama player.

"I want to tell you my story," Diop told me. "I am Massamba. My family is a griot family: My father is playing talking drum. My sister is singing and dancing. Everybody in my family is doing African things ... When I was born and I opened my eyes, I see a lot of talking drums in the house. I have to play. The talking drum is in my blood."

In 1977 Baaba Mal, Senegal's biggest pop superstar, happened upon Diop in performance. At the time, Mal had been looking for a talking drum player, and asked Diop to join his band, where he has remained ever since.

In 1995, Mal brought his band to Northampton's Iron Horse, where Tony Vacca and his World Rhythms Ensemble were scheduled to open the show.

Diop was downstairs in the Iron Horse dressing room when something caught his ear on the main stage.

"I hear talking drum -- doom, dum, dooom -- and I say, 'Ah, talking drum here in America -- that is something. I want to see that!'"

Upstairs, Vacca and the World Rhythms were doing a sound-check.

"I never see white people playing talking drum!" Diop said.

Thrilled, Diop grabbed Vacca, led him down to the dressing room and began wailing on his talking drum.

"He's not just a talking drum player," said Vacca. "He's one of the best ever. So I'm watching this, and seeing things I've never seen before with a talking drum ... He starts taking me to school on the talking drum."

Mal, who was also in the dressing room, asked Vacca to play something funky and American, and Diop began learning from Vacca. They became fast friends, and Vacca, who had already been to Africa many times, traveled to Senegal to play concerts with Mal and Diop. Informally, the Senegal American Project was beginning to take shape.

Vacca later returned to Senegal with his World Rhythms quartet, and everyone shacked up at Diop's house in Ginaw Rail to record an album. Gokh-bi's Backa and Sana had already been friendly with Massamba, and knew that a group of Americans was recording an album at his house. Together, Gokh-bi conspired to bum-rush Diop's house for an impromptu performance. One day, all six Gokh-bi members knocked on Diop's door, and as soon as they walked in, they broke into song. On first listen, Vacca was blown away.

"I really [saw] what Gokh-bi does in the context of world music ... just like jazz is world music. When you hear jazz, you know you're hearing a blending of cultures and instruments -- that's what they're doing too... They're remixing these forces that their ancestors were the possessors and, in some cases, the transmitters of, these traditions that became American tradition ... It [was] a profound thing."

In the long term, Vacca knew he wanted to work with Gokh-bi System; in the short term, all he wanted was a Gokh-bi song or two on his next World Rhythms album. When Vacca proposed the idea, he asked Gokh-bi to think it over and, if they were interested, to name their price.

"They came back," Vacca said, "and they could have said, 'We want $10,000,000.' But they didn't; they said, 'We don't want the money, we want the opportunity to have our music heard.'"

More than two years -- and four trips to the U.S. -- later, Gokh-bi has made a living performing for tens of thousands of Americans and earned enough money from school appearances to avoid working day jobs in Senegal. Back home, members of Gokh-bi can write new music, and help support their families.

I asked the Gokh-bi members why they continue to play schools when, apparently, the money trail is dotted with higher profile club dates and paved with pitches to record labels.

"We have one philosophy," said Bathie, "and we got it right from the beginning. This philosophy stands for peace, justice and love ... Music is like a mission; it's something we have to do. We are musicians, and we have something to tell the people. We have news from Africa, and when we go back, we will tell everyone what is happening in America. We don't do music to get money."

I asked them if American kids understand Africa.

"Sometimes you go to a school," Mamadou said, "and they think that Africa is just one state." He started to laugh. "'Do you got cars in Africa?' Yeeeees," he said. "They think that Africa is just trees, monkeys, lions ... They don't know."

"Our songs are the real Africa," Bathie said. "We just want to tell them what really happens in Africa, because a lot of people here don't really understand ... We just want to let them know that Africa is not just fighting and violence."

In their song "21st Century Griot," Gokh-bi rhymes about the difference between American and African perceptions of Africa. In their Africa, Gokh-bi raps, they fight for peace and respect children.

"People in school, they are learning," said Mamadou. "And if you come with a positive message, they'll take that ... You have to teach your kids about positive things, because then, if they grow up tomorrow, they're going to know that life is peace, justice and love."

"From my point of view," said Vacca, "you're dealing with a rescue mission kinda going on. In some ways, these guys are doing this rescue mission for American culture. A lot of these [American] kids, they're not very discerning about what they're listening to. They listen to a cool beat, and they listen to some nasty stuff going down. I don't mean rough stories ... I'm talking about stuff that doesn't leave you strong."

At the Williams Middle School, the auditorium was empty but for Vacca and Gokh-bi, who were gearing up for the school-wide assembly at 2 p.m. Two women from the PTA, which had organized the Senegal America Project visit, wandered into the room and deposited a handful of tiny orange juice cartons on the stage, which was already jam-packed with four dozen percussive instruments (including ballaphones, djun-djuns, sang-bans, a tremendous assortment of cow bells).

On stage, Vacca hopped from drum to amplifier to patch cord, testing equipment for the show, while Gokh-bi reclined in the first few rows of seats, utterly exhausted. They had already conducted several workshops, and lunch was nowhere in sight.

When Vacca called Backa up to sound-check the bougarabou, he reluctantly leapt onstage and began pounding out the beat to "Human Rights." Then Sana jumped up, grabbed his ekonting and started picking his way through the harmony. The energy was lifting. From their seats, Mamadou and Diasse chanted the chorus -- "Iyo, iyo, haye. Iyo, iyo, haye" -- and then, they hopped up and grabbed two mics onstage, rhyming furiously in lyrics that went from English to French to English to Serere to Wolof.

"Grandfathers were born in Africa, they live, they live now in America, because ... I don't know."

"You may be an American and me a Senegalese, but whatever may happen we all have the same rights."

"You may be a Japanese and me a Frenchman, but whatever may happen we all have the same rights."

"You may be an Indian and me a Serere, but whatever may happen we all have the same rights."

One of the PTA moms told Vacca that lunch was ready, and he cut the song short. Suddenly, a prepubescent burst of applause exploded from the side of the stage, where a gaggle of 12- and 13-year-old girls were whistling, woo-hoo-ing and clapping.

"I bought your necklaces," one shouted. "I love them."

"You're like professional musicians at our school," another said, "and that's like awesome."

Mamadou smiled in their direction, and with the rest of Gokh-bi, drifted toward the back of the auditorium for lunch in the teacher's lounge.

"Good job!" the girls shouted toward no one in particular.

"Good job!"

"Good job!"

Back at Vacca's apartment, the sun had set over Mount Tom, the yasser had been gobbled up and the talk began turning toward the future of Gokh-bi in America.

"We want to see this turn into something big now," said Vacca. "It's time."

Vacca plans to bring Gokh-bi back in February for close to six months -- by far, their longest visit to date. He has already started booking Gokh-bi school gigs for Black History Month in February and recording time for their follow-up album in March. Beyond, into the spring and early summer, Vacca wants more school appearances and some spots in world music festivals. Of course, all of that depends on finances.

"You can't buy this with money," said Vacca, "but you can stop it without enough."

Nonetheless, after four visits in two years, Vacca and Gokh-bi are evidently riding a forward momentum. Several grant applications are expected to pan out, a couple record labels are interested and the schools seem more responsive than ever.

"The first time I said I wanted to bring these guys," said Vacca, "everyone said, 'You're nuts. There's too many people,' and rap -- you say the 'R' word to schools, and people are going to shut their eyes, hold their ears and run the other way.' ... And I said, 'This is definitely rap, but it's also hip-hop and rhythm poetry ... It's the most rockin'est, raw thing, and it's very eloquent ... The schools will dig it if they dare: If they dare to open the door, they will dig it. And those who open the door and dig it, they'll tell the others."

Apparently, Williams Middle School dared to dig it, but I asked Gokh-bi what they thought -- just to be sure.

"That was a very good day," said Bathie.

Mamadou smiled. "Yeah, it was cool," he said.

Gokh-Bi System will return to the U.S. in February. For more information about Gokh-bi System, or to order their CD, Message from Home, check out

World Rhythms: tel/fax 413.665.1067 • email:

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