Dawn Drake is an active musician in New York, with over 15 years of experience. She is a bass player, percussionist, singer/songwriter and bandleader of her “global funk” ensemble, Dawn Drake and ZapOte, which is known to blend different genres together, like Afro-Cuban jazz, samba, Caribbean music and Afrobeat, laced with lyrics about social consciousness and awareness, political, racial and environmental issues. She has shared the stage with Me’shell N’degeocello, Trey Anastasio, Chico Mann, members of Antibalas, Carol Steele and the Wailers, just to name a few. Dawn also teaches Caribbean music at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. After witnessing her band’s energetic performance at the Shrine, in Harlem, New York City, I wanted to know more about her. I went to her studio in Brooklyn where we talked about her music, influences and goals. Dawn Drake and Zap0te will be performing at the Rockwood Music Hall, in Lower Manhattan, New York on June 5, at 8 p.m.
Nenim Iwebuke: Hello Dawn Drake, how are we doing?
Dawn Drake: Great, I’m happy to be here and I’m very flattered that you are having me interviewed for Afropop Worldwide.
Well, when you have good material, tell me, who wouldn’t want to interview you?
Thank you again, I’m glad you enjoyed it.
Can you let us know a little bit about yourself?
I’m a singer, songwriter, electric bass player and percussionist. I have a band I’ve been writing for for almost a decade called ZapOte and I like to call it a “global funk” band, with some Latin, Caribbean, Brazilian and West African influences. I also play with other bands and have other projects; in fact, after I’m done with this interview I’m going to Alvin Ailey Dance Theater to play Afro-Cuban drums for the folkloric dance class there, so I do a lot of different things.
While you were talking I heard about Cuba, Brazil, the Caribbean, West Africa. Tell us about your roots.
I am from Virginia; I’m from the mountains near the Appalachian Trail. I grew up in the mountains and then I ended up moving to a small town when I was 12 or so. We didn’t have a lot of exposure to live music so it wasn’t until much later that I got into all of the different types of music that I am into now, but I always played the piano and my father was Slovenian, so I grew up listening to Slovenian music you know, polka and country music, I don’t really like country music but the banjo, the fiddle, we listened to all of that stuff in my house. I always listened to the radio, but as far as my roots, my mom is from North Carolina and my dad was second-generation Slovenian.
That’s good. You do a list of things–you are a percussionist, a bass player, singer and like you said, you started all this by first playing the piano.
Yes, the piano was my first instrument. I learned jazz piano in high school and like I said, we didn’t have a lot of live music in Virginia, so in high school I was really more into goth and punk, you know, post-punk stuff like New Order, Joy Division, Bauhaus. I later moved to the University of California, Berkeley for school out in the Bay Area and that’s when I was exposed to Latin music and started traveling, and ended up going to Ghana for a year and so it was through that experience that I was exposed to more of the music that I play now.
How was your experience in Ghana?
Wow! It was a long time ago and I’m sure things have changed since I was there. It was in the early ‘90s. I lived on campus at the University of Ghana, Legon and that’s where I learned to play percussion. I also studied oral literature and African literature and dance, so it was a really great informative time for me and it really opened up my eyes to a whole other world, literally. When I was in Ghana I traveled a lot because the school was on strike a lot of the time unfortunately, so a friend of mine and I went as far as we could; we went to Guinea, Ivory Coast, Benin, Burkina Faso and Niger and that was when I started collecting different cassette tapes and listening to different types of music like highlife and wassoulou, for example, and I got more acquainted with the popular music there.
So you were absorbing and absorbing, there’s so much to absorb in Africa.
Oh! Absolutely, absolutely, wow! There’s a lot to absorb and it wasn’t a long enough time really, I mean, I learned some of the language of Ashanti Twi but not enough; now I wish I had learned more and I would love to go back. It’s a shame that I never did go back, it was always in my mind to go back, it’s just that those plane tickets were pretty expensive!
When you left Africa I learned you spent some time in Cuba.
Yes, when I went to Ghana I met so many Ghanaians who were going back and forth to New York; it was sort of a transnational lifestyle that they were living. I had never been to New York except for a couple days in high school and it never appealed to me because I’m from the mountains, the big city never really appealed to me, but when I went to Ghana, my friend and I were like, “New York really sounds cool!” And after we graduated, we both moved here.
When I first moved here, I was hanging out at Fareta, which was a major dance studio downtown in Soho at that time. It had all of the most amazing dance teachers from all over the African diaspora teaching there–Senegalese, sabar, Brazilian dance, Haitian, Cuban…so that’s where I found a class and started studying congas with a teacher named Juma Santos. It turned out that he had been to Ghana also, and he was interested in showing me how all of the rhythms and ethnic groups were related from West Africa to the Caribbean and Brazil, and so I started reading a lot of books. He told me to go to Cuba, and I did. Cuba is kind of special, it’s very accessible, if you go there and study music and dance you can meet and hang out with people like the cream of the crop as far as musicians are concerned; so I got very involved in Cuba and I kept going back to study because at that time I also had decided, after Juma had advised me, to study ethnomusicology. So I went to CUNY Graduate Center to study ethnomusicology and I continued my reading, getting really interested in what I learned, and I also started to learn to play batá drums.
That’s cool, so talk about the batá drums, because I know there are few ladies into batá drums because of the religious or traditional attachment to it, like in Senegal, we learned that back in the day, ladies were not allowed to play the djembe. Tell us about how that went.
Yes, for religious reasons women are not supposed to play batá. I never wanted to play batá in a religious context or anything like that because I’m not initiated into the religion of Orisha worship, so I felt I really didn’t have a place to say, “Oh! I should be allowed to do this!” But literally, the batá just fell in my lap, I don’t know, it was very synchronistic. I had just started studying with Juma on congas, and he was talking about Cuba and I started meeting these women who were playing batá. Their teacher, Orlando Fiol, just wanted to teach them; he is an amazing musician and didn’t care too much about religious dogma. One of those women was my friend, Lisette Santiago [She has been featured on the LP site playing batá: Lisette Santiago on batá drums] Lisette Santiago wanted to learn composition and Orlando, our batá teacher said to her, “Why don’t you learn to play the batá? Because it’s so rich, with all of the calls, responses and different rhythms.” So, he started to teach her and other women became interested and so I joined them too. We had a group called Cambio Libre, founded by Elizabeth Sayre, and we performed for about six years or so doing different events and playing Afro-Cuban dance classes regularly. It was an all-female Afro-Cuban folkloric group, you know, based on the Yoruba tradition. I miss that group! Now there are not a lot of opportunities for me to play batá and I’m still not initiated into the religion so I don’t try to push myself into the scene. However, in Cuba and in the U.S., if the drums are not consecrated and I’m playing for a pop music situation or a dance class I don’t see why I can’t play them. They have been playing batá in Cuba like that for years, in fusion music, dance music. Also, there are a lot of women who play batá in Cuba now, and in fact at the Escuela Nacional de Arte in Havana, they teach batá to women and men.
Do you feel the batá drums have some spirituality linked to them?
Well, they do. In Cuba, and I don’t know how it is in Nigeria, but I assume that it’s somewhat the same, they have the Anya batá drums, where they have a ceremony where they put the Anya spirit inside the drums, now that’s the traditional style of batá drums because Batá are spiritual drums, period, because they are meant for playing or paying homage to the Orishas [deities] But the batá drums that I play are Aberikula [which means foreigner] They are not consecrated drums and have no spirit inside of them, so I’ve never tried to touch an Anya drum, I only play the ones without a spirit in them. Aberikula drums were invented in Cuba in the 1930s for the purpose of presenting the music to the public for artistic appreciation in the folkloric context. That’s when the difference came about between fundamento or Anya drums and Aberikula drums.
And you also play the congas. Which is your preference?
[Laughs] Yes, at this point the congas are my preference because I have opportunities. batá is really rich and you can spend a lifetime learning the rhythms and I wish I had several lifetimes to do that, but I feel that it’s a commitment to really go all the way with batá; I’m not there yet because I play congas, I play bass, I sing and I write music and so, it’s been sort of a process… when maybe a door closes in one area you open up another one. So, I kind of went as far as I could go with the batá at that time, and then when that door closed for me, that was when I started to write music and take voice lessons, and I started my band and everything and so you know, you gotta keep on trucking no matter what happens. [Laughs]
That’s it, keep on trucking! When I saw you perform, I saw you on the bass and singing at the same time and that isn’t easy; and you are a bandleader as well, that’s big kudos to you. How did you start to play the bass?
Well, when I moved to New York I was just trying all sorts of things: I was taking dance, I was working as a cocktail waitress and it was the first time that I really had time to pursue all of the interests that I had; I have a lot of interests. [Laughs] So that’s one of the hardest things–choosing my interests. I love dance, I love writing, I love art, visual art, so bass was one of these things and it was also something that just fell in my lap, I did not choose the bass, the bass chose me just like the batá chose me.
I had been playing guitar for a couple of years and I went into the guitar store one day and I was going to buy myself an electric guitar and at the last minute, I said, “Why don’t I try something different?” and so I bought a bass. The guy who sold it to me said, “It comes with a gig bag!” and I’m like, “I will never have a gig, I’m not doing this for a gig!” And a year later I was gigging all over the place. One of the reasons I play the bass is because bass is so necessary and people need the bass you know, much more than they need congas, in a band situation, anyway. I get a lot of calls for bass because it’s necessary and in my band that’s sort of why I play the bass, because I know how I want the bass lines to be. It’s very difficult to find somebody to play the bass lines exactly how I want them, so it’s sort of a control thing for me. Bass leads the band, like, you can be the singer and you can lead the band, but it’s so much easier for me to lead the band when I’m playing the bass because that’s what makes all the changes, so bass is so important. I love the bass.
I know with music, different genres of music have their own kind of unique bass lines and I noticed you guys were going from some Afrobeat to soukous grooves to samba, which was really interesting. I liked the broad spectrum of ethnic genres that you guys touched. Did that come from your time in Africa and Cuba?
Well, that comes from New York, you know. When I first got on the scene, a couple of years later I started to play in an Afrobeat band called The Femm Nameless, that was an all-female Afrobeat band. I started on congas and shortly after I started playing the bass because the bass player left, which is what usually happens to me in bands–I’ll start on congas and then the bass player leaves and I have to play the bass, which is fine. So, I was very influenced by Fela’s music and the whole movement in NYC with Amayo and Antibalas, and we were part of that, Femm Nameless, even though we were on the fringe, you know, as an all-female band, and so Fela’s music has been influencing me for many, many years.
Then I guess from being around that scene I started playing with different guys from Africa: Cameroon, Senegal and Mali; one being, Azouhouni Adou, he’s from Ivory Coast. I started playing with his band on congas. Jojo Kuo also, who was one of Fela’s drummers from back in the day. So just from being in that scene I learned a lot from Afrobeat. Also when it comes to Cuban music, I listen to it all the time, so just from listening to it I get the feel for the bass lines and everything. I was also in an all-female Haitian kompa band for a few years as well, and learned a lot in that situation playing bass at the kompa festivals and listening to that music.
A few years back I started playing with someone who was very influential to me–Isaac Katalay, and he taught me a lot about Congolese bass and that’s how I got into the soukous way of playing bass, which I am by no means an expert but I can do it a little bit. [Laughs] So, I was definitely inspired by him and I wrote some songs that were inspired by soukous and Congolese music and that has a lot to do with the bass. I also play samba percussion. I play a lot of Brazilian percussion as you can see all of the drums right there. [She shows me a group of piled-up drums] The bass really sort of just mimics the large bass drums in that music; I think of the bass as a percussion instrument for the most part.
That’s so cool! How do you get the inspiration to write your own music?
Well, I first started when I was learning how to sing. I started to hear all of these melodies and songs and so I started to write music. I was so excited; I was like “Oh my God! So I can actually write a song!” I didn’t know that I could do it… I had always wanted to do it, and it was just from singing and learning how to sing that I started hearing melodies. For a few years I based all of my songwriting on the singing, then as I had the band for longer, I started to get more interested in composing for the horn section, so I started diving more into instrumental compositions and stuff like that. It’s a good question, I feel like playing with all of these different groups, like the bands from Senegal, Congo and listening to Haitian music, funk and rock, all of it has really inspired me to write my own music. Right now I’m really into funk music again because I just started playing with this funk band which is made up of members of my band, ZapOte, plus this male singer, Michael Camacho, who had some hits in the ‘80s. We started this funk night in the East Village at his bar called Rue B on Avenue B. That has been really great for me too, because it’s sort of like going back to my childhood when I was 9 years old listening to all of the Funk radio stations coming out of Washington D.C.
So you have to love James Brown?
Of course, who doesn’t love James Brown?! And I was a huge fan of Parliament/ Funkadelic, and also the Meters, B.T. Express, the Gap Band, Dazz Band and Rick James, so that’s what I was listening to when I was a kid along with rock, classic rock.
Is your band an all-female band?
Well, lately it’s an all-female band. It hasn’t always been an all-female band and I’ve had male drummers and guitarists, you know, but because there are many women’s music festivals it’s been good to have a female band to get invited to those sorts of things. I have a really great group right now that I’m really happy with. I love playing with men but I’m really happy with my all-female band now.
How is it for you as a female having an all-female band that’s in a male-dominated industry?
I don’t think having an all-female band is a disadvantage at all. I think having an all-female band is sort of a gimmick, trust me. When it comes to all-female bands I’ve been in one billion all-female bands and it’s like, I’m actually not that interested in it as a gimmick because I think it’s lame that having an all-female band has to be a gimmick! If you see an all-male band nobody thinks that it’s a gimmick, people just think, “Oh! There are a bunch of musicians on stage!” Never mind that they are all men! So, I would like to change the way that women are perceived in music, that hopefully one day it won’t be a gimmick to be a female musician or to have an all-female band. I mean, people don’t think about it but even people that I love to death ask me “Why is it an all-female band?” Well you wouldn’t ask that question if it’s an all-male band, right? It just wouldn’t even cross your mind. So, I think it’s important to represent as a female musician and try to be as good as I can be and give opportunities to other women. I want to hire women because women don’t always get opportunities. I think as a side person it’s much harder; having an all-female band is like, Oh! It’s this thing that’s unique, or supposedly unique, but as a female side person or instrumentalist, that’s the hardest thing because people might not call you or give you a chance because it’s a male-dominated industry.
I see music as kind of like athletics, like, if you are not given a chance to play with the big guys you are probably not going to be able to compete with them because you’ve never been given a chance. It’s sort of like a cycle–they won’t ask me to play with them so I’m not going to get that good; and you have to play with other people to get good, and so on and so on. In the end, I don’t think that women should only play with other women. I think it should be more mixed.
What do you have to say to the young women and ladies out there?
I have to say that I think the younger generation has a different idea. When I started playing congas, batá and bass, I didn’t think about the fact that I was a female had anything to do with it. I was just doing what I wanted to do and I think the young women of today are the same; they are just doing what they want to do. I think that’s great for people to do what they want to do. I think it’s hard in pop culture and music to separate yourself from how people think you are supposed to represent yourself and what you are supposed to look like though; then again, it can be to your advantage as well, so it’s kind of a paradox. I find it very kind of tiring that women are always supposed to be sexy and dress in a certain way as a musician or artist. If you want to be a pop star you might feel like you have to bare your skin, etc. and I find it tiring!
A lot of my most high-paying or successful gigs have sort of cornered me in that little box. Of course, it is my choice at the end of the day, but I’ve gotten a lot of gigs because I’m going to wear something in particular or look a certain way and that’s why I got the gig. It has nothing to do with how I play, or the kind of music I’m doing. So I would like to see for myself, even people break open the stereotypes and boxes that they create for themselves. This year is the year of integrity for me, I have recently broken away from a situation that paid very well but was not artistically satisfying. And I think it’s the biggest problem when I see some young people today, everybody thinks they have to be sexy when they are like 12 years old, you know. [Laughs] I know it’s a powerful thing to be sexy but I do think that you can express yourself in other ways.
Where do you see Dawn Drake in 10 years from now?
In 10 years… Oh my God! I can’t even think that far, well, I’ve always wanted to tour the world and so I would love to tour all of Africa, Asia… this has always been my dream–to bring my music out to the world. I am also an educator and so I do a lot of arts and education. I’ve been bringing world music into special education for kids with autism and stuff like that and working with seniors in the city so I get a lot of personal rewards from people that genuinely appreciate music by getting them involved. I’m very into doing the workshops and the teaching, and lately I’ve been teaching Caribbean music at John Jay College, and that has been very rewarding because not only am I getting people interested in the specific West and Central African roots of Latin music, salsa, Caribbean music and music of the Western hemisphere as a whole, I am also getting them into looking at politics and how music and social justice issues and economic issues can go hand in hand. My dream has been to somehow forge my ideas about creating more social justice and economic justice in the world and how to do that as a musician. It’s been interesting trying to connect the dots because being a pop artist and promoting yourself is kind of a selfish venture, you know, I tried it! You can promote yourself and promote yourself but what are you really saying? I want to represent my vision, my idea: more economic justice, social justice, and racial justice in the world.
I hear that in some of your music. Unlike many other bands that will be all about, love me, love me, he broke my heart, I’m sexy, I’m this–but I notice what you say about the politics, the awareness, and that’s great.
Thanks, I’m glad you noticed, but I write about love too!
I know but it’s not like the main thing. How many albums do you have?
I have two albums out, the first one is called Cross Crocodiles, which I named after a Ghanaian proverb–an Akan proverb which is about two crocodiles that share the same stomach but they fight over food, and how we are all connected, and that was the impetus for that title. I have all of the music written for the third album but I haven’t put it out yet or finished it but I put out a single which is on video, it’s called Wake Up, and it’s on YouTube; I wrote that song with environmental issues in mind and so the video speaks to those issues about pollution, our water, trying to move towards more sustainable energy sources and the issues of the Sioux tribe and the Water Protectors and the construction of the Dakota access pipeline that they’ve been fighting, and so that’s what that video is about. It just came out a week ago.
Cool! Where can people go to see you perform?
I have a gig coming up at the Rockwood Music Hall on June 5, that’s at 8 o’clock. 196 Allen Street in Manhattan.
Do you have weekly residencies?
No, I have this funk thing though, Funky Foxes, that we do almost every week at Rue B, 88 Ave. B in the East Village. I have another project: I am in a band called Fulaso and we have a lot of things coming up, and I have the Yam Session with Morgan Greenstreet at Shrine every third Thursday of the month. But, for my band at this point I don’t do weekly things because it’s very hard to promote something for people to come to every week. It’s not easy! But I’m interested in doing more shows in the city and collaborating more with other artists. Definitely, I’ll be at the Shrine at some point, that’s all I can say right now because I’m going to Europe with Karikatura this summer and my band, ZapOte, is playing in Belize in June at the International Jazz Festival. I’ll say if people want to find me and ZapOte, they should come to the Rockwood Music Hall on June 5th at 8! And I’m sure I’ll get some more gigs but you know I’m an independent artist so I do all of the booking, all the promotion, I write all the music, I schedule everything so it’s not easy, you know. [Laughs] The bandleader thing is a labor of love, let’s put it that way. But I’m glad I have this band, I’m glad I started this project because it put me on the map and now even as an educator I’m getting more and more exposure, you know.
How did you get the members of your band together?
Well, like I said this band has been in the making for over a decade, you know, and I have played in so many different bands that I know musicians. I started the band with a sax player and I needed a drummer, so she got the drummer and you know, now I’ve been in New York for over 20 years. At this point, I know musicians, so I can never be without a musician. [Laughs] I mean, knock on wood, I will never be without a musician because at this point I know so many and they are so qualified. The amount of talent in this city is unbelievable.
Lucky you, that’s not easy to come by.
You have to be in it and you can’t quit. I feel sometimes that my teaching is taking over my life but the thing is I will never give up a gig to go to work, like teaching or whatever, I will do both; If that means, I’m up till 3 a.m. and get up at 5 a.m. so be it! That’s what I do; I will never give up a gig because I have a day job or something like that. You just have to be determined.
How do you balance life with your whole routine and schedule?
Music is kind of my life, in my spare time I’m practicing or I’m preparing for what I have to do, so that’s my social life, you know. I don’t have leisure time, I have gigs, I play and I practice, I go to work, it’s not like that all of the time but with this kind of field as a freelancer it’s either feast or famine, and this is feasting time, later on in the year I may not have as many things going on, you know, it’s just a different type of balance.
So when you don’t have a lot to do like music or education, what do you do? Do you go on vacations or something?
No, I go see my mom and I do family stuff. In a perfect world, I work on my music, my original music, I write more music and practice, because practicing is never enough. If I don’t practice I’m screwed. People don’t understand that. People feel anyone can play the congas, for example, but no, you have to practice to play the drums, congas, I feel like my work is never done and when I don’t have gigs I’m practicing.
How often do you practice?
As much as I can, if I have time I’ll practice everyday, if I don’t have time, I’ll practice when I can.
Cool! It was nice speaking with you.
You too, thank you so much. I hope we can continue to bring our music out to the world. We are up for traveling!
Keep it up we’ll see you at the top.