It's a late June Tuesday night at the Ensemble Theatre's former home on Holman and Main, and it's hotter than Salma Hayek in a Norma Kamali bikini. That is, when you get inside the unventilated corridors of the upstairs facilities known as the Midtown Art Center. The air conditioning is on the fritz, and anyone who dwells in these halls is stuck in a perpetual state of mustiness. This is where musical group D.R.U.M. moved to rehearse when their last practice space was found to be saturated with asbestos. They might be asbestos-free at the moment, but since they're now warming up in the already-too-warm complex, to paraphrase Richard Pryor, funk is their shadow.
Members have stocked the lavatory with ice, water and whatever else might relieve the hellish temperature of this new location. While keyboardist and new addition Anuraney Saeuri makes the sound check rounds, guitarist Jammal Udiyn Ali works out new licks, and bassist Osakwe Rikondja and drummer Nathan Faulk get a backbeat going, Alafia Gaidi, the band's founder, lead percussionist and main vocalist, picks up the symbol of their latest victory, a hefty, spiral configuration that looks more like a science fair project. It's a Houston Press Music Award, the second they've won. "Wild lookin' shit, huh?" ask Gaidi. The sultriness of the atmosphere doesn't leave anyone with the will to reply.
They have got to take a break.
The band members clamber outside to shoot the breeze as well as take some in. In the midst of getting the color back in their faces, they take time out to discuss the philosophy of their band and what beliefs they inject into their music.
"The concept is that the whole universe is based on art, and art is rhythm," explains Gaidi. "The idea is that here is a divine rhythm that makes things move together. And that's a united motion."
It is certain that D.R.U.M. (an acronym for, not surprisingly, Divine Rhythm, United Motion) unites many fans and audiences to move in unison wherever they play. From the massive festival setting of August's annual Bob Marley Festival to the small but vibrant confines of the Mahogany Cafe, where they played a night gig late this June, people are happy to soak in D.R.U.M.'s eclectic range of inspired sounds.
"We're all from, kinda like, different backgrounds who come, more or less, to form a unit of sound," says drummer Faulk. "We just like to give something fresh. Something that's not of the norm." But then again, almost every act claims to be "fresh" and "not of the norm." So are D.R.U.M. actually the innovative beat-heads they so assuredly claim themselves to be?
To get the answer to that question, it helps to go to the beginning. In November of 1985, Gaidi moved to Houston from his hometown of New Orleans. A well-established percussionist and musician since the age of 16, Gaidi had played with various blues and reggae bands at home and on the road, performing at venues ranging from California and Arizona to the Caribbean and South America.
Then, in 1988, Gaidi began laying the groundwork for D.R.U.M. while supporting himself as a music teacher, teaching the chops he had learned on the road to pupils in private schools and community centers around Houston. "I came here and I realized there was this drumming scene going on here, but there wasn't a lot of people really out there teaching, trying to make drumming available to people," Gaidi says. "So I started teaching, taught a couple of people and started working with them as a foundation for the group. We had a percussion ensemble. [We] did a lot of African traditional songs and chants and stuff like that."
Gaidi originally devised D.R.U.M. as a nine-piece percussion ensemble, but by 1990 he'd reduced the lineup and added instruments such as guitar, bass, keyboard and saxophone (the last of which he plays). But despite the contemporary instrumentation, D.R.U.M. was continually known by one descriptive: world beat. Members of the group obviously find those words irksome.
"It's kind of a misnomer to me," says Gaidi, who would prefer his band's music be referred to as African rock and reggae. "We don't think this 'world beat' title is us," he says. "What do they do in Czechoslovakia? They may call reggae 'world beat' there, but if somebody is listening to Beethoven in Jamaica, they don't call it 'world beat.' "
D.R.U.M.'s first official gig took place in September of 1991 at the Salsa on the Plaza festival. "We did all right," Gaidi recalls of the now-defunct activity. They did so well, in fact, that now it's hard to find a place in town where D.R.U.M. hasn't played.
No locale is beneath the group. They've played almost any place in Houston that has a platform and an amp system, from clubs such as Rockefeller's and Fitzgerald's to festival sites such as the Wortham Center and the Houston Zoo.
In a given D.R.U.M. gig, the performance breaks down to two sets. A good part of their show consists of original compositions, ones composed either by individual members or by the group. But they also do the occasional cover of reggae legends such as Bob Marley and Black Uhuru. They even do a rendition of the Temptations' "My Girl."
"We're very eclectic," Gaidi says. "We got one song called 'Do You Believe?' that's got this straight-up, New Orleans, second-line bite. That's one of the pieces that I wrote. The thing is, there are so many elements that I don't know what to call [our music]."
"We offer those elements that can hopefully touch people," seconds Ali. "But we bring in other elements from points around the world into the situation. And that's the uniqueness that we offer. African-American element, South American element, it doesn't matter to us. We just wanna know, hey, is it good? And if it is good, will people be magnetized to it and get the spirit of what the music is trying to do and what the musician is trying to do with the music?"
Oh yes, spirit -- that's another important part of the D.R.U.M. aesthetic. Although Gaidi is the group's founder, he claims there isn't a team leader or a physical guiding force running the band. Instead, everything is up to a higher power. "We are spiritually focused -- a spiritually based group," Gaidi says. "We let the spirit guide us when we're making moves."
D.R.U.M. has been touring since 1993, performing in New Orleans, Dallas, San Antonio and other locales around the country, though mostly in the South. When he's not with D.R.U.M., or spending quality time with his bride, dancer Oshun Bunmi, whom he married last November, Gaidi teaches at the Alafia School of Percussion, which is located right down the hall from D.R.U.M.'s new practice digs at the Midtown Art Center. The members of the band also created an indie record label, D.R.U.M. Music, a few years back, and on it in 1995 they released their first album, Ancient Sounds of the Future.
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D.R.U.M. Music has also released Patake, a storytelling tape done by Gaidi. But it's the fuel of the drums that Gaidi and his boys want to pass on in their music. It's the sense that anything can be achieved from the standpoint of music as long as there is a good beat and you can dance to it.
"Coming from D.R.U.M., I would say it's universality," says Gaidi. "It's the oneness of all the humans on the [planet]. Because the drum is the only universal instrument on the planet. Out there, there are cultures in the world that don't have strings. There are cultures in the world that don't have brass or woodwinds. [But] everybody in the world has got drums. Because it's the universiology of the human heartbeat, and the rhythm of life."
Ah, the things you can say when you're not suffering from heat stroke.
For info about upcoming D.R.U.M. performances, call 527-0725.