Kali Baba McConnell is a Pittsfield native who will be teaching percussion at this year’s Rock On workshop. We got a chance to ask him some questions about his personal history and his illustrious professional music career.
ROCK ON: I see from your bio that you have travelled all over the world playing music with some huge acts (Arlo Guthrie, Willie Nelson, Allman Brothers). Surely this didn’t just happen overnight. Could you give me a little more background on your life as a musician? Where did you grow up? Where have you studied? What have you studied? Have there been any specific instructors along the way that have particularly guided you on the path to becoming a successful professional musician?
KALI BABA MCCONNELL: I grew up in Pittsfield. I got my first drums as a Christmas present when I was four or five years old. I didn’t really study with any instructor per se (though I had a few random instructors early on). Most of what I have learned was by watching other drummers perform live and soaking it up. When I was very fortunate, I was able to question the drummers post-show and if was REALLY lucky, they would answer me.
I would say that the largest impact on my playing came from live situations with experienced musicians who were gracious and patient enough to teach me things (i.e. dynamics, song structure, performance skills). It was more of “how-does-a-drummer-fit in-with-this situation.” Touring with Arlo Guthrie has always been a huge learning opportunity for me. I look at some of my early years of touring with Arlo kind of like a traveling musical school. With the ability to play often, and with so many amazing musical guests (Willie Nelson, Pete Seeger, John Sebastien, John McGuin, Ramblin’ Jack Elliot, etc), I would just sit in the periphery and be in the moment, learning what ever I could by just being a cog in the musical machine.
As for drumming influences, I would credit Peter Gabriel, Stewart Copeland, Kenwood Dennard, Richie Wayward, Abe Leborial Jr., Babatunde Olatunji , Zakir Hussain, Butch Vig, Carter Beauford, Bob Marley… As you can see not all of them are drummers, yet they have all had a musical impact.
RO: What sorts of skills will you be able to bring to the Rock On Workshop that another percussionist might not be able to? What sets your style apart from other drummers? Is it this same distinction that made you stand out enough to play with such high-profile bands?
KBM: I’m not sure that I have any skill that other percussionists don’t possess. What I believe I bring to the table is more of an awareness and approach to interpersonal collaboration. I try to assess the skills present among the musicians I am performing with and fill in the gaps. In some musical situations my role is nearly peripheral (i.e. Arlo Guthrie). His show is more of a storytelling situation. In this type of setting, my job is to “follow” the flow of the song rather than lay it down. I follow the artist’s intentional fluctuations in tempo, resulting in a more dramatic impact of the story being told. In other situations, I am more of the pulse for the entire band to lock in to. I lay down the groove, they follow. Most of the time, If I am doing my job correctly, the audience might not even take notice of my presence – I just blend in with the whole musical experience.
I would also say that the skill set that has yielded so many opportunities has been my pliability – drop the ego, be professional and pleasant, and just do what come naturally. Thats why I was presumably hired for the gig, so that’s what I do. Play the music.
RO: Who is your favorite band you’ve ever played a show with or even sat in with? What’s your favorite venue you’ve ever played?
KBM: I would say that some of my favorite involvements in music are not just a result of the musicianship or skill level of whom I’m playing with. Bands like Xavier, Melodrome & The Tony Lee Thomas Band are more of a brotherhood/lifestyle environment. It’s very important for me to have a personal investment in the relationships that continue once we have ended playing our music. To know that these people are great friends and sometimes reminiscent of family is very rewarding. I don’t do this for the money (obviously) and get great personal satisfaction from knowing that these relationships transcend the boundaries of music, and bleed into everyday life.
I have played a lot of really prestigious venues so far, but find that my favorite gigs often revolve around the staff and fans at the gigs (famous or not), and the vibe of the scene. I love looking forward to seeing the people on a reoccurring basis, out of which I have forged many friendships that have spanned a few decades.
RO: What sorts of experiences have you picked up that you’ll be able to share with the students of Rock On?
KBM: Some experiences that I will be sharing with the Rock On environment will be a focus on dynamics, the ability to improvise and to remain present in the moment.