Q&A with multi instrumentalist/educator Christopher Garcia, continues to garner critical accolades and popular acclaim

"MUSIC, ART, and ARTISTS of all genres are taken for granted. They are not being paid for nurturing and cultivating their craft. If any employer told an employee that they would not get paid for their work, they would be screaming and infuriated at the lack of respect given them and yet this is how artists from all genres continue to be treated."

Christopher Garcia: E(ART)h's He(ART)beat

Christopher Garcia is one of those musicians who always seems to be on stage when amazing things are happening. I'm not sure he knows how many different groups he's currently playing in, but it's a lot. In addition to teaching all over the world, he's played with a jaw-dropping who's-who of musical luminaries, not the least of which is his gig as drummer with The Grande Mothers, original members of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Chris was born, raised, and still resides in East L.A. (Never to be confused with West L.A.). His background includes performances in a wide variety of musical settings including; Jazz, Rock, Blues, World Music, traditional Mexican music, pre-Hispanic music, percussion ensemble, soundtracks, and cartoon music. He attributes his musical growth to his studies with Professor John Bergamo, Pandit Tarnath Rao, Swapan Chadhouri and Leonice Shinemann where he studied tabla, while attending California Institute of the Arts on a full scholarship. Chris was also a member of the award winning Cal Arts Percussion Ensemble in 1979.                                (Photo: Christopher Garcia)

He attributes his "style"(?) to Listening to EVERYTHING, logging in thousands of hours, practicing, rehearsing, performing and touring constantly with musicians interested in stretching and reinventing themselves throughout the United States, Canada, Europe and Southeast Asia. Chris' drumming is unusual in that it incorporates not only the standard rhythms and their permutations, but also a fluency with odd time signatures and sonic textures, which he seamlessly incorporates into his playing. His fascination for New Music and Sound as well as the advent of MIDI technology allow him the possibility of combining textures that have never before been available for the percussionist in live performance. Playing tabla next to state of the art MIDI instruments and being able to blend them musically is a challenge he continually explores.

Interview by Michael Limnios        Christopher Garcia, 2011 Interview @ blues.gr

How has the Jazz/Rock and Mexican music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

MUSIC is responsible for taking me into many different facets of drums, drumming, and MUSIC MAKING. It has allowed me to visit, work, and experience countries, their foods, their people, and worlds of music and musicians, e.g., rock, hard rock, progressive rock, Avant jazz, jazz fusion, chamber, symphonic, etc., in 28 countries on 5 continents, either on the kit, percussion of India, marimba, or indigenous instruments of Mesoamerica and Mexico. Blessed to be invited to MAKE MUSIC with different instrumentalists and composers of Mexico - folkloric, classical, and indigenous with concerts in the United States and Mexico. At its best MUSIC is communal and inclusive, you do not have to understand the ingredients of a great meal to appreciate it, nor do you have to understand the vernacular, intricacies, and structures of MUSIC to appreciate the MUSIC and how it RESONATEs with and within you. Music and musicians are communal, we continue to do what we do despite anything, and everything negative the world has thrown at us. The MUSIC and the MUSICIANS persevere.

How do you describe your sound and music philosophy?

The SOUND with(in) and for each instrument MUSIC and musician I have been invited to collaborate with is an accumulation of the tools acquired for that MUSIC to be activated with and for them. That in conjunction with the thousands of hours practicing my instruments in conjunction with the hundreds of thousands of hours of MUSIC MAKING with musicians in real-time all the time continues to inspire.

At our best, the musician serves the music. This means that we do everything we have learned to allow that to happen, sometimes technically but always MUSICALLY. When the MUSIC is happening, we are riding a great wave, we don’t create or steer the wave, but we ride it for as long as our experience allows us to, as when we are in it, when the music the musician, and the audience are one, there is nothing else like it and it cannot be articulated, not by me anyway.

“MUSIC IS THE BEST” is what the cat said…  

(Christopher Garcia / Photo by Alejandro Contreras Camacho)

Where does your creative drive come from?

Sometimes the MUSIC just calls you. For many years I did not compose music, I just transcribed and arranged it for several different groups I was a part of until one day I was invited to MAKE MUSIC with guitarist Nels Cline in a duo setting at the GREAT AMERICAN MUSIC HALL in San Francisco, CA, USA. He was playing a shruti box, a bass recorder, and a baritone guitar and I was playing El Monstro which was North Indian tabla, South Indian kanjira, and PAISTE cymbals.  On the drive there from Los Angeles Nels asked what I had written lately. I told him that there is already so much great music already recorded and readily available that I did not feel anything I wrote could match the composers that I most admired. He then asked, “you know what original music is don’t you?”, quickly followed by “It’s music you want to hear that you haven’t heard yet!”

Which changed my mind set and have been composing and playing my music ever since, all over the world for all of the instruments I play, and for musicians who have asked me to compose for them in conjunction with me. Very different musicians also invite me to MAKE MUSIC with them where they are the composer, e.g., Avant cornetist Bobby Bradford, Indian violinist L. Shankar, THE MUTHERS, trombonist Michael Pierre Vlatkovich, jazz-rock fusion monsters CONTINUUM, bass MONSTRO Michael Manring and all the different configurations we continue to work with Alex de Grassi, MIroslav Tadic, Salomon Maawad, Pablo Calogero, Motoshi Kosako, APG trio with ex MEGADETH guitarist and bassist Robbie Pagliari, and prog metal band CIVIL DEFIANCE or they are classical ensembles that already have notated music and invited me to create, collaborate and compose drum set or percussion of India, Mexico or Mesoamerica within their world of music. Was invited by the following to do just that with the IPALPITI ORCHESTRA, the AHN TRIO, QUINTETO LATINO, the YELLOW STRING QUARTET, the UCLA SYMPHONY, LA PHILHARMONIC, Harry Scorzo’s VIO FONIK, TASHA SMITH GODINEZ, JXEL RAJCHENBERG, RAMIRO RAMIREZ DUARTE, PABLO LENERO ARCHER, BERGEN FILHARMONIK ORKESTER etc.

Each of the composers and organizations requires very different instruments, music and tools, and experience from the drummer/composer as none of these bands have drum or percussion parts written. They invite me to create and compose my parts within their music, structure, and vernacular, as the drumming of India has very little to do with the drumming of Zappa or CONTINUUM or Bobby Bradford or Michael Vlatkovich or MESOAMERICA. Each requires a different skill set and mindset, the only overlap is the quality of the MUSIC and doing what that MUSIC requires. The common denominator is that the drumming has to SERVE THE MUSIC, which means sometimes you play one note and sometimes you play one million notes. The goal is to SERVE THE MUSIC, in all ways possible, which means that it is a constant learning experience that only happens organically over time, every time, all the time. The relationship with MUSIC is a living thing, as is your relationship with human beings, it’s 24/7. You don’t meet someone for the first time and tell them eventually we will be good friends, and have dinners and coffees and see each other for the holidays.

This only happens with time.

In Time.

It takes time

It is ORGANIC.

It is not forced or manufactured and MUSIC MAKING demands the same respect.

While every human being is not a musician, every musician is not a human being…. 

(Christopher Garcia / Photo by Alejandro Contreras Camacho)

What were the reasons that you started the experiments of INDIGENOUS INSTRUMENTS OF MEXICO?

Was originally invited to play Indian percussion for a group that had instruments from Africa, instruments from Mesoamerica, and instruments of Europe and Asia. After that concert, I was invited to make music with one of those musicians who was primarily a flute player of Mesoamerican instruments playing indigenous drums which I knew little to anything about at that time. Later I was invited by various Mexica/Azteca drummers to drum with them during their ceremonies. So I went, listened, and watched and learned that drumming by drumming with them, asking questions of the drummers, the dancers, and the elders. In that context there are specific parts and instruments which serve the dance and the dancers, e.g., the drummers follow the dancers, but the dancers do not follow the drummers.

So, I play drum set since 1973, piano since 1978, marimba and tabla since 1979, ghatam and kanjira since 1990, percussion instruments of Mesoamerica since 2005, and breath instruments of Mesoamerica since 2012. Because I understand how western notation and classical music work, I continue to be invited to compose parts for percussion within notated music for chamber and symphonic groups as well as being a consultant for various orchestras when they play music by composers of Mexico. These composers, Revueltas and Chavez incorporated indigenous instruments and vernacular from their culture much the same way Ives, Bartok, and Stravinsky did.

In order for people to hear these instruments they need to be experienced and over time more and more commissions and collaborations were received from various musicians like Classical guitarist Jeronimo Rajchenberg, pianist Pablo Lenero, Indigenous musicians Luis Perez IXONEZTLI and Ramiro Ramirez Duarte formerly of GRUPO TRIBU, all natives of Mexico City. Along with commissions from Quinteto Latino, a woodwind quintet from San Jose, CA, USA, pedal harpist and violinist Tasha Smith Godinez from San Diego, CA, USA, and PERCUSSION UNDER CONSTRUCTION, a percussion ensemble based in Germany.  The following statement is one of several diatribes which continue to inspire as it shows a lack of respect for the indigenous people of Mexico and Mesoamerica and continues to be proven again and again that it is untrue.

“From the remaining exemplars of Aztec instruments preserved in the National Museum of Mexico, we may infer that the music the people during the pre-Conquest era was as barbarous and harsh as were the ceremonies at which their music was heard… The conch shell, the Mixtecan tun, the teponaztli, the chicahuaztli, the sonaja, the Zapotec chirimia and the Yaqui tambor, not instruments capable of producing either alone, or in conjunction with each other, a grateful harmony: nor can the sound of any of them induce a spiritual response that is in harmony with presently accepted standards of behavior" EL ARTE MUSICAL EN MEXICO / Published under the official Direction in General de las Bellas, Arte Alba Herrera y Ogazon (Published 1917). 

(Christopher Garcia / Photo by Chuck Koton)

Why do you think that the INDIGENOUS music of Mexico continues to generate such a devoted following?

The sound of the instruments harkens back to a time when MUSIC was not entertainment before MUSIC was on tap. When MUSIC was not entertainment when MUSIC was an event to be experienced and cherished and not something to have on in the background when you wash the car.  A person had to be as present as the musician to EXPERIENCE the music and to MAKE MUSIC with everyone that was there to hear it, as opposed to playing music where you have to be present, 1000% of the time, as any millisecond you are not present everyone can feel that. There are lots of talks now about “being present” and “mindfulness” and that is the only place where MUSIC exists. MUSIC only exists NOW and NOWHERE ELSE. And NOW is ALL WAYS and NOWHERE ELSE. This has been documented by many cultures for thousands of years but now that “the west” can prove it scientifically others are starting to take notice of something that has always been there…..

Which meetings have been the most important experiences for you?

We are only speaking of physical meetings as aural meetings continue daily. / 1977 - John Bergamo: Meeting one of my first musical mentors on the phone who told me what I needed to do what I wanted to do. / 1978 - Dr. Truett Hollis and Dr. Overmayer from East Los Angeles College, helped me to prepare to audition for CAL ARTS and study with John Bergamo and Pandit Taranath Rao. / 1979 - Pandit Taranath Rao my first tabla teacher. / 1990 - Michael Pierre Vlatkovich: Invited to work with one of the most original creative minds in music. / 1990 - Swapan Chaudhuri, teacher and tabla virtuoso / 2014 - Jane Goodall, meeting and speaking with her was like being around a saint. These were the SPIRITS that continue to surprise, and astound me as musicians, non-musicians, human beings, mentors, and SPIRIT.

What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

“Do it!” - John Bergamo / “When in doubt leave it out” - John Bergamo / LISTEN and RESPOND: This means that you are doing so with INTENTION, and not by reflex which has no INTENTION.

(The Grande Mothers Reinvented / Photo by Marc Mennigmann)

Are there any memories from Napoleon Murphy Brock, Bunk Gardner, and Don Preston which you’d like to share with us?

The following are my TOTALLY BIASED SUBJECTIVE OPINION. I am sharing with you the same thing I would say if they were standing alongside of me Napoleon Murphy Brock. Napi does what he does quite well, he studies, prepares and knows the material and how he wants to present it. But introducing a new piece of music and/or improvising musically onstage with a vernacular he does not like is not something he does or likes to do. He comes from more of a theatrical background instead of a strictly musical one.

If you have ever experienced a broadway show 20 times in a row, there is little to any difference between each show as it is scripted even though the actor can change the inflection of the performance but the actual words don’t change. Napi is not a jazzbo, bebop kind of a cat and doesn’t want to blow over bebop changes etc., But he has a different skill set, i.e., you don’t go to your favorite Italian restaurant and ask the cook if he knows how to cook Chinese food. With Napoleon you see what you get and you get what you see. You already know how he presents what he presents and that it is going to be good. As good as the same way you experienced it previously. We used to do THE IDIOT BASTARD SON, more as a ballad than anything else, and it would start with a Don Preston solo piano feature. When Don was done, he would end on Napoleon's first note, for him to know where to start. Sometimes Don would finish his solo and Napoleon was nowhere to be found on stage or within Don’s line of sight, so Don would keep playing until he saw Napoleon, hit the note and Napi would start singing. Some in the audience thought that Napoleon was doing a diva thing by not being on stage, but many times he waited so long and out of Don’s line of sight. Just waiting.

He wasn’t doing anything else. Just standing there listening. One time I asked him why he stayed out of Don’s line of sight, and he said that he wanted people to hear the genius of Don Preston and his piano playing, that Don is not just a synthesist but also a great musician who had played with a lot of great people and most Zappa fans only know of his playing with Zappa. Napi did not need to do that, to give Don that space, he could have walked onstage at any time and cut Donnie off… But ...he never did. Don Preston is THE MUTHER that asked me to play one concert with Napoleon Murphy Brock, Roy Estrada, Bunk Gardner and Don Preston. We went on to do some 500 plus concerts between 2003 and 2021. But Don was the person that asked me to play with THE MUTHERS. We had met previously but we had never made music together. Since then, we have done numerous gigs as a duo, trio, quartet and quintet, and without a net, either in electronic or acoustic settings or both.              (Photo: The Grande Mothers Reinvented)

Don is always full of surprises musical and otherwise.  One time onstage in Canada before a crowd of a few thousand people he told the audience, “the last time I was in Canada I was playing piano for Nat King Cole.” And believe it or not, that was true. Another time we were playing a duo concert, pianoforte and drumset and while I was playing a solo, he walked behind me pushing a 12-foot aluminum ladder which made an amazing amount of noise during my solo. He got to the other side… Stopped turned around and smiled… Don is always full of surprises, Don is an improviser, a conceptualist and is consistently nuts in the best kind of way. One time a fan walked up to and told him, “Man, you are a true legend!” Don replied, “I'm not a legend … I'm an icon”.

BUNK GARDNER: Bunk is a jazzbo, bebop improvising kind of cat but is also classically trained. He takes care of himself, eats right, works out. Bunk is a multi woodwind player e.g., bassoon, baritone, bass clarinet, tenor, soprano saxophone, flute, bass flute, and alto flute. Has played lots of classical music plus Jazz - inside, outside, and upside down. He and Don kind of play like one monster (mother!)instead of two. When one slows down so does the other, when one speeds up so does the other, this is without eye contact or hand signals, etc., They like to say they are “joined at the hip.” Bunk always shows up with his music in a binder and is very organized. He puts the tunes in order of the set we are going to play once we pick what we are going to play for that specific evening. Bunk takes LOTS OF NOTES on the notes and with stuff in general. Notes about When he sings

What he says .. What’s his line if any ... But he is also comfortable going way off script musically or otherwise. When we do Holiday in Berlin there was an open solo where it was just Bunk and I playing.  And he would always say, I can only play for so long so if I stop suddenly just keep going. But once we got started he would just play and play and play some more, Kinda like Coltrane you couldn’t take the horn out of his mouth, he was/is UNSTOPPABLE. For some reason, I will never understand (?) Bunk was never asked to do anything again with Frank but most of the ex MUTHERS were asked to do something e.g., Motorhead, Ray Collins, Don Preston, Jimmy Carl Black, Roy Estrada, but never Bunk or Elliot Pretty sure that Bunk was a Sicilian thing, as my grandfather is also Sicilian by the way.…                                             (Photo: The Grande Mothers Reinvented)

ROY ESTRADA: Roy was not in any previous incarnations of THE GRANDMOTHERS until 2002.  There have been various incarnations of THE GRANDMOTHERS but not like this version. This version rehearsed religiously, as often as possible, and did music that each of the MUTHERS had participated in not only in the first few albums. Because Napi and Don were on THE ROXY AND ELSEWHERE, we did tunes from that. Because Roy and Napi were on FZ/OZ we did tunes from that because Bunk had been on LUMPY GRAVY, we did tunes from that, because Don, Bunk, and Roy were on the first 9 albums or so we did tunes from that. We did anything we wanted to that we could do as a 5 piece band with 4 people singing harmony. Before Estrada was in the band, Don had written bass parts based on the piano parts he knew but when Roy got into the band and we started rehearsing with him he played the bass lines that he had originated that were on those albums, which almost had nothing to do harmonically with the chords being played. At rehearsal, Don would ask him “What are you playing here?” And Roy would demonstrate and Don might say, “that doesn’t make any sense?” And Roy would say “listen to the recording!” And that is what he played. So Don would continue to play the keyboard parts he played and Estrada added his long-ago recorded bass parts that nobody in previous incarnations of THE GRANDMOTHERS had played.

Roy also had great ears and could tell Don when he was in the wrong key when Don was doing a solo piano thing. One time Don started an extensive piano solo and Estrada just watched while Don was playing his solo, Roy would point to the keyboard now and then, Don kept playing and wasn’t quite sure what Roy was pointing at. Finally, Don finished his solo on the chord he usually did and Roy kept pointing at the piano, finally, Don realized that he had the transposition key on the piano pushed and was in the wrong key the whole time and Don hit the button again and we were ready to start the next tune in the correct key.

People might find it difficult to believe that the great bassist Leland Sklar and Buell Neidlinger credited Estrada as being one of their favorite electric bassists. We had a gig at the Sarajevo Jazz Festival and we were sitting in the restaurant waiting for our meals and saxophonist Oliver Lake and bassist Reggie Workman walked in, if you have no clue who they are PLEASE GOOGLE their names.

Reggie walked up and introduced himself and said that he was glad to meet some Americans wanted to know what music we were playing and what were we doing there Said THANK YOU and walked away. I told the guys WHO REGGIE WORKMAN is and about his extensive discography. Later that night we were invited to the British Embassy and Reggie and Roy sat next to each other on the way over. Neither of them was aware of each other's extensive musical legacy and they just asked each other about playing Acoustic versus electric bass, what kind of strings they used and why what kind of amp they preferred etc. Just 2 musicians talking shop with 50 plus years of playing their instrument.                                                          (Christopher Garcia / Photo by Bob Barry)

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past?

Fearlessness in the players and composers and lack of opportunities for younger musicians to develop their craft in a working/income-producing sonic environment. I am very fortunate and blessed to MAKE MUSIC every day of my life, with each of the instruments I play, in musical situations, few have ever experienced as well as thousands of hours of rehearsals, and thousands of hours of recordings and thousands of hours of performances all over the world with musicians who have never heard of and will probably never work with each other. Folks who play Zappa music usually don’t play classical music of India and folks who play indigenous music of Mesoamerica don’t usually play avant-garde percussion or chamber music and none of these audiences usually overlap either. Today most modern-day practitioners are usually practicing their instruments and developing their technical skills but not playing music with other musicians to develop their listening and interactive skills and take THE MUSIC forward. Countless musicians have amazing technical abilities with their instruments and thousands of hours of practicing by themselves but not thousands of hours of MUSIC MAKING with other musicians in real-time onstage all over the world, to have grown up in a world where I was allowed that opportunity which continues to this day is a BLESSING. Elvin Jones was once asked “isn’t it true that the John Coltrane quartet never rehearsed?” and he answered, “Yeah, we never rehearsed, we just PLAYED 4 sets a night, 5 to 6 nights a week for 7 years.” Those opportunities are gone….for now, for money. But these opportunities have to be made by the musicians for the musicians. Some people play their instruments and there are people that play music and then there are people that MAKE MUSIC Some do it as a job and some do it as a JOY and some do it for reasons. I have never understood The thing is INTENTION. Why we do what we do how we do when we do. In LIFE, In MUSIC, In LIVING INTENTION and PASSION cannot be rehearsed or bought and paid for you either have it … or you don’t Anything less IS LESS

What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

That the world remembers what we already know and keep forgetting, i.e., that each person is a human being and regardless of how they choose to identify themselves e.g., culturally, economically, ethnically, by gender, genetically, politically, or spiritually, the one thing we each share as a human being is 9 months of rhythmic training in our mothers' wombs before we stepped on this earth. This WE EACH KNOW and are aware of, but we forget to LIVE LIFE that way, treating each other with the same respect that we wish to be treated with instead of just talking about it...

(Christopher Garcia / Photo by Michael Becker)

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

That MUSIC would be recognized as what it is

That which cannot be articulated

That which some have lost track of

The beauty of the timbre, frequency, sound, resonance, and SILENCE of THE MUSIC is a reflection of who we are as spirit trapped within a human being… And that artists were able to perpetuate and propagate their art within the society without a patron, without having to be under the umbrella of a conservatory or a university.

What is the impact of music on the socio-cultural implications?

MUSIC, ART, and ARTISTS of all genres are taken for granted. They are not being paid for nurturing and cultivating their craft. If any employer told an employee that they would not get paid for their work, they would be screaming and infuriated at the lack of respect given them and yet this is how artists from all genres continue to be treated. When social media informed people that they can use their images and videos and that the individual has no recourse the world screamed that they thought their info and privacy was being violated but no one screams about making music without compensating the artist. Most musicians' incomes that I know come from teaching and not from playing, not from the actual act of music-making. Would anyone feel comfortable going to a brain surgeon who teaches brain surgery but doesn’t practice it?

I would rather have a meal from a cook who has cooked 1,000 meals than a person learning to cook that has read 1,000 books on cooking and never got a pot or pan dirty.  I taught at a conservatory for approximately three months but when I found that none of the teachers there were able to make a living as a musician I left. 95% of their incomes come from teaching conservatories are cranking out educated listeners as they are not living examples of a person devoted to music-making via their instrument. My only income comes from playing the instruments that I love to play and the music  I love to play with the people that I love to play with and nothing else I do not teach privately or publicly… for money. Some students come to me asking technical questions or advice but I do not charge for that as I played an instrument for 7 years before I learned how to read and write music and never had any money for an instrument or for lessons so it is a small way that I can give back to those who are currently in a situation I was in when I first started playing.

How do you want the music to affect people?

It either does or it doesn’t It depends on the INTENTION of the ARTist and their music. What are they propagating, what are they perpetuating with their music … or are they?

Some musicians just want to play their instrument and they don’t care what they play,

Some people only want to play their music and nothing else

Some people want to be hired guns and get paid to play what they would never play if they were not getting paid

Some people want to play to get known or be recognized. My TBSO - totally biased subjective opinion i s that the artist's work should be known instead of the artist's name our names will be forgotten but THE MUSIC never will...

Christopher Garcia Music - Home

(Christopher Garcia / Photo by Tom Bartolac)

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