Finding Beauty in the Beats: A Conversation with Mingo Lewis
Michael Connolly writes:
In a career spanning more than 45 years (so far!), percussionist Mingo Lewis has played with some of music's greatest names, including Chick Corea (and Return to Forever), Al DiMeola, Santana, and the Tubes. He has performed live and/or recorded with hundreds of musicians such as Third World, Miles Davis, Todd Rundgren, and Billy Joel. He has recorded over 100 records, many of which were Grammy winners.
Far from being content to rest on the laurels of an undeniably full career, Mingo is still actively performing and teaching, continuing to stretch his boundaries further.
Contributing writer Elijah Tucker recently had a chance to sit down with Mingo in his home in Oakland. Here's what he had to say:
Mingo Lewis is a man of many talents, musical and otherwise. Walking into his Oakland home studio, I admired the funky laid-brick floor and richly painted walls. This studio, which he built from a dirt floor cellar into the three-room complex that I saw before me, was impressive; my admiration was soon to skyrocket when he began to tell me of his career.
Mingo's childhood was saturated with music and musicians. His father, Jimmy "Babyface" Lewis, was a blues singer and guitarist, well-known at New York's Cotton Club and the Apollo Theater. Jimmy's closest friends were Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, and the two would often visit the family: "Monk would make me sit next to the piano and ask me all these crazy questions," Mingo reminisces: "'What chord is this? What note is this?' I'd hide when he came over."
With such musical luminaries surrounding him, it was inevitable that the boy would begin playing early. He started with brushes on just a snare drum and a cymbal, jamming with his father, who would wake young Mingo up in the middle of the night to play with him and his friends. Over time, Mingo learned to groove with the masters. Monk, Miles, Max Roach, Art Blakey and countless others were frequent visitors to the house.
While still in elementary school, Mingo started gigging. He spent days and nights at Harlem's Apollo Theater, sitting in with James Brown and King Curtis, witnessing the basement dice games between the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Marvin Gaye, and members of the Four Tops - all before the age of 12.
Mingo learned through immersion, rather than formal study, and to this day contends that the best practice technique is to play along with music. "The best way for anybody to learn is through practice with their favorite music. Anything that feels good, put that on and practice to it, because you already have an affinity for that music," he says.
From age 6 to 12, he was steeped in jazz, funk and soul music. Upon entering junior high school, he became enthralled with Latin music, quickly becoming involved in the swinging Latin music scene in New York. Absorbing the playing of the bands of Eddie Palmieri, Tito Puente, Ray Baretto and Johnny Pacheco, he was primed for a transformation.
"I was at a place in New York called the Corso. I was waiting for Ray Baretto to come on, and all of a sudden, this little guy walked up to Ray's congas, and started playing. I freaked out. It was the first time I had heard drums become so melodic." The mysterious conga player was Carlos "Patato" Valdez, who, along with Armando Peraza, would become Mingo's single biggest influence as a conga player. It was at this point that Mingo moved away from jazz and funk, focusing exclusively on Latin music and conga playing. He spent time at the popular drummer's hangout in Central Park, The Fountain, and around City College, where he put together his first Latin band. During this time, fresh into high school, he became a major presence in the scene, sitting in with Mongo Santamaria and many of the other great bands that came through town.
A turning point
One night, the Santana band was in town to play at Madison Square Garden. It happened that the percussion section had quit the afternoon before the gig, and Carlos and the band were left scrambling to find a replacement. When the show's promoter got word that Mingo, who had been dragged to the show by a friend, was in the house waiting for the show to begin, an impromptu audition was arranged, and with only minutes to spare, Mingo filled in. It was the beginning of what would become a three-year relationship with Santana, during which they toured the world and recorded the studio albums Caravanserai and Love, Devotion and Surrender and the live LP Live at the Crater Festival.
After three years had passed, a good friend played Mingo the debut recording of Chick Corea's band Return to Forever. Hearing this music proved to be the catalyst for the next stage in Mingo's career. "I heard the song 'Some Time Ago' and I just freaked out. That night, I knew I was gonna quit Santana. I had to move on," Mingo explains. "I wasn't growing." It wasn't with the specific purpose of joining "Chick's band" that Lewis left Santana, "but I knew I was gonna get there somehow."
He soon got a call from RTF's first drummer, Lenny White, inviting him to sit in with the band at a local gig. Thinking that this was simply a jam situation, as opposed to the secret audition that it was, Mingo approached Chick after the gig and said, "I would really love to play with you." He passed the audition and stayed with the band for close to two years.
Recording and teaching
Over the ensuing years, he worked on some highly acclaimed pop and fusion records, including Billy Joel's Turnstiles, Todd Rundgren's Nearly Human, XTC's Skylarking, David Byrne and Brian Eno's My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, and a handful of Al DiMeola's early works. Additionally, he began to develop a teaching practice, one focused on understanding each individual student and teaching according to his or her needs.
"You cannot teach from a format," Mingo insists. "Everyone is an individual. As a teacher, I try to get inside the student; each student is different, and everybody has a different learning curve. When I was a little boy, my mother sent me to study with Ted Reed" - the lauded author of Syncopation for the Modern Drummer - "and I went to one lesson. After that, I was straight to the movie theater! Because what he did was, he sat me down with a snare drum and a book, and he had me playing all this rudimental stuff. I was already out gigging. I knew how to play." Reed's didactic method "was very boring to me."
Mingo's students have arrived to him with a wide range of strengths and weaknesses. He recalls an MIT graduate who came with an uncanny mathematical genius for deconstructing any pattern or rhythm instantly. But the student's playing lacked a sense of emotion or feeling. "The playing was very robotic, very stiff. My whole feeling about teaching him was that I had to teach him how to feel music."
Other students have struggled with one rhythm for a year, but once they got that rhythm, Mingo reports, "the feeling was intense."
When Mingo takes on a new student, he is interested in seeing that student take what he has to offer and begin to develop it for him or herself. "I teach people how to learn and understand music--not strictly drums, but music. I like to give them as much information as they need, as quickly as possible, and then let them go. I don't like to hold on to students.
"I really like teaching beginners, because I can start them off right: I can tell them who to listen to, make sure their tones are right, that they understand timing, how to feel time, and that they are playing relaxed. I also love teaching really advanced players, 'cause then I can sit and really stretch the imagination of this person; I can go to other places, rhythmically. Then you get into the real sick stuff. That's really a lot of fun."
Mingo is getting into some dizzyingly complex stuff of his own. A recent endorser of the PanArt Hang [pronounced hung] drum, he has been exploring the capabilities of this new instrument. He recently recorded with the Hang, applying conga technique to this melodic wunderkind of an instrument; the results are breathtaking. He has also recently begun studying tabla, and has fallen in love with the courtly North Indian drums. As so many great masters do, Mingo is constantly pursuing new directions.
A new project, called X-Revue, is three bands in one. In Vortex Tribe, he plays drumset. It is a world-beat/jazz fusion project, with keyboards, guitar, bass and the flute of Deborah Yates. The second band, Room of Voices, plays a brand of funk/pop heavily influenced by the classic funk of James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, et al. Mingo is conguero and singer in this group. The third project under the X-Revue umbrella is Temple Rhythm, a deeply funky exploration of world rhythm - Arabic, Middle Eastern, Indian Punjabi, etc - that will feature a variety of master percussionists of the world.
With X-Tribe, Mingo is able to explore the range of his passions in a loosely unified format. In live performance, he hopes to put on a revue-style show, where the "house band" is X-Revue. As different featured performers take the stage with the house band, the act, in name and feeling, changes. The lines begin to blur, and the show concludes with an all-star collection of the featured artists around the X-Revue core.
As a player/composer/producer, Mingo Lewis is in the business of making real music, in real time, with real people: relaxed, breathing, grooving music. As a teacher, his project is to convey the depth and beauty of music, as a whole, to whoever is lucky enough to cross the threshold of his basement studio. LM
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