Interview with Linette

Linette Tobin closeup
Linette Tobin, April 2016. (c) Photo by Barry A. Wilson

Linette sat down for this interview in June 2016.

Question: As a percussionist, why do you like the congas?
Linette Tobin: They’re drums, but they’re also melodic instruments. You can get a large range of sounds out of each conga. Then if you play two or three together, you’re able to make melodic phrases out of the different tones. And I like the way they feel!

If I had to put a label on it, I’d say jazz fusion.

Q: You’ve traveled a lot to Cuba and Africa. What have you learned from those trips?
I’ve learned a lot of folkloric music which is really rhythmically complex, and requires a deep feel for polyrhythms. I’ve also seen how much time these professional musicians put in. There’s no such thing as working too hard or studying too much. They may already be masters of their tradition, but they continue working, learning, playing every day. They have such a complete commitment to their music.

I think it’s also these trips that have formed my love of fusion. Seeing amazing musicians from different regions come together and create music has been such a trip. After seeing and hearing that happen, for me, fusion was “it.”

Here in the U.S., I’ve had the chance to work with a master Malian ngoni player, Cheick Hamala Diabate. He created his group by bringing African musicians, mostly from West Africa, and American players together. I love what he’s done — this fusion of West African traditional music with American funk, blues, soul. I got to go to Mali with him in early 2016, and record in Bamako which was a real honor.

Q: What’s been your journey as a percussionist?
I started playing late in life. The first rhythms I studied were Afro-Cuban. Much later, I started using those ideas in West African music. Then, finally started learning some American genres, and well, sort of mixing everything up. So, I guess my journey has been from tradition to fusion.

The first step though is learning to play something the traditional way. That means, for me, breaking it down into the individual parts. I think I’m pretty geekish in learning. I want to see how the different parts fit together, what’s important about each piece of the whole. I want to understand what is unique or makes something a certain style. And I want to show respect for the music by representing it well.

Beyond understanding the different pieces of a rhythm, learning it becomes about the feel which can really only be absorbed through exposure. A lot of times, it’s hard to explain to someone what sounds authentic. I mean, you can play something that works with the timing, but just doesn’t fit with the style. The right feel comes from exposure and listening. I think that’s the only way to do it.

After that, it comes down to musicality, musical phrasing, and again, listening. I know it’s important to have rudiments and chops. But those things out of context aren’t music.

Q: So how does fusion happen?
Listening. Allowing everyone to bring something unique to the table. Being open to what someone else is saying with their instrument. I don’t think there’s room for a selfish player in a group. The great thing about collaborating with others is welcoming what each person brings. That’s when the creative magic happens.

So, I listen to the phrasing and melody of a song, listen to what the other musicians are doing, then find an underlying groove that complements what is happening musically.

I enjoy using the concept of a traditional rhythm, but modifying it to use in contemporary music. It’s harder and harder to categorize musical genres, because all these styles from different traditions, societies, regions of the world are being blended. I love that.

Q: What was your early exposure to music?
My sister and the church.

I grew up in small-town America; Roseburg, a small logging town in western Oregon. We went to church twice every Sunday and once on Wednesday night. I learned harmonies from reading music out of the hymn book. My grandfather used to teach Sunday school in the Church of the Nazarene. One of my treasured possessions is his old, worn hymn book. Anyway, we were a bunch of white people who could hardly clap in time. But the melodies and harmonies of those old hymns were beautiful and stuck with me for life.

My sister Luella is the talent that brought music to my family. She’s a skilled pianist and music teacher. She’s seven years older than me, and when I was maybe 5, she started teaching me piano.

Everything I know about music theory or reading music comes from Lue. Before I turned 10, she had already taught me key signatures, time signatures, the different minor scales. She didn’t realize it was difficult stuff. And I ate it up, because I was too young to know that it was supposed to be hard. She stayed in Oregon, where she’s had a long career teaching music and directing performances. I was one of her first students. Maybe teaching me helped her realize what a great teacher she is, and set her on her own life track. She’s happy that I’ve been able to do something musically, even though it took me a long while.

Later, in grade school and junior high, I played piano and flute. I was never very good. I was terrified to perform in front of people. Too afraid that I would forget the notes. Drumming solves that problem – no notes!

Q: You moved away from music, then came back to it years later. How did that happen?
When I was a teenager, I dropped music. I pretty much always knew that I’d be a human rights lawyer. Coming from a family with a single mother, the most important thing was to have financial independence and stability. Not until I graduated from law school and paid off my student loans did I even think about music again.

Many years later I went to see a dance movie. I can’t remember if it was Strictly Ballroom or Dirty Dancing, but it was something like that. It made me want to learn salsa dancing, so I started going to salsa clubs. Whenever there was a live band and the percussionist took a solo, I would stop dancing and just stare. I thought, “I want to do that!”

In 1997, I decided to learn percussion. I went to Madagascar, met a traditional folkloric group touring outside the capital of Tana, and ended up traveling around with them for a couple of days. It was on this trip that I bought my first drum, a small djembe.

Q: So you were on your way.
Not so fast. I had just started learning when I was in a car accident and lost regular use of both of my arms for two years. The accident left me without much blood flow and nerve conduction in my arms. I couldn’t hold my arms up or in an extended position. I had shooting pains up and down my arms, and terrible trembling. It was a tough time, and scary for me. I would lose feeling in my arms even doing something as simple as brushing my hair. People had to reach for things for me, carry things for me. I didn’t know if I’d ever recover full use of my arms. So, I had this drum, but I couldn’t play it.

I had two major surgeries to get my arms back. Two surgeries, and a lot of painful physical therapy. Eventually I could drum a little. I’d play for a few minutes and my arms would fatigue, hurt, shake. I just kept at it, trying to build endurance and strength. Trying to retrain muscles, and stretch my neck and shoulders to get the blood flowing again. Drumming became a goal. If I could drum, it meant that I had my arms back.

Finally, in 2000, I could seriously start studying. At that point, I had been to Cuba a few times, and fallen in love with the music, so I focused on Afro-Cuban drumming. I studied with Rafael Monteagudo, a master Cuban drummer, who is now in New York City with his own group, The Music Connection. He took a genuine interest in my playing and was a constant presence from 2001 until about 2003. Later he moved to New York, though, and I stopped playing for about five years.

Linette Tobin's blurred hands playing congas

Q: Wait. Why?
In part, it was the difficulty of being a female drummer in a male-dominated Afro-Cuban percussion community. Many men wouldn’t play with me, tried to block me. It became a constant struggle, and took the fun out of playing. Rafael had been my champion, and when he moved away, I felt too isolated to continue on my own.

It wasn’t until 2009 that I realized how much I missed drumming, and I started looking for a way back in — but a different way. I met a female percussionist in D.C. who was playing West African music. At the same time, I met and befriended a Ghanaian drummer. I decided to go to Ghana and learn some of their drumming traditions. It was a great inspiration and just got me excited about playing again. West African and Afro-Cuban music both have very strong folkloric traditions so they were a natural fit in a way. I returned from Ghana knowing that I wanted to find a way to use my congas in West African music, even though West African music more often features the djembe.

At that point, I also knew that I wanted to stretch more creatively. I didn’t want to be constrained so much by pre-determined patterns. I wanted more freedom to play how I heard the music.

My next big milestone was in 2011/2012 when I spent the entire winter in Cuba. It was like music school for me. Every day was devoted to music — individual classes with the best Cuban players in the world, playing with them, seeing live performances. Next day, repeat! It was complete immersion, and it changed my playing.

When I got back, I continued pursuing ways to combine different styles, using some of the Cuban and African ideas in American genres like funk and jazz. Jazz is already such an explorative genre, a natural breeding ground for music fusion. I also started playing with some great musicians who went out of their way to support me and raise my level of playing — Stevan, Mark, Gabin.

Q: Do you write any music?
Linette Tobin's hands playing congas,My new foray! In 2014, I formed an Afro-Cuban ensemble called Sin Frontera that featured others as stars and brought together some awesome talent. It only lasted about a year, but it gave me my first experience in writing music. We were performing an Afro-Cuban chant to Obatalá which is traditionally done with just vocals and percussion. I wanted to add music to make it into a funk/jazz number instead. I had so much fun experimenting with that

Meanwhile, I had people telling me to start my own project. Some women musicians were telling me, simultaneously, that if I wanted to succeed in the music world, I needed to make my own way, do my own thing. The message basically being, “If the boys aren’t going to invite you to their party, throw your own!” It felt like one of those moments when all signs seemed to point in the same direction. So, I started thinking in terms of my own music.

I’m a constant hummer. If I’m not humming, there’s something wrong. I started paying a little more attention to what I was humming, or letting it sort of pan out to see if a song could be in there somewhere. I’d say, I’m becoming a writer. It’s definitely something I’m excited about. Bass lines are probably my favoritte. Lyrics are hard for me, because they feel private and revealing.

Q: Who are the percussionists you admire?
Most of all, my teachers, Rafael, Orlando, Duni, Emilito. But there are so many others. Really, I wouldn’t even know where to start.

Q: What about women?
There are two female drummers that have really had an influence on me. Kristen Arant, in the Washington, DC area, was the woman who brought me into the whole West African drumming scene. And Monette Marino, who’s out in California. Both are powerful. Unapologetic originals! Both have found and made their own way. Both are innovators and leaders. Some of my courage in putting myself out there comes directly from them.

Q: You are a woman. How has that affected your music?
I’ve mostly played with men, because there are simply more of them. I think the barriers to entry are higher for women. There’s some blatant sexism, but more often, it’s the sort of sexism that is still just inherently part of our society. You know, things like when I say I’m “with the band,” people think I’m dating a band member, not that I am one. If I say I’m in the band, I get “you’re a singer?” No. “A dancer?” Also no. Then silence. Then, there’s often an assumption that I won’t be any good or that my playing won’t be strong. So, I’m starting in a hole that I have to dig my way out of.

There’s also a natural camaraderie the men have, because of the time they spend together at each others’ homes or hanging out after gigs, sharing ideas, forming friendships. Women are less likely to be part of that. Kind of the musician version of the “Men Only” country club. I’ve had musicians say to me directly that I’m not included, because their girlfriends or wives wouldn’t understand, or that an attractive female is disruptive in a band. I really just want to be treated like any other musician.

So yes, it’s been frustrating. Once you reach a certain level, though, there are benefits. For instance, I stand out and people will remember me. That’s priceless. I also love what it’s like when I play, and I see looks of surprise. And the absolute best thing is when women approach me after a show and thank me for representing or say how happy it makes them to see a women playing drums. That is an awesome feeling.

I think that working around some of the roadblocks I’ve encountered because of gender has made me more flexible and versatile. If the first community of drummers that I tried to be a part of here had embraced me, I might have been content to stay in that circle. Instead, I’ve looked for other opportunities, and that has given me a broader base of experiences. A simple example — since I faced obstacles playing Afro-Cuban percussion here, I went to Cuba to play with and learn directly from the masters there. How lucky am I to have done that? And the constant search for new outlets has definitely fueled my love for music fusion.

Q: Have you played much with women?
Yes, but not enough, and it’s something I want to do a lot more of. Kristen, who I already mentioned, has an all-women’s drumming ensemble, BeleBele Rhythm Collective. The dynamic when interacting with them is starkly different than when playing with men. It’s so different that it’s funny. My first time rehearsing with them, I was late, and when I came in, everyone was already formed up in a tight circle. I sort of edged up, thinking that I could squeeze my way in inch by inch. Immediately, the women closest to me just parted and moved over to make an opening for me, even asking if I had enough space. It was so symbolic.

In our society, I think that women are probably still better listeners and better at group dynamics. And that is important musically. Of course there are exceptions, but generally, this has been my experience. I also think that women are still more comfortable expressing their vulnerabilities, and that leads to a wider breadth of emotion that can be expressed through their music. I hope to work with women a lot more in the future.

Q: What do you want to accomplish in the next few years?
I want to record and put out a CD. I want to collaborate with other musicians whom I respect and admire. I want to play with a group that allows me to grow and stretch musically, and that makes me proud of our product.

Q: How would you describe the music you want to play?
Fusion, with an emphasis on percussion because I love it so much, and I think percussion is very accessible to people. Afro-Cuban rhythms will underlie whatever I do since that is what I learned first. It will have influences from Cuba and Latin America, Brazil, the Caribbean, West Africa, combined with the American styles I’ve been exposed to all my life — funk, soul and jazz.

If I had to put a label on it, I’d say jazz fusion.


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