Words and Interview by Sherman Escoffery, Photos by Alex Solmssen
In her book Rock it Come Over, Dr. Olive Lewin describes the critical role of the Kumina Master Drummer: “The cyas drummer is crucial to the success of a bands,” writes Lewin, a Jamaican social anthropologist and musicologist. “He must not only be conversant with information about spirit activity and rhythm requirements but he must also learn the African language and interpret immediately. There are no short cuts to gaining this body of knowledge. Mistakes at this level will confuse singers, dancers and other knowledgeable participants, and threaten the success of any ritual or ceremony. ‘If you don’t play the drum good, and know what you doing, not a thing happen: not a spirit come, whole night…”
Junior Wedderburn—or Gabu, as he is known—is a percussionist and the Master Drummer in the Broadway production of Disney’s The Lion King. His passion and joy speaks through his drums in a way that words cannot describe. Growing up in Port Antonio, one of the cultural cradles of Jamaica, he was exposed to over 10 different drumming traditions that infected him from birth. His raw talent and spiritual connection to these traditions initially took him to Kingston’s National Dance Theatre Company to work with Jamaica’s first generations of Dub poets. Eventually, he came to the Big Apple, to pour his passion, brewed and mixed with various traditions, into the world’s melting pot, via Broadway and his own musical projects. We spoke with him at his Fort Greene, Brooklyn apartment.
LargeUp: Tell us a little About yourself and where you are from. ..
Gabu: My name is Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn, and I’m originally from Port Antonio, Portland, which is in the northeastern end of Jamaica… beautiful parish. I find that a lot of people are touched and feel a special connection with Portland ‘cause it is a beautiful place. Rainfall, it has the most rainfall in Jamaica. Wicked harbor, wicked like the mountains are right there. Rafting down the Rio Grande, we have caves, we have waterfalls, you know. Real interesting place and interesting people. The Maroons are right there from Mooretown, which is just a little north in the hills, right there, so those traditions are there. We have the Blue Lagoon too. We have like the first hotels in the Caribbean…Frenchman’s Cove, Trident Hotel. Remember Errol Flynn? Errol Flynn moved to Jamaica early in his career because he went there to visit and just fell in love with Portland and bought a lot of land there. His wife is still there. Apart from the physical beauty, there are the traditions there, too. You’ll find that drumming traditions, ritual traditions, we have a number of them. We have Kumina in Port Antonio, we have Coromantee which the Maroons practice, right. A little east of the town we have Brukins you know, we have Pocomania, and all those traditions help to feed and breed a musical vibe in Port Antonio that is very different. You have early Mento bands from Port Antonio, there have even been musicians that have made major contributions to the reggae movement.
LU: Portland, that’s where the Jolly Boys are from, right?
Gabu: Yeah, man. The Jolly Boys are right there in Port Antonio. Musicians like “Police and Thieves” Junior Murvin, Lloyd Parks, are from Port Antonio.
LU: You gave me a list of the different styles of drumming. Can you play two or three of them, identify them for me?
[Watch the video below for his demonstration]
LU: Do you feel that there was any conflict with various styles of drumming especially playing like Nyabinghi and playing Kumina and Pocomania?
Gabu: Well in the early years, no. One of the great things was that all of these traditions were used in some way in the resistance to the colonial powers, to slavery you know. So it was utilized. In my earlier years when I stepped to the faith of Rastafari, Kumina was one of the things I used to get fired bun [rebuked) about. Rastas really felt that they didn’t want to associate themselves with the other traditions because the other traditions had that spiritual element to it. Kumina, which involves ancestral worship and you’re evoking the spirit of your ancestors. The earlier Rastafarians felt like this was not something that they wanted to associate themselves with. So when I used to be in Kumina sessions, I used to get a lot of resistance from practitioners of the Rastafarian faith.
LU: Can you describe your journey from the Jamaica’s National Dance Theatre Company to working with people like Garth Fagan?
Gabu: My career as a drummer started way before the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica, from Port Antonio you know, and I grew up in these traditions. After I left high school, I moved to Kingston. Naturally the place to be was the Cultural Training Center, where everything was happening; the school of dance, music, art and drama, so I was there. A lot of the members of the National Dance Theatre Company worked at the Jamaica School of Dance, and I was a drummer there. Months after I moved into Kingston, I was invited to tour with the National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica and that was a good thing for me, because I learned a lot from just being around people who had a whole different kind of attitude and respect for their craft. I learned the power of what I was involved in, the strength of it, and how I should discipline and apply myself to my craft. Moving from there, I worked with a lot of people while I was at the cultural training center, some of the earlier poets like Mikey Smith and Jean “Binta” Breeze, Oku Onuora. I was the drummer around people like Stafford “Ashani” Harrison… those people helped to mold me and to start finding a way with my drumming and apply it to a certain consciousness. So you know, working with these other people just happened over the years. Garth Fagan came after I had been living in America for a long time. I started working with The Lion King and I went through the creative process and he was the choreographer. I knew he was Jamaican, but I never got the opportunity to work with him before; but then, he was there and I was there, and I was able to help to create rhythm to movements, which ultimately got included in production of The Lion King.
LU: A lot of the musicians in the Lion King were South African. Were there any musical conflicts or was it just a seamless integration?
Gabu: Not the musicians, but a lot of the singers are. The actual instrumentalists, none of them are South African. Lebo M., who is the choral arranger, is South African and because of the kind of music—Zulu—a lot of [South African] singers came in to work with the production. A lot of the collaborations were seamless, yes. That is just one of the beauties about it: how all of the different influences, the different genres of music, merged and created this beautiful thing.
LU: Did you learn anything from these musicians?
Gabu: Of course, I learn a lot from these musicians. You know, being in an orchestra is a whole different experience. I’m working in a 24-piece orchestra, horn section, strings and all of that. So there is a whole different kind of discipline. The construct of reggae music is very different. You have to apply yourself a different way to a big orchestra like this. So I learned an enormous amount from just playing there, from the people involved to the South Africans.
LU: Why should people go and see The Lion King?
Gabu: The Lion King is a story about life, you know. There are issues in it that everyone can relate to. The whole story of The Lion King, the father, the uncle, life and death and community, it speaks to that. So you go there and you see a wonderful stage production but you also learn something. The Lion King is about life.
LU: You have worked with various reggae artists and you also have your own band outside of working with The Lion King. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Gabu: Well, one of the first things I did when I started living in New York a long time ago, was to get a group of drummers together. Because this was, to me, important because the traditions, the real Jamaican musical traditions, I had to find a way to help to keep that alive. So I put together this group, we are called Ancient Vibrations and we have been doing it over the years. Every now and then there is a performance. This is the demonstration of Kumina, of Nyabinghi, of keeping that kind of vibe, that kind of energy alive.
LU: How or where do you find inspiration?
Gabu: I’m a Rasta man so, you know, my inspiration comes from where Rasta stands now. The fact that there’s a lot of work to be done, and as a musician I have to try and apply myself, lend myself to the efforts that we need to make or to bring about the kind of changes, the consciousness and recognition that we should have, you know. This is my inspiration.
LU: Tell me two of your favorite non-reggae artists.
Gabu: Me nah go do that, you know. I sit down and I say, “Who is my favorite musician?” I cannot do that. I can’t say to you what is my favorite style of music either, because there’s so much in music, so much involved. There’s an energy, so I cannot break it down into individuals. I love different people who do different things.
LU: Alright, which artist right now or musician if they call up Gabu and say come play on my record, would benefit tremendously from having you play with them?
Gabu: I think anybody who has any kind of respect for traditional hand drumming would benefit from me playing with them now because I am totally into what I do and you know, if I accept a project, I am going to come with it in total, so I’ll give it my all. I’m pretty sure anybody who invites me to come and play with them, would see the value of me playing with them before they extend that invitation.
LU: Initially, when you just start with The Lion King, did you have a way of warming up or just getting yourself in a certain mood before the show?
Gabu: No, I never do that you know. And it’s the strangest thing, I’ll go to a wedding with just a few people and I’ll get jitters about doing that more than I have to go in and do The Lion King eight times a week for over 1,700 people a night, it is just a whole different thing. The energy is different. So there is not a warm up so to speak. I’ll go in and make sure my drums are tuned and warmed and I’m in that space but that’s about it.
LU: So as a little youth from Portland now in the Big Apple and currently the Master Drummer in the Lion King, what is that feeling like?
Gabu: I give thanks. It’s all a blessing you know, but I am aware of the road that I have traveled to get here and I can tell you that all it has been about is my passion for my instrument. It’s just how I apply myself. There is no magic to it or anything. Passion is power, you know. You can access a certain kind of power through passion. I have been an honest musician. Honest to myself, to my feeling and, apply myself to my instrument and not allow any kind of external judgment about it to affect me; and that carries. It is read by those who come in contact with you who are really into what you are doing.
LU: When you were younger did you see yourself doing anything else in life?
Gabu: No. I couldn’t. I didn’t have the skills to do anything. I loved swimming and football but was limited when it came to academics and all of that. But, there was nothing that touched me or commanded me in the way that the drums did. So that is all I wanted to do.
LU: Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn is… Finish that sentence for me.
Gabu: Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn is a passionate musician who wants to apply himself … . Let me start again, bredren. Junior “Gabu” Wedderburn is a Rasta Man who wants to use his craft as a means of conveying the consciousness of Rastafari. I think that at the core that is what it is about.