Q&A with Juma Sultan of the Aboriginal Music Society / Gypsy, Sun and Rainbows
Sound Colour Vibration is a movement that is bridging realities in a way that we could have never dreamed of when starting this in January of 2010. From the modern movement of experimental electronica to the voyage and wave length of blues and jazz, we are blending cultures in a way rarely seen. Juma Sultan comes in at the epicenter of this movement, having played with so many legends and becoming one himself. To interview the man has brought an understanding to his world that we feel is as important as anyone else whose been making music this long.
Juma Sultan moved in many modes of sound, grabbing bits and pieces of the world as he traveled through it and never folding to the conventional means of pop standards. Juma Sultan’s drive to create his own collective called The Aboriginal Society along with further endeavors in his career set a blueprint for independent artists that has become a staple in modern culture. Juma was constantly recording since his time with in upstate New York when the first Woodstock was happening and has an archive of hundreds of tapes that are now surfacing to the world officially. His first official release with the Aboriginal Music Society archives came in the name of Father of Origin, released on Eremite Records. It is the most stunning box set of the year and breathes new light on somebody who is one of the best.
It is with great pleasure to present this definitive interview with Juma about his past musings with his foundational group Aboriginal Music Society, his time with iconic artists such as Archie Shepp and Jimi Hendrix and a look into his musical history that reveals a lot about a man who has seen more than the average person. Living legends are alive and well and we plan to unearth these worlds more and more with Sound Colour Vibration. Included at the end of this interview is a collection of material Juma recorded with Jimi Hendrix right before their stint at this historic 1969 Woodstock Music and Arts Festival.
SCV: Before we dive into your rich music legacy, we wanted to ask you about the new box set that Eremite Records (http://eremite.com/) is preparing as a retrospective selection of materials from your prolific group Aboriginal Music Society. What formats will the released be pressed in and how many years does the music span?
JS: The music spans from probably 1964 till the mid 80′s, so twenty years of it but it did continue on in different capacities because it went from jazz to world beat type music with other groups. It spanned into the 80′s and then the name changed. I continued having bands of a similar nature, one was ‘Ashanon’ and then the other one an African ensemble called ‘Sancopa’. We play a wide variety of music not so primarily focused on the jazz structure.
SCV: How did you choose the lovely Eremite records for this release considering the many prestigious reissue and rarity labels that are out there?
JS: (Eremite) contacted me, they contacted me once they saw my website, maybe 3 or 4 years ago. At that time I was not considering doing anything with any record labels because through the years I’ve been accosted by many jazz labels and I decided I really wanted to have a little more control and put out my own record label, to have my own, and it’s still part of my dream and concept. What (Eremite) has afforded me at this point was to get the very first aboriginal music out. Nothing has been presented to the public so this is first recording. So once they contacted me, after a period of time (Michael Ehlers) came up to my property in Woodstock and we talked and I thought that it was a positive thing to do because of the quality that he presented.
SCV: We are really anticipating this box with Eremite as we have wanted to dive into more of your music since we first heard the Woodstock rehearsal tapes and some of the other material you had going with Jimi Hendrix. How did the final track positions and order come about for this box?
JS: Well basically when Michael Ehlers came to my property he had some idea of a concept for an album that he wanted to present and he started out with the material that was on my website and then we just expanded it and then the order and concept was basically his as the producer. I didn’t deal with the sequence and the order. I think he did an excellent job in how he presented it, I was very happy with it
SCV: How many photos did you pull out of your archives for this release?
JS: Well that I call my ephemera collection, I’m a modern day pack rat, I don’t throw away anything. if I do a performance i save at least the flyer or something of that nature. i got boxes and boxes of ephemera which I was cataloging for my website and he (Michael) went through it and selected out of the thousands of pages to reflect the history of the music and some of the artists.
SCV: You mentioned that you have plans of taking this music on tour to around the world to carry on the fire that was lit over 40 years ago. How many musicians do you plan to take on tour with you and do you have all your people in place?
JS: No I don’t have them in place, there’s only maybe 4 or 5 that are still living, but I would stay within the African music tradition and pick up musicians in different areas to play with. And if I’m in a place that I’ve played before I’ll call up the people that I know that live there. I would love to tour with just 5 or 6 guest artists from around the world.
SCV: You formed a very special bond with prolific multi instrumentalist Jimi Hendrix during his short time with us on this earth. I read somewhere that you met Jimi Hendrix in Greenwhich Village during the year of 1966. How did you reconnect with Jimi in 1969 for the Woodstock band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows?
JS: Well we never played at that time when he was down at the Cafe Wha? when he was Jimmy James & Flames with Rodney California and all those guys. iI’d go and listen to him because I really admired how he stepped outside of the general box of the blues and the blues sideman. So I respected his playing, I used to listen to him but never played with him at that time but when he came back after England, in spring of ’69, we ran into each other in Woodstock and we just acknowledged each other like ‘Hey man I know you’ and he said ‘Why don’t you come up to the house and jam?’. I started going up to his managers house while he was staying in Woodstock for that short stay and we used to play everyday/night, a lot of acoustic guitar and some electric, and he said ‘I really like it up here’ and ‘I want to get a house up here and try to relax and stop touring so much and put a band together and develop the new sound’ and that was the beginning of Gypsy, Sun and Rainbows. So we jammed a lot and eventually he got a house in a place called Voiceville up Trevor Hollow Road, and as it got closer to the festival he still didn’t have all the pieces together. He called Billy Cox and he was still auditioning drummers, keyboard players, horn players. It wasn’t really audition it was more like jamming and see what we could develop and that’s the way he put it together, playing with the musicians in the area. I was the one who happened to know all the musicians in the area so I invited them up to the house to play. Just shortly before the festival, he had still not found the right drummer so he called Mitch back to play with him. Mitch was never happy with that, he was happy just having the trio and as he said in his book ‘There was too many black cats around’… he wasn’t comfortable with it.
SCV: Can you recall in vivid detail the first jams that took place between you two when reconnecting later in ’69?
JS: Yeah, I recall that first jam in 1969. We were in Jefferey’s living room and he was just playing around with ideas on the acoustic guitar. He was messing with flamenco style with some Wes Montgomery in it, and so we played around with that type of music for a couple hours. He would tell me to start a rhythm and then build something and it was a mutual exchange.
SCV: There is a private recording that has been out for some years that features yourself with Jimi, Jerry Velez, Earl Cross (trumpet), Ali Kaboi (drums), many members of your Aboriginal Society and two of Santana’s percussionist among more. The performance was held at the Tinker Street Cinema Theater on August 10th, 1969 as a warm up gig for the Woodstock show that was coming up. From asking around, I was told that there is 16mm print of this along with a two track recording. Have you gone back to any of this footage and audio in recent years?
JS: I remember it well because the songs that they have on there they gave credit to Mitch Mitchell and Jimi. Those are my copyright tunes that I wrote early in my musical career. But that performance was two weeks prior to the festival and was his performance with the Aboriginal Music Society with him sitting in. I remember playing the electric bass which isn’t normal for me because I’m an upright bass player, so I was playing that and teaching Jimi the tunes, you know “Sundance”, “The Dance”, things of that nature and that’s whats on that particular album. That’s been bootlegged a lot, I’ve seen it in a couple of different forms. When I was in Pakistan a fellow came by and took some tapes and put that stuff out and that’s what happened but the copyright was incorrect.
SCV: How much tape do you have of your time with Jimi during this Woodstock period and what is some of your favorite material from that batch?
JS: I couldn’t tell you because I have so many tapes and during that period there were so many boxes that were not marked and some cassettes I lost. I really couldn’t tell you, I’d have to go through my whole collection of tape and catalog them. I have two, maybe three that I’ve located thus far and I’d like to locate more. There was some stuff that was just off the charts. That stuff was also recorded on all sorts of things, there’s the cassettes and the reel to reel but also 4 and 8 track because we had a recorder in the house. So I really don’t know at this time how much material I have, I wish I did.
SCV: Jimi was definitely under a lot of pressure from his management and label to do the three piece rock set up and with this new expansion of sound and tonality that reflected more of what we love so much at Sound Colour Vibration, how much material do you feel would have been played at Woodstock by your group Gypsy Sun and Rainbows that was not if Jimi had full control?
JS: Jimi always had full control of the band and the music, he called the shots about what we played and how we played it. What had happened was the management didn’t allow him enough time to develop. The Gypsy Sun and Rainbows group was a fledgeling group and I say that because nothing really came together until a couple weeks before the festival in terms of cohesion. He had full control but there was one incident I can recall where Kimi wanted to play one tune acoustically and the management said ‘no way’. They had one guitar player there, Richie Havens who opened and they ran control over him on that and said ‘absolutely not, you cannot play the acoustic guitar on that set’. As far as the other tunes, Jimi called them. They were a flow of probably about 16 to 18 tunes that we had already done in practice. So he controlled the band, we all were happy to play with him because of his excellence and all that. So he had control in that extent, now as far as the management goes, they’d put pressure on him to tour and make more money so they could deposit it in a Cayman bank. The management put pressure on him because they saw the trio as their million dollar baby but Jimi wanted to change the sounds. He wanted to relax and build new sounds and they wanted to lock him in a box. He was one of those musicians that always wanted to change before you got bored with them.
SCV: Jimi had a completely new sound in 1969 with the studio recordings from Gypsy Sun and Rainbows. Message to Love, Beginnings, Izabella, Villanova Junction, Easy Blues, all of which are surreal ethereal beautiful statements of harmony. I really feel Jimi’s tonality was becoming more expansive and his color pallet was becoming more real and not easily washed away from the media angles played on his previous works. What pieces during that period really touched your soul?
JS: There was just so many, there’s nothing really clicking, I mean Isabella, Crosstown Traffic, there was a lot… I was at the Hit Factory and Record Plant and various studios with him along with Eddie Kramer and Alan Douglas, the management was against that marriage, and then Alan introduced him to The Last Poets and different areas. He brought in guys like Larry Young and even tried to hook him up with Miles but the management was not in favor of any of that. Jimi used his studio more like a rehearsal facility in a way. Like he’d go in and he may not have ever played with someone before but they would lay down ideas and he had a great direction for where he was going at the moment and that would change due to his high degree of creativity
SCV: What were some of the biggest barriers you had to overcome or face while in Jimi’s band.
JS: The problem that I had was with the English contingency, the management, the engineer Eddie Kramer. For example, at the Woodstock Festival if you look at the film for the Star Spangled Banner, it was not a solo but they turned every instrument down except Jimi. And the same happened on many other songs because in those days Jerry Velez and myself were playing sort of Latin polyrhythms and African polyrhythms and we were playing polyrhythmically against the rock ‘n roll sound. Like say in 4/4 we might make the 3 our 1 because that polyrhythm gave another push or aspect to the music. It was just a different genre and the drummer Mitch Mitchell did not like that and neither did Eddie Kramer. We were coming from a different concept and merging a whole other sound at that time.
SCV: Was Gypsy Sun and Rainbows into seeing cinema and sharing books during that period?
JS: We were all well read in that respect, though I don’t ever recall Billy Cox or Jerry Velez reading a book. I was always studying something and Jimi was always reading something. I mean his intellectual volume was amazing, not just in music but in general, his thought process. If you want to get into specific books I can’t recall all the books I read because at that time I had come out of so many different areas of the civil rights movement, and nationalism and Islam and all that. At that time I was interested in Sufism.
SCV: You spent a considerable amount of time with Jimi from 1969 and on. Did Jimi and Sun Ra ever cross paths during the time you spent with Jimi and did Sun Ra have influence on Jimi?
JS: No, I knew Sun Ra from Philadelphia, but no. I knew that Jimi listened to Sun Ra, Jimi had a very eclectic taste. He admired John Coltrane, he loved Wes Montgomery, just across the board, even classical music, he had very broad tastes. But I’ll tell you, I doubt that him and Sun Ra ever came into any kind of contact. I know they never played together.
SCV: With Jimi expanding his musical pallet, what type of musical timings did you find yourself falling into around his double melodies and expansive rhythm and solo work?
JS: Well the time wasn’t always 4/4, you know, it wasn’t a lot of odd times but you know, there is stuff in 3/4 or 6/8. But we were playing polyrhythms and syncopation, and that’s the main thing to think about is the syncopation.
SCV: We always love to dive into the musical legacy of artists and feel it as important to know about the bright moments they shared around the people that cared for the most. What are your happiest memories with Jimi?
JS: Some of the best times that I can recall are up at the house on Trevor Hollow Road. They had a back porch, like a stone porch, probably 30′ by 20′, and we would sit up there and play and hear the natural echo through the valley bounce off the mountains and the trees. That was a wonderful experience of just being up there and playing and being open to new ideas and concepts. We would play in small units of three up to the full Gypsy Sun and Rainbows band, it was wonderful. We had a great time inside the house when we had the 8 track recording system set up and recorded some beautiful moments that I recall never being recaptured. It was always a pleasure to go into the studio with him. I found the Electric Lady Studio to have a wonderful atmosphere and not to mention that the pivotal moment was the Woodstock Festival.
SCV: We wanted to ask some questions about your preferences with instruments and what you connect with the most. What are your most prized pieces in your music instrument collection?
JS: My most prized pieces change through the years, during that period my most prized piece was my upright bass, then second came the drums that I made in California and the drums I made on the Lower East Side when I came to New York because when I came to New York I had a small 20 by 20 efficiency apartment with the kitchen and the bathroom all in one little area. Richie Havens gave me a studio to make drums and I continued making drums and I continue to up here in Woodstock, so I had a couple of prized drums at that time. I started making flutes and other reed instruments back when I lived in Berkeley and San Francisco so I have some of those. The one that’s displayed there, it’s called the Ahoudt. I’ve always prized that because it was more like a bamboo reed and I experimented with all different types of reeds and developed different sounds and some of that is on that recording. Right now probably my most prized possession is my Djembe that was put together for me from Senegal and I have three of them.
SCV: What are some of oddest and most unique instruments you have played on before?
JS: Well I studied the Vitar in Kasrawad in the 70s. I was there for 6 months and I have that around somewhere. I haven’t played it in years but it’s from the tribal area right up there near the borders where all those wars are going on now, I was going all around that area. I had a Sitar for a long time also. I had a pair of xylophones from Ghana, Africa the ones with the hard wood.
SCV: I would love to dive back into your group The Aboriginal Society. Luke Mosling from Porter Records mentioned a release was in the planning phase with his label and your groups past work from the Aboriginal Society. What material are you planning to release with Porter Records?
JS: What I plan to release with Porter is more eclectic, it’s more of a jazz-blues-fusion sound and the configuration of the musicians are completely different than what you hear on the Father of Origin album. This one has one of Richie Havens mentors, Joe Church, who did a lot of earthy blues sounds and Daniel Ben Zebulon who was with Richie Havens for years. It’s a whole other type of sound and we’ll be releasing it probably early next year. It’s a totally different sound. You see what you have to understand is that the nucleus of the Aboriginal Music Society at its conception was basically Ali Abooi, myself, Sonny Simmons, Barbara O’Donnel and Earl Cross and people like that and we were with a band called the Death Okers, we did an album in California called Manhattan Egos. You should listen to that because it has one of the rare opportunities to hear Sonny Simmons on English horn and I played a lot of bass on that as well. It’s a very interesting recording, very high aggressive. It’s not bebop we called it rebop, and also we incorporated a lot of mid eastern sounds. Part of my motivation to come to New York was to play with Sonny Simmons and we played for about a year and a half, everyday, right there on Third Street, and never got a gig. (laughs) It was very interesting, we didn’t work together gig-wise until we went up to Woodstock and started doing stuff up there.
SCV: You had the great honor and privileged of recording with the great Archie Shepp on the LP’s “Things Have Got To Change” (1971 Impulse) and Attica Blues (1972 Impulse). These are landmark albums in the Impulse Records catalog and pivotal albums in modern music culture. What was the atmosphere like for the sessions you did with Archie Shepp?
JS: The atmosphere was great. I was with Archie not only at sessions but we would do gigs together all over the East Coast and the atmosphere was great because Archie was such a great person and player. The man’s a professor, he’s a doctor of music, he’s a very unique individual. We got along quite well and the thing about playing with Archie was he had some of the best sessions, he was able to call in a great arranger, the best musicians around and also the top studios. And us being crazy young guys we’d go outside and we’d create a whole other sound with violins and congas and flute players and just be out there jamming while they were setting up and getting ready to play inside. It was some fun times, the atmosphere was festive.
SCV: I have spent a lot of time on your website Juma’s Archive checking out video snippets and clips. You have 100′s of hours of materials documented on film, do you have any plans on creating a documentary on this vast archival material?
JS: That was always the plan. I received a grant in collaboration with Clarkson University to post 30 clips of the musicians from 1972-73. Since that period I’ve invested my own money and time to develop it, in fact they’re in possession of probably 150-200 more musical clips that haven’t gone online because we didn’t want to flood it. Once a month I go down to The Magic Shop and transfer tapes in archival quality. The majority of those materials are not digitized and done correctly. I didn’t plan that out until two years ago when I applied for a Grammy Foundation grant and I found that they had a certain criteria for the preservation of archival material and I happen to know some people that have some confidence in what I’m trying to do and I’m building a big debt with them at the moment. (laughs) They give me time right now to meet any professional qualification for archival purposes because they’re the ones that, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Wolfgang Vault, but they bought a collection of all of the recordings from all the old Newport Festivals and things of that nature and they own them and transfer them there. The same guys are helping me out but anyway back to the website, all of the other material, the film, photos, etc. I got thousands of them and I have them transferred to my computer. I have a couple of dedicated hard drives, and the purpose was in the beginning when we did this was to do a documentary film of the period of music that has been lesser known. To this day I’m still working on it. I had an appointment last week with some guys from Germany that were talking about documentaries and stuff and it turned out that what they really wanted was to just sift Jimi’s material out of it. I’m in touch with the original guys that I hired to shoot the film and we still have our dream to finish this thing 30-40 years later. The majority of it was shot in 1972-73. We would love to finish it but its a matter of finances. Fortunately we’ve been able to hold it all in tact but the situation is is that after we shot it we were never able to check the tapes, sync them to the film and do the rest of the process but it’s not to late because everything’s been preserved.
SCV: With you performing and connecting so heavily with one of the heaviest guitar players to change the face of music, is there any guitar players out right now who you feel are breathing new life into music and walking this same path of innovation?
JS: Yea I got one right now that I recorded with today, his name is Julian Stephens. He’s taking the direction that Jimi was taking and bringing it into a new direction and no disrespect to all those (Stevie Ray Vaughn, Satriani, etc) cats that are playing around, I don’t think any of them can touch this guy. I just came from a recording session today and I’m telling you, he has a sound and a new direction and he has spirit. He’s not known but you don’t have to be always known and famous to be a great player.
All questions compiled by SCV editor-in-chief Erik Otis and conducted by Pouya Asadi.