Platinum Award Winning Drummer, Joanne Ruocco, is interviewed by Alice Frances Wickham
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Q: So, JoJo, tell us how it all began, you started out young, I know that much.
A: I started out when I was thirteen years old in Long Island, as a guest with the Mercer Ellington orchestra. I was a prodigy! (Laughs). This was just after Duke Ellington died; it was a fundraiser for cancer awareness. I went up and did a drum solo on Satin Doll, with Ella Fitzgerald singing in the foreground. After that, I was approached to go on the road with Mercer Ellington but sadly, I had to finish schooling. Further down the road I got a call out of the blue from the William Morris agency asking if I would be able to play with Chuck Berry. It was at Hunter College, NYC. That same night I met with Chuck. It was phenomenal. The audience was terrific. Then I guested again with Chuck, at another performance and then another. We played quite a number of gigs. This was in my teen years. Chuck had to do some time in prison over tax evasion, but we kept in touch, Chuck writing to my home address. So that was quite precious. He was like a guide, a mentor. Whilst he was in prison catching up on things, I went on to study Jazz and Rock drumming, which I love.
Q: What techniques did you learn, and who were your most inspirational teachers?
A: I started off with Joe Morello; he played with the Dave Brubeck band. Jo was starting to … as I say … really starting to go. We had some really intense stick work exercises, this was while he was writing his book, ‘Master Studies, Joe Morello.’
We just started doing lots of syncopation and variations of them, putting the syncopation between snare and base drum, and learning consistency on the right cymbal high hat. So it was constant, versus variable technique, which is what a lot of people consider to be linear. Back in the day of bee bop, that’s what they were doing naturally. If you go back even further, African drumming is picked up, it’s just everyone puts their own little header and name to it. After Joe Morello, I began with Peter Erskine of the band Weather Report. I was working in Right Track Studios on engineering. He came in, they were recording ‘Steps Ahead’, I started studying with him.
Q: What did you learn from Pete?
A: First of all, the drumming mannerism, so gentle and controlled, with opening and closing, whilst doing syncopated left hand. Here’s this guy working with Weather Report and all these Jazz musicians who I admired, he was so approachable. What I learned back then was anything is possible, it doesn’t matter where you come from, your background. It shouldn’t matter if you’re from America, or whatever country, or if you’re rich or if you’re poor. The key element (to succeed in life) is drive, or determination and perseverance.
Q: Skin drums are very widespread these days, ethnic drums like the Bodhran, and the Congas. What advice would you offer learners starting out on these drums?
A: Well with Congas it’s getting first your tones, your sounds, and then some of the Latin rhythms like the guaguanco – which is very sexual – or bolero, or Tomball, that’s basic.
Q: What about timings?
A: You’re looking at a variation of four-four, or half-time, and then you’re going to six-eight. It’s applying it, coming in and out of different meters, and applying those techniques to commercial music; giving you that edge. With Glen we starting going over the Tabla drums, and I just thought for learning the vocal points, the vocabulary of Tabla, because it’s about understanding the language. If you can say it, you can play it.
Q: Can you give an example of some great drummers using these techniques?
A: Yeah, Trilok Gurtu. So he would use the Tabla drums. He plays it amazingly, he sits on his knees, you know, he can play the kit on his knees, and bring in the Tabla drums.
Q: I thought you were mainly a set drummer.
Q: What’s everything?A: Well, you’re talking about different types of rolls, and staccato, different ways of looking at drumming; Triple clef, Glockenspiel, Tubular Bells. When I brought in the African drums it became a rock ensemble. So here I am, with a ten-piece Latin Percussion cage around me. I had Timpani’s and a 48inch diameter gong! One night, the musical director pissed me off, so I put all my anger into the stick. When I hit the gong for emphasis it split in half!
Q: You sound like Bruce Lee!
A. (Laughs) Can you believe? Everyone got a laugh out of it, and afterwards the musical director and I became best of friends.
Q: That’s funny! So for a young woman starting out, what’s the first thing she needs to do?
A: First thing you do, listen to the music you like, and never underestimate your ear. So to answer your question, I would say play the music you love. But you have to then say, ‘okay, where do I want to go with this? What do I want to do?’ So, for example, do you want to become a jingle session player? Then you better brush up on chart reading. Do you want to be a pit drummer (theatre) on a Broadway show; again, it’s a combination of listening ear, and sight-reading. I would recommend listening to your big band guys like, Gene Krupa, ‘Sing, Sing, Sing,’ Max Roach, Jon Bonham from Led Zeppelin, listen to his snare drum and high hat, people just copy that and use it in dance tracks, hip hop, rap and the rest of it. You know where those really cool rhythms came from? Jon Bonham! And for Jon Bonham before that? African. And not just stop at drumming but also percussion. At the end of the day that’s what percussion is, anything that percusses! That includes keyboards.
Q: You haven’t mentioned Charlie Watts.
A: Charlie Watts is pretty cool. He always gives you the feeling that he’s always one hairline out, but he’s not. He gives you that sluggish riff, that groove, and that’s what subconsciously gets the listener. So he’s brilliant.
Q: And you’re bringing a book out about your drumming days?
A: Yeah, a very unique setting. My mother was in PR so she knew a lot of famous types, people like Woody Allen, Roy Ayres, the Jazz instrumentalist, various different sorts. Growing up with her was off the wall, but a lot of fun! I had to push to be heard. I didn’t want part of that; I wanted to make my own path. So, after I finished school, I took two suitcases, came over to England, with a pocketful of dreams and a lot of determination. As soon as the wheels hit the pavement at Heathrow, – I had nowhere to go, nowhere to stay – I said, ‘I’m going to make this work.’
From late 1980s Joanne went on to play with Paul Weller, Kylie Minogue, Sinead O’Conner and the inimitable Ronnie Wood. Read more in her fascinating book, ‘Beautiful Confusion’, out soon.