There are covers and then, there are Covers

I do a lot of covers. In a sense, I spend most of my musical life doing covers. Playing a Beethoven Symphony? Cover. Playing a 14th century Turkish Mevlevi song? Cover. Playing a piece I wrote? Cover.


“But you’re playing an original tune, not a cover,” you might say. Well, as I’ve been saying for the past couple of decades, “If you’re not improvising in real time, then you’re just covering yourself.” In other words, “Original” music can also be “Cover” music.

I don’t really want to rehash the Covers vs. Originals debate here–I’ve blogged about this enough in the past. What I’m interested in here are the different levels of covering a tune.

There are covers, and then there are Covers.

Covers (with a small “c”) are what most of us see on a regular basis when a group plays a tune by another artist. This would include groups completely unrelated to the original instrumental/vocal forces in the original. These can almost be considered adaptations, or adaptive covers. Then there are the Covers (with a big “C”). This can range from anything like an orchestra performing a symphonic work, or an opera company wearing period costuming using the original stage directions and the original forces intended by the composer, to tribute bands which attempt to “re-enact” the whole concert experience as closely as possible to the original band, including wearing the same stage dress and playing the roles of the original band members.

So think of covers Covers as being two ends of a continuum with an infinite variety of types in between.

I’ve done a little bit of all those things, but what I want to focus on here is the latter, and especially the idea of recreating a sonic (or stage) experience. What I especially want to focus on is learning covers with as much fidelity as possible as a pedagogical tool for learning about other cultures and, in particular, learning a different style of music.

See, we as performing musicians are relatively comfortable doing what we do. We wouldn’t suffer being on stage in front of an audience if we weren’t. Just as most people, we have a limit to that comfort. For example, the first time I danced in front of an audience was after a taking a workshop in West African Dance with the late Prince Julius Adeniyi in the mid 90s. For the evening show by his West African Drumming group all the workshop attendees were invited to perform the dance they had learned in the workshop as a group. I was absolutely terrified. I didn’t even have time to think about whether I was going to remember all the steps and moves and to this day, I still don’t remember how I got through it (or whether I did anything correctly).

One more recent experience where my comfort zone was tested was in a performance with my Central Asian dance/music troupe, Raks Makam. In 2011 we did a performance at the Clifton Center and we choreographed a piece in which there would be onstage interaction between drummer (me) and dancers. In truth, the choreography for me was very limited, but the actual piece I played was a Doira Dars (“Drum Dance”)–basically an etude for drummers with extensive rhythmic variations to help teach dancers the corresponding movements for each rhythm. I spent six weeks learning an excerpted version of one of these for a performance. I was touring a lot at the time so was on the road constantly, but I would use my steering wheel as a makeshift doira (Uzbek frame drum) and would get in hours of practice time while on any one trip. I lived and breathed those Uzbek rhythms for a time, and during the performance (see featured image at top of post) I actually wore an Uzbek kaftan and kalpak. Here’s an example of a Doira Dars.

In that performance I was doing essentially what musicians in tribute bands or in historically informed practice ensembles do. Re-create a total performative experience.

And as a learning tool, doing these kinds of Covers are of immense value. For the purposes of most musicians, a full re-enactment isn’t possible for many reasons. But given the resources we have at our disposal these days, there’s little reason we can’t learn to how to play in another musical genre. In an increasingly paranoid climate in the US, I think it’s particularly crucial that there be folks who can help bridge the gulf between cultures–and what better way than doing so through music and performance?

This is one of the reasons I formed Raks Makam, and more recently, Sulh. So, in a way, I’m “covering” another culture’s music which has another set of issues especially regarding Cultural Appropriation which has been a big topic in the news recently (a topic for a future post which I’ve been itching to write). I often play shows with a number of musicians that regularly do this, and as many different variations within that covers Covers continuum. From an aesthetic standpoint, I tend to prefer the Covers end of the continuum. And just like learning a new language, learning to “speak” another type of music takes time, a hell of a lot of listening and watching, and application (practice/performance) to do it.

As for Western music in general, I much prefer to hear how it would sound in another musical cultural idiom. We have more than enough people in the US playing Western Pop and Classical, what we need is exposure to other cultures’ music (and by extension, exposure to other cultures).

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