JLR Interview – Cheryl Alleyne

Cheryl2-5211-700x460JLR met up with London born drummer Cheryl Alleyne in August to discuss how she got into playing music and the projects she is currently working on. Read on….

Hi Cheryl, thanks for chatting with JLR. So, my first question is how did you get into drumming? And what were your early influences?

When I was 19 years old I went to a workshop in Turnpike Lane, North London on a Thursday which was ‘Women’s Day’.

There were three queues, one for drum kit, bass guitar and electric guitar. I got in line for the drum kit but as I got closer to my turn, I started to ‘Bottle out’. I had to be persuaded three times to sit on the kit by the young lady who had been giving us drum patterns to play. I played the patterns back to her just as simple as she was giving them to me and then wanted more. She was very surprised (laughs) and said that she had taken a few months to learn what I had played back to her in a few minutes.

I just remember how easy and good it felt and that was when I realised that I wanted to play the drum kit.

My influences? I wasn’t really into listening to music when I was younger, but I really loved the TV themes from a lot of the late ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s American shows like ‘Mission Impossible and ‘The Man From U.N.C.L.E.’ and I used to record them on a little tape recorder by holding it up to the mono speaker on the television! My dad also listened to a wide range of music by artists like Nat King Cole, Elvis, reggae and ska on the Trojan label, Tom Jones, Cliff Richard, Motown, Jimmy Smith, Jazz and blues and anything else that he could find!

Later on, when I came to play the drums, a lot of those rhythms just came out as though I had subconsciously stored them and the act of being near a drum kit had released them. I still have the recording which I made of my first time on a drum kit and I get goose bumps every time I listen to it as I was playing things which I should not have known at that time.

That’s really interesting that you started at such a relatively late age but had a natural talent. I take it you had no real role model on the drums?

Exactly the case. I had no female role models when I started. Most of the drummers I’ve known had always told me that they’d been inspired by a specific drummer they had admired and that was what had led them to playing the drums but it wasn’t like that for me.

As a young person, I was always knocking and tapping on stuff with interjected sounds from my mouth and my family just thought that I was crazy! No one realised that it was natural rhythm trying to escape. Sitting on a kit and playing it back then was like being able to sit in a car for the first time and knowing how to drive it without having had a lesson. It was a great feeling and I didn’t really find myself thinking about which hand did what, or when I played my bass drum etc…it didn’t seem complicated to me, just heard patterns and knew how to reproduce them.

It’s quite funny but if anyone had told me that I would have ended up as a professional drummer, I would have laughed them out of my face!

So what about playing with bass players when the time came?

That didn’t happen for a while because I didn’t make the connection initially that bass and drums were very close in a musical situation. The first drum pattern that I learnt was Michael Jackson’s ‘Aint No Sunshine’. There were some syncopated beats in there which I could hear in my head, so I slowed down the pattern to get the hang of it, muscle memory kicked in and then it was fine when I played it at its normal speed.

You played with some of the top US musicians, how did you get into that scene?

The first thing I remember was working with Jane Cortez. She was a spoken word artist. This was at the Camden United Theatre around 1988 or 1989. I really enjoyed it because I wasn’t playing a set rhythm as such but literally listening and responding to her words on my kit using my mallets and cymbals. She really enjoyed it too and was very complimentary about my playing which is why when I play, I like to respond and react to what’s going on at that moment in time. It’s like having a conversation with someone on a specific subject. If you don’t talk about the subject matter which they are discussing, the conversation doesn’t make any sense. It’s great to be technical but when you try to put technique into music for technique’s sake it can become irrelevant to what is going on at that particular moment.

While I was at college I played in a quartet which was put together by a saxophonist called Pete Greenaway and we supported Wayne Shorter at the Riverside Club in Newcastle Upon Tyne. I also went on to work with Billy Paul, Jimmy Witherspoon, Percy Sledge, Jean Carne, Marlena Shaw and also jammed with Herbie Hancock while at the Nice Jazz Festival with hip hop/ rap group Us3 in 1994.

While touring with the nine-piece band, the album ‘Hand on the Torch’ went ‘Gold’ (500,000 copies) and we were all presented with a gold disc by Herbie Hancock himself!
I’ve also worked with British musicians such as Courtney Pine, Steve Williamson, The Jazz Warriors, Loose Tubes and Mano Ventura, who’s an amazing Peruvian guitarist that has had a great influence on my understanding of unusual rhythmic timings.

I was also very fortunate while in New York, to have participated in a jam session which was held at Pianist, Geri Allen’s house. Trombonist Steve Turre and saxophonists Greg Osby and Steve Coleman also turned up.

How did you get the ‘Us3’ gig?

Well, I was playing a gig at the Jazz Cafe with David Jean Baptiste and I was later told by Saxophonist Tony Kofi, that the producers had also been there at the gig, had seen me play and wanted a female drummer. When we eventually got to doing the gigs we found that Herbie Hancock’s group was on the same circuit and he had drummer Terri-Lyne Carrington playing drums for him.

I didn’t really know the reason behind their choice but I was glad to get and do the gig.

What was it like touring with them?

Well to be honest, I had not heard of them before I joined the group! I remember there were a lot of loops and programmed drum rhythms which I transcribed and learnt. I just had an acoustic kit and no triggers on anything but it worked and I got a lot of nice comments while in the US. I remember two young guys coming to talk to the band members after the gig and saying: “We were looking for the drummer because he sounded great but was right at the back. Then we saw it was a ‘HONEY!!” That was how they referred to females! That made me laugh!

We went to Japan, Hong Kong, Brazil, Europe and all over the USA; it was a real experience.

What happened to that jazz rap vibe, by the end of the 1990s it went out of fashion?

I have no idea; when the tour ended in October of 1994 I just got back to doing jazz gigs and lost touch.

You said you studied classical and jazz at the College of Arts and Technology in Newcastle; did you have to choose between the two?

The course I studied was called a ‘Light Music’ course. I’m not sure why as it was a three year diploma course.

I did graduate however with a grade 1 distinction pass, and a ‘Student of the Year’ award of £20 (it was a lot back then!) for the fact that I used to get to college every day at around 8.05am in order to get the key to the drum room so that I could practice before classes.

On that course, we studied classical music, I remember ’The Rite of Spring’ by composer Igor Stravinsky, early baroque music and madrigals, jazz history, jazz theory, harmony and composition. We also looked at some avant garde composers such as John Cage and his famous piece, ‘The Prepared Piano’ as well as analysing compositions by the jazz greats such as Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, Miles Davis and many others. Classical musicians studied their chosen route but for jazz musicians, it was compulsory to also study classical. We also had to do a lot of what they called ‘PTW’s’ which were Performance Training Workshops, at lunch time. I was always very keen to get a copy of anything I took part in from the sound man (who always seemed grumpy when you asked him for something!)so that I could scrutinise my playing and make it better.

Did you find studying the two different types of music useful?

I did. I saw this as an advantage in the end, as I had the best of both worlds as it were!
I also played in the Ashington Colliery Brass Band (responsible I was told, for one of the ‘Hovis Bread’ themes) for a year and took part in brass band competitions. It was exactly like ‘Brassed Off’ with Pete Postlewaithe!

I could never understand a word they were saying up there, but I was also playing timpani, tuned percussion and learning to count for many bars and then maybe playing two bars which had to be in the right place!

I always found it interesting when we worked occasionally with the classical musicians and asked the strings to play jazz quavers; they would always play them straight and didn’t seem to be able to get their heads around the ‘Swung’ quaver. For me, it’s not like some sort of duel between classical and jazz, as there are many types of classical music out there and the more you learn, the more open-minded you become.

I love Afro Cuban and Brazilian music and African beats, there’s so much out there.

How much teaching do you do on average a year?

My mother passed away in February of 2013 and I had been caring for her full on, for about 18 months prior to her passing. I had cancelled a lot of work and as she became more unwell, the less I was able to do. It took a long while to get over her passing and to recover from the effects of the exhaustion on me. I also had to look at who I was and what I was going to do with myself and slowly start to rebuild my life, instead of constantly putting off anything which I was supposed to do for myself in order to help others.

What stands out in my mind was the call which I had got from Zoe Rahman, asking if I would be up for doing some gigs with her. I decided to take them and that was what had really pulled me out of that dark episode. From there, I started to do a few more gigs, mainly at the Vortex with Bob Stuckey and the Vocal Nights which were held on Sundays.

I currently teach in St. Albans and have around 11 drum students. It’s great to inspire and pass on knowledge!

You’ve mentioned an interest in acting, is that something you’ve always done?

Funnily enough, I did drama at school and always wanted to act. It was actually what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be a drummer, it was just that I was always able to play the kit and play back what I heard musically.

When I left the sixth form at Wood Green School after two years there, I went for an audition at Middlesex Polytechnic on the Performance Arts Course, but didn’t get in. I also had a lead part in a community play which was put on at what used to be called ‘The Tottenham Resources Centre’ off Philip Lane and so I was disappointed when I hadn’t got a place. That was when I applied to The College of Arts & Technology, and was stunned when I got in!

I went to the Identity Drama School at the Arcola Theatre off Stoke Newington High Street, for two months where I co-wrote with other actors, a show called ‘Torn’ which we performed. I also did a short three-day acting and filming course at West London Studios in Ealing which was a lot of fun. It’s something which I’ve always been interested in and always will be. I enjoy watching great acting…and listening to the scores behind the pictures!

You are currently involved in a show. What’s it called?

It’s called ‘Rudy’s Rare Records’ which stars Comedian and actor, Lenny Henry.

Is that the Play which goes out on BBC Radio 4?

Yes, the very one! There’s a live band and I will be playing drums in the show.
It will be at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre and at the Hackney Empire Theatre.

There are a few well known female drummers like Terri-Lynne Carrington, Cindy Blackman and Sheila E; would you like to see more female drummers?

Whenever I play, women will come up to me and say that they are glad to see a woman playing drums and doing it so well. Some say that they always wanted to play, but felt intimidated by the boys around them. It’s difficult to change people and their concepts of what certain people should, or should not be doing. It doesn’t really matter to me as I’m content to simply do what I do to the best of my ability. I don’t feel that I have the luxury of getting up on stage and not performing 100%.

Being a female drummer does have a strange effect on some people though. Back in 2008, I was in Nigeria with the Courtney Pine Band and even though Courtney was on stage, there were a handful of young guys who were fixed at the side of the stage where I was and they didn’t move for the whole gig! They were checking out everything I was doing and one even asked for my sticks at the end of the evening!

There are so many different rules across the many cultures on the planet. I’ve heard that in some, women are told that if they play a drum, they will become barren! I’ve also heard that the first drummers were female in Egypt.

In Nigeria, they’d never seen a woman play drums like that before and it totally freaked them out.

I’m just happy when I can inspire someone to play and experience joy from it!

Thanks Cheryl for chatting with JLR!

Author: Laurie Burnette

A jazz fan since my teenage years. Fortunate to get into jazz during a period (late 1980s to early 1990s) when many great contemporary musicians were in their prime and making great music.