Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Interview: percussionist Todd Hammes

by Susan Kepecs
Late in June I posted a little piece about Ben Sidran’s 2012 Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats and Freethinkers, a summer-only treat ongoing at the Cardinal Bar on Tuesday afternoons through the end of this month.  I focused my prose on Sidran, as you’d expect, but also highlighted bassist Nick Moran and guitarist Louka Patenaude, longtime Sidran collaborators who’ve been on my radar screen for quite a while. I pretty much skipped over percussionist Todd Hammes. Up against three of the best-known players in town he essentially gets no billing for this event, and I’d never seen or heard of him before.  In my June post I called him the new guy in town, but it turns out that wasn’t quite right.  So I’ve been watching him play these last few weeks.  I like his intricate style, and his kit – bongos, congas, cymbals and sticks, no timbales, no snare, no bass – is just right for this gig.  Hammes wears several strands of ankle bells, to boot – ghungroos or kahtak bells, worn by traditional dancers in northern India.  
                                                                          © SKepecs 2012
Who is Hammes, and how did he land onstage with Sidran and company?  Hammes grew up in Onalaska WI, up by La Crosse.  “I’ve been making 100% of my living as a musician ever since I gave up my job bagging groceries in high school,” he said between sets yesterday afternoon.  “I play, compose and teach.  I have a formal music education and I play a lot of classical, but at 22, in 1992, I found my guru – an Indian tabla player – and I devoted myself to learning his style.  That singular pursuit has taken me all over the world and into hundreds of interesting situations.”
For 18 years Hammes called Tucson, AZ, his home base.  He played with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra and picked up a plethora of jazz and world beat gigs.  But he came home to Wisconsin – to Madison, that is – five years ago.  “When I got here,” he says, “I went to hear who was playing.  I caught the New Breed jazz jam, back when they were at the Concourse [the current incarnation plays at the Cardinal, Tuesday nights at 8:30].  That’s how I met Nick.”
Hammes ended up sitting in with Moran and Patenaude “on a bunch of gigs.  So I wasn’t new to them this summer.  And I’ve known who Ben was for 30 years.  I knew his books, and I first heard the “Space Cowboy” song when I was 12.”  (Yes, it was Steve Miller who recorded that – but it was Sidran who wrote it, in 1969).
“But Ben didn’t know me from Adam,” Hammes says.
Until the Salon started up in June, that is.  And now the rest of us know Hammes a little bit, too.  For more, check out his website: – and catch the last two Sidran Salons of the summer, Aug. 21 and 28 at 5:30 PM.
There will be an encore – the very last of Sidran’s Salons this season – featuring Leo Sidran (Ben’s son) on drums, on Tues., Sept. 4.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Adios, Chavela

World-renowned Mexican cantante Chavela Vargas (who was born in Costa Rica but migrated to Mexico as a young teen) died yesterday, at 93 years of age.
Vargas’ classic rancheras, rendered in her uniquely soul-wrenching, gravelly, hard-drinking voice, will live on in the absolute force of nature that Mexican culture still is, despite the NAFTA-driven disaster of trashy transnational sweatshops, junk food, cable TV porn and the drug war.  Vargas counted Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Federico Garcia Lorca, and Pedro Almodovar among her close friends – and she was a major inspiration to a younger generation, especially Mallorcan diva Concha Buika (who, with Cuban jazz pianist Chucho Valdes, recently recorded a spectacular Vargas tribute album, El Ultimo Trago [Wea International, 2009]) and world music goddess Lila Downs.
The Mexican press is overflowing today with poetic tributes – if you read Spanish, see  
  I won’t try to repeat the prose of Vargas’ paisanos, but I woke up this morning with an overpowering desire to share one of her signature songs (this version recorded in 2009) with my readers, so here it is:

Dios botik, as they say in Yucatec.  Thank you.  Que en paz descanse.

                                                                       --------   Susan Kepecs