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"Music Is More Than Just Notes": An Interview with Mino Cinélu

How does Mino Cinélu tell stories with percussion? Just ask Sting, Kate Bush, or Herbie Hancock.

"My name is Mino Cinélu. Welcome to the party."

Nestled along W. 3rd Street in Greenwich Village, the Zinc Bar turns into Mino Cinélu's living room for nearly three hours on a frosty November 2014 night. He is the consummate host, presiding atop a cajon drum box that, by evening's end, is likely left with a million fingerprint impressions. Whether singing, playing guitar, or deftly handling any number of percussion instruments he's collected from around the world, Mino Cinélu's multi-faceted musicality shines brilliantly.

At this particular performance, Mamadou Ba (bass) and Jamshied Sharifi (keyboards), both formidable musicians in their own right, join Cinélu's World Jazz Ensemble, with guest appearances by Paul Carlton (sax) and Doug Hinrichs (percussion). Cinélu also instructs a few audience members on how to spin "windjammers" at one point. In Mino Cinélu's living room, everyone is a star.

Just two months prior to this night, Cinélu brought his peerless musicianship to a considerably larger room for one of 2014's most anticipated musical events: Kate Bush's 22-date residency at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. It had been 35 years since Bush mounted a stage production, and Cinélu was among a select group of musicians who helped manifest Before the Dawn. "A magic of percussion," was how Bush described Cinélu. "Always there with a big smile" (The Times, 28 August 2014). Hers is an accurate description, for Cinélu has long been a musical force who spellbinds audiences through his mesmerizing talent and a beguiling stage presence.

The seeds of that talent were planted during his childhood in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb west of Paris. Cinélu grew up in a two-bedroom flat with one sink that doubled as a basin for all five members of his family. Music was a refuge for young Mino as his parents moved him and his two older brothers north to Puteaux. Raised on a wide range of styles, from jazz to classical to the biguine music of Martinique, Cinélu mastered several musical dialects at an early age.

He left home before his 18th birthday and hitchhiked through the South of France before settling in Paris, where he landed his first recording sessions. He quickly became an in-demand player, traveling between France, England, the U.S., Italy, and Martinique.

By the time he turned 24, Cinélu had been living in New York City for two years, gigging with some of the city's top players in jazz, funk, and gospel, when he was approached by a man who'd mark a major turning point in his life and career: Miles Davis. Beginning with the concerts that furnished the critically acclaimed We Want Miles (1982) album, Cinélu joined Davis' band. "With Mino, any music swings," Davis once said, offering his ultimate seal of approval. Cinélu would remain a loyal friend until the jazz icon's passing in 1991.

Throughout the '80s and '90s, Cinélu's profile continued to grow onstage and in the studio. He joined Weather Report for the group's last two albums, including the Grammy-nominated Sportin' Life (1985). Sting then tapped Cinélu to sing and play percussion on both the album and accompanying world tour for …Nothing Like the Sun (1987). The two would subsequently travel to Xingú in the Brazilian Amazon to meet Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó, which inspired Sting and Trudie Styler to establish the Rainforest Foundation in 1988.

Meanwhile, countless luminaries from jazz, pop, rock, and R&B sought Cinélu for recording dates and live gigs. Herbie Hancock, Branford Marsalis, Tori Amos, Marcus Miller, Tracy Chapman, David Sanborn, Anna Maria Jopek, Laurie Anderson, Pat Metheny, and Cassandra Wilson were just a handful of the artists who recruited him for a variety of projects over the next dozen years.

In between, Cinélu recorded full-length collaborations with Kevin Eubanks & Dave Holland (World Trio, 1995) and Kenny Barron (Swamp Sally, 1996) before releasing a pair of solo albums, Mino Cinélu (2000) and Quest Journey (2002). Cinélu also wrote scores for film and television, including the Oscar-nominated documentary Colors Straight Up (1997) and La Californie (2006), which earned him a nomination for Best Film Score at Cannes.

Acclaim and accolades from critics and peers alike have not curbed Cinélu's quest to keep exploring the bounds of music. "The most challenging concert I do is where I'm challenging myself," he says. "The hard part is to tell a story on the drums." Like a sorcerer, he extracts sounds from drums and percussion, creating a sonic storyboard. The different dynamics and intensity of his playing evoke a range of moods. By the end of a show, Cinélu has not only challenged himself; he's also told at least a dozen stories by the mere touch of his hands. In this exclusive interview with PopMatters, Cinélu reflects on the inspiration that's fueled one of the most fascinating career trajectories in music.

When I saw you at Zinc Bar recently, I noticed how effortlessly you commanded the stage and connected with the audience. You have a regal presence yet you're still very relatable. How did you cultivate that particular ability to draw and sustain a connection with audiences?

It's second nature to me. I believe that being onstage is perhaps the place where I feel the most natural. I'm totally bare, but I'm also very comfortable. It's a strange thing between strength and fragility. The more you know me, the more you know it's part of me. I can be very serious. I can be extremely silly as well. I'm truly the same onstage but of course with the adrenaline it's developed a lot more. I believe that if we're onstage, if we give what we call "a show", then we've got to connect with the public. At that moment, there is a very strong communion with everybody. The spirit is amplified by the sheer number of people. It's something really incredible. The trap is that sometimes you can never get out of it, to bring it down to reality. What happened onstage was real but it's not "real life". You make the voyage what you want it to be, I would say.

Tell me about your first memory of performing onstage.

I can't even remember the very first time. It's so long ago. I remember playing with my two brothers who are older than me. There was a feast somewhere in the south of France. We were on vacation; I must have been ten years old. The three of us were with guitars and only two microphones. One mic was right in front and the other mic was behind. My brothers both went for the mic in behind so the choice for me was to freeze or to go to that mic in front. I was half trembling but the desire to play was way stronger than fear. From that day on, I conquered most of the stage fright.

Let's go back even further. What is the significance of your name?

My name is Dominique, actually. The name "Mino" exists because I'm the youngest in my family. It's the name that I put on my French passport. It has a lot of significance because, as the youngest, I also represent the next generation. "Cinélu" sounds Romanian, so I'm sure there's gypsy blood in me because of my mother's side. My great-great grandmother was from Portugal. My father's from Martinique. There's Indian, Chinese, blood from Brittany and of course from Martinique, mixed with black and white. His father was very dark, so my guess is he's from Central Africa. On my mother's side, there's Parisian with blood from Brittany and blood from Portugal. The blood from Brittany is very strong.

I'm really very secure in who I am. I'm mixed. It gave me strength. Often, I was the only non-white in school. To them, I looked Arabic and they gave worse treatment to Arabic-looking people in Paris.

Some of the Middle Eastern cafés were open late at night. I used to go over there with my bongos to jam with them. That made me feel close to them. They had some kind of jukebox with video. You could listen to Farid El Atrache, Om Kalsoum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Music literally saved my life. Without music, I probably never would have made it.

Your father was born in Martinique. What brought him to France?

He was a sailor in the army. He did the Indochina War and traveled the world. Many people from Martinique and Guadeloupe and all those Caribbean islands came to the metropole, which was France. He was one of them, basically. I can't imagine what he had to deal with.

My father was a musician. He was a singer also. He loved to dance the tango so my parents used to dance. My mother could sing. We used to listen to music all the time, any kind of music. I have to thank my father for that. It was a lot of classical music, mostly baroque, but also jazz: Satchmo, Ella Fitzgerald, Dave Brubeck. Not so much Miles, interestingly so -- I'm not sure why, to be honest. My father also used to listen to biguine, which came from Saint-Pierre in Martinique sometime during the early 1900s. It was influenced by European music, especially polka! I believe that what they used to call the “Orchestrated Biguine” was the kind that possibly influenced New Orleans jazz. Of course, it also inspired Artie Shaw's famous arrangement of "Begin the Beguine", composed by Cole Porter.

When I went to Martinique the second time, I'm the one who fetched an album of the roots music from the island. I brought that to my father on his birthday. That's the first time I saw him dance like that! I said, "Oh wow, he's really from Martinique!" I struck a nerve, obviously. He looked at the album. He could not believe it was Ti Emile. Actually, this singer really influenced me quite a bit. It's traditional ladja bélé dancing, which is the fighting dancing that we have on the island. It's like capoeira but a bit harsher. "Ladja" means war, and then "bélé" is the drum.

I know you played guitar before you learned drums and percussion. How did you feel the first time you held a guitar?

I was about eight years old. I felt like my life would change because I felt like this creature truly understood me. Perhaps it was my first encounter where something became someone that would listen to whatever my soul had to express, without judging. It was always ready to be bounced back in a positive way. I was a loner. When I was not able to play the drums at night, I'd isolate myself and play guitar. I'd be six years old and go into the woods at ten o'clock at night, and just sit against the tree and listen to the sounds of the night. The guitar saved my life. Every time Kevin Eubanks sees me play, he says, "Look at Mino! He's an animal on the drums but he's the sweetest thing when he plays the guitar."

At what point did you start playing drums and percussion?

My two siblings are older than me. Sometimes we'd have three guitars or two guitars and something like a flute or a recorder, whatever we could grab to play music. In order to make a band, we needed some rhythm. They weren't as dedicated, I guess, as I was with the rhythm so it just happened. Someone has to do it, so why not me? I didn't have a drum set for a long time. I once talked to Ray Angry, the keyboardist. I said basically I believe in the strength of the mind. If you truly strongly imagine and feel that you're playing that instrument or practicing that instrument, then you are doing so, in a way. It works to a certain point.

The self-titled album by Moravagine was recorded at Studio Palm in Paris, December 1975. That seems to be the first instance of you on a record.

That was one of my first recordings; not the first, but the first one where I played percussion. That band asked me to become a percussion player. Moravagine is also a novel by Blaise Cendrars.

The album is such a fascinating fusion of styles... jazz, classical. You're given some great moments to shine on tracks like "Zabuco". I love the photo on the back of the album cover.

You saw that? (Laughs) Was I ahead of my time or what? We were all kind of hippies. I had this silver fork bracelet. We had those rings that we called tiger eyes. I had, at that time, some kind of very light Indian scarf. The hat I must have found in a flea market. That jacket was gold mutton. We didn't kill the thing. I think they just shaved the wool. That was the vibe.

In that photo, you radiate such star quality.

I was new. I brought trouble! (Laughs)

When did you first visit the U.S.?

The first time I came was before I went to live in England. It was, I think, February 1976. I was with an artist named Toto Bissainthe. She was a singer, actress, and activist from Haiti. I played with her in a trio. This time I was playing both drums and percussion and singing background vocals for her. She asked me if I wanted to come to New York. I said sure. I didn't know yet, but she was huge over here because of the Haitian community. We played Carnegie Hall. That was the first gig I did in America; it was incredible. I couldn't speak English at the time. When we arrived at the hotel, it was the first time in my life that I'd seen so many black people in cold weather!

Then I returned to France. I was looking for change. I'd already recorded about three or four albums with some artists, modern jazz and fusion. I recorded with Toto Bissainthe and a singer from Gabon, Pierre Akendengué. Interesting voice. He was brilliant. I wanted to challenge myself outside of the music scene in France. I went to Italy. I went to Martinique several times to work with the top guys. Then I went to England. There was a group called Gong...

Right, the Gazuese! (1977) album! I love the track "Esnuria"!

It was interesting. Steve Winwood saw us play live and he said, "I want to join the band. Whatever you want. You want me to sing? Play guitar or keyboard?" To my surprise, the band members declined his offer.

I stayed in England about close to a year. Afterwards, I was back in France playing percussion with a soul band from the U.S. called Ice. They said, "We're going to New York." I bought my own ticket. I came here as a tourist and jammed with musicians all over New York.

After I came to the U.S., I played traps with a soul band called Frank & Cindy Jordan. They came from gospel. It was a vibe like Marvin Gaye & Tammi Terrell. Cindy was truly exceptional. By working as a trap drummer, I felt I was losing my skill on percussion. I said, "Do you mind getting a drummer and I will play percussion?" They said, "Do you want to leave the group?" I said, "No I just want to play percussion. I'm rusty with it." They'd never heard me play percussion, just traps. They trusted me so I switched to percussion. They got a drummer just before the gig at Mikell's.

All photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.

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