"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.
Mino Meets Miles
And that Mikell's gig is where Miles Davis first saw you.
Do I have the luck of the Irish or what? (Laughs) Long story short: We play on stage. I think Ashford & Simpson were there that night. There was a guy in the front row looking really really intense. He was listening to the music like no one else in that club. The set finished. This guy grabs my arm; he's really strong. He looked older. You could not recognize him, especially because he was not in the best of health. He said, "You're a bad motherfucker. Give me your number." I tried to move away, not really to defend myself but I was sensing the situation. I said, "My name is Mino."
Then there's this big circle around us. Is everybody going crazy or what? Pat Mikell, the owner of the club, tapped on my shoulder. She said, "Do you know who that is?" I said, "No, but I introduced myself." She said, "This is Miles Davis." I went downstairs, changed, and got paid. At the time, I had some business cards that I cut up myself. I came back upstairs and he was waiting for me. I gave him my card. He said, "Thank you. You're a bad motherfucker." One week later, the phone rings and it was him. "Come to the studio immediately. I'll pay for the taxi." But where? The phone rings again. "This is Bill Evans. I'm the sax player. This is the address." I arrived at Miles' place on W. 77th St.
Before you met Miles, what were your impressions of him?
It was more the fusion music I knew first, On the Corner (1972), Bitches Brew (1970). I came to his older music later on. Interestingly enough, I was a teenager and I remember saying, "One day I know that if I meet Miles, then we'll play together." That was not a goal but it was something that made sense. When it happened, it felt right to me. I had no doubt that it would happen, somehow.
Miles' health wasn't top then. He almost died of pneumonia in Tokyo in 1981. He was in so much pain so often. I used to massage his hands before some concerts. He had issues with his hands. I've learned many ways to heal and preserve my own hands, so I helped whenever I could. At the end of the massages, he used to say, "Thanks Frenchy".
I love that you were able to perform with Miles on the Grammy Awards in 1983 when he got the Grammy for We Want Miles (1982).
Everybody was there. Quincy Jones, Donna Summer, Grace Jones, Rick James, Lionel Richie. You know who presented the Grammy to Miles? Ella Fitzgerald. Ella Fitzgerald sat right there. I'm looking at her. She comes to me, embraces me, and says, "You were great!" When you talk about the American dream for people, at that time, it was a cadillac and a house. To me, it was to be acquainted with musicians of this caliber, and I was. I was embraced by those people.
You toured with Miles and recorded a succession of albums with him -- We Want Miles, Star People, (1983) and Decoy (1984) -- before joining Weather Report. Though you'd perform with Miles again throughout the '80s, how did you make that initial transition from his band to Weather Report?
I was approached by Omar Hakim and Victor Bailey. They saw me play with Miles and also with my band at Mikell's years ago. At first, I was playing with both Miles and Weather Report. Miles was fine with it. He knew at some point I had to make a choice. On the road with Weather Report, Miles called for me. I was in Italy somewhere in some hotel room. He said, "Where are you? What are you doing?" He knew exactly what I was doing. I said, "I'm with Weather Report." You know what he said? He said, "Those are my children."
That's quite a compliment.
That's nice, huh? We talked. We never spoke more than five minutes on the phone because of my accent and his! (Laughs)
Describe the creative dynamic between you and Weather Report.
I was blessed because they gave me carte blanche. The challenge for me was to fit into the band. With Miles, there was more space, I would say. In Weather Report, Omar is a very active drummer. I was surprised when they called me. By searching, I started to develop more of an ensemble sound. I started to learn this drum feel with all of these other instruments. I believe I was the first to use electronic percussion in Weather Report. It didn't conflict with Joe (Zawinul). He was Mr. Electronics! What was helpful was that I also had knowledge of other music. When Joe was talking about his roots, some of the Eastern European music, I was aware of all of that. "Where are you from, Mino?" (Laughs)
Sportin' Life (1985) was the first Weather Report album that featured you in the lineup. It's pretty amazing that you're the new guy and yet they included a completely self-penned song of yours, "Confians".
Joe asked me if I had a tune he could hear. I didn't realize that perhaps it would be featured on the album. I had "Confians"; it was a demo, a cassette. I played it. "We're gonna do this on the next album." I said, "Really?" Joe said, "Who's playing keyboard?" I said, "That's me." "Well I'll play keyboard. Okay sure! It's incredible because Victor wasn't there so I played some scratch bass. I played the bass, the guitar, and the drums on "Confians".
Years later, you recorded a solo version of "Confians" and also did a couple of remixes. It's become a staple of your set. What was the inspiration behind "Confians"?
The lyrics came in one night. They're written in Creole from Martinique with a few expressions from Guadeloupe and a few words from Haiti. The lyrics are really about me following a dream. For so many years, I was crushed by my folks. I had to leave. I left home for Paris with my drums and my bongos and my guitar.
I used to play in the streets. I used to steal food. I didn't always sleep on a bed. I expressed all of who I was through the music. Those lyrics talk about the struggle.
You also sing on "Confians". What does singing give you that's different from playing?
Singing is perhaps the most challenging thing I do, because it's never guaranteed. There are some very talented people who are naturals. They never practice but they can sing well no matter when. I'm not that kind of person. Singing is another beast. To sing and play the drums very strongly like I do is impossible. Singing is something that I, personally, cannot control. You're beyond naked. It's an incredible feeling. With singing also comes the lyrics so you're talking about an aspect of music that no instrument can touch. In that aspect, it's pretty unique. Miles wanted me to sing, actually. He was into Prince at the time. One of the tunes was "Chocolate Girl". We're on the phone one time. He asked me, "Can you rap in French? Sing something in French." "I got to sing in Creole." "I don't want it in Creole, I want it in French!" I did the rap in French. It was before You're Under Arrest (1985). He called me to do it. Sting was in the studio so he was the one who did the rap. It's difficult to compete with him! (laughs)
A few years after the last Weather Report album (This Is This, 1986), you performed with Herbie Hancock at Montreux Jazz Festival. I love what he said in his introduction: "You see these things over here? They look like toys to me but in the hands of a master, they're not toys. The master I'm referring to is Mino Cinélu." How was performing with Herbie different from all the other greats you played with?
It's hard to compare those people. The difference is that Herbie is like a kid. It's like child's play. He's a true Buddhist. He truly believes. His spirit is incredible, very positive. He has that thing that you will give your best; he'll just give it all and more. He does it in a relaxed way. He used to come and see us with Miles.
Interestingly enough, that was perhaps one of the times where I said, "I wish to play with Herbie". I'd never seen Miles play before I played with him. I first saw Herbie play when Headhunters toured Europe for the first time.
You recorded World Trio (1995) with Kevin Eubanks and Dave Holland. Then, 15 years later, The New York Times remarked that the album "Holds up and then some: it’s a model of collective rapport with a world-music twist, fully acoustic but crackling with energy" (30 May 2010). That's a great testament to the three of you. What's the origin of that project?
Kevin invited me two times to play with his band as a special guest and he was also a part of my band. He's so brilliant. One day I said, "Why don't we do a duet?" At the time, Kevin was more comfortable in a trio. He said, "How 'bout I call Dave Holland?" I said, "Twist my arm" (Laughs). I started to rehearse with Kevin in the place I used to have in Brooklyn years ago. Dave came and joined us; he's a great player. He's also a rhythmical guy. I was surprised. I didn't know that about him. Very solid.
Kevin, of course, I knew. He's a master. Everybody brought ideas of tunes. We just played. Maybe after one week or something like that, one of us would say, "By the way, what's the time signature on your tune?" "It's 4/4." "What?" "Well, what do you hear?" None of us knew the time signatures, except for a few songs! I talk about that in the workshops that I do. What is right and what is wrong is very subjective. The outcome is what counts.
The constant in your career seems to be collaboration, collaborating with so many people from so many different worlds of music. Did it feel gratifying to have your own solo album when you signed with Blue Thumb for Mino Cinélu (2000)? Did you feel ready?
If I had to follow my belief, I would never be ready. The first time I was proposed to sign was by Virgin Records when I was in England. I said no. Even before that, I was playing with the Jef Gilson Orchestra (often referred to as "the French Gil Evans"); I was the youngest big band drummer in France and they offered me my own album. To me, I was not ready and I wanted to explore more and play with more people. It may not have been the smartest decision.
Even Miles pushed me: do your own thing.
How was recording Quest Journey (2002) different from your first album?
I think Quest Journey is the first album I mixed entirely. I tried to do something so ambitious. I had no choice but to learn how to do it myself. The first album, the eponymous album, was all recorded at home. It took a long time. That's the first album that Pat Thrall mixed. Pat used to be the guitarist for Meat Loaf. He's a great producer. He's the one who taught ProTools to many engineers who were about to lose their job, short of learning this new technology. He was very kind to do that. I said, "Okay let's mix it." He said, "Once a day." I said, "Once a day what? One tune a day to mix? Are you kidding?"
Actually, depending on the complexity of the mix, that's pretty much the norm. It depends on the music but when you're mixing digitally like it's done now, if you do two tunes a day, you're doing a good job. I was flabbergasted -- "My goodness, I will grow old with this thing!" -- but I remained open. Mixing on my own helped me appreciate even more what Pat did on my first album.
I was more into electro on Quest Journey. By that time, I was curious about techno music. A friend of mine said you got to check it out. To me, it was fast noise, but this guy's older than me so if he's open to it...
In every music, you'll find something you'll like. Quality is quality; it's in every art. I started to listen again to very old Kraftwerk. All of this started to intrigue me. I got into sampling. I mixed everything I liked. It's "electro-jazz", whatever you want to call it.
"Feels Like Winter" features Toni Smith on vocals. Of course, a lot of us know her as the voice on "Funkin' for Jamaica" by Tom Browne. What inspired you to record her singing on the track?
I'd hired Toni Smith for other productions that I was doing, even though she's not known to sing ballads. I liked her so I thought let me just try and we did it. Toni thanked me. She said, "Mino, nobody ever calls me to sing ballads." I think I have that talent to embark people on avenues they're not used to going. To me, it's a way to break the automaticism. People see me as a percussion player. They don't imagine that I also write for films or that I played drums for many many years before I touched percussion. People see you in one thing. Whatever habits you have, you will break them if you do something you're not used to doing. I'd love to get everybody to perform on something they're not known for.
One of my favorite songs of yours is "Pwotéjé Nou". I especially loved the rendition you did at Zinc Bar with keys, bass, and percussion; you sang and played it with such passion. What's the background of that song?
This song is like a prayer, but without any religious intent. This piece was written after my first trip to Xingú with Sting in 1988. It was before Sting and Trudie Styler began the Rainforest Foundation. In "Pwotéjé Nou", I say, "Don't forget us. Protect us." I say in Creole, "Sir Raoni, you truly are my brother, you too shall overcome, I truly believe." Raoni is the head Chief of the Kayapó in the Amazon.
That reminds me, I saw some photos of you and Sting visiting the village of the Yawalapiti. There's this great shot of you sitting in the center of the village playing a metal pot.
That's part of the first trip to Xingú. There were some pots and pans. I started to play. Raoni was there, and all the kids came. I met one of those boys two years ago. He said, in Portuguese, that I taught him drums. He said, "Were you in the village of Aritana?" Aritana is the chief of the Yawalapiti, the village where we were. He said, "You taught me". This was 1988 and he remembered my name!
I also saw Raoni two years ago in Paris. He's an old man. His nephew Megaron was with him. He's going to become the new chief. Raoni said, "You got to come back. You are now like my son." Raoni is still Chief of the Kayapó and is fighting the destruction and industrialization of the Amazon, especially the construction of the Belo Monte dam on the Xingú River.
In May 2014, you spoke at the ceremony for the unveiling of "Miles Davis Way", which is W. 77th Street between West End and Riverside Drive. How did it feel to be there?
I was very moved to be able to speak there. I got people laughing. I was myself. I was thinking vividly about the first time I went to Miles' house. I remember another time him calling me saying, "You should come this afternoon." "Why?" "I'm cooking!" It's easy to fall into the mysticism but my voyage with him was really clear and really deep. I had no agenda. He truly understood me with no judgement. He was brilliant. I was just happy to be there. It's hard to explain. All those memories came to my mind. I didn't feel his spirit but I thought about him and by thinking about him, I know he had a good laugh!
You've had so many extraordinary experiences. When you close your eyes at night, which one do you think about the most? What do you re-live in your dreams?
It would be many things. Music always saved my life. This particular moment was perhaps one of the first times: I was around 17 years old, hitchhiking through the south of France with a pair of bongos that I stole from the conservatory. They were new and nobody ever used them. I felt that I had no other choice if I was going to panhandle on the streets of Bandol. I knew it also was a practice, a preparation for a new facet of my musical palette and my first recordings as a percussion player.
I remember there was another guy on the road hitchhiking. I said, "If you're not a girl, nobody will pick you up at night." He said, "I know." I said, "Why are you in such a hurry?" He said, "Because there are gypsies over there. At night they're going to cut your throat and take your money." I looked at him and asked, "Why? Do you have money?" Because of the way I looked, he turned green! (Laughs) I didn't have a bag to sleep on so I was sleeping with my head against the bongos. He said, "What about you? What if the gypsies come?" I said, "I'll ask if I can play with them." I think about that often. Just by being a musician, that calms people. It is a power. We should not take it lightly. Music is far more than just notes.
All photos by Craig Bailey/Perspective Photo.