On October 6th 2019, the drumming world and the music world at large lost an iconic drummer. Formerly of Graham Bond Organization, Cream, Blind Faith, Ginger Baker’s Airforce, Ginger Baker Trio, Bruce, Baker and Moore, Masters of Reality, and Ginger Baker’s Jazz Confusion, and having collaborated with such world music legends as Afrobeat pioneer, Fela Kuti, Ginger’s contributions to drumming and to music were massive.
Since I don’t have much time to write a lengthy tribute – although I might do so later this year – I shall share my first encounter with Ginger Baker’s drumming.
It was one evening in 1992. I was about 8 going on 9. My parents separated legally, and it was an extremely confusing and traumatic period in my childhood. Everything took a nosedive including my studies. I was going back and forth between staying with my mom and staying with my dad. But that one evening, when I was with my dad, and he bought me fish and chips for dinner, he put on The Very Best of Cream vinyl (yes, we still played vinyl records those days even when CDs were the dominant format).
The first track was the iconic Rock song, Sunshine of Your Love. I stopped eating and just couldn’t believe what my ears were picking up from the home stereo speakers in the living room. The guitar and bass riff on that song was the heaviest thing I ever heard at that point. Being very sensitive to rhythm also, I noticed the unusual drum pattern in the song also. The backbeats didn’t land on 2 and 4. It landed on 1 and 3 instead. There was no use of Hi-Hat or Ride cymbal. The main groove was just bass drum, snare drum, floor tom, with excursions around the toms in between Eric Clapton’s and Jack Bruce’s vocal lines – a beautifully simple and elegant example of setting up events in a song with fills.
In 1998, when I was going through yet another traumatic crisis in the family, I seemed to be drawn to the music of Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Steely Dan. I distinctly remember playing all the Cream tracks from Eric Clapton’s Crossroads CD box set (1988, Polydor Records) over and over again. I marvelled at the songs, the musicianship (!!!), and not least, Ginger’s very unique drumming and drum sound.
In 2003, I bought the Strange Brew documentary DVD as a Father’s Day present. It was a 1991 documentary on Cream with mind-blowing clips from their legendary 1968 farewell concert at the Royal Albert Hall, London. I ended up watching the DVD more than my dad did. This was the turning point in my life. I decided I wanted to give being a musician a try, and to seriously devote myself to practice. I became a Cream fanatic for over a year. I searched everything I could find on the band online – bootlegs, reviews, interviews, information on their equipment, analysis of their playing styles, analysis of their songs, analysis of their live performances. I studied Ginger Baker’s drumming style and technique intensely. I play alot of stuff that came from him. The way I approach jamming with other musicians, my inclination towards thinking and listening like a Jazz musician (at least I try to), were largely influenced by him.
I then researched on their pre-Cream and post-Cream music projects. With Ginger Baker, I was fascinated by his versatility to navigate through Jazz, Afrobeat, Rock, Blues, and abit of Funk, yet still retain his strong drumming identity. You just knew it was him within the first two beats, let alone the first bar of music. I was inspired to be that sort of drummer – have an identifiable sound and feel to my playing while still being versatile and competent in a number of genres. I owe it largely to Ginger for setting me on this path.
Much has been said about Ginger’s personality. I do not wish to get into that here. I acknowledge his flaws. I’m flawed too. I try my best to prevent mistakes I made in the past from happening again, and am recovering from past mistakes. Ginger, through his drumming and music, however, gave me hope when I was hopeless. As a kid, I thought I would never be in a happy family. I would never be in a family with two parents living together like I saw my classmates, acquaintances, and few friends had. I felt isolated and alienated. I became angry at the world for a time. But Ginger’s music, amongst the many others I was listening to growing up, kept me grounded, and gave me something to look forward to.
Ginger Baker, Eric Clapton, Jack Bruce, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Mitch Mitchell, Ian Paice, John Bonham, Stewart Copeland, Ringo Starr, Keith Moon, Billy Cobham, Neil Peart, Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Buddy Rich, Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl etc…. Ginger’s name rightfully belongs in the company of these groundbreaking and iconic musicians. To me, at least..
Thank you, Mr. Peter Edward “Ginger” Baker for inspiring this broken kid to pick himself up and make something out of himself, as you did so many times in your own life. Rest easy.
My last wish when it’s time for me to go: play Sunshine of Your Love at my funeral. Blast that fucker loud. I don’t want any crying. I want people to rock out and sing their fucking hearts out. As one.