Williams, who grew up in Richmond's Church Hill, was an original member of the Richmond-based Awareness Art Ensemble, a reggae collective that helped create the American reggae scene during the early '80s. Then he led Razor Posse, another Richmond reggae band with a rotating roster of performers
Today, he's collaborating with members of Carlos Santana's and Bob Dylan's bands and various P-Funk alumni, and he travels the world with the legendary Wailers.
On a warm afternoon at the Village Cafe, Style sat down with Drummie Zeb for conversation and coffee.
Style: Let's back up a few decades how did you enter the music scene?
Drummie Zeb: Early on, my mother would take me to parades. There I would hear this vibration of the drum, and this excited me as a kid. My first band interaction was with Mr. Parker at Mosby Middle School. He introduced me to music theory. I must also give credit to the late Mr. Johnny Payton [a former saxophonist with Count Basie who taught music in the Richmond Public Schools for decades while operating a big band jazz group and a clothing boutique in Jackson Ward]. He gave me the inner workings of how an artist [should operate], the professional standards, the emphasis on practice/performance. He would also give life lessons that were important this was at Kennedy High in the mid-'70s.
Your background is jazz and big band. Who were your early influences?
Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams. But to make a long story short, I saw Buddy Rich when I was 11, and I sat one row from the stage so I could really see and feel what was played. Later on in life I digged Art Blakey especially how he was able to transcribe African rhythm techniques with modern jazz drum styles. This in a sense brings me full circle. This interest in African drumming gave me more interest in learning the various drum styles of West Africa. This is how I also encountered James "Plunky" Branch. He had all this knowledge about this music, and he had the musicians on hand. I met guitarist Ras Mel Glover, later of A.A.E. [Awareness Art Ensemble], and Ashanta, a Ghanaian master drummer who had played with Hugh Masekela and others.
The Awareness Art Ensemble were pioneers on the American reggae scene. How did this originate?
It was in late '79 or early 1980. A lot of talk was stirring around this "reggae" thing. Ras Mel had known me from Plunky; he had come down to this pawn shop where I worked at on Hull Street. Ras Mel, being a member of the Oneness of Ju-Ju [Plunky's world-beat band], also had an open mind for various musical styles. He introduced me to these rhythms. It was new, very different from the jazz and home-grown funk I knew, and it stuck to me.
The Awareness scene was heavy. Coran Capshaw, who is now the manager of the Dave Matthews Band, worked with us during that period. ... It was an awesome scene to be part of.
When did you first collaborate with The Wailers?
I met Aston "Family Man" Barrett [bassist and musical director for Bob and Ziggy Marley and Jimmy Cliff] around '84 or '85. Anytime any huge Jamaican bands were performing within the States, the promoter would book A.A.E. to open the show, since we had that regional appeal and were known to pack a house solo.
This was the Boathouse in Norfolk, [and A.A.E.] was doing sound checks. We were running rehearsal drills when Family Man comes over onstage, hops on keys, and Al Anderson, Marley's guitarist from the "Rastaman Vibration" tour, plugs up and follows in alongside fellow Wailer Junior Marvin and A.A.E. member Ras Mel.
We were about to stop so they could get on with their sound check, but Family Man shouted, "Keep going, man." So now it's a total live improvisational set with stellar results. Those guys never forgot us, and in time we would come together again.
Any other run-ins with legendary Jamaican musicians?
Well, King Yellowman, who of course is an early pioneer in the dub-toasting [Jamaican rap] style so popular with young Jamaican artists of today, said to me once at the Flood Zone after a performance, "Drummie, you seem like you love it." I said, "Yellow, yes brethren, I do love it, but I don't have a producer or a label." Yellowman got on his phone immediately and called his producer, who was Derrick Barnett, who has worked with many artists. ... After working this out, the Razor Posse was soon in the studio with Barnett all thanks to King Yellowman.
What album was this?
The Razor Posse "First Time." I began going to Jamaica months later, working on other projects. I took these master tapes to the States searching for an independent when Rick [Eric E.] Stanley said he knew a guy who could help this guy he knew had a label already set up to distribute these sessions. Eric E. was so instrumental in this. Rick would do all he could to help local musicians as anyone who knew him would say. God bless his soul.
When was the last time you performed outside the States?
A month ago [The Wailers] were in Monaco. We played a gig for the royal family of Monaco. It was an all-reggae affair with Jimmy Cliff opening the show. There was also the legendary Skatalites; there was also the Ivory Coast reggae artist Alpha Blondy. The Wailers closed the show. The next trek starts in June when we go to Portugal, then on to Spain and a few spots in Europe that haven't been mapped out as of yet.
Europe, it seems, has always been a huge draw for reggae. Care to elaborate?
When we play in the States there are modest draws for a reggae concert. We'll perform before a paying audience of 2,000 fans at the House of Blues. However, in Europe this music is more front-line ... and what I mean is, in places like Turkey or the Czech Republic, they come in tens of thousands to a reggae show! In Sweden we performed in front of an estimated 100,000 people. One night in Rio, we had 20,000 come out. They have a different perspective of this music.
What projects are you working on?
Many projects. I met Bob Dylan's bass player while working on a reggae-influenced album inspired by the songs of Dylan. Ras Mel and I had been working on a reggae version of "Like a Rolling Stone." Tony Garnier [Dylan's bassist and music director] performs on this track with us ... [my] lone direct link to Dylan. It was through this partnership that I was able to perform alongside Dylan in 2002 at the Merriweather Post Pavilion.
The Wailers and Santana toured together for 30 days. It was a marvelous experience. I would participate in drum sessions with Dennis Chambers [P-Funk] and Rico Raul, who's been with the Santana band for decades. These sessions would last for hours at a time. Rico looked at me and said, "Drummie, anytime you want me to play, call me." Let it be known that when studio time was available, I called, and Rico Raul showed up; he came and performed. Also there are projects with various members of Parliament-Funkadelic. We called it "Dub-Adelic." It features myself with Michael "Kidd Funkadelic" Hampton and Bernie Worrell [P-Funk, Talking Heads]. In time this music will be available. S
In addition to 35 other stateside dates this summer, The Wailers are scheduled to perform at Innsbrook Pavilion Saturday, July 15, at 3:30 p.m. Tickets are $10-$20 at www.innsbrookafterhours.com or at the door.