There has always been music beyond the mainstream: the sounds of the sonic underground, the music of the marginal and marginalised, the deep community scenes and committed individuals, the die-hard traditionalists and forgotten folk heroes. But there has also always been music that was even further out than that. Not just outside the commercial mainstream, like under-appreciated jazz or underground dance music, but outside of everything – the music of visionaries, eccentrics, inventors, prophets, loners, the keepers of secrets, the creators of something new under the sun, the path-finders, the lost and the found. Moondog and Harry Partch are artists out of this bag, as are Michael O’Shea and Charlie Nothing, Conlon Nancarrow and Daphne Oram. And so too is Lori Vambe.
Self-taught drummer, inventor, and sonic experimentalist, Lori Vambe is a unique figure in British music. Creator of his own instrument, the drumgita (pronounced ‘drum-guitar’) or string-drum, which he had seen in a visionary dream, Vambe intended to create a kind of music that had never been made, in order to pursue access to the fourth dimension. Here at Strut, we have the pleasure of reissuing two of Lori’s albums;
‘Drumgita Solo’ and ‘Drumland Dreamland’, previously released only on Lori’s own label Drumony. Here we present the two albums in a diptych set, ‘Space-Time Dreamtime: The Four-Dimensional Music of Lori Vambe’ housed in a deluxe slipcase including an additional 8-page 12”-sized booklet featuring unseen photos and extensive liner notes.
Here, Francis Gooding sits down with the man himself to discuss becoming the musician he is today, and all things Fourth Dimension…
How did you become a musician?
So, going back to the beginning, pre-musician so to speak, my first involvement was playing the drum. I taught myself – I'm a self-taught drummer and guitarist. Every instrument I play, I more-or-less teach myself. [In the 1970s] there was a drum factory in Kentish Town in London. And I went to visit it – it was run by a man called Sidi Ahmadi, in those days, an African master drummer and drum-maker. I mean, normally you'll find a master drummer or a master drum-maker but to find both attributes with the same person – he was one of those special people… As soon as I went to the factory, he said, ‘Play for me’, and I went duddle-uddle-uddle on a drum, quickly, and he said, ‘Not bad, but you will never be good enough until you learn to make your own instrument.’ This stayed on my mind for many years and about five to eight years later, I found myself making a drum. That extended to me actually making a guitar-drum of my own invention, which is a combination of a drum and guitar, which is the instrument that I'm presently occupied with. I give credit to this initial introduction, of making my own instrument, basically. Because through that it's taught me a lot in terms of feeling the instrument and making it sound as you want it to sound.
Were you playing other instruments, or gigging with any bands?
No, not really. I started just basically drumming. I was squatting in Brixton at the time. And I was drumming for therapy. Myself and my upstairs neighbour in the squat, we used to get together, and we used to drum for hours. We found this really good therapy, we used to really get off on it. So my drumming began at that time, and my first real performance was in ’76 at the Bath Festival, when I asked a couple of friends to back me and we formed a band called The Healing Drums of Brixton. That was my real introduction in terms of performance. But I didn't really start playing until, I suppose, I had developed my instrument; I went to Italy and played some solo live gigs using my new drumgita, or string-drum, including the Pistoia Blues Festival in 1988. I played as an unknown artist, so I was on a small stage. The real thing that secured me a gig there was the novelty of this new instrument, which they hadn't heard of before – the string-drum, which I had the patents on at the time. I was able to meet John Lee Hooker, Bo Diddley, Rufus Thomas – the greats, who were playing on the ‘A’ stage. It was a big thrill for me.
Could you tell me a bit more about the drumgita and the string-drum family? A long time ago, when we first talked, you told me that it had come to you in a dream.
I had a half-waking vision, and in this vision I had been playing an instrument which was an extension of my umbilical cord somehow, you know? That's the feeling I had in this dream. And I wasn’t able to physically conceive or see what that instrument looked like until one day, I made a drum with a guitar neck extending from the body. For some reason I made this instrument, put some strings on it, and as soon as I sat it on my lap, I knew that it was the instrument I had imagined in my dream. It was like an extension of my umbilical cord, in fact, as I held it between my legs. The first instrument I made, I actually used on Drumgita Solo… It's a three-stringed instrument. I just put strings on, which were cello strings, not normal guitar strings, and I got a really warm sound out of it, so I preferred the cello strings. I recorded both Drumgita Solo and Drumland Dreamland on my TEAC and Revox. Drumgita Solo I recorded stereo [on the] Revox, with no overdubs. For Drumland Dreamland I used the four-track TEAC tape recorder, the professional one. So, I did my own recording of the albums.
Did you record them at home?
Yes. Just at home, in my living room. My main aim was to keep away from the commercial influence, of not just what to play, but how to play. I didn’t want to play any conventional form of music. So, I tried to shut myself away from the commercial influence. Well, not consciously, but obviously I was very uncommercial in both my approach to playing, and in the way I play. For instance, the instrument, the drumgita – I was playing it horizontally. I was using it as a keyboard rather than fretted fingering. So, I was using it differently….
Could you tell me a bit about the sound, and what you think that the combination of the strings and the drum together provides?
I think a drone is near. A type of drone. Someone on BBC Radio interviewed me about the instrument and before starting the interview, they played a piece and they said, ‘Is this a didgeridoo? Or what?’... So I found it very interesting that someone might find it similar to a verbal or vocal sound. And that's why I referred to a drone, it is a type of drone sound caused by the interaction of the skin vibration and the string vibration. Because the strings are connected to the edge of the drum skin. And both are vibrating in a kind of unison, creating this drone sound in the casa harmonica, or in the gourd – the shell of the instrument, which is the drum. It's an interesting interaction of the two.
Could you tell me about how you decided to record, and what you wanted to achieve with the records?
Well, I think initially, after playing, I don't think I decided what I wanted to do until I tried to do it… If you read the back of the album, I tried to explain what I was doing in words: by using forwards and backwards, it's possible to create a space, a three-dimensional space, which will lead you to a fourth dimension, right? I'm playing with words a bit there, but if you can imagine using a piece of music normally, just played normally, and then played in reverse, backwards, at the same time – which I did on the album on one track – I used the forward piece and the backwards piece at the same time, accompanied with half speed. Which created a very interesting space… So, in a way I was experimenting with sound, and the form of sound.
What did you think that you found when you had created these spaces? What were you searching for?
Difference, I suppose. I was really searching for something that was not normal. In other words, I was trying to keep away from what had been done before, or commercial, or something existing. And in order to do this, I had to do something new. So, my experimentation was working with new sound, and a new forming of sound and concepts. My main interest is time and space; I've always been fascinated with time and space. And I remember when I first got into listening to classical music, I was told that what made classical music so interesting was the spaces between – the spaces created. Spaces of nothingness, if you like, or the pauses. And that's to do with time, and space. If you want to think in terms of the concept of space, as well… linking the space and time together makes you sound really crazy. Which I am! [laughs]. I'm working with something you can't explain. I tried to explain this around Drumland Dreamland, [but] by using words I was in a way destroying what I was trying to achieve. Because you can't use words to describe something indescribable.
Do you think you were trying to find a way to get into those spaces, and feel what those spaces are made of?
Yes, exactly. That is getting close to what I was trying to do here… Which in a way is like going to a new unfound land, or finding yourself on an unknown planet. And I’m still there.
Pre-order ‘Space-Time Dreamtime: The Four-Dimensional Music of Lori Vambe’ here.