Drummer Jodie Michael shares with LEFFLI her prime point with the drum, memorable time studying at Berklee and her reflections on power of music in transforming society, nourishing human relations as well as her efforts to bring gender and Middle Eastern heritage to this end. A Lebanese Australian, Jodie has played with many world-class musicians including James Muller, Camille Thurman and Ingrid Jensen. She was the recipient of the 2013 Jann Rutherford Memorial Award. Mentored by international drummers such as Michael Carvin and Greg Hutchinson, Jodie has been continuously evolving her drumming with authentic richness and breadth. She received her master’s degree from Berklee College of Music’s Global Jazz in 2018-2019 and has been working as an improvising musician, bandleader and educator since graduation.
LEFLI: How did you get into drumming?
Jodie Michael: Contrary to what many would think, I did not grow up in a musician family or in music cities. The first time I played the drum was at the age of 14 and immediately I felt strong connection with it. I joined the local conservatory to play in a band and learned drumming from an amazing teacher who was a trumpeter from San Francisco. I know compared with many musicians, I may appear to get into music late but in retrospect, without push or assistance from my environment, I discovered and explored drumming in my own volition. It was both refreshing and liberating. With a series of strikes in a pattern, rhythm is created to carry an essential message to listeners. Deep inside somehow I knew this is what I want to do for my life. It is when our band toured in several cities in US, places where Jazz started, that confirmed my passion and clarified my path.
LEFLI: You studied at Berklee’s Global Jazz Institute which aims to advance the power of music as a tool for the betterment of society in addition to cultivating students’ music talent to the highest level as possible. What was your Berklee experience like?
Jodie Michael: It presented such a great opportunity to learn from and play with world-renowned Jazz musicians. Jazz has its own techniques and stylistic traditions. Great instrumentalists form their own distinct rhythmic patterns and recognizable voice. We learn from copying them first, playing vicariously through their styles and then adjusting based on our intuition till we find our own voice in the music, which contributes to shaping our own musical identity. Many distinguished musicians I met along my path and at Berklee are also humanists whom believe the transformative impact of great music in society and work tirelessly through music for social impact, which deeply resonates with my mission as a musician.
LEFLI: Could you articulate how music impacts and is influenced by society?
Jodie Michael: Music creates spiritual connection and social awareness. It is essentially soul-to-soul communication channeled and mediated by music. Music is a language itself yet without limitations of words that are categorical (therefore reductionist) and definite. It engenders beauty, honesty and authenticity; it evokes emotions, a sense of truth and adventure. People feel the music with their entire being and music reverberates within. In today’s monetized world that is hyper-left brain-oriented, language, accounting, economy, etc. are held in high regard due to their moneymaking, livelihoods-generating potential. Actually they are means to an end and not the end themselves. Society seeks predictability through science and rationality. Consequently, education puts too much importance on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) and rational intelligence to build the economy, marginalizing liberal arts education. Part of reason is that art and music are largely unpredictable and perhaps their impact, as much as we intuitively know, is less quantitatively proven.
Creative force in an individual is usually discouraged from childhood or even suppressed in the dominant culture that rushes to growth, efficiency and game of ‘getting-ahead’. Although we are born creators and have a nature tendency to be creative, the suffocated creativity makes people crave for superficial substitutes such as consumerism and addictions of all kinds to numb the pains. Power of music is life’s inherent desire to be whole and those who honor the inner inclination live out the most authentic life. I would like to think that art is the liberation of humanity within and should occupy important physical space and mind space in society. After all, many problems we see in the world need to be fixed by culture not only by science and technology. The contribution of music should be valued and augmented.
LEFLI: There is tremendous harmonization and elevation of the music when you perform in the band. Could you share with us the experience of orchestrating great music with others and implications on human relationships?
Jodie Michael: Great musician is great soloist and accompanist. Playing in an assembly means collective contribution where every single person’s voice aka sound is valued. Through deep listening, respecting each other’s piece and attuning to one another, it allows for the synchronized melody to emerge without agenda. Drumming creates a foundation in terms of beats, form and structure upon which sounds from other instruments harmonize. In order not to dominate or overstep other players through my drumming, I need to be attentive and adaptive to the tune emergent and unite with the band to reach the deep heart of the audience as our collective goal. Getting to know the band member in person and understanding their stories help create synergy in music. After you get to play with them several times, you start to sense their distinctions, patterns and tendencies and have a feel for their rhythm to make it beautiful by adding to it your own. Of course, there are technical skills involved to know which combination of sounds is good versus which is not but when you are in jazz improvisation, thinking mind needs to be shut down to enter a flow state based on mutual trust and respect. Just you allude to, playing in a band can tell a lot about how human beings can better relate to and respond to each other. I hear you fully and I respond to you wholly; vise versa. The level of attunement determines whether we can bring each other’s experience to a new height, producing sounds that are never heard or ideas never thought about. Indeed, creativity is a group activity.
LEFLI: Many people find it rare to encounter a female drummer. What is your experience of gender in music and what are the new perspectives you hope to bring through your work?
Jodie Michael: You are right. Drumming is relatively male-dominated and there is prejudice against female drummers that they cannot play in a solid, robust and transformative way as their male counterparts. While drumming may be more naturally associated with muscular energy especially in heavy metal music, good drummers can masterfully unleash both muscular and feminine energy of the beat in right relationship with other instruments. That capability can be manifested through musicians of both genders. Transforming a subliminal belief system that makes male appear more superior than female requires collective awareness and conscious efforts. My aspiration is to show actual proof of female talent and at the same time, I have a calling to find a way to honor my Lebanese heritage to enrich my music offering.
I am a second-generation Middle Eastern diaspora growing up in Australia. So far very few female instrumentalists exist in Lebanon and in the Middle East region in general except for some female Arabic pop singers. The unequal opportunity of education along with social expectation for women to take a domestic role therefore discouraging their self-expression in public is a big contributing factor. The affordability of an instrument and lesson fees is another challenge. It is interesting when you look at history, women did once actively participate in music-making and were respected instrumentalists in many places of Middle East including ancient Iraq and Syria. Currently I am researching on when the gender imbalance started to happen and what caused the shift. Knowing history well gives us a clue to whatever creates the inequality and helps us better position ourselves to influence the future. It is a multi-disciplinary inquiry and may take many years but I hope to nourish my root with such knowledge to maximize the value of my music to the society. In the end, music is a powerful medium to convey universal values across cultures and create a more compassionate society that supports artistic expression of all people. Music encourages, motivates and inspires. I feel there are many treasures to be uncovered in my heritage to benefit all.