The story of M’BOOM

In 1970 legendary American percussionist Max Roach called up peer and contemporary Joe Chambers with an idea. Roach planted the seed for a kind of percussion orchestra and although he didn’t have a clear idea of what it would entail musically, he knew that it was something that would be very significant for the future of music. “Damn! What are we going to do? Have six guys on a drums set?”, came Chambers’ immediate response over the telephone. “No, no, no”, said Roach “We’re going to play percussion”.  

Shortly after, Chambers, Fred King Warren Smith, Freddie Waits, Roy Brooks, Omar Clay, Francisco Mora, and Eli Fountain found themselves in a room together with Roach laying out the details for a percussion orchestra project that would eventually be called M’BOOM and also include Ray Mantilla in the final line-up. “Max had that vision”, recalled Waits in an interview with Modern Drummer in 1983. “(W)e all came together…  and sat down and began to work out, verbally at first, what we thought this kind of situation could do.”

Max Roach was purposefully looking for drummers, not just musicians, but composers and arrangers that could “explore the possibilities of percussion in order to develop a knowledge of percussion” as Chambers puts it. It was a school of percussion in the context of a performance group, and percussion in all its various shapes and forms from the standardised drum kit, to mallet, pitched percussion like the xylophone and even the more obscure, readymade instruments like a saw or a tin can.

Max Roach’s initial idea was: “Well, if we put everybody together and form a cooperative group, we’ll have to stay together. We’d have to stay together and we could develop an original personality in percussion, that would come out of our American musical experience. It could have blues and Gospel and whatever idiom you want to name, just as long as it has that attitude of open endedness.”

And it went way beyond American borders and back in time. With Mantilla on board, infusing the pieces with elements of Latin and Afro rhythms and personality, and the textural ambiences of instruments like the marimba evoking the African continent, M’BOOM was more than just a freeform Jazz project.

It wasn’t just a bunch of very good drummers coming together and battling each other in the way of a clambering solo either. The pieces that resulted were composed, finely executed works that refined the primal action of striking a surface into fully formed compositions with great artistic weight. Their grand opus came as the self-titled sophomore album in 1979 via Columbia records and it and the M’BOOM project has remained somewhat inconspicuous in music history, but when electronic music producer, Martyn cited the album as an influence for his first LP on the Ostgut Ton “Voids”, it shed some new, much deserved light on this magnificent record.

The similarities in the way Roach and company treated percussion and arrangement and the way electronic music is structured today is uncanny, and although we can’t accurately assume the two are connected in any way there’s something to M’BOOM and specially that album that will speak to every electronic music enthusiast today.

“Onomatopoeia” sets the tone of the record with cascading bells and percussive rhythms erupting in a cacophonous meleé before it recedes into the compositional form it was destined to pursue. Marimba and Xylophones pound out a melody counterpointed by unpitched percussion sparkling in the resonant frequencies of the arrangement.

Written by Omar Clay, the piece might sound like the result of some improvised jam session through the first 16 bars, but what it is in fact is a controlled and deliberate execution of a composed piece. “Everybody has a specific thing that they’re supposed to fit in someplace in the time that we are reading it,” explained Clay about the writing and performing process for M’BOOM. The only improvisation comes in the way they play and not the structure of each composition and even in the live performance context this is how they would play it.

Martyn cited the “space” on the record as a particular influence, and that is exactly down to the way the pieces were composed. Everybody in their place and time made for a sonic texture that never cluttered the final arrangement. “All the pieces are written in terms of textures, combinations of colors, and rhythmic structure or rhythmic feel—where we place the emphasis”, Clay told Modern Drummer, specifically citing the second track on the album “Twinkle Toes”.

Players like Joe Chambers combined their knowledge of melody from instruments like the piano with their percussive training, finding a melodic dimension to something unpitched like the drum kit. “I had the theory and I had the drumming technique” he explained in all about Jazz. Every member was required to play everything and Chambers’ first role in the group would be the vibraphone, form which he composed songs like “Caravanserai”. It’s rattling percussive onslaught disperses around the mallett instruments pounding out a repetitive motif loop that modulates throughout, but always returns to to lower register repeating four chords. “To me it’s just a piano”, says Chambers of his Vibraphone. “It’s set up like a piano, so I know the theory.”

While some of the instruments encouraged this way of composition, there was some unusual instruments and techniques that also found their way into the ensemble, chief amongst which was the saw. On “Glorious Monster” there is a wailing vibrato echoing in the background, often coming to the fore. It sounds like a broken theremin synthesiser, but in fact it’s a tree saw, which Roy Brooks plays with a mallet while bending the length of the tool. It’s a completely alien sound as you’d expect and creates a very evocative science fiction space theme. “His musical saw is just an expression of something that’s inside him”, explained Fred King “and that’s what he communicates with us. That’s what I mean by it being such a deep experience.”

M’BOOM was a continual learning experience and allowed the players to experiment with their instruments and techniques. One of the most interesting techniques to come out of M’BOOM was the Timpani technique Warren Smith plays on “Epistrophy”. The instrument glides up to its pitch as Smith stretches the skin while playing. “It wasn’t so much a matter of developing it” he told Modern Drummer,  “as it was that Joe Chambers asked me to play it. So I played it.” It’s luring effects are just one of the many ways the album and the project intrigues some thirty years on from its release.

There are elements to M’BOOM hat are very contemporaneous to electronic beat music. The pitched percussion; the short simple stabs at a melody; the repetitive nature of the music; and the textural space in the music. It’s something of a tenuous connection, but M’BOOM definitely needs to get its turn at the history books again today and be appreciated for what it is. It’s lucky that Martyn has turned some attention to the album again and surely it would spark some renewed interest in the album and the project for a whole new generation of musicians and enthusiasts.  


* Martyn plays our basement tonight.