Kweku Sumbry is a drummer, percussionist, and composer from Washington, D.C. with deep roots in the world of West African drumming. Sumbry comes from a family of musicians and knows his craft from the ground up: He literally builds his own djembe drums. That solid foundation, combined with practice and commitment, have made Sumbry an in-demand drummer in New York, even while pursuing a degree from The School of Jazz at The New School.
Though not a stranger to The Jazz Gallery’s stage, this upcoming show represents Sumbry’s debut as a leader, with a band featuring Lex Korten on piano, Agyei Keita on percussion, Paul “Papa Bear” Johnson on bass, and Lucas Kadish on guitar. In a quick phone conversation, Sumbry gave us the rundown on where he comes from, where he is now, and where he’s going.
The Jazz Gallery: Tell us a bit about your own music. We’ve heard you at the Gallery with Immanuel Wilkins, and know you play djembe in West African drumming traditions: How does that come together in what you’ll be bringing to the Gallery?
Kewku Sumbry: Musically, I’m coming from a folkloric tradition where we’re literally playing for people who are dancing. So with my own music, I’m always thinking of dance. We’re going to play a lot of my music, which brings together many of my favorite styles and sounds. Think Fela Kuti meets Steve Coleman meets Mamady Keita meets Mahiri Fadjimba Keita meets John Coltrane meets James Brown. My cousin Agyei Keita will be joining us on percussion, which is special because we’ve been playing together forever. We’ll have Lex Korten on piano–he’s a homey, and I love his playing. The same with Lucas Kadish, he and I have been playing together for a long time too. The whole band is drums and percussion, bass, piano, drums, and a few special surprise guests, including some singers. You’ll have to come to the Gallery to find out more.
TJG: What does The Jazz Gallery mean to you?
KS: The Jazz Gallery is a special place for me. It feels like home. Even though D.C. is close, and I have a lot of family in New York, I’m homesick all the time. When I first moved to New York, I was going to the Gallery like every week. People are there for you. Rio is so nurturing, she’s always sending me things to read. Everyone is caring and thoughtful. This will be my first show as a leader there, and I couldn’t be more excited.
TJG: What did you like about growing up in D.C. as a musician?
KS: It was amazing. I come from a huge musical family, so I’ve been playing music all my life. Many of my family members are drummers, so I started drumming at one or two years old, and had my first professional gig at four. I went to the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, and studied with some amazing teachers, including Davey Yarborough and Francis Thompson. I didn’t start playing drum set until I was around fifteen. I’m left-handed, but I play on a right-handed kit. It’s always been about putting the work in: While my friends would be out at recess or chilling after school, I’d be in the shed, just working things out. My cousin played drum set, and I was always amazed by his coordination, but I didn’t really get into drum set until I heard the Monk Competition. Because of the Duke Ellington school’s link to the Monk Competition, we got free tickets to hear the drum competition in 2012, and that really changed things for me. I heard Justin Brown, Jamison Ross, Colin Stranahan, Kyle Poole, and many more. I had always played djembe and other percussion before then, but after that, I really got interested in playing drum set.
TJG: So now that you’re at The New School in New York, who are you studying with?
KS: I’ve been studying with Michael Carvin for two years, which has been amazing. Some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten is to seek out the elders, to put yourself at their feet and learn their knowledge. We recently lost Baba Randy Weston, an amazing elder in the world of jazz and West African music. Life is a beautiful thing, man, it moves in circles, but we have to get the knowledge while we can.
TJG: Speaking of knowledge and elders, you recently went to Africa with a group of drummers, right? Where did you go?
KS: I did, man. My family has a company called AdinKra that works to take African Americans on trips to Africa. I was most recently in Ghana. It’s so important to show people where they come from, and that even though we don’t speak the same language, we are the same people. My family travels back and forth to West Africa constantly, all throughout the year, and I’ve been going all my life. I’ll be going again this December, and again sometime next spring or summer as well. That’s my background. I’m making my own history now, as we go, so we’ll see what comes next.
TJG: Is it true that you make your own drums too?
KS: I do. My uncle has been teaching me how to make and play drums since I was seven. I’ve been making drums for a long time. Now, I’m not chopping down the tree: We get shells shipped, raw, from Guinea or somewhere else in West Africa. Then we prepare them, carve them, shape them. We take dry goat skin, wet it, shave off the hair, set it to the drum, rope it up, everything. I don’t know about necessarily doing a book, but at some point, I plan on releasing something with my name on it about making drums.
TJG: We can’t wait to hear how all of these styles and influences come together at the Gallery.
KS: I’m excited. It’s a great band and a great space. Something that makes this even more special is that my cousin Agyei Keita and I have been playing duo together for a long time, and he’ll be on the show too. We have a plethora of material that we’ve been playing since 2003, and we don’t write anything down, so you have to memorize it. When I got the opportunity to do my first show at the Gallery as a leader, I knew I had to include him. We’re all going to have a lot of fun.
Kweku Sumbry presents The Root at The Jazz Gallery on Thursday, September 27, 2018. The group features Mr. Sumbry on drums, Paul “PapaBear” Johnson on bass, Lex Korten on keyboards, Lucas Kadish on guitar, and Agyei Keita on percussion. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $15 general admission (FREE for members), $20 reserved cabaret seating ($10 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.