The jazz world is seriously lacking in strong female instrumentalists. Now don't act so surprised by this statement. Jazz, as an art form, has always been male-dominated. Women instrumentalists have either been tagged as a novelty or as not possessing the same sheer musical power as their male counterparts. However, I am not writing to bemoan this fact but rather to inform concerned individuals that all is not lost. There is always Susie Ibarra.
Ibarra, a 27 year-old drummer, has, within the last two years, risen to the forefront of the free jazz scene, playing with such well-respected musicians as William Parker, John Zorn, David S. Ware and Matthew Shipp. Not only is Susie one of the most highly regarded drummers in the New York free jazz scene, but also a personality in and of her own. The interview that is to follow comes from a phone interview conducted with Susie in the fall of last year. I have tried to be faithful to Susie's responses during the transcribing process; however I have had to alter the structure of my questioning, due to the fact that otherwise I will sound like a babbling idiot.
Sakash: So...you started playing drums when you were how old?
Ibarra: When I was sixteen I can remember going to a local rock show in Houston, Texas and being fascinated by the drummer. It looked...it just seemed so natural...It just hit me...I'm gonna do...yeah, that's what I'm gonna do. So...I went out and bought a cheap drum set and within 10 days someone came by and said 'we need a drummer' and that's how it happened which is kind of strange in itself. I said yeah I can play...I can keep a beat.
Sakash: And your parents were cool with their 16 year-old daughter playing drums in a rock band?
Ibarra: Yeah...initially they were very supportive of my drumming. They started me playing piano when I was six, so they weren't terribly against it until things started evolving. Then they were sort of like, "hey what's happening to my little kid?!"
Sakash: When did you first become interested in jazz?
Ibarra: Well, I had been listening to people like John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk around the time when I first started taking drumming lessons. So I went to my teacher and asked him to put on some jazz records. He put on all this pop and commercial music and said this is jazz. And I said what? And he said well isn't this what you wanted to listen to? I walked out very devastated. It wasn't until a year and a half later when I heard the Sun Ra Arkestra at Sweet Basil's in New York that I first got turned onto real jazz. They were swinging so hard, and it hit me really strong. And I got to talk to some of the musicians and started studying with the drummer Buster Smith. So it just kind of happened.
Sakash: So you moved from Texas to New York when you were 18 years old.
Ibarra: Yeah, I came to school to study art but soon realized that I wanted to play music. So I applied to the Mannes College of Music and got in. At that time, I was really into a lot of different percussions...I had to sit down for a bit and figure out in which direction I wanted to go.
Sakash: What percussive groups are you talking about?
Ibarra: For the first 4 or 5 years that I was in New York, I played the Javanese and Balinese Gamelan, the Filipine Kulintang and in several Afro-Cuban and Latin ensembles. These experiences exposed me to the more percussive elements of drumming, rather than the snare and bass combo of rock music.
Sakash: How did your experience in these groups lead you towards a career in free jazz drumming?
Ibarra: Studying these musics led me to call Milford Graves [read here big free jazz drummer]. He grew up playing a lot of percussion before he went to the trap set so his whole idea approaching the trap set is very percussive...He taught a lot about integrating that percussive stuff onto the set tonally and melodically. I really liked his idea of muting the drum or just playing them as hand drums and combining a lot of rhythms in a different way, polymeters and all those different tones talking from a lot of traditions and mixing them to hear different sounds.
Sakash: I have a hard time imagining integrating oneself so quickly into the New York scene. Weren't you at all intimidated?
Ibarra: Was I intimidated?...no, I was just crazy...I fell in love with music...it took me by storm. I didn't know anybody when I got to New York. There weren't necessarily a lot of opportunities to play, so I did everything. I was stretching to play I had a passion.
Sakash: When did your playing finally start to come together?
Ibarra: After studying with Milford for a while, I was able to develop the sheer muscularity to play alongside the most forceful free players. I guess a big step was in 1996 when I sat in for Joey Baron with John Zorn's Masada.
Sakash: What do you think of this quote from William Parker in the liner notes for Sunrise in the Tone World (a Little Huey Creative Orchestra album from 1997 on which Ibarra appears): 'Susie is the dancing rhythmic component of the orchestra, feeding the pulse with a beautiful sense of organic swing flowing amidst the sound masses that occur in music.'? In particular, what do you make of his use of the word organic? Do you feel it is an adjective often associated with female musicians?
Ibarra: Is organic really a word associated with women? To me, it's just a word often used a lot in this music, especially in William's vocabulary. And even then, it is still an adjective, subject to individual interpretation. I also think of water.
Sakash: Do you feel that your style of playing has anything to do with the biological construction of your female body?
Ibarra: Individually, I would argue yes that it would matter, but, then again, another woman drummer could play and get a totally different sound.
Sakash: When I saw you perform here at Wesleyan with William Parker and Assif Tsahar (Ibarra's husband and tenor saxophonist), I was particularly struck by the flexibility of your wrists. Isn't that flexibility granted in part by your female structure? Not many men have the same build as a petite Filipino woman.
Ibarra: Not really. This flexibility comes from unrelenting practice because for a drummer, the power comes from the wrist. I once met the drummer, Roy Haynes, and remember shaking his hands. His hands were as small as my hands. He's a small guy, but he's huge. The kind of playing we do requires a lot of energy so things get really full.
Sakash: How do you feel about being a woman playing the kind of music you do? Have your experiences as a female jazz musician led you to consider yourself a feminist?
Ibarra: Of course I am a feminist, but that's just me...I don't see how I could be me and not be a feminist. In general, I have been very supported by the jazz community although I have played in some places where it really messes guys up to see me sitting at a set.
Sakash: I feel like some of the groups you play with, the Little Huey Creative Orchestra in particular, have a very mixed ethnic make-up. Do you feel that your Filipino heritage has influenced your musical career?
Ibarra: Sure, my ethnicity is very important to me. Ethnicity doesn't make you more this or less that...you can't hide who you are because it is going to come out naturally in the music...All different aspects of people and life and cultures come out because that's there, that's the truth. I mean, art reflects life and how could it reflect life if it wasn't so many types of people?
During many moments of the interview, when I pressed Susie to define herself and her music in more concrete terms, she would reply, "When I am playing music, I am playing music." If you are interested in hearing her sound, check out the aforementioned Sunrise in the Tone World or Wisdom of Uncertainty, the 1997 release by the David S. Ware Quartet; both albums are on the Aum Fidelity record label. If you would prefer to see her in action, check out a short film on the internet, "5 Easy Pieces Susie Ibarra", at http://tiedrich.com/crude_rom/ (9/95) or, better yet, see her in concert. If we, the Wesleyan community, are lucky, the David S. Ware Quartet may be performing at Wesleyan this fall semester in support of their new album. Stay tuned for more information.