In 2006, percussionist, producer, and educator Jim Roberts found himself at the 10th anniversary of Peace Jam, an organization dedicated to inspiring kids by bringing Nobel Peace Prize Laureates to their school. Twelve laureates including the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu talked about their experiences of struggle and visions of change. The words of Jody Williams, an American activist who started the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, shook Roberts powerfully.
“She said if you’re involved in something and you want me to know about it, don’t come to me until you’ve done something about it,” Roberts recalls. “If you haven’t tried to do something, I don’t want to hear the plan. Come to me after you’ve done something.”
Roberts took the challenge. He devoted years to doing something, crafting The Tao of Time (release: October 26, 2018), a concept album as diverse and unexpected as his wide-ranging musical influences. Inspired by peace activists and other agents of change--the wonderful Peace Pilgrim’s words, for example, create a pivot in the album--The Tao of Time explores the nature of time, history, human experience, and how the past can but does not have to determine the future.
“As a drummer, people often expect you to just do drum pieces, not the kind of things I’m doing here. When I began working on this record, I had a bigger vision,” says Roberts. “But I knew that I couldn’t leave the drums out. Drums, time and language are synonymous. It’s all part of the process.”
Roberts’s bigger vision unfolds over the course of interlocking vignettes guided by raucous time-traveling seafarers, Captain Time and his Craic crew; clever covers (Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues,” Iggy Pop’s “The Passenger,” along with set of variations on its themes); and original pieces tackling war and peace, past and future, life and death, and the nature of the universe. Though Roberts urges listeners to engage with the darker side of existence on pieces like “Soul Power ” and “When Will Peace Come,” the destination is ultimately hopeful and forward looking, as the words and sounds ask us to be “All That We Can Be.”
Throughout this arc run the drums, rhythms, and grooves that have inspired Roberts since childhood, when his obsession with drumming first came to light. Along with percussion training, he also studied with master djembe player Khalid Saleem and played with the Chuck Davis African-American Dance Ensemble (Davis gets a futuristic homage on “The Island of Ujoma”). He studied Afro-Cuban percussion with Steve Bloom, as well as dedicating himself to understanding Brazilian rhythms and instruments. He toured great swaths of the country and recorded on three albums with GRAMMY-winning bassist Victor Wooten, who narrates “The Voice of Wisdom” and appears on Roberts’ Ancient Hand album.
Roberts brings this extensive experience to bear on tracks like “Drum Language,” that showcase the many inflections and ideas drums and rhythms can convey. “Drums were one of the first instruments,” explains Roberts. “This idea of drum languages is that drums can be used for communication, to say whole paragraphs, particularly in Nigeria. ‘Drum Language’ is about the combination of these instruments to create one voice.”
This voice speaks of other possibilities, suggesting how we might work to build peace: “The drums’ connection with language and communication is a key thing in the development of humankind,” Roberts reflects.
The drums were often the first instrument tracked in the studio as in “Drum Language” and “Spang Spang A Lang”. “Others including the ‘The Passenger’ (part 1) were tracked with acoustic guitar first,” Roberts notes. “The soukous section, ‘Here’ (part 2) was a click track and with the bass grooving on the chord changes. The beginnings were really bare bones compared to what it became.”
In addition to the drums, Roberts has executed a great deal of the Tao himself, playing a range of instruments (including the kalimba that draws together several of the tracks) and producing and engineering the album. “I recorded the whole record, edited it, and wore a lot of hats. I created everything layer by layer,” he notes. “I had to figure out first off what was the big picture of the pieces. And it all had to flow. I played using an intuitive sense of when something had to change if I was uncertain.”
That sense proved crucial guidance for the genre-agnostic, philosophically ambitious project. “I wanted everything to come together, the spoken word, the music, the lyrics, the narrative,” Roberts says. “The album was designed so that you would discover something new in each listen, sonically, lyrically and musically. It is a thickly painted canvas complete with double entendre, mysticism and innuendo, as well as some pretty clear and blunt statements.”
These statements are big, getting at the fiber of our shared experience as humans. The album’s electronic-inflected title track gathers the many threads, inspired by the sorrow Roberts felt when a friend lost his infant son. “‘Tao of Time’ is about the cycles of life. “I wrote it while thinking about what my friend was going through, while watching the water on the Pamlico River. I realized that there were eons of time before me, just like music. It will be here long after I leave.” That is the wisdom Roberts has found in time--and one way he hopes will bring more people to the universal nature of peace and awareness.