Cairo McCockran – Channeling Your Ancestors
Cairo (0:00): My name is Cairo Kata McCockran. I am 31 years old. I am born and raised in
Oakland, California, and I am a… Guess a musician, a musical educator, and, um, an artist. You know, an artist living here in a pandemic, uh, Oakland, California.
Intro (0:25): Welcome to Audium Listens, the podcast where we talk to Bay Area artists about their lives in times of COVID, how their practice has changed, and how we can plan for the future of art in spite of social distance. Today we’ll be talking with jazz drummer and educator Cairo McCockran about finding power and innovation through your ancestors, the art of the Zoom gig, and turning the intensity of racism into inspiration. In the background right now, and throughout this episode, we’ll be listening to Cario’s beats and some of his drumming. And, just in case you might be confused, there are a couple points in the conversation where I talk from personal experience. That’s actually because I play jazz trumpet in my other life.
Dave (1:15): …That’s exactly it, uh, and you said you’re born and raised here, which, you know, as someone who is also born and raised here, one thing that I hear quite a bit is “Oh my god, it’s crazy! You’re, uh, kind of a rare commodity.”
Cairo (1:29): Yeah, I’m reporting here actually from my, uh, my family’s home that they’ve been living in for more than 30 years. I feel like Oakland has always been this country town in my, in my eyes. And yeah, it’s a, it’s a beautiful little, you know, dreamy little place to be. Somehow the highways, you know, kind of have this, this rushing wavy sound of the ocean a little bit, you know, it kind of sounds like there’s this sea breeze blowing through constantly, which is kind of nice.
Dave (2:02): Well, so, as a younger person like one of the first bands I know we talked about before you playing with was, uh, E.W. Wainwright’s ensemble.
Cairo (2:12): That’s right, that’s right. That’s the first band that I, you know, I would join. E.W. Wainwright’s African Roots and Jazz Youth Drummers. Yeah, I was in that band from age 6 to age, uh, 11 or 12. Being a part of that ensemble definitely, you know, shaped the artist that I am today. You know, gave me so much, uh, cultural insight and cultural appreciation for who I was and where I came from and where I was surely headed.
Dave (2:45): What was it about Wainwright’s group, like, what did he do that influenced you and, and all these people in, in the way that it did?
Cairo (2:53): He is a student of Elvin Jones. Just amazing, like jazz, jazz, you know, foundation -foundationally jazz based music, you know, that, like, has a deep, deep Afrocentric, um, influence as well. And so I would say that the basis, like the, the main focal points of that were to introduce young drummers, you know, to the community around the drum and show the connection between jazz drumming and like West African drumming, West African percussion. So there’s drumset, and there’s West African percussion, and singing and dancing going on all at the same time. Think about how we play the ride cymbal like “jang, jang-a-jang
jang-a-jang jang-a-jang”. Guys, ja-jang. Right? Like that is a straight up bell
pattern of like a dune dune or like a song bon, you know? And I mean, the swing definitely comes from West Africa. As I continue, you know, my musical studies throughout my life like I just I go back to this like wow, like I was learning this back then!
Dave (4:01): After high school you kind of went off on a completely different path. (laughs) You went into the CSU Maritime Academy.
Cairo (4:13): That’s right. It’s a very very interesting, (laughs) interesting venture into the unknown. (laughs)
Dave (4:19): Thinking about your experience in Maritime Academy, what was that experience like?
Cairo (4:23): Everything was new to me, you know, like I’m a young you know, crafty creative, you know, musician jumping into the water with all these like kids who have bar pilots and captains for fathers, and so yeah. And then we sailed through the South Pacific, you know, went to Popeete, Tahiti, went to Nuku’alofa, Tonga, went to New Caledonia, went to Maui and Honolulu, you know, and uh, it was a dope trip. It really taught me a lot about, and how little our lives are, you know, when you’re sitting in this tiny little ship, you know, in the middle of the amazing, amazing ocean. I learned very quickly how, how, how blessed I was to have, you know, grown up in Oakland, you know, and with my parents and with our community. You know, 45 minutes away and it’s a lot of folks, you know, just like cookie cutter folks go into that school, and, you know, and prejudiced folks too man. You know, it’s just like, you know, all of a sudden, you know, you arrive, you arrive back to school in, you know, sophomore year, and, you know, you’re walking down the hallways, and you’re like, oh, whoa, like, there seems to be a copious amount of Confederate flags in the dorm rooms on this, in this hallway. That was uh, that was a very, you know, that was so new for me, you know, especially coming from this bubble that I, that I grew up in out here in the bay, you know. I’ve never seen anything like that before. You know, it was just like, right in your face, you know, people just kind of graduating into their like, you know, white supremacy. It’s kind of like “Oh, you know what, I don’t have to like these people that don’t look like me. Oh!” Let’s see what I’m gonna try this on, you know, it’s like a lot of people just trying it on. I felt a little outnumbered. And, um, and just didn’t really know how to, how to combat it.
Dave (6:03): Yeah, it’s like a lot of lessons that you got out of that. Somethings are inspirational and other things are just like, you know, kind of intense but you have to — it’s one of those things to kind of go through and see what, what the world is like you know.
Cairo (6:16): Yeah, yeah, I mean I definitely learned how to turn those things that felt intense in the moment, you know, I learned how to turn those into inspiration. I mean, truthfully, you know, once I realized that, like, I wasn’t really a part of this, you know, community, I just switched my major. Once I did that, once I made this shift, like I just, I started meeting people and started gigging. You know, I took that, took all that vibe, you know, took all that energy, you know, was able to finish my degree and be like setting out.
Dave (6:48): Well let’s talk a little more about, I guess, what’s happening right now. Since COVID happened, what –how have things kind of changed for you?
Cairo (6:55): I’m teaching like all remote lessons throughout the week so I’m just in my, in my house, in my room, yeah. Just teaching lessons all day, man, just into the evening.
Dave (7:08): How, how is that experience teaching lessons on Zoom? How has that been so far?
Cairo (7:12): I saw so many of my students, um, interestingly enough kind of come out of their shells a little bit more on Zoom. You know, ‘cause like younger students, they, they come into the studio, there’s like this big bearded dude like playing drums all loud, you know. (laughs) You know, like, I could see how that could be a little scary, you know, and then now, you know, we have this, we have like just a little bit of a cushion of Zoom. I’ve also noticed sometimes, you know, kids can, uh, they’ll take the liberty to, you know, show that they have the upper hand, you know. Like I (laughs), I had one student who just, you know, his dad would be there with him for a second. He’s like: “alright, y’all good?” He’d walked away, the kid would just turn the screen off (laughs), just like “blip”. (laughs) Instantly, it’s done, you know. It was, it was wild. So you know, it’s just things like that and you just, you just laugh, you know, you can’t even get mad about it because like, I hear you, I hear you, I hear ya, man.
Dave (8:17): Have you done any performances, uh, since COVID hit?
Cairo (8:21): I definitely had the opportunity to, uh, there was the big chapter 510 fundraiser that they do every year. It’s always an amazing, like, heartwarming event, but I have to say doing it remotely over Zoom, like in the, in the gallery view, like was a really really cool experience for me. It was very nourishing. Oh man, it was just so cool to see all these people from all over the country, you know, and just dancing on this gridview, you know, there’s, there’s a guy who’s like putting like different people in view. You know, like, oh, boom, you know, so you see this like family dancing. Oh, then you see this person dancing you know, then it’s me, you know, like boom, boom, boom. So, yeah, it was, that was, it was so fun.
Dave (9:06): When I think about, kind of virtual performances and thinking about musicians playing a performance, it, it, feels like well, it’s gonna be kind of impersonal and it’s not gonna have the same vibe as an in person concert would. But that’s cool that you kind of got inspiration from it. Like that feeling of playing a crowd on Zoom.
Cairo (9:26): Oh, and reading a crowd on Zoom. You know, it offered me another, it offered like yet another challenge, you know, ‘cause like, okay, like, I’m really having to pay attention to the folks who come in view. I’m like, all right, this is, like a young teacher-looking person, alright I’m gonna play some Green Day next. Just that DJ brain turns on and just keeping everybody on their feet as best you can, you know.
Dave (9:49): It’s kind of like a new skill or a new art form to learn almost, like the art of playing the Zoom gig.
Cairo (9:56): Oh, definitely. It’s. it’s for sure a, uh, it’s definitely a thing.
Dave (10:03): If you were to make like, some kind of virtual concert, what do
you think you need to have the kind of energy and connection that, that you have at a live
Cairo (15:14): I think in this time, I just don’t think that anyone should be sitting around waiting for um, for venues and artists to figure out, you know, how they’re going to, like, entertain everyone. I think everyone needs to be going very, very deep inside now that they have all of this time to be on their own. You can discover things about yourself, about your creative side, you know, I’d like to just see more just like wellness, you know, just like sharing events, you know, where people are, um, you know, expressing themselves and, you know, inspiring one another. I think that, um as a, as a community we need to, uh, we definitely need to be constructing a, a new view. You know, like think about how all, think about things used to be back in the day, you know, like families used to have time, like, you know, like everyone knew how to play piano. Everyone played instruments.
Dave (11:03): Right!
Cairo (11:03): We’ve gotten so far away from that. And we’ve got to take charge of, you know, of preserving our culture. Yeah, I can’t stress that enough, you know? it’s just like, yo, you need to like pick up an instrument, you know, you need to pick up a drum, you pick up a little guitar and start getting together as a community.
Dave (11:20): I guess everyone’s kind of relying on the technology to do the entertaining for us here, you know, what you’re saying is like back in the day, people had to rely on their own skill sets to be able to entertain and to have a good time, instead of now we just turn on Netflix and, and that’s that. (laughs) I’ve said a few times on, on this podcast before, but we’re going to need artists to show us how to kind of heal ourselves or something, or just to provide that space for us to, to think and reflect. But, I think one other piece that you’re bringing up now – I haven’t thought of – s that you know, it’s not just the artists but it’s really like finding the, uh, creativity inside ourselves. Not just looking outward to the artist, but looking inward into, uh, what we can do.
Cairo (12:09): Like social media is just crazy right now. And we’re all just teaching each other on a daily basis. There’s just, there’s so many, uh, resources for people to, um, to access their,
you know, just inner energies, you know, like, we can definitely come out of this like better and stronger people.
Dave (12:27): Well, and then, then also another sort of self-introspection thing that’s, that’s been happening is the Black Lives Matter movement. But I was kind of curious about more like the actual emotions from, like, the protests and stuff like that. Has that affected your music at all or your perspective around making music?
Cairo (12:48): Being a black person, being a foundational black American dude, you know, here in, in Oakland I feel just the, um, the intensity of, you know… It’s just like okay, so we’re all, we’re all, we’re all forced to stay home, and yet we’re all experiencing this pandemic, and yet, they’re still, you know, white supremacy and just, and racial oppression, you know? I feel like I’m actually, you know, I’m discovering, you know, new, um, new ways of expressing myself, you know? I’m making beats and things like that, and I’m always, I’m always taking my, my people and my ancestors into account whenever I touch the drum. I, I feel very proud of my people. I want my people to, you know, to just be able to live, and just thrive. The fact of the matter is, is that black folks, you know ‘cause that’s who we’re talking about right now, you know, have been improvisers since day one, you know. They’re the first improvisers, you know, on this land, really. Because they’ve always had to make it happen. They’ve always had to, you know, be, you know, like, act as magical realists. I feel it’s necessary of me to continue accessing that, um, that magic, and just, and commanding that, um, that authority as a, as a black person and artist, you know, in my community, you know? I, um, I have to continue to, uh think beyond this social construct that I have been born into. I’m definitely trying to, trying to take myself and, you know, those who I guess would choose to listen, to another place, you know?
Dave (14:24): Kind of, uh, brings back this idea from the very beginning we’re talking about you growing up and playing in, in the African roots ensemble. You said every time you hit the drums you’re like paying homage to to the, you know, the, the music that the people before you, and I think that’s something as, as a musician myself that I need to think that I’m, you know, I need to kind kind of bring in more perspective about, you know? Here I am, like, a white person playing this music that is finds it’s roots in negro spirituals and, uh, the music of Africa, and how can we put that in perspective?
Cairo (14:54): Right, like how can you, um, or how would you choose to, like ancestrally relate to the music you know, that of you know, that you that you are studying? You know, my musical journey has been allowing myself to just be a vessel yo for, you know, just that energy, those forces to work through you. I’m a vessel, you know, and these instruments, these sticks, these drums… These are just tools, yo, these are just to, like, convey this information. That’s, you know, what I am just working towards on the daily, man. When you have those moments, you know, especially you’re on the stage with, like, other folks have been accessing that power for so long. Shout out to all the, uh, all the seasoned vessels out there yo. (laughs)
Dave (15:40): (laughs) Season vessels, I love it. I’m just thinking of, now a little bit about the future… Or just, you know, because we talked about, we’re in this pandemic and we’re not leaving it for quite some time here. And there’s a lot of musicians like, you know, who are really struggling right now. First of all, is there a way that the government could help us?
Cairo (16:04): There’s so many cats out here who are just, you know, on that gig life. What has been a big lesson for me, has been, uh, definitely definitely teaching. Because not only, I mean is it about, you know, like musicians surviving, you know, a pandemic, but it’s also about, you know, um, our music, you know, surviving, you know, and making it to the next generation. I really think that there needs to be some, a mass recruitment. There needs to be some sort of, like, program, you know, like, you know, musician corps type thing, you know, where like, musicians are being employed to teach, you know, and like, and do social distancing lessons, you know, in our parks; one on one lessons in people’s backyards. Musicians need to be placed where they can teach and educate.
Dave (16:58): Oh man, no I love that. I think that’s, that’s really important to get musicians teaching, like exposing younger people, and older people too, like a craft.
Cairo (17:07): There’s got to be some sort of force that’s pushing back and keeping people at least curious, because music is, just plays such a pivotal role in our history, right?
Dave (17:20): Well, thank you so much for, uh, taking the time to share your thoughts.
Cairo (17:26): Yes, Dave, it’s been a pleasure man!
Dave (17:32): Well, I hope you found Cairo’s words as inspiring as I did. You can catch him, in normal times, playing around town with the groups of Steve Lucky, Quinn DeVaux, and Scott Foster, to name a few. And be on the lookout for Cairo’s up and coming weekly mix show called A Message From the Jazz Den, featuring deep cuts from his extensive and finely curated archive of delicious vinyl. Those episodes will be available on Cairo’s Instagram, which is linked in the show notes. We had a lot of fun making this episode. Thanks again to our intern Nate Todesco for his help with transcription and editing, and to Emma Skully for help as story consultant. Next episode we’ll be talking with sculptor and professor Mia Feuer about her work with climate change, and her experience as a mother during the pandemic. Until then, stay safe and stay curious.