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Beat Farmer: Percussionist Futureman (left), here with bandleader Béla Fleck, has invented a hybrid drum-guitar instrument.

Weird Science

The Flecktones' Futureman says drums can change the course of human evolution

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'WE'RE COMING UP with new music every day," reveals the musician-inventor-scientist-composer known as Futureman. His expressive, energetic voice is being channeled through the telephone from somewhere on the East Coast, where the eccentric percussionist has been touring with the jazz-bluegrass-fusion quartet Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

"On stage you'll hear stuff that is only a few days old," he continues. "It excites me."

Born under the name of Roy Wooten, Futureman provides the offbeat beats for one of the music world's most unconventional ensembles. Fresh from their recent Grammy win for best jazz recording, Béla and the Flecktones have been riding a new peak of success on a wave that started with their formation over 10 years ago.

On stage, performing with banjo master Béla Fleck, bassist Victor Wooten (Futureman's brother) and saxman Jeff Coffin, the musician's out-of-this-world attitude hits critical mass.

There is no easy way to describe the music of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. Innovators of the highest order, they blend sounds and styles that have no business being heard together. And yet, once played, the music sounds as if it was always meant to be performed that way.

Futureman knows a thing or two about how to work a crowd. He's a conscientious backup performer, but when he has the spotlight, he goes into a frenzy, playing his invented instruments (including the drumitar, which basically puts a drum kit into a guitar) and strutting and jumping around the stage like a man possessed.

But performing with Fleck is not enough for Futureman. His immediate plans are to help bring about nothing less than a new spurt of human evolution.

Drums, Futureman says, have always been a part of the evolutionary process. How so? Futureman's explanation, as hypnotic and brain bending as the final round of a poetry slam, is not a short one.

"The connection between drums and evolution is this," he says. "As a percussionist, as a drummer, I'm actually seeing the drum set a little differently than as a mere drum set. I see the drum set as a piano, and I see the piano as a drum set.

"What I mean is," he continues, "when you follow the arc from the very first beat on the very first log drum all the way up to the sophistication of the modern drum set--which is an attempt to put all the parade drums together for one person to access--that's a profound arrival.

"Now I see that as part of an evolution that goes all the way back to the piano, which is a percussion instrument in its harmonic context, in the sense that there are so many choices and they're all hammered events," he concludes. "I see the piano as an extension of the drum set."

Evidently evolution sometimes needs a little help. To lend a hand, Futureman has accommodated by inventing a whole new kind of instrument that splices together a drum set and a piano. Called the RoyEl, its keyboard was designed to represent the periodic table of elements, and Futureman has already begun to compose evolutionary music.

Futureman's excitement is contagious. Just listening to him talk about the power of rhythm is enough to make a person want to dance.

"Everyone has to find his rhythm," he says, "like Michael Jordan talks about finding his rhythm on the basketball court, or Muhammad Ali talks about getting his rhythm going in the ring.

"Rhythm is fundamental."


Béla Fleck and the Flecktones perform Monday, April 9, at 8pm at Palookaville, 1133 Pacific Ave, Santa Cruz; 831.454.0600.

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From the April 4-11, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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