Category : M-Base

The music of alto saxophonist/composer Steve Coleman features the most challenging multi-layered drum chants unmatched by any artist of the 20th century to date. This is a firsthand look into the rhythmic artistry that develops advanced technique and skill set.

Rhythm People

This version is from the album “Rhythm People” featuring Marvin “Smitty” Smith on drums. Steve told me he was in a village in Africa and witnessed children singing a melody similar to the one written in this tune. Although Steve has said his music is not of inspiration, at times that has been contradictory. The rhythmic shape of the tune is 6 x 3, 7, and 6 x 3. In other words, three 6’s, one 7, and three 6’s. When played with the track, the full shape is layered with improvisation and solo trading. The chant is demonstrated at 70, 100, and 120 BPM.

9 to 5

This is a chant that has pushed the boundaries of drumming for me. I felt like sharing this for months. It took a lot of time to sequence the music, drum charts and play along. Basically, there is the core chant which is based off L S L L S S. This is also the ride pattern. It is one thing to learn the chant, piece by piece and slowly. And it is another thing to play it along with the music and to know exactly where to come in. The chart uses the pickup in the first measure, however once you get into the chant, there is no need to do the pickup at the beginning of the chart because that pickup is part of the chant from there on. I added a voice over so that you know exactly where to come in with the play along.


This chant was written in 1996 during my early days with Five Elements. As mentioned earlier, it was part of what the band was working on during the Oakland/Stanford University Residency in the summer of 1996. Being that I was new in the band along with bassist David Dyson, Steve constructed drum chants nightly on our first European Tour. It was a bit nerve racking for me because I didn’t understand why he was so particular about things. Over time, he was grooming me for things to come. The easy thing about this is it begins with the kick drum. The flow of the chant has a certain swing and sway, not rhythmically abrasive and jagged. The bass line moves with the shape of the drum chant instead of against it. As you practice this and increase the tempo, it takes on an Afro Cuban rhythmic feel. This greatly influences the way I perform and interpret this chant in live performances. Adding the cowbell creates a Latin flavor that fits well with the African triplet feel. During the performance you can hear how nice it feels to play across the bar lines, especially with the bell of the ride cymbal. Once the framework is realized, the expanding and contracting sound of this chant takes many shapes.

Law of Balance

Here, we have a clave in five over a chant in six. The chant nods to time spent in Cuba and Africa. I have been performing this chant (on and off) for 21 years and it still stands as one of the most challenging to date. The best way to learn this chant is to study each part separately and slowly. Of course, this is the mantra by now. First, the five clave takes eight times to meet the top of the drum chant in six. The drum chant in six takes five times to meet the top of the five clave. The hat keeps every downbeat in six. Written in 6/8, the whole chant is 20 bars. So that’s three ways of understanding this. As far as the drumming, the challenging parts start at the seventh time of the five clave. This happens at bar 16. Specifically with the snare and clave played together. It will take some time for you to work out the spacing and sticking required to pull it all off smoothly. Have fun!