"Listening to music of other cultures opens up your mind, opens up your ears, opens up your heart to understand why people are the way they are, and why you are the way you are."
Dr. G. Simeon Pillich is an ethnomusicology professor at Occidental College. He teaches the study of music from around the world and has an impressive list of artists he has performed with: Chuck Berry, Nell Carter, Ry Cooder, Alice Cooper, Bo Diddley, Melissa Etheredge, John Hiatt, Al Jarreau, Eartha Kitt, and The Stylistics. Simeon has also performed on Broadway tours for Rent, The Wiz, Grease, and The King and I.
We sat down with Simeon to find out about his journey as a musician and as an educator:
I grew up in the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the housing project, very poor people. My mother had a ninth-grade education. My father had a sixth-grade education. I’m the first one in my family to graduate from high school and to go to college. Growing up in this neighborhood in New York was a blessing for me because it was so racially and ethnically diverse. It was unbelievable. It was like, I know this may be an exaggeration, but it was almost like paradise. I grew up two blocks from Chinatown in New York, seven blocks from Little Italy. A lot of my friends were of Italian descent. My friends were from Pakistan, China, Germany, from Poland, from Africa, from the Caribbean, West Indies. I grew up with that, and there was no racism to speak of. Whenever there were fights or arguments, it was never over race, it was never over religion. I was brought up in the Methodist Church. I wanted to be a minister. I worked at it for a while. And I think that's what kept me on the straight and narrow in this diverse neighborhood was my religious upbringing. So I'm very blessed to have been raised in this very multicultural community, and also a religious community which kept my nose pointed in the right direction. I was very blessed and am very happy to have been raised where I was raised.
A lot of my life has been serendipitous. My idea of being a musician was to play music—not to play jazz, not to play classical, not to play blues, not to play rock—but to play music, to play everything. So I never focused on one style. I ended up doing a lot of clubs in Chicago, then I got hired to play in a Broadway musical called Grease when John Travolta was an understudy. Well, the guy who was the music manager of that theater liked me and kept me at that theater. Every show that came in, I was the bass player in those Broadway shows. I did The Wiz before it was the Michael Jackson film, I played bass on that. I worked with Eartha Kitt in Timbuktu! I worked with Melvin Van Peebles on Don't Play Us Cheap. Bubbling Brown Sugar is another one I played on. I became the house bass player in this theater. Especially when a Black show came through, I was the first call bass player for that.
Typically, how many musicians are on a set during a Broadway production?
It really varies with the show. If it's a traveling show, they will carry the rhythm section only and the conductor, and then they'll pick up other instruments. On Broadway, you can have up to 23-25 people. But when it's traveling, it's only the smallest band that you can travel with.
What was the compensation like?
It's was very good actually. I would say about $1500 a week. Back in the 70s that's a lot of dough, and you get a per diem. What I typically did was lived on the per diem and pocketed the rest of it and put in the bank. I hardly touched it. I lived frugally and I lived on the per diem as much as I could.
The show was traveling and it was February 4th when we arrived in LA, and it's 72 degrees. It's 40 below in Chicago the same day. I looked at the weather and I'm going, ‘I'm staying here.’ Now the cool thing was, when we arrived in LA, all musicians that were hired were all former members of Duke Ellington's Orchestra and Count Basie Orchestra—all men who I've been listening to since I was a kid. And here they are in their 50s and 60s, and I’m their band. They’re teaching me, and they ended up liking me so much they said, “Listen, if you decide to stay here in LA we can hook you up with the recording studio.” So the show went on. After 10 weeks in LA, the show moved to Seattle, but I quit the show. I stayed in LA. And those men got me started playing on all the films and tv things that I could have done.
My mentors, my elders guided me. Unfortunately, many of them are gone now, but they have changed my life. It was these Black men who were looking out for another Black brother. who said, “Let me show you how it’s done. Do it this way.” One of the things they taught me was, first of all, how to deal with police here—how to keep your hands on the wheel if you get pulled over. They taught me things that my father never taught me, things that I never had to deal with before really.
My mentors, my elders guided me. Unfortunately, many of them are gone now, but they have changed my life. It was these Black men who were looking out for another Black brother who said, “Let me show you how it’s done. Do it this way.”
What are some of the distinctions between playing on Broadway and working for a televised production?
There really are very few. There are certain rules that I learned playing the game that I tell my music students. Number one, best to keep your mouth shut. Best to not say too much, because you might say the wrong thing, especially if you're brand new. If you're new to the group, if you’re new in the show, if you're new in the recording studio with this group of musicians, keep quiet. Let them talk to you first. And think before you answer, because you don't want to burn bridges. I've played on jobs that I hated musically. I thought "this is really boring music," but I never said it.
You always meet somebody there who remembers you and will recommend you for another job. In other words, don't say no to anything. Say yes to everything for the jobs that are offered to you because you never know who you will meet and who will help you in the future. So, not burning bridges is a very important lesson. If you're working with somebody and you don't get along try to stay away from that person because you may run into him in the future or into her in the future. And they may eventually become helpful to you, or you to them. It's happened to me many times. If you have a verbal altercation with someone, let it go, because you're going to run into them again later on. Move on and straighten life out.
After years of touring around the world and preforming in musicals, Simeon decided to teach high school music. However, while at the University of California, Los Angeles he discovered the discipline of ethnomusicology—the study of music from all over the world. Having grown up listening to music from diverse cultural groups, he felt this was his calling. Simeon then earned his Master’s and PhD in ethnomusicology and is now teaching music at Occidental College.
One of my tours, I was touring with a guy named John Hiatt, singer-songwriter in country music. We were playing in Belgium. It was a music festival, and 73,000 people were in the audience. I'd never played in front of that many people before—maybe 1,000-2,000—never 73,000. I played a little 12-bar solo, and the crowd went wild. I never heard that many people cheering. The hair in the back of my neck stood up like, “Wow! This is the most amazing feeling.”
Months later I had my first night teaching in college. I got 18 students in this classroom. And I see that the light bulbs over their heads go up like they're excited about what I’m teaching. I got a higher buzz from 18 students getting that than 73,000 people clapping for me. That’s when I knew, ‘This is what I have to do. I have to be with the younger generation. I want them to understand what music is about, what life is about. This is more exciting to me than getting all this applause from these thousands of people.’ That's when I decided, ‘Music has been fun but here I go. I'm going to start teaching.’ And I have no regrets. I love what I do. I've been teaching at Occidental College for 20 years. I can't imagine retiring. I'm going to keep going until they drag me out of there, because my relationship with my students is so strong and so warm and loving that I know I'm doing the right thing. I’m helping them, and my students are helping me. They're keeping me alive and keeping me young.
Can you elaborate on some of the commonalities you’ve discovered between African American music and music around the world?
One of the things that my students are always mentioning to me is how they had no idea how much Africa has to do with the music of America. It is the basis of all of it. Now, I'm not saying that music comes from Africa, it comes from everywhere. But the influence of Africa to this hemisphere and into the rest of the world is noteworthy. You can’t deny it.
One of the similarities that I always bring up is that it seems that the music of the people at the bottom of the social ladder becomes the identity of that culture. For example, jazz came from New Orleans, allegedly from the lowest class of people, the former slaves, in the worst environment, which was the houses of prostitution, the gambling dens, the drinking establishments, the drug dens. This is where allegedly jazz was not necessarily born, but where it percolated-- in this negative environment where mostly Black people lived.
If you look at the music of Argentina, the tango started in exactly the same environment. It started not with the Africans, but with people who were the poorest or immigrants. The music was looked down upon as low-life music, as devil music. That's where the tango comes from. And that's the musical identity of Argentina, the tango. Jazz, which was the lowest music here in the American music, is our export. Tango, same thing. In Greece, there's a style of music called rebetika. The people who started that were the same kind of people: the immigrants, the poor people, the criminals, the people who were in poverty. And they had their own music, and that is now the identity for Greece. It's universal. I would say the music of the lowest common denominator, the people on the lowest end of society, becomes the identity of the nation.
The lowest people on the rung of the social ladder eventually rise up and come to the top culturally. They may not economically, but in terms of the identity of the culture, music has a lot to do with it.
Have you had an opportunity to study the evolution of music in African diaspora communities? Have there been any commonalities within the music that developed?
Sure. I’ve studied it, and I'm teaching it. I teach a course on that right now. I would say that a lot of the African roots have remained no matter where African music is found throughout the world. The most common one is this rhythm that comes from hambone. That rhythm comes from a specific group from Ghana, called the Ga Tribe. They use that rhythm. It’s called kpanlogo. That rhythm is used in Cuban music, in Jamaican music. It’s used in Puerto Rican, in Brazilian music. That’s just one rhythm. What travelled with these people who left Africa is still alive in the Western Hemisphere.
I did play with Bo Diddley, and I asked him where he got what was then called in the 50s, the Bo Diddley Beat, which he did not create. He said he learned it in his church in the deep South where a lot people were grandchildren of slaves. And the slaves were always using that music. The Ring Shout was the way that slaves worshipped away from their white slave owners. They would go to what was called the Invisible Church. The Invisible Church is actually in the woods where they would hide and have their own religious ceremonies. And they would do like they did in Africa, and they would sing and dance in a circle. That was called a Ring Shout. They use that rhythm, clap-clap-clap, clap-clap, as they marched around in a circle worshipping in their Christianity, the only way they knew about Christianity was the way they developed it. And they did it in the Ring Shout. They use that African rhythm. And that rhythm is found in Salsa Music today in Latin American, in all kinds of Brazilian music, in Jamaica, in St. Thomas—Reggae music had that at first. It’s the rhythm that brings them together.
Is there something within music that can affect your thinking, your processing, your development? If so, is it helpful to listen to music from other cultures to help shape your development?
I think there are two really good ways to understand other cultures and maybe to understand yourself as well: taste their food and listen to their music. That will open up some doors to understanding who someone else is. But it also brings it back to, ‘Well, who am I? Where do I come from?’ You start to think about yourself as well and your relationships with these other people—what do we have in common and what is different about us. Listening to music of other cultures opens up your mind, opens up your ears, opens up your heart to understand why people are the way they are, and why you are the way you are. I can't explain it.
What advice can you give aspiring musicians as we are now in this digital age?
Number one, learn how to play the keyboard. So much of the music that's being done today is all synthesizer. The synthesizer has put a lot of musicians out of work and drummers too. Not just violins and trumpets, it’s all machine driven. So learn how to use those machines.
Also, don't limit yourself to one style of music, because in five years that music could be passé, that music could be old and then you're stuck playing the same old stuff. Don’t get stuck in one thing. As I mentioned to you, since childhood I knew I wanted to play country music, I wanted to play rock, I wanted to play jazz, I wanted to play classical, I play everything. That’s how I survived. Don't be a one trick pony. Don't do only one thing. You have to be versatile and be willing to change with the times. Because if you're stuck there, you’re going to be left behind. Learn all the new technology. If you're passionate about music, you need to learn the tools and learn as much as you can.
Another piece of advice that I always give is—it isn't just what you know, it's who you know. I know plenty of talented musicians who are way more talented than I but didn't have the opportunities that I did. And I think it has to do with your personality. If you get along well with people, they will take you over somebody who plays better than you. When I auditioned for a tour with Al Jarreau, I heard there were at 84 bass players auditioning. And it came down to the last two, me and a guy who I respected who played with Aretha Franklin and tons of people. It was between him and me. When I realized I was competing with him I said, ‘Oh, he’s got the job.’ I found out later when I got the job the reason they chose me was he had too big an ego. He was contentious with the other musicians, whereas I got along. So, it's a matter of being a good person, not being contentious, and not burning any bridges.
What's the ultimate legacy and you like to leave behind?
For me, I know what it is. It's having my students grow up to become wonderful human beings and successful. I don't have children. I've been married twice, and in neither marriage did we have children. My students are my children. My students are the ones who I am raising, and I want them to succeed. And I've gotten tons of letters of alumni, people who've studied with me in the past, who thanked me. I just got one two weeks ago from a girl from Korea who was one of my students. My wife cried when she read it, because she explained how I had changed her life in so many ways, in learning about her own culture that she didn't know anything about. For me, my legacy I want to leave behind is leaving former students who have become successful not just economically but as people, because I feel that I had a hand in their growth.
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