MARCH, 2000

reqlogonew.gif (7329 bytes) MICHIGAN MUSIC

The Return of Muruga Booker

Interview & Photos By PT QUINN

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Yeah, it’s true....drum master Muruga Booker (aka Steve) after almost 15 years in glorious sunny Cupertino California has returned to his homeland...well, sort of.  He’s from Detroit, but he and his family have settled into a house in Ann Arbor which is now their home and if all goes right, a studio for personal projects and whatever transpires.  Muruga is a lot of things to a lot of people.....Son, Father, Husband, Friend, Musician, Yogi, and a enthusiastic purveyor of the importance of spirituality intermingled with music, art, and the well being of family, personal growth, and how we interact with others.  Those who know of Muruga’s exceptional talent, do appreciate his having played with a lot of famous (and not so famous) musicians over his 5 decades of rhythm making.   That’s entertainment.  The one thing that separates him from a lot of others is his ability to play a wide assortment of drums and percussion in a lot of styles like jazz, funk, rock, blues, and even some ethnic music which in turn allows him to tune into his Serbian American roots. Now he has returned to Michigan with his wife of almost 20 years, Shakti, and their young daughter, Rani, both of which can sing and play music.   He also has a son named Aaron from a previous marrage who lives in Detroit.   Aaron is assisting his dad with Internet projects and tech support as well.

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Muruga, Wife & Daughter

Born December 27th, 1943, at Highland Park General, Muruga grew up in touch with his Serbian heritage as his shoemaker father taught him some traditional old world accordion music which he still plays.  His travels into the drum has taken him from Woodstock, the Brubecks, George Clinton, Paul Winter and too many others to mention here .  His studies in Yoga and Eastern Orthodox Christianity have led him on a spiritual path giving him a unique perspective making Ann Arbor a little more cultural and maybe... a whole lot more musical.  Muruga is a man who seems young for his years.  Attitude IS everything. He takes a fresh approach at whatever comes his way like playing with some local musicians or conducting a drumming circle with a number of physically challenged folks from Ann Arbor... who by the way have a great time learning the drum and the essentialness of camaraderie.  Music does have a healing effect after all. It always has for me.
When I hooked up with Muruga for this interview, he was at home cooking up some vegetarian soup and homemade bread which he offered and I readily accepted. A person can feel good about consuming his creations as they’re so tasty and healthful.  He was his typical good natured laid back self.. which this author found refreshing in a town of competitive over-stressed stalwarts.  So after lunch he took the time to sit down with me and answer my questions.  This is what he had to say......
PT Quinn:  Why the Drum?     Muruga Booker:  I would have to tell you that when I was a young man, I had a deep recall of being in the womb.  My mother used to go to the Latin Quarter in Detroit and hear Puncito, and I would hear the drums in the womb.  That influenced me somehow, but my Dad introduced me to the accordian at 3. I met one of his teachers... Misha Vishkov from Hamtramick at 6.  As well as accordian, Misha played the drums.  I’m a Serbian son raised with the gypsies. I liked the drum when he played it.  I wanted to play so I started at 14 and had some good teachers in high school.  At the Record Hop I noticed I could move all 4 of my limbs with the beat, and that would be the drums.  I also learned stuff from local drummers like Jim McCarty.....
PTQ:  >From the Detroit Wheels?     MB:  Yeah, he was with the Debonares. I was watching them at the Light Guard Armory and dug the pink tuxedos they were wearing and DA haircuts and all those girls who liked them.  And their music was really cool. I started drumming at Pershing High.
PTQ:  When did you do your 1st professional gig?     MB:  It was a Russian banquet in Hamtramick across from Max’s Jewelers in a hall.  It was sometime after my 4th accordian lesson from Misha.  He gave me accordian lessons from the age of 6 to 14.  I learned to transpose the beats into the drum. He told me "we’re just playing a gig that has nothing to do with nothing, so don’t say anything to anybody."  So, we went and the music was transformed into Russian polka’s and dance.  And I just played Russian foxtrots, waltzes and tangos. The Russian national anthem.  All of these kind of songs I played on my 1st gig.
PTQ:  What turned you on to jazz?     MB:  I first started with Slavic, Armenian, and Greek music.....    
PTQ:  >Bouzuki?      MB:  Yeah, because the Serbians would go to Greektown and you’d hear this stuff.
PTQ:  A kind of gypsy folk music.     MB:  Yeah, in the 50’s and 60’s it was very big.  All of the ethnic people went to Greektown.  You would hear the gypsys of a whole bunch of ethnic groups, like the Serbian and Greek bands who played there.  I went into rock and roll and blues in the 50’s, then playing rhythm and blues in the 60’s.  Hearing jazz and the minor key.  My friend Pat LaRose and I would go to the minor key.  We’d see Art Blakey, Chico Hamilton, John Coltrane, Wes Mongomery, Duke Ellington and Count Basie......
PTQ:  >Sounds like the list goes on and on....     MB:  All these guys. They really influenced us and we said WOW!  These guys playing jazz to some rhythm and blues guys was like listening to Jimi Hendrix at the time. You know, because they were really going out with their instuments. It made us want to learn this jazz because there was so much freedom over a wide spectrum.
PTQ:  You’ve done a lot of gigs like playing at Woodstock with folk singer Tim Hardin, doing funk with George Clinton as well as fusion with Weather Report.  You do your own thing like funk with your wife Shakti singing.  With all that experience, what is something you can tell a young drummer just coming up?     MB:  I would tell him to go to as many concerts that had great drummers you like and aspire to that category.  Not to copy, but to be in that league. The first thing is learn your instrument.  You want to learn time and how to dissect time and polyrhythms.  Learning how to read music is fantastic.  You have to learn how to listen and play by ear as well.  Study the fundementals.  There’s books in the music store like from Stone.  Joe Morello has many books on time. Listen to the records of the great masters in the idiom you like.  All of that’s good. A drummer can apply himself to many styles.  Some drummers like to stay in one bag, while others like to explore everything.  The Jazz guy will tell you to first learn it then forget it.
PTQ:  Well, that’s an interesting concept.     MB:  Right, right..
PTQ:  Is music an evolving force in a human being?     MB:  I believe so.  Music to me is an expression of the vibration of this universe that we’re a part of.  Yeah, I liked it how the Lowrocks had a lot of girls attracted to them, and it was a way I could meet the girls too.  There were 2 things happening. I really loved music, I really wanted to play and I felt I needed to go from accordian which nobody understood in the 50’s except for weddings...into a modern instrument.   This coming from a young boy whose grandparents were immigrants.  I adjusted myself to this new American music away from my Serbian roots.  The circle dances I heard until my 20’s.  You hear the music on the radio and aspire for that as a young kid.  You know? And then all a sudden you start learning the instrument better.   You start applying yourself to doing different kinds of gigs and playing around.   You’re playing the music that people want you to play.  It might be a dinner club or a bar, or a concert.  Some places might let you be free...or others might say "we want polka music" and this and that.  Others just want dance music.  You go through all these idioms.  Then you start playing your own music like jazz or free form rock, or blues or whatever.  You start becoming your own musician, your own instrument.  You’re no longer copying but creating.  As you grow older you evolve into that even more.  You began to get more polyrhythmic, to break free of time and create space while you’re playing time. It becomes artistic.  All of a sudden you find yourself meditating in the music.  For me it became something spiritual, something living and alive in my life. I became alive with the music.  I AM the music. I t’s part of my lifeforce.
PTQ:  After all you have gone through, what’s next?     MB: Somehow I see the past of what I went through.  People I played with like Dave Brubeck, Weather Report, Jerry Garcia...jamming with Hendrix... to all the unknown people that have influenced me.  I’ve become a part of them and they of me. I’m influenced by all kinds of world instruments.  I’ve always played my kind of music.  I see myself now as I did the early 70’s doing fusion, the music of Africa and the mid-east, and blending it.  Getting into trance and meditative and spirit, and dance, and putting it all together into something that might surprise even me. (ha ha)
PTQ:  Sounds like a tall order.     MB:  Well, all of these things that come through a persons life after a while are just there.  I like my electronics, I like my trap drums.  I did something with my son Aaron where he is playing the computer giving me analog types of drum sounds, where I’m playing my percussion and drums along with it and we interchange.  Sometimes he does sound effects and vibratory frequencies.  We switch around. I now have an ADAT connected to my computer, so I’m recording live in my house all the time.

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Muruga in his apartment studio

PTQ:  It must make for a happy home.     MB:  I love it. It’s something I strive for.  Bob Dennis is going to help me convert my garage into a recording studio.
PTQ:  What is it you’re doing in Ann Arbor with some physically challenged people?      MB:  For many years I didn’t consider myself just a professional musician playing clubs or concerts.  I love to go into the community.  Be of service to the community like schools, apartment complexes, jails, hospitals, old age homes, churchs, etc. All these things are important. To spread the spirit of music in good will and being alive with the drum.  We’re playing drums and percussion.  It’s that which makes us move...conscious movement in drumming.   It’s dance striking a percussion instrument.  When you move your body in dance, you can think of it as drumming.  All you need is a pair of sticks or to put your hand on a drum.  When we move we are causing electrical currents to go from the brain to the hands to the body to the feet. I call it drum aerobics. It’s an exercise.

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Muruga working with the physically challenged

PTQ:  Unlike ordinary exersise though, you’re getting something else back.  You’re getting music.      MB:  You’re getting art and you’re getting the creative process.  And you’re getting movement. I realized as I’m 57 now, that I need to keep moving.  Movement is life.   What makes the movement is spirit and life.  When I keep drumming and breathing, I circulate the electrical current through my nervous system, and the oxygen through my blood. I tell people you’re putting fun to movement.  A lot of people exersise and it’s no fun. (ha ha) So they stop doing it.  We have fun doing it so hopefully the energy will continue in a positive path.
PTQ:  After 15 years in California, how does it feel to be back?     MB:  It’s great to be back. I’ve lived in New York (before California) and I always come back to Michigan, because it’s my home.  I didn’t expect to be gone 15 years, but I enjoyed California and have dear family and friends there, creative people I worked with there.  My son Aaron and my grandson baby Aaron are here.  My dad too.   He’s 87 now.  I came to the conclusion it was time to put the career aside on one level....I was enjoying what I was doing in Cupertino.  My wife was working at DeAnza college.  I was also alter serving at St. Michaels Church.  I enjoyed teaching and passing on a lot of things.  I felt it was time to come back.   I have friends here in Ann Arbor like Madcat Ruth.  In the 50’s with the Lowdocks I would come to Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti to play and I always liked it here.   It’s an artist community, it’s beautiful and safe.  It’s a college town but seems like in the country.  But the main reason was Shakti from California was able to get a job here.  We’re thrilled that we were brought here
PTQ:  Well, it sounds like you live a rich and fulfilling life.  Thanks for taking some time to chat this afternoon. 
000301.jpg (3824 bytes) MB:  God bless.
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Copyright 2000, PT Quinn - Used by REQ with author's permission - All Rights Reserved USE OF THIS ARTICLE SUBJECT TO USER AGREEMENT