Tony Vacca is an innovative American percussionist with Jazz and World Music roots going back to 1972. Over the course of his career, he has made a habit of pushing the already adventurous conventions of World Music into new territory, both as a soloist and as the leader of his World Rhythms Ensemble. He is part of a wave of 20th century musicians whose work has fueled the rediscovery of the power of the drum, and the power of music to build global common ground. His fourteen trips to West Africa have contributed to his unique approach to playing the balafon, and to his depth of knowledge regarding African and American musical traditions.
All this is part of the reason he has recorded and/or performed with such a wide range of musicians. These include pop icon Sting, Senegalese Afro-pop star Baaba Maal, Jazz trumpeter and World Music legend Don Cherry, poet Abiodun Oyewole of The Last Poets, Senegalese Hip-Hop stars Gokh-bi System, and Massamba Diop, Senegalese master of the tama or talking drum.
Tony Vacca’s solo performances are a nearly non-stop athletic spectacle of percussion music and spoken word. He incorporates percussion instruments from a world of traditions that includes African, Caribbean, Asian and Middle-Eastern influences, to which he adds some of his spoken word and rhythm poetry.
Using giant West African balafons, over twenty incredible Paiste gongs, djembe, djun-djun, talking drums and an outrageous percussion drumset, Tony Vacca has created a unique blend of rhythm, word, and drum that has come to be the signature of his work. Alan Green of Music Revue Magazine said “Tony Vacca certainly walks the walk. He is more than a brilliant musician, he IS music. Even his sweat seems to fall off him in time.” James Heflin of The Valley Advocate wrote, “When percussionist Tony Vacca plays, you become aware that body parts have started moving without your permission; rhythms and melodies tumble out with, on the one hand, an accessible groove, on the other hand, an ever-shifting complexity. Latch onto a 4-beat pulse, and you’ll notice that it’s not the only thing happening- there’s a 6-beat pulse riding along, or a cascading melody that comes around at unlikely spots in the bigger pattern.”
One of the aspects of Tony’s music that has brought him a lot of well-earned attention is his innovative use of the traditional giant xylophones of West Africa. Where most players who study the balafon from outside of Africa concern themselves with the folkloric, traditional songs and dances, Vacca has taken a different approach.
“A lot of folks think that I play traditional African music, or that what I play on the balafon with my ensemble is traditional to the balafon. It's easy for me to see how they get that impression. But actually, I'm immersed in the possibilities of this extraordinary instrument, and how it can be used in the confluence of traditions that makes Jazz and World Music so powerful. Part of every tradition is innovation, and as we practice our traditions and challenge ourselves, we change these traditions, and ourselves as well.
I've traveled to Senegal, Mali, Cote Ivoire and Burkina Faso; I've worked with balafon makers and players to learn about the physical qualities of the instrument, and about the spiritual power of it's music. I've studied with various players, and learned some of their songs. But all of this was simply a path towards how they use the instrument and the music in the culture-building process. The athletic playing techniques, the polyrhythms, and the spectacular presentation are all part of the attraction of the music… but for me, it really all comes down to the transmission of knowledge through the development of a personal and universal form of musical storytelling.”
Over the past fifteen years, Tony has developed workshop programs that include master classes and percussion residencies. He also offers in-school presentations that include concerts, a comprehensive variety of “hands-on” workshops for students, and professional development for faculty.
“A lifetime career in the realm of World Music and Jazz has taught me the value of having mentors and role models. There were many of them in my life: from my first drum instructor, to the many drummers I’ve met and worked with around the world, to the more famous names like Don Cherry and Baaba Maal. Their generosity was a lesson to me, and now I’ve made sure to return the favor by working with young students in a variety of settings; from in-school to after school, to summer camps…and from elementary to high school levels, and especially middle schools.”
“When I do workshops with students, it’s always a ‘hands-on’ experience. The instruments they use in all of these workshops are my concert instruments. I want to affirm to them that what they are doing matters, and the best way to do that is to give them the best tools to work with. So of course it follows that when I perform for them, it’s got to be the best I’ve got. I know they listen to a ton of music, so I want to offer them something that excites them, and that challenges them to listen in a new way. They clearly get that what I am doing is way out of the ordinary, but they just as quickly get that it involves things that are familiar to them as well. When we collaborate, it’s a laboratory of ideas, in which we are all teachers and learners. I genuinely dig it, and the students can see and feel that. So of course they bring their best, and it all becomes an upward spiral that you’d have to see, and hear, and be part of, to fully appreciate…”
World Rhythms Ensemble
In addition to performing as a soloist, he heads an extraordinary group of musicians in Tony Vacca’s World Rhythms Ensemble, and works with an international cast of guest performers for concerts and special projects. The stable of players associated with Tony’s World Rhythms programs includes Tim Moran on saxophones, Joe Sallins on electric bass and percussion, Steve Leicach on percussion, and Derrik Jordan on electric violin, percussion and voice. Special guests like Sekou Sylla on djembe and dance, and tama drummer Massamba Diop, tour with the group as often as circumstances allow.
The music of TONY VACCA’S WORLD RHYTHMS ENSEMBLE is a hard-hitting earthy fusion of Jazz, World Music, and spoken word. Combining elements of traditional African and Afro-Cuban rhythms with the American-born tradition of innovation, they create a sound that is simultaneously elegant and slamming. It’s the hypnotic and powerful sound of giant West-African balafons; the urban bite of a jazz saxophone; the dreamy lyricism of electric violin; the funk and magic of electric bass like you’ve never heard…All mixed well with a world of rhythm and some blow-your-mind spectacular percussion. Oh, and did we mention dance? Special guest Sekou Sylla, former member of internationally acclaimed Ballet Africain, provides the perfect blend of grace and power, of ancient and contemporary, to compliment an already extraordinary group. More? Massamba Diop, Senegalese master of the tama or talking drum, who is a member of Baaba Maal’s world famous band, joins in for one or two tours each year.
In essence, the group is a self-contained festival of World Music, which is no surprise to those who know and follow their work. Vacca’s own description of the group helps to explain how and why they’ve been playing together for over a decade;
"It’s no accident that this group is like it is…I mean every one of these players is a dedicated musician, composer, and leader in his own right. We’ve created an almost psychedelic, collective kind of storytelling with this music. Every time we play together I’m amazed by what happens. My respect and appreciation for each of these musicians just keeps getting deeper… I guess when you put this kind of extraordinary skill together with our experience, and the spirit of generosity that everyone brings to this music, amazing things are going to happen on a regular basis. It just blows my mind."
To find out more about this roster of players and the many programs they offer, go to www.tonyvacca.com