Nothing pre-destined Stéphane Galland to be the link between the Indian, Balkan and African musical traditions. He devised this position himself through his travels in search of an ever deeper understanding of rhythm. Drummer, jazzman or musicologist - these labels are not enough to capture the essence of this absolute fan of groove.

As a teenager, when Stéphane was taking up the drums, Steve Gadd was setting the standard and jazz-fusion was booming. But it seems that these developments weren’t enough to satisfy him. Meeting the saxophonist Fabrizio Cassol turned his musical references upside down. Together, they went in search of the Aka Pygmies in Central Africa, who’d had a major influence on his saxophonist pal. The year was 1991. Galland was only 22 years old. Upon their return, the group Aka Moon was born; they would go on to be a front-runner in the Belgian jazz scene.

In the beginning, there was rhythm.

In his own way, Stéphane was already following in the footsteps of the great ethnomusicologists. As a result, he had picked up an irrepressible passion for rhythm: “It interests me even more than the drums themselves, it’s really the rhythmic aspect that excites me.” What followed was a period of extensive travelling in search of the most ancient roots of rhythm. About his attraction to ethnic and traditional music, Stéphane explains: “I find that there is a particular energy about it; we sense that it comes from life experience and something ancestral.” Quickly, the complexities of rhythm became his central focus. Asymmetrical measures, polyphony and off – beats were three of the patterns that fueled his musical appetite: “It’s a bit like cooking: you go looking for specific spices or combinations of vegetables because it gives you a new sensation.”

Aware of the richness of cultural diversity, he conversed with the masters of rhythm on every continent, and is passionate about unusual time signatures. “I think it became particularly clear through working with the Indians, because they play with every rhythmic phrase in all meters, in 4, 3, 7, 9 or 11, sometimes even 13. And here we are with our jazz, only using sixteenths and triplets.” But alongside rhythmic research, it is also the semantics of musical structure that generate interest in the Belgian drummer. The title of his new project, (the mystery of) KEM takes its name from ancient Egypt, and is a reference to the black loam of the waters of the Nile. Yet Stéphane didn’t follow the same path as classic Egyptologists such as Champollion. “The idea, first and foremost, was this concept of the color black, but with a very positive meaning, whereas, for us, the color black represents the dark side or death. Here, it represents life, the black earth of Africa, fertility, and it is this paradox that interests me.”

In praise of rhythmic complexity

He often comes across this paradox in the rhythmic patterns of which he’s so fond. He points to “Kopanitsa” as an example, of an originally Bulgarian rhythm which has a short / short / long / short / short motif, or 2/2/3/2/2. By playing the rhythm faster, however, the two short beats merge to become long beats, turning the ‘3’ into a short beat. The pattern becomes long / short / long, or 4/3/4. Though all of this seems quite obscure, the reality is that its complexity comes from preconceived ideas: “It’s mostly the musicians who say it’s complex, because it’s something they didn’t learn in their musical education. But for musicians in some countries, it’s the simplest thing in the world for them.”
Stéphane’s Western education gives him an advantage in this process of cultural deconstruction. “It’s essential to make things as fluid as possible, so even with complex rhythms, I’ll work hard to make it sound like water.” But between the peaceful brook and the raging torrent, the fluidity of water takes on different velocities. In this manner, Stéphane sees pulsations in the beat as rhythmic circles, as movements that oscillate with accelerations and decelerations:. “There is both the notion of having a time meter that is equal, very mathematical, and at the same time there is a way to inflect this meter as we do in Africa, where a triplet will never be regular.” Time as a non-linear concept was the subject of his previous project, Lobi, which simultaneously means both yesterday and tomorrow in Lingala. 

It is all part of the same quest for semantic understanding. But at the same time, he has a desire to expand his rhythmic vocabulary. “My instrument is the drums, but it’s true that I often approach it like a percussionist. I always wonder how I can enrich my language. Until I was 40, I knew how to do everything I wanted to do. But, in recent years, I have begun working harder and harder because my concepts require more work. As a result, my love for the drums keeps on growing.”

Feeling and understanding

How do we overcome our ingrained mental patterns when working with rhythm? Perhaps, the key is to shift perspectives: “We have to re-shape our neural networks until it becomes natural. So, I begin with an analysis: a subdivision of a beat in 5 is complicated, but, if I superimpose a rhythmic motif on it, a kind of clave, it becomes much easier.” Accordingly, the brain takes on these new patterns until they are internalized: “A subdivision of a beat in 3, 4 or 5 will give you a different feeling each time. At some point, you just want to rediscover that feeling, which has already been integrated, like when you sense the difference between a major key and a minor key.”

What can someone like Stéphane feel when he plays pop music? He contemplates the versatility of music and the enrichment it provides.”Some considered it treason when I started playing with Axelle Red, but it was an area that I wanted to explore. It was the opposite of my style because I had to play a continual, four -minute groove without variation.” But this inherent simplicity alters how a musician plays; feeling becomes fundamental. “For a drummer playing pop music, there isn’t really any creative space, so I was forced to flesh out the details of playing style, because depending on how you hit the snare drum, it can really make a difference. All of the this background in pop helped me for Red & Black Light, it became a musical advantage.” For Red & Black Light (Ibrahim Maalouf’s latest project), Stéphane was reunited with Eric Legnini, his partner in crime since the start, when he began playing jazz at age 11. With Stéphane, everything works in cycles.

Photo ©Alexander Popelier

Stéphane Galland, (the mystery of) KEM (Outnote Records)


  • 10/27/18 – Flagey, Bruxelles
  • 10/30/18 – La Petite Halle, Paris

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