It doesn’t take long to realize Craig Myers is a nice guy. As he sits at Dobrà Tea in Burlington talking about his musical journey, he pauses to offer a wide smile and a warm greeting to friends who walk by. His interaction with a lanky tea server turns into a playful chant — “Chai, chai, chai, chai…” — that’s both drink order and low-key celebration. When Phish bassist Mike Gordon passes, Myers lowers his voice to convey some lessons from his three years as a percussionist in Gordon’s band.
“Another thing I’ve learned being in Mike’s band ... is how to let go,” he says quietly. “Everything is an opportunity. We make a choice. I can look at something and perceive it as good or bad, but it really just is. It just happens.”
A lot has “just happened” to Myers in the past few years. He went from being a frustrated musician working odd jobs to cofounding the heat-seeking Afro-rock ensemble Rubblebucket, being a rhythm devil for Gordon, and creating both Barika and the N’goni Dub Trio — two projects that explore the outer reaches of the n’goni, a West African stringed instrument that Myers calls his “obsession.”
When describing Gordon’s enlightened approach to life, Myers’ intense look reveals how much the philosophy of “letting go” jibes with his own path. No surprise, perhaps, for a guy whose moment of revelation came during a naked beach party in Maui.
While visiting a friend, Myers learned of a weekly party on Maui’s Makena Beach. “So I go down there and everybody’s naked and there are drummers and dancers,” he recalls. “Whales were coming out of the ocean, full breach ... it was sunset. I was in complete heaven. From there I said, That’s it.”
Myers grew up in Essex and played drums in a hardcore band as a teenager. He started playing hand drums in drum circles at the Bread and Puppet circus. He was searching for something when he arrived in Maui; what happened on Makena Beach guided his next step.
That first experience with West African drum and dance fascinated Myers — the way each drum had a specific part in a larger arrangement, how each piece of music had its own dance. When the Makena Beach party ended, he asked the leader, a guy named Desert Elk, to be his mentor. Myers spent the next six months sleeping next to a fire outside Elk’s home. During this time he learned West African rhythms and technique and how to carve drums and stretch goatskins for drumheads.
Myers soon discovered a traveling circuit for drum devotees and studied with teachers in Santa Cruz, Calif., Eugene and Portland, Ore., and Flagstaff, Ariz. His path even took him back through Burlington and to local drum-and-dance ensemble Jeh Kulu.
Eventually, Myers says, he knew he had to go to the source. When a friend and teacher said he was planning a trip home to Ivory Coast, Myers booked a ticket.
“It opened my eyes,” he says of his travels and studies in that African nation and in Senegal and Mali. “Just the way people walk and breathe and talk — and the drum — it’s all the same. It’s all connected. It’s just everyday life.”
In Mali Myers discovered his next passion: the n’goni. A friend had given him a field recording of n’goni music, and he was determined to learn more. Led by a Malian cab driver “deep into a market, beyond the tourist stuff,” Myers found tapes by Samou Jakite, who played a traditional donso n’goni, also known as a hunter’s harp.
“I became totally entranced with this recording,” Myers explains.
When he returned, he listened to Jakite exclusively, then bought a donso n’goni from a friend and immersed himself in the instrument’s traditions. Myers later returned to Mali for three months to study both the donso N’goni and its sibling, the kamel n’goni.
By that point, Myers had been traveling and studying for nearly 10 years. When he was home, he worked odd jobs — as a carpenter, stonemason or restaurant cook. His days were filled with anticipation of playing music at night.
Everything changed in 2007, a few months after his trip to study n’goni, when he was invited to assemble a group of drummers to play an event in Burlington. Trumpeter Alex Toth — then of local jazz outfit the Lazybirds — had been asked to bring a bassist and some horns to the gig. According to Myers, it turned into “West Africa meets jazz.”
That night, Rubblebucket was born; Toth transformed the impromptu collective into a touring band in just a few months. Myers says he had dreamed about traveling and playing music full time but didn’t think it was possible. Then, he says, “The light went on.”
“It took off and I held on for dear life, thinking, Yeah, I’m broke, but this is so worth it.”
“Craig was just the most enthusiastic about doing music full time,” says Toth by phone from Brooklyn. “We’re a hardcore bunch, so we surround ourselves with hardcore mo-fos. Craig’s definitely hardcore. And just a fierce musician.”
Suddenly, Myers says, he found himself on the road with Rubblebucket and busy at home with the newly formed Barika. Then, Mike Gordon called to ask about the differences between Latin and African percussion.
After a few conversations, Gordon invited Myers to audition for his new band. Though Myers didn’t think the session went very well, Gordon apparently knew he was the right fit: He booked a one-month tour in support of his 2008 album The Green Sparrow, rehearsed the new band, and they were off.
“The next thing I know, I’m playing at Rothbury for 40,000 people,” Myers says, referring to a music festival in Rothbury, Mich. “It was mind blowing, like, How did I get here?”
The short answer? Hard work.
Now, Myers’ life is filled with music and travel. And when he isn’t on the road with Rubblebucket or Gordon, he pours his heart into playing local gigs with Barika and the N’goni Dub Trio.
Reflecting on all this at Dobrà, Myers practically glows with mellow energy.
“More and more, life teaches me about humility and just showing up,” he says. “And those are two of the best assets I can have as a human being to be successful. ’Cause if you don’t have those things, you can stay in the dark for a long time.”