Being Aware of the Genius of Ginger Baker

Beware of Mr. Baker (2012) is a film directed by Jay Bulger, who documents the prolific career of the extraordinary rock and jazz drummer, Ginger Baker. Bulger, who, oddly, seems to have first been exposed to Baker through a YouTube video of his infamous Saharan drive, had originally obtained interview footage with him for a Rolling Stone magazine article on his life. He later returned to South Africa to finish the film. The tone of the movie is set in the opening scenes, as we see “Beware of Mr. Baker” written on a sign outside of his South African compound. He then assaults the director with a cane, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ginger Baker was born Aug 19, 1939, in England. He describes being fatherless at 4 ½ years old and had to learn how to fit into the world by navigating real life conflicts in working class neighborhoods. His streetwise upbringing defined his persona, and he gravitated towards a rebellious natural instinct in order to cope. This was especially prominent after meeting another English jazz drummer who would become a mentor of sorts, Phil Seaman. Seaman also turned Baker on to listening to jazz focusing on the drums while intoxicated on heroin, thus Baker’s long relationship with the drug began.

Like many contemporary documentaries with limited source footage, the film incorporates animated sequences that portray events being described by a narrator. In one sequence intended to humorously highlight Baker getting turned on to African drumming for the first time while high on drugs, the director decided to show an animated slave ship of rowing (white) slaves, which includes Baker as a rower and Phil Seaman as a masked African mentor teaching him about African drumming techniques. The sequence ends with Baker removing his shackles after hearing the beat accentuated by the effects of heroin from his slave drum master. This was culturally inappropriate on many levels. First, because it appears the director chose to portray Baker through an African slave context to exemplify the sensation of drug use. As an English white man, with his positionality, this was insensitive and disrespectful towards descendants of African slaves and trivializes their ancestors’ ordeals. No matter how they might try to justify it creatively–slave to heroin?– the fact that this sequence made it into the final film without anyone flagging it as offensive says a lot about the people behind this documentary. And it was only the first in a string of references reflecting colonial world views.

One highlight of the film is Baker’s focus on Africa and his collaborations with Fela Kuti. Kuti and Baker recorded Live! in 1971 with Kuti’s band, Africa 70, the recording was released by EMI. Baker had known Kuti since the early 60s from being involved in the rock music scene in the United Kingdom, Baker went to Africa in the 1970s to study African drumming. The film footage of Baker in Africa shows prominent cultural differences within interviewees contrasting ethnic and cultural social implicit biases based on positionality and hierarchical views because of historical colonialism. Tony Palmer who filmed Baker’s adventures driving across the Sahara and interacting with African musicians said Baker’s adventures, “Pre-dates everyone saying, we discovered the sounds of Africa.” Remi Kabaka who was a musician in Ginger Baker’s Airforce, contrasts this comment saying, “Drums are from Africa.” Stewart Copeland (drummer for The Police) said Baker chose, “To live in the squalor of it.” The squalor of the South. In reality, Baker was in the city of Lagos, a city a few notches under the chic of London perhaps but hardly a backwater. There, Baker deepened his knowledge in rhythm and sound, studying drumming and documenting his experiences. While quick to credit others, he can still be seen as a colonizer, “discovering” Southern rhythmic styles and being recognized in Northern culture for the sounds synthesized from African drummers. He set up a recording studio in Lagos and was recognized, by musicians in both hemispheres, as being a gifted drummer. Kuti and Baker grew apart when Kuti became more involved in challenging apartheid and instigating political dissonance where class and race may have played a part in the absolvement of their friendship.

Beware of Mr. Baker is a celebratory compendium of Ginger Baker’s curmudgeon lifestyle as told by himself. The live footage documenting his music career is definitely the centerpiece that accentuates his remarkable escapades and stories reminiscing about sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, jazz, and…polo. Colonial overtones aside, Ginger Baker remains one of the finest rock drummers of all time. After assaulting the director, viewers may be quick to espouse a feeling of fondness for Baker, and his lifelong devotion to love of drumming may have contributed to more awareness into the roots of rhythm that originated in African music and was colonized by Baker and Western musicians.

By Karen Lee (Weekend Family Music Hour) & James Bunnelle (Center for Cassette Studies)

Weekend Family Music Hour
Weekend Family Music Hour has been with Freeform since the station was established. Opal (11), Ayler (9) and Karen (mom). We are so privileged to have an affordable family activity that brings us together with your family's lives and letting us share. We love reciting poems by Terry Riley, playing our Moog (Halloween!), selecting songs based on politics or societal challenges and Holidays! Check out our seasonal shows! Mostly ethnic, folk, rock, country, synth, disco, soul, experimental and jazz/tongue jazz.