The Didjdude Harold E. Smith Carves out a Niche
“ Because it's a kind of spiritual connection that I have with it... I'm able to connect with a lot of spiritual groups. ”
Mt. Airy resident Harold E. Smith holds a novel position as Philadelphia's premiere didjeridoo player. (Maybe the only one.) Didjeridoo? The didj is an ancient aboriginal instrument'a eucalyptus tree whose center has been hollowed out by insects. 'The initial hole is made by white ants, termites,' explains Smith. 'Nobody goes down there and digs that hole out.' The circumference of the hole inside and the length of the tube determine the pitch. Each didjeridoo has one note. Smith manipulates that single note to evoke a variety of sounds ranging from meditative drones to staccato dog barks.
A life-long jazz musician, Smith adopted the didjeridoo nine years ago and has developed a brand of music that fuses world beat sensibility with jazz improvisation. He's showcased this musical amalgam in recent local gigs with Philadelphia alto saxophonist and flautist Byard Lancaster. And in May he headlined a concert at The Sedgwick Cultural Center that featured music from his self-released CD, In the Valley of Sacred Sound.
On this album Smith places his didjeridoo in a trio with the trombone and conch shell of Steve Turre and the tablas of ex-Miles Davis sideman Badal Roy to produce a set of multicultural grooves. Downbeat magazine has described Smith's didj sound as 'surprisingly versatile, as it evokes the drone of an arco bass and the glottal sound of the Tibetan chant.'
For a musician of such an exotic instrument, Smith experienced a more prosaic musical upbringing. Growing up in Pittsburgh, Smith discovered jazz at an early age. 'I was one of those strange kids. When I was very young and everybody else was paying attention to Smokey Robinson and The Miracles and The Platters and The Commodores, a lot of Motown, I was listening to 45s that I had found on Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie,' he recalls.
In grade school he played flute for two and a half years. Later his teachers forced him to switch instruments. 'When I went to high school they didn't give me flute even though I had been playing. The only thing that was left was a metal oboe. And only three notes worked on the oboe. It was a metal oboe and only three notes worked,' remarks Smith.
During a stint in the Service in the early '60s, an anonymous drummer turned Smith onto the instrument that became the foundation of his jazz career until the didjeridoo. 'I was up in Rhode Island and I heard this drummer. I don't even remember his name. For whatever reason his style of playing just tuned me into the drums,' explains Smith.
Returning to Pittsburgh, he decided to learn traps and received auspicious instruction when a friend introduced him to John Coltrane's drummer, Elvin Jones. 'Elvin gave me my first drum lesson. I thought I was going to get to do some drum stuff. What he handed me was a rubber ball. He said, 'Well, first you just squeeze the rubber ball.' There was no sticks, no nothing, just a rubber ball. That was his lesson,' says Smith.
Smith moved to DC and began playing drums professionally. There, organist Larry Young, Jr. opened his mind to free jazz. In the early '70s Smith found himself in the thick of the New York loft scene, collaborating with well-known avant-garde musicians.
He played regularly with multi-reedist Sam Rivers. And he received equal billing on saxophonist Joe McPhee's 1971 outer space release, Trinity. In 1975, Smith met his wife and followed her to Philadelphia where he continued to play drums.
'Byard Lancaster was living down here so I knew there was somebody down here I'd be able play with. You know, have some fun with,' explains Smith. (When asked his age, Smith replied, 'Old enough to be in a symphony and young enough to hang with the hip-hoppers.')
The entire time Smith spent pursuing ambitions as a jazz percussionist, he developed a parallel career as a film and television cameraman to pay the bills.
This day job provided experiences of its own. Smith participated in Woodstock, documenting the events there. 'My friend said, 'There's this company. Come on up. They need some experienced camera people,'' he recounts. 'So I went up and did Woodstock. Most of the main camera people had already been chosen. I got to roam around a lot, film other aspects of the Woodstock happening.'
One of life's ironies, an event in Smith's film occupation inextricably altered his music career, precipitating him to abandon his drums in favor of the didjeridoo. While on the job in 1993 as a cameraman for a local Philadelphia television station, Smith suffered an injury that crushed his right knee. He was left incapacitated for months and after recovering could no longer work'and no longer play. 'There was no bike. There was no drums.