Meet Billy Cobham – Legendary Composer, Producer, Drummer Educator and Performer


Its history is with the Afro-Caribbean community and the Latin community. And unfailing honesty is one of its policies. This drum virtuoso says:

“… Why should I play like someone else… I can do it; this is their experience …. I have already done it, as I would have experienced as a Black Caribbean [person] play this music; therefore the hybrid is very unique. Alright, it’s done. What I do not have explored is [sic]
my foundations. So why don’t you take the Pan, take some congas, like that – and bring it together, with what I’ve been through in the States, and do this hybrid ‘me’ is more ‘me’.


Billy Cobham

“A lot of people expect, as I’ve learned – as a teacher – for people to bring them these ideas in a package, a package called ‘University’ – the package that costs over fifty or sixty thousand dollars. [USD] per semester – when, they already have it. They just don’t know where the key is. And generally (and I say, in a difficult way) are afraid to look inside – inside – to find it on their own. The price could be very heavy, emotionally; but once past this point, it is indelible. You can’t get rid of it. You have to be honest with yourself. “

Simple language, bad manners, as the ancients said. But it’s Billy Cobham – no excuse, but necessarily because of his many years in the business. Currently, he works with the Billy Cobham Band which can “transform” from quartet to septet, depending on availability, event, context. He has led many groups in the past including that of

Mixture of cultures
, that’s how When Steel Talks caught up with him twelve years ago, when

Wilbert “Junior” Gill
, with whom Cobham continues to work, was featured on pan. His latest CD is wide horizon by Billy Cobham & Frankfurt Radio Big Band.

Large Horizon CD Cover

From the age of two in his hometown of Panama, long before he became the world-renowned master percussionist, the world now has the privilege of enjoying,

Billy Cobham
was fascinated by the steelpan. It was in the 1940s, when members of his family were playing and making the instrument. And then, a move with his family to the United States in his early childhood to Chauncey Street in Bed-Stuy (Bedford Stuyvesant), Brooklyn, New York, and cultural influences that included jam sessions (the pan was among the instruments played by folk) in his neighborhood, would be formative roles in his musical journey.

Cobham’s musical genius and methodical approach are in part a tribute to his father, statistician, mathematician and pianist, and also, of course, to his mother, a tailor. And he was passionate, simply, about what worked – get into his open-hand approach to drums – since he was nine years old. He credits his little brother Wayne, then two years old, still in the cradle at the time, for simply being “natural” and “sincere” in taking the “shakers” he handed to the little one, and to shake them instinctively and happily above his head, his hands open. Cobham was pleased with this reinforcement of what he considered “right” and continued to develop the technique, as did a few others, and which was adopted by many drummers in the years that followed.

Decades later, Pan’s unmistakable presence continues to be seen and heard in several Cobham musical aggregations. When composing, he writes with particular attention to the individual instruments that will appear in the piece. This way everyone, including the steelpan, has their own space in the performance at all times.

In this exclusive WST live interview, listen to Billy Cobham in his own words.

Billy Cobham performing “Stratus” live

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