My name is Ben Tufts, and I’ve been an active musician in the DC region for over ten years. I’ve always enjoyed writing about music, but it’s only recently that friends and colleagues have convinced me to take it a bit more seriously. I’m really excited to have the opportunity to contribute to Hometown Sounds!
In the digital era, the way that musicians make a living is completely shifting. In many lines of work, we strive for “fair trade” for laborers–but nobody pays for recorded music anymore. My aim with the interview series is not to just profile musicians living and working in the area, but to portray them as complete humans. In other words, I want to let the reader behind the curtain, to learn who the artist is, on stage and off. It’s my hope that when people see these faces and hear these stories, they’ll begin to understand where the music is really coming from.
My first interview is with DC drummer/artist/entrepreneur/educator extraordinaire, Asha Santee. Enjoy!
Based On Love
A conversation with Asha Santee
“It was just immediate shock, because the first thing that ran through my mind was ‘I don’t have a job, I don’t even know if my insurance is up, and I know this is about to be serious, if it’s a broken leg.’”
It was a pick-up game. He’d driven to the basket, their shins had collided. Now, staring up at the sky, clutching her leg, surrounded by people covering their mouths or their eyes, Asha’s whole life plan seemed derailed. Both of the bones in her leg were shattered.
Santee had moved to DC from Houston, TX in 2004 to play college ball for Howard University. She played out all four years of her scholarship, graduated, got a job in admissions, and was being courted to play professional ball overseas. Asha describes the moment that she turned the end of one career into the beginning of another…
“Hey” – The Peace & Body Roll Duo BOOMscat
Asha: It wasn’t until I was in that hospital bed—I was a very active person, I was never at home, there was always something I was doing—that I was like ‘What am I supposed to do, when I’m not doing anything?’
Ben: That must’ve changed everything for you.
A: That changed everything, and it opened up everything as well, because still, I was pursuing things that weren’t my original gift in the first place.
B: What do you consider to be your original gift?
B: So these “other things” being sports, art?
A: Sports, you know that was something that I trained real hard to do, but drumming just came. … I was in the bed, laying flat on my back, because my knee was up and I had a little keyboard controller, and my computer was off on my desk to the side, and I was making beats like I always do, and one day I was going through some archives of some beats, and I was going through all the ones that were really sounding good to me. I was like ‘I made all of these, laying on my back, with the sustain pedal at the end of the bed. Okay, this is probably what needs to be happening.’
When Asha Santee enters a room, you feel it. The first time I met her, I noticed her gentle, positive, self-assured presence and took note. These are the kinds of people you want to surround yourself with. So it’s no surprise that Asha, drummer for five bands, percussionist, pianist, singer, painter, graphic designer, website designer, teacher, CEO of her own clothing line, basketball coach, is no stranger to success. In our three hours of discussion, we looked underneath all the hats she wears to find one exceptional mind. Initially, I intended to weave a narrative in between our interview highlights. After editing down the 19,000+ word transcript, I realized the only story anyone needed to hear was already there. Meet Asha:
Asha: I was born in San Francisco, California, but I grew up, pretty much the first eight years, in San Jose. From San Jose, in maybe ’93, ’94, we moved to Houston.
Ben: So now we know where you grew up. How did you grow up? How would you describe your upbringing?
A: I would say I’ve been blessed. I had both my parents, I have two brothers—two younger brothers. My dad was a drummer, so I started playing drums when I was like fix or six years old.
B: Drums were in the house. Music was in the house.
A: Yes, my dad was the drummer for our church, so it was pretty consistent. You know, I think about this all the time, now that I’m older, and have a different perspective on life, that—my parents, I really have to credit them with a lot of things because they exposed us to a lot. So we were IN sports, we were IN extracurricular activities, to try and figure out what we wanted. My mom let me beat on the drums in the house, regardless of bad, loud sounds. [laughs]
B: All the different pieces that make up your life now—I guess I’m curious, you said you moved here on a basketball scholarship about ten years ago—before then, were you as active in Houston with the music thing as you are now?
A: I was playing at the churches I was involved in—as a matter of fact, I was at an eighth grade honors band recital in middle school, and a pastor of a new church came up to me afterwards—I was on the snare drum—and he was just like “Would you like to play the drums for our church?”
B: Talk some more about playing in church, because that’s an experience that I didn’t have growing up, but since becoming a professional musician I’ve played lots of church gigs. I love playing in a church atmosphere, because I find the audience to always be really accepting and really appreciative, but can you maybe talk some about how formative that was for you?
A: Well, like I said, I was exposed to church music at a very young age. My first time being on a drumset in front of people was in church, at a Christmas program, where they were like “Maybe the KIDS should play the instruments!” So I was six years old, and I could barely reach the foot pedal. That was my first time playing in church. It is definitely a different audience, there’s a different atmosphere and aura inside of a church. It’s just… I think it groomed me to understand music and understand musicians, understanding musician language—having to communicate with a bass player—
B: Having to listen.
A: —Having to watch for the vocal cues from the choir or the lead singer, having to watch for other cues with the band—when to do breaks, and stops, and solos—all that stuff. Of course, that’s a different style of music, so I incorporate a lot of gospel playing into what I do with all my other bands. It was a good experience for me.
B: I bet. Now, take me up through college—what did you study at Howard?
A: Audio production.
B: Okay, so, music! —But it seems like basketball was the focus at Howard. When did THAT start?
A: Basketball was, you know, I started that right around the same time I started drums, when I was six or seven years old. When I was in high school, I was in marching band. That was really cool, I was afraid of that experience because I had seen marching band prior to that, and just understanding the dynamics of moving and making shapes, knowing where you’re supposed to be on the field with no grid, and hashes, that was an awesome experience. But it got to a point where basketball was excelling as well. When you get into high school and you’re excelling as an athlete, you have the potential to have your college paid for.
A: So it was just like “What’s it gonna be, Asha? Yeah, you’re good at drums, but marching band is not what it’s going to be.” So basketball definitely took over, and it really wasn’t until—I’m 28 now—and it really wasn’t until 24 that y’all know who I am as a musician. Nobody in DC knew I was a musician until that time.
B: Interesting. How does basketball figure into your life now?
A: I coach at Largo High School. I’ve been there for about five or six years now. I’m still passionate about basketball, as I am about music.
B: Very cool. Now, let’s back track for a second, because this is hard to believe—NOBODY in DC knew you were a musician until after the accident? How did you fall back into playing drums again?
A: My first gig in DC was at 18th Street Lounge. You know Kiran Ghandi?
[Kiran Ghandi is a drummer, formerly of the DC area, who made a name for herself playing at 18th Street Lounge and all over town before relocating to LA and then to Boston to pursue her MBA at Harvard. She currently plays drums for MIA.]
A: One of my friends was like “Asha, you gotta see this girl drummer, she’s amazing!” I was like “yeah, let’s go check her out!” I watched her, and my friends introduced me to her, and I said “Hey, I’m a drummer, too”—but hadn’t drummed in years—
B: Yeah, I was gonna ask how long it had been at that point, since you’d hit drums?
A: Oh man! It had been… probably three or four years?
B: —But if you started playing when you were six, and probably played until you were 18 or 19, you can take a few years off and come back to it—
A: —Oh yeah, I wasn’t in bad shape. So she said “Cool, awesome!” and we were watching her play, and dancing the whole night, and she had to take a break. And she didn’t ask no questions, she just passed me the drumsticks.
A: I had never played drumsticks on bongos or timbales or jam blocks or any of the other quirky little things she had up there—I had never played with a DJ! But one thing that I do credit myself with is being able to keep time, so it’s like “Catch the beat, you’re a drummer, what the hell, do it!” And, I shut it down, you know what I’m saying? And she was wowed, she was like “I’m about to move to LA, and you need to be taking my place here. I’m gonna talk with KC, the manager up there, and Thomas and that’s what it’s gonna be.” And that was my first gig, every Sunday I was drumming at 18th Street Lounge, and really, no beat skipped. And that’s when the Coolots approached me, they started coming to the 18th Street Lounge looking for drummers—
B: So that was a major networking hub for you?
A: Oh yeah, definitely, I started telling people “Guys, I’ll be drumming at 18th Street Lounge,” and they were like “… you drum?! You play music?” Nobody knew that I was a great drummer. It just kinda grew from there.
B: And now you play in a number of bands—actually, this is a question I get a lot, and so I was laughing, kinda chuckling to myself as I was coming up with questions, thinking “I get to ask somebody ELSE this question!” How many bands are YOU in?
A: [laughs] I’m in five bands. I’m in The Coolots, an all female rock and soul band here in DC—
B: Now I think that’s how we met, when I was playing with lowercase letters, we did a show with The Coolots, and I think that’s when we met.
A: Mmhmm, yep! And The Peace and Body Roll Duo BOOMscat, that’s where I play the keys and cajon, and sing. The Huda Asfour Quartet, I play the cajon and drums, and that’s—she likes to call it contemporary Arabic music.
A: Yeah, it’s a whole ‘nother world, Middle Eastern music. And she sings in Arabic, so it’s like—“my vocal cues are what?”
B: Right! Interesting.
A: lowercase letters, you know, followed up in the big shoes of Ben Tufts.
[Asha succeeded Ben as the drummer for DC indie-soul outfit lowercase letters]
A: —No, it’s really cool, I’ve taken a lot of great things from you, and you’re definitely one of my favorite drummers.
B: Oh, thanks!
A: Not just for the purpose of this interview—I love watching Ben play!
B: Thanks, I appreciate it. That’s mutual!
A: What’s the last one? Oh! THC—Thee House Collective, and that’s with Joe Maye and RAtheMC.
B: That’s five! I wanted to ask a question about the parallels between bands and teams. I had a professor in college who was a huge basketball fan, and who would talk all the time about the parallels between how you approach playing on a team on the basketball court and how you approach performing and improvising with a band, on a stage. This is something that I try to communicate to my students who are athletes. Do you find the same parallel?
A: It’s funny that you say “the rhythm of basketball” because our coach, coach Parson at Howard, she used to—we used to have practices where we would dance. We would do the electric slide, and she would be like “There’s a rhythm to this.”
A: “And there’s a rhythm to how your dribbling this ball, and doing all these moves.” And that was really easy for me to pick up, because I was like “Okay.”
B: I had a student probably ten years ago, Sarah Newhall, who had never played a musical instrument before in her life, there was no music in her family—but she was a very competitive basketball athlete, and her coach recommended to their entire team that they take drum lessons.
B: His reasoning was coordination—hand-eye coordination, being able to focus and be heads up about what’s going on on the court while you have to do basic motor skill stuff like dribble a basketball, or footwork and stuff like that.
B: I always thought that was really neat. If we could get more basketball coaches to tell their students to take drum lessons, maybe we’d have more work, right?
A: Yeah, definitely, because the coordination with the four limbs that we use, and our brains, in drumming, is something that is very hard to teach in a basketball setting, because it’s almost—you have those people who can naturally move with the ball, but then you have those people who really have a passion to play, but can’t dribble and walk at the same time.
A: It’s crazy. I teach high school girls basketball, so I’m getting like 13, 14, 15, 16 year olds, and coordination is either on zero or it’s on ten.
B: Interesting, so there’s no in between?
A: Umm, there’s some in between, you know, you have those folks that “oh yeah, she has some potential, you just gotta show her this.” But then you have some people that really cannot walk and dribble that ball.
B: You know, I didn’t start playing drums legitimately until like seventh or eighth grade, and a lot of things like pocket—really being able to hold down a beat, didn’t naturally occur to me, I think because I didn’t start playing when I was five or six, I wasn’t in the church, I didn’t have those early musical experiences. I did listen to a LOT of music, I fell in love with my parents’ record collection very, very early—but in terms of SEEING how it was done, and FEELING it, it’s different when you’re in the room and you’re feeling the sound live. Do you find that your basketball students, maybe the ones who are high school aged, the ones that seem to sorta “have it?” are the ones who were probably were playing from when they were much younger?
A: Definitely. Some of them have either been part of a summer league type situation, and have been in other sports like soccer. Some people just sit around all day and they don’t really do anything, so they’re just like “I don’t wanna move.”
B: [laughs] You gotta move!
Part II of the interview with Asha will go live next week! Come back and read us!