Until arriving at a venue and getting to know the space, Saleem Wayne Waters has no idea what he’ll play.
He’ll lug his equipment—keyboard, electronic microphone and speakers—inside, set everything down and then start gauging the vibe. Until he’s physically paced around, though, the possibilities are endless.
“I always get there early,” says the sixty-one-year-old musician, who has lived and gigged around Washington, D.C. his entire adult life. “I feel the room and get a sense of the place. What I do is, I’ll have three different shows in my mind of how it could go, and, as a result of how I train my brain, I can adapt to all situations.”
Waters was a fixture in D.C.’s music scene during its heyday of the 1980s and ’90s, playing with countless bands. He can play so many instruments that he loses track of the exact number, but says it’s around two dozen. He transitioned from a series of successful live bands two decades ago to develop an innovative electronic solo act. While most of his contemporaries play only sporadic gigs, Waters has stayed relevant, frequently playing his own blend of music everywhere from receptions at the Mayflower Hotel to a special series at the hip Busboys and Poets café, to concerts at the Kennedy Center, where he was the first electronic musician to play inside the renowned concert hall.
“He’s a true virtuoso in how he masters so many instruments,” says Michael Noel, a fellow musician who met Waters at a music store fifteen years ago. “And he’s gotten to where he can pretty much do complete performances himself. He likes to leverage the technology and push it to its limits.”
Waters grew up in Nanjemoy, Maryland, a loose collection of homes hugging the intersection of Baptist Church and Port Tobacco roads on the state’s eastern shore. He played in the woods adjacent to his family’s home and in the streams that ran into the Potomac, soaking up the music of chirping birds and water careening over rocks.
His ethnicity, like his music, spans the globe: Native American, African, Irish—which gave Waters red hair and freckles, not to mention the nickname “Woody Redpecker.”
“My dad used to say, ‘You’re the only one of you in the whole universe,’ and that was the only ammunition I needed to deal with anything,” he recalls.
Interest in music came early. Waters’s uncle strummed the guitar, his aunt sang, and their son rocked the harmonica whenever they visited. It made an impression on Waters, who started crafting instruments out of bamboo to give it a try. For his fifth or sixth birthday he got his first real instrument, a drum set that Waters said “drove my mother crazy.”
Waters’s third grade teacher, Ms. Horn—“a Diana Ross type,” he recalls—invited him and three other students to a matinee opera performance thirty miles away in D.C.
“I thought it was major,” he says. “Our seats were down by the orchestra pit closest to the clarinet section. When I came home we took out our World Book Encyclopedia and looked up ‘clarinet.’ I told my mom I wanted to play that.”
Waters rented a clarinet and began taking lessons, which he kept up for four years. It would be the only instrument for which he received formal instruction.
His middle school band teacher was another early influence in shaping his music.
“He played every instrument in the band,” Waters says. “So if you were playing the wrong part he’d say, ‘This is how you play it,’ pick up your instrument and show you how it was done. I wanted to be like him.”
That year Waters added brass instruments to his repertoire: French horn. Saxophone. Trumpet. Most he picked up by borrowing family members’ instruments. In his senior year of high school the concert band played in the statewide competition, and with the tuba player out sick, the group needed an alternate in a hurry. Over a two-week span, Waters taught himself the tuba, learning it well enough to help his school win the championship.
It also was the start of a long career in bands and collectives. On weekends Waters performed with The Continentals, a Jackson 5-esque R&B group with a robust twelve-person lineup. One of the band mates was studying to be a radiologist, and helping him look over anatomy drawings led Waters to become interested in medicine. He studied nursing at Temple University and pursued a career that spanned sixteen years, with stints in orthopedics, neurology and trauma.
Music remained just a hobby. Then Waters flew to Brazil on a whim, where he took up with a band of musicians and went on to play with them for most of 1987. He left nursing for good.
“That was it,” he says. “I needed to get back to my art.”
Back in D.C. after Brazil, Waters arrived at Café Lautrec. Situated on a bustling stretch of 18th Street in Northwest Washington’s Adams Morgan neighborhood, the café was, at the time, one of the centers of nightlife, known for a tap dancer who performed on top of the bar for skilled pianist Kim Jordan, who later toured with Gil Scott Heron.
“Kim was dynamic and played so fast. I came in one day. There was a tambourine on the piano. I picked it up and started playing with her,” remembers Waters. “She goes, ‘Whoa, you hung in there with me.’ The next time she had a cumbia player with her, and we became a trio.”
Waters played with them twice a week for the next four-and-a-half years. The gig introduced him to a host of D.C. musicians. Matt Jones, a pianist who occasionally filled in for Jordan, has maintained a friendship with Waters since those days.
“I think this is true of a lot of musicians. The first thing you notice about them is that they’re just really great people–secure, mature, intelligent and also dedicated to their commitment,” says Jones. “Saleem has a really grounded sense of how to be in the world. He’s also a very sensitive musician. He’ll listen for what music needs as opposed to what he wants to play right then. And he understands how to work in an ensemble.”
Waters’s favorite ensemble experience was the World Music Ensemble, a group that came together primarily to play event like the D.C. Jazz Festival, which used to be held at Freedom Plaza near the White House. With musicians from Asia, Africa and Europe, the group played everything from flamenco to songs with an African tribal influence, often featuring a Hopi Indian and an African dancer.
Playing in groups was Waters’s major focus until he decided to go solo in the early 1990s, when he also morphed his style to incorporate electronics into his act.
“I had great experiences but I wanted to express things the way I wanted to express them,” Waters explains. “I don’t like routine. I don’t like structure. I just like doing things my way. What I do is take a sound and create my own style, my own way of playing that instrument.”
He’s done it on everything from commonplace instruments like the French horn, to lesser-known varieties of clarinet, to the utterly obscure—a wind synthesizer, a West African balaphone (wooden-keyed and percussion) and a Latin American marimba (also percussion).
The one commonality is how he’s learned: on his own, in the confines of apartments in and around Washington D.C.
”I find time to devote to playing the instruments over and over,” he says. “If I’m in the mood I’ll play on and off for sixteen hours a day. Then I’ll not even want to hear music until I’m motivated again. It’s a process.”
These days Waters still has the freckles and the dark brown skin, but his beard and mustache are a grayish white. Instead of a red mane, his bald head is usually covered by a fedora or a beret. He smiles easily. While playing he’ll often squint his eyes in concentration, seeming to engulf himself in the music.
Waters’s current solo work comes from a desire to humanize electronic music, which he says often feels cold and distant. He arrives at each show with a number of tracks pre-recorded, and then layers in additional instruments during the performance.
“He’s a real one-man band,” Jones says. “He devotes a lot of free time to creating or recording sequenced backing tracks. He’ll do the baseline on the keyboard and capture that. And then he plays over it with a MalletKAT [an Ethiopian trumpet]. Saleem has figured out how to layer them in a way that sounds organic, as opposed to canned. It’s a pretty unique combination.”
Like the number of instruments Waters has picked up over time, when asked how many pieces of music he’s composed, he shrugs; it’s probably in the thousands. Very little of the music is distributed to the public. Waters never sees the works as finished, even when he’s recorded them. Usually, he records primarily for his own use, to listen to old tracks and figure out ways to rework them.
The sound blend Waters creates borrows from early role models like Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder, as well as the rock sounds of The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, whose concerts he took in growing up.
When it comes to learning new instruments, Waters is confident that if he’s in the right frame of mind, he can become at least solid at anything. Early in his musical life, a band that approached him had a dire need for a marimba player. He didn’t let on that marimba wasn’t in his repertoire, because he really wanted in. Instead, Waters devoted the next two weeks to learning. By the time he needed to be ready to, no one was the wiser.
“I was determined to learn it, so I did,” Waters says. “It gave me a sense that I could do anything.”
YouTube, and the Internet as a whole, have certainly helped fill in learning gaps in the past decade. Waters’s latest instrumental fantasy, playing the harp guitar—an oddly-shaped string instrument—was born of seeing an online clip of someone playing it.
Waters is now tackling the guitar so that he can realize that goal. Meanwhile, he can’t forget about his other instruments. If he stops playing them, he’ll gradually lose his ability to do so.
Inspiration is the key. One day Waters will see a beautiful woman or a car and feel inclined to compose, he says. If the mood strikes him, he could play for sixteen hours with few breaks. Then he’ll give the music a rest, but for only a day or so. Retirement’s not in the cards for Waters, not with constant gigs. These days he’s playing wine tastings, 90th birthday parties, church gatherings and spoken word sessions at Busboys and Poets.
“I think the reason I’m still interested and able to do this is my setup, the electronics,” he says. “It enables me to do all sorts of events where I can be in the background or out front. It’s a niche for me that not a lot of others have.”
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Jay Westcott has worked for The Washington Post, The Examiner, and POLITICO. When not working, he enjoys riding, racing his bicycle and hiking with his daughter, Lauren. Twitter @jwestcottphoto