The many faces of Chree Bagheera

Unmasking the percussionist behind local jazz fusion cult-favorite Ramakhandra

Credit: Robert Mayper

Chree Bagheera honed his obsession in the shadows. Music was present in his household growing up, but Bagheera’s family discouraged a career path in the arts. He could be a firefighter or a lawyer, of course, but pounding snares with sticks as a full-time job seemed ridiculous. Thus, in the millennial age of computer-crashing, file-sharing software like Napster and LimeWire, the budding drummer got to work behind closed doors. 

A drumset is a loud, intricate, beautiful machine —  but to Bagheera’s family, it was just loud. So he improvised, concocting a MacGyver-like drumkit out of kick pedals on pillows and mouse pads on snares. 

He’d tap away furiously on his Frankenstein’d trap set under the low, buzzing audio of digital music players and video games his friends were playing. Quietly and passionately, Bagheera grew an unconditional love for music’s true backbone. 

One night, practicing away on pillows, dreaming of scintillating fills by dazzling American jazz drummers like Tony Williams and Elvin Jones, Bagheera’s grandfather barged into his room, furious at the noise he was making. “What’s wrong with you?” he yelled. “Don’t you ever stop practicing?” 

A shaken Bagheera gave a simple reply: “I just want to be great.” 

Star breaker

Bagheera — who performs under the alias N0bahdee — has worked toward those ambitions of greatness through his playing in Denver-based cult-favorite Ramakhandra, whose sound is self-described as “abstract jazz and Zelda starbreaks.” 

Since the release of their sprawling and elegant self-titled debut LP in 2020, Ramakhandra’s place in the Denver scene has remained unique and undeniable. In the years since their formation in 2017, they’ve become must-see performers at local events like the Westword and Underground music showcases. They’ve also opened for powerhouses of jazz fusion, like Kamasi Washington and Sons of Kemet. 

Bagheera may be the rhythmic backbone of the band, but Ramakhandra is a collective in the truest sense of the word. Annastezhaa, harpist and vocalist, lays a gentle foundation for the quartet. Clayto assists with bone-rattling bass lines. Eric Estrada grows delicate cosmic landscapes on synth, with the percussive bliss of N0bahdee (Bagheera) flowing through the arrangements of his bandmates like water. 

Years of intense focus, studying rudiments and reading books of sheet music helped Bagheera realize the role he would eventually come to play with Ramakhandra and how it fits into the grander machine.

“We portray ourselves as a Megazord,” he says, referring to the fictional robot from Power Rangers whose strength comes from the sum of its many parts. “If I were to tell you my place in that, it’d be the legs.” 

Bagheera is often asked if Ramakhandra identifies as a “drum-driven band” or a “harp-driven band.” While their music makes the case for either, he says it’s more about how the instruments play off each other. 

“I’ll hear what Annastezhaa is doing on the harp, or what Clayto and [Eric Estrada] are doing, and will literally just try and flow with them,” he says.

Instead of the traditional approach where the drummer sets a beat and the others follow, Bagheera hears what his bandmates are doing and “speaks back” in the sonic conversation. His approach is reminiscent of the traditional Japanese martial art of Aikido. It’s an ancient practice built on the grounds of using momentum and flow as an advantage, rather than going on the attack. 

“That’s why, whenever I play with others, it’s hard for me to just start doing a beat,” he says. “In my mind, as soon as I hear a melody, I’m internally deciding how to augment it.” 

When Bagheera perches on his drum stool and closes his eyes, landscapes from anime and video games come to life in his mind. (They’re often places he’s been able to conjure as one-half of DR3AM CA$T with Estrada, a duo that makes self-proclaimed “final-boss music.”) He’s imagining lush, green rice terraces in rural Japan, or damp, congested Tokyo streets lit brightly by neon tubes. 

“I picture what the music would be like if I were to play that specific scene,” he says. “Eighty percent of my inspiration comes from music, and 20% is visual.”

There are times when it’s entirely visual. Bagheera will play a video game, absorb the environment blossoming through diodes on screen, and rush to his kit, painting a world out of percussion at his fingertips. This kind of rhythmic world-building took center stage on Sept. 26, when Ramakhandra opened for a live screening of Dune at Red Rocks.

“The movie is a heavy sci-fi film, and the soundscape is incredible,” Bagheera says of the otherworldly collaboration. “Our music is really inspired by that genre.” 

The many-faced drummer

Bagheera is perhaps most well known for the face in front of the face. He dons intricate masks when performing — some gold and gothic, others with horns and sharp fangs, and many painted with intricate, Japanese-inspired flourishes. But his affinity for seeking out new identities goes deeper than facial coverings.

“I’m hungry for every genre,” he says. “So to take what I like about all types of music and apply it to Ramakhandra — you’ll see that our sound is inspired by so many styles.”

Bagheera cites the experimental electronics of Amon Tobin and Flying Lotus as inspiration, as well as the textural approaches of Swiss virtuoso drummer Jojo Mayer and  the soulful, sample-heavy masterpieces of the late J-Dilla. The list of influences goes on and on. Like the wall of masks Bagheera chooses from, his sources of inspiration know no bounds.

It’s a testament to an artist who, years ago, under a roof of restrictions, tapped a rhythm into some household objects and launched himself into a musical galaxy where labels and faces couldn’t possibly exist — just drumsticks, and a place to use them. 

ON THE BILL: SPELLLING with Ramakhandra and BODY. 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, Bluebird Theater, 3317 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. 

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