Jim Hamilton gives a tour of what will be the Rittenhouse Soundworks Arts Complex in Germantown. (Photo by Alaina Mabaso)

by Alaina Mabaso

With a career that includes musicians from Turkey, Japan, Brazil and beyond, and world tours with artists like Boyz II Men and Toni Braxton, Germantown resident Jim Hamilton never expected that the studio of his dreams was waiting right up the block.

Earlier this month, construction began on the Rittenhouse Soundworks Arts Complex, a cavernous two-story, 13,000-square-foot 19th-century manufacturing space stretching between Rittenhouse and Haines Streets. It’s been sitting empty for decades, hidden behind the auto mechanic shop that Hamilton has used for years near the corner of Greene and Rittenhouse. He predicted that the new center will be open by New Year’s Day, 2014.

A virtuosic percussionist, Hamilton was born in Kensington and grew up in his parents’ dance studios, a tap dancer who attended Northeast Catholic High School and has been drumming since junior high. He never attended college, but his career has taken him from the Philly music retail scene to 23 years of playing for the University of the Arts dance department, with time for multiple worldwide music tours and countless local bands full of international flavor.

“When I open my medicine cabinet, all I see are songs,” Hamilton said of how even the music of commercial jingles captivates him.

But unlike with many professional artists bent on self-promotion, it’s hard to get more than a line or two at a time from Hamilton on his impressive career path. Because of his deep love for the universal underpinnings of all human music, any question you ask could become a meditation on the Yoruba tribe of West Africa, the origins of jazz and R&B, the Appalachian melting pot, the phonetics of rhythm, Catholic philosophy, European colonialism or the history of the drum set.

“It’s only through understanding and access, true access to another culture, that we’re going to be able to form a peaceful world,” the musician-philosopher insisted on why experiencing and mastering the music of other cultures is crucial. For Hamilton, rhythm is a fundamental language that can’t claim origins in one genre or another, but is constantly mixing and changing to create the regional sounds that are conduits for intercultural understanding.

“Let’s meditate … yeah, let’s be conscious,” he continued, “but also know that our ancestors have been there, as we say in this neighborhood, for thousands of years.”

Hamilton has lived on Rittenhouse Street for about 25 years and has welcomed a plethora of notables to his basement recording studio and teaching space, from steel drum ensembles to spoken word artist Ursula Rutger. Chat with him long enough, and fleeting personal anecdotes emerge: playing for sultans and the Grammys, the Chitlin’ Circuit and national radio broadcasts with Manhattans star Gerald Alston, and meeting his wife, dance teacher Susan Deutsch, though the question of exactly how long they’ve been married is a tough one. “We got married on leap year. I think we’ve had five anniversaries … I forget.”

For years, Hamilton imagined bringing a multi-media, international teaching, recording and performance space to Philadelphia. “After looking all over the city, to end up here on the same block was incredible,” he said. “The new complex will honor the region’s history as a leader in American music. We’re back in business for the Philly sound.

“The untold story about Philadelphia is we are what we actually export, art and music.” In addition to an international drumming school, internet radio, podcast and video streaming capabilities, as well as digital, CD, analog tape or vinyl recording options, the new space will boast legendary performer and producer Sly Stone’s old API console (sophisticated music recording equipment).

“Most of the big rooms in the country have disappeared,” Hamilton said of the 21st century music industry. “I’m coming in after the collapse of big rooms and after the explosion of the home studio revolution … We’re going to bring it back and move it forward.”

That means, for example, having the space and acoustics to cut real strings on recordings, instead of using synthesizers: paying homage to local institutions like the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Curtis Institute. And the intercultural element is paramount.

For example, “If you teach a kid from Kensington and a kid from Germantown how to play tabla [a bongo-like instrument] … they’re gonna be a lot more tolerant of somebody [who] has a dot in the middle of their forehead,” Hamilton explained. “They’re gonna go, ‘Oh, you’re Hindu. Are you from India? Oh, where? North or south?’”

Hamilton looks forward to many collaborations and partnerships with local arts and music organizations. “The reason we found it now is because it’s time to do it now,” he said of stumbling upon the space after his long search. “This is the kind of thing that happens to me in my life: I’m not driving the car. I just have to listen.”