Tuesday, August 23, 2011

My Musical Adventures - Part IV - On Becoming a World Musician

(This is part IV of my musical adventures. Parts i - iii can be found on the archives to the right)

I had a nasty, old Native American Flute and a number of odd, Russian and Asian instruments about which I had very little information. I had some books that were written in Russian or Uzbek, or Tuvan, but I could certainly not piece together enough information to truly learn how to play them, apart from some rudimentary instruction I had gotten from people along the way.

Early on, we began to record some world influences. Our first recording "Saguaro" by The Cornerboys features a couple Native American Flute pieces, played on the nasty, old, out-of-tune flute. (I should put a couple of those selections up on Bandcamp so you can hear them.) Here is a link to "Six Men on a Horse" - a piece I wrote in Russia, that I feel captures the spirit of the Russian countryside, that was also on that album. This is a video I pieced together from many hours of video I took there: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3hX-kMh5R5A.

Multi-culturalism was a big push in the public schools for a couple years, before they completely went the other direction and started testing for a thorough understanding of white culture. But during those blessed years, we started our school year with a county-wide multicultural festival. It was there I met Rogelio Ransoli and Miguel Camacho, who are a guitarist and pan-flautist who play music they collected while traveling together in the Andes. They then came to the US on cultural visas. I became hooked, and we started running into them all over the place - playing at the museum, at restaurants, and so forth. They still play during the summers at El Noa Noa restaurant on Santa fe Street in Denver.

I went down to visit Miguel with my friend, Vonnie. He gave me a quena flute he had just made. It is a notch flute that can be quite difficult to play. I was a master musician, I was sure, so I took the flute, and blew into it, and nothing but air came out. I handed it to Vonnie, who, with no musical training on a wind instrument, produced a beautiful tone right away. Miguel helped us purchase some bamboo from Bolivia and make our own pan pipes. After that, he taught Vonnie and I to play in a traditional style, where I would play one set of notes, and she another, and we would play songs that required us to each play our proper notes at the given time, and gives an interesting, stereo effect.

Through Ransoli and Camacho, I also met another local musician, Miguel Espinoza, who I still believe to be one of the finest Flamenco players in the world. I trained, formally, with Miguel for a couple of years. While I never was able to really play the guitar - I have massive hands that are much more cut out for playing the bass - my mind became completely blown by learning this ancient tradition. I learned, for instance, how to count and play Bulerias, a Spanish, 12-beat dance that begins on beat 12, and has accents on 3,6,8,10 and 12. This started my journey into the field of World Music.

Though "Before the Rain" had become a jazz band, we still played some of the Scottish-Irish pieces for quite a while. On our first CD, "Hitchin' to Santa Fe," there are a few pieces that show my early attempts toward world music:

The opening track "Bayati Blues" is based on a traditional Bayati folk song, combined with a minor blues chorus: http://beforetherain.bandcamp.com/track/bayati-blues. It features me playing an Armenian stringed instrument, the tar.

"Hitchin' to Santa Fe" reflects the Flamenco and South American music I was studying at the time... combined with jazz: http://beforetherain.bandcamp.com/track/hitchin-to-santa-fe. I play the pan pipes as well as the sax.

and "Postcards from Sarajevo" was reflective of the music I heard in Eastern Europe from Bosnian refugees. http://beforetherain.bandcamp.com/track/postcards-from-sarajevo. It is the first time I ever played the clarinet.

There are some others, such as "Cry of the Wounded Healer" that features that nasty, old, out-of-tune Native American Flute, and "The Wichita Tango" and "Tales of the Three-Legged Coyote," on which I play the accordion.

We ordered 1000 copies of "Hitchin' to Santa Fe," and still have about 700 of them. My friend Gus noted "It's a million seller - because you still have a million of them in your cellar!"

In 2002, I ended up at the International Native American Flute Association (INAFA) Convention in Taos New Mexico. This was a big turning point in my life:

We had found out about this from Robert Mirabal's website. He was my current, favorite musician. I had met him in Taos the year before, and, like so many, had become enchanted by his concert video shown during a PBS pledge drive. We saw he was playing there, along with R. C. Nakai, and a bunch of people we had never heard of. They also had classes on flute-making and playing, etc..., all for the price of about $50. So we went.

It was there that I was introduced to a lot of great people in the flute world, as well as a whole world of flutes.

I first saw Peter Phippen perform. He played a number of flutes I had never heard of, including the Shakuhachi, which was about the coolest thing I had ever heard. I met Michael Graham Allen, aka Coyote Oldman, who introduced me to the Hopi Flute and Anasazi Flutes; Dr. Richard Payne, who may well have been the missing link in the Native American Flute chain:

As the story goes, "Doc" Payne learned to make an play the Native American Flute from the handful of surviving Indians who knew anything about the instrument. When these people died, the white doctor from the East Coast was the only remaining soul who knew how to play this instrument. He dedicated himself to traveling to the Reservations to teach Native Americans how to make and play this almost extinct flute.

At the conference, I also met and studied with didgeridoo great Ash Dargan. He taught me to circular breathe. I got to study flute making with Butch Hall, and finally learned the actual fingering for the Native Flute. I started making my own flutes. I made one good one, and a bunch of lousy ones. I did get to make flutes with my kids at school for the next few years, until we weren't allowed to teach anything that wouldn't appear on the CSAP test. (Anyone want to help me get flute making and music on the CSAP?)

I cam home with a bag of new flutes, which would take me years to learn, and a new enthusiasm about making the flute my secondary instrument: I will never cease being, first, a bebop saxophonist - even though I haven't played bop in 30 years, and doubt I could run scales that fast any more.

Peter Phippen told me recently my biggest need in playing is to slow down. I come by it naturally, but he makes an excellent point. I had a 2 hour phone call with him a few weeks ago after I asked him to critique my new CD. Thank you so much for all you give, Peter!

I found my first Shakuhachi at a Renaissance fair for $50, or something, just a few weeks after returning from Taos. Like so many of my stories, I could not make a sound on it. I finally sought out a teacher in Boulder who had studied Shakuhachi in Japan for 30 years. I spent a year trying to squeak out tones from this instrument. Even when I upgraded to the $1500 shakuhachi I have now, I was scarcely able to play it until I really wood-shedded it this summer.

About the same time, I got my first bansuri, East Indian Flute, and found Kabir, a character who lived in a cave in india for 11 years playing the flute.

So twice a week, I was driving the hour to Boulder to study Classical Indian and Japanese music. And talk about mind-blowing!

So, in the west we are used to a scale that has been 'equal tempered' - so that a piano or guitar can play in any key. The intervals have been slightly stretched or reduced in order to achieve this. The Asian world uses just intoned scales. The long and short is that I was learning to hear about 19 different tones in the octave in which we are used to hearing 12.

Kabir even blew my mind on the first phone call with him when he asked if I wanted to learn to play using the North or South Indian fingering.
 "What's the difference?" I asked.
"In the Northern Indian version, the root is played with two fingers down. In the South the root is played with three fingers down."
The implictions of this are enormous... I will explain later.

The raga system is amazingly complex. It is a series of scales and accompanying rules based on mood, time of day, season, and many other factors. There are hundreds and hundreds of ragas. Most Indian classical music is based on improvisation, like jazz, but with lots of rules.

Here is an example of a raga played on the bansuri http://richardball.bandcamp.com/track/leonis-stefani

About this time, I became ill, and had to take a few week's sick leave from school. During this time, I recorded my first Native American Flute Album, "Crow"http://richardball.bandcamp.com/album/crow,
Fortunately by this time, I had accumulated a few in-tune flutes. the best of which I purchased to play at the wedding of some friends on the Navajo Res. I went to the souvenir shop and got a new flute and a clean shirt. I got a flute in E, which was the same key as my didgeridoo so that I could use the didge as a drone and improvise over it.

After I recorded "Crow" in 2006, the flood gates opened:

I was invited to play at the Native American Shop in my town. This lead to selling lots of CDs and getting a number of other jobs.

About 2 months later, I went to a jam session for singer-songwriters, where I ran into Paul Mimlitsch, another free-improv jazz player who had just recently moved to town. We started the band "Concept," and still play frequently to this date.

I also joined a rock band, and was actually making more in music than I was paying out, for once. This kept up until 2009, when the recession caused most of the places we were playing to close down.

Also after recording "Crow," I took an inward musical journey, where I communicated directly with Music, and she, herself, became my teacher, even teaching me subtle techniques on ancient instruments that no one else knew....

To be continued.

No comments:

Post a Comment