Tuesday, February 24, 2015

i. Prelude to an American Raga: Why I Am (and Am Not) an American Primitive Guitarist

The music business doesn’t know what to do with these flocks of fingerstyle guitarists (including me) exploring new ways to play the acoustic steelstring guitar.   Our recordings get thrown into a “New Age” pigeonhole by program directors and marketers, which is not as demeaning as it sounds because in the music biz that category is also used for any type of world fusion or non-traditional instrumental music.  Maybe that particular categorization was begun by the Windham Hill phenomenon that virtually created the new category of “new age” music, beginning with Will Ackerman, Alex DiGrassi, et al.  I was warned of this pigeon-holing by my friend Joe Weed, a nationally known fiddle player and guitarist who found his own wonderful album “The Waltz of the Whippoorwill” being promoted as “New Age”:  no singing?  Not old timey, traditional, roots or folk?  Must be New Age!

Once you get a little more focused on what new guitarists are doing, the niche is then generally referred to as “American Primitive Guitar”.  This is a term that apparently trailblazer John Fahey came up with.  If so, even at its inception the term must have been more than a little ironic, since Fahey’s influences included not only old blues masters whom he helped to rediscover but also masters of modern western classical music.  Maybe he felt the term enthroned a movement in which musicians are mostly self-taught, a true folk movement.  

Whatever the reasoning, the term has stuck.  It’s of further historical interest that the vast majority of young and old guitarists who are exploring fingerstyle playing play in a style that is directly derived from Fahey himself.  Most obviously this is evidenced by the continued use of bluegrass style “double thumbing”  (the “Travis pick”) which was so prominent in Fahey’s signature style.

In my view, there are three main streams of fingerstyle playing in this general niche of exploration.  My college pal Will Ackerman (founder of Windham Hill) refers to them as “platforms”.  The real trailblazers from the early 1960’s were John Fahey (so the “Fahey Platform” which is based on double-thumbing and flows out of American folk and blues), Robbie Basho (so the “Basho Platform”, which is a rhythmically free, melody-driven style derived mostly from Eastern music, especially Indian classical ragas), and about 15-20 years later the innovations of Michael Hedges (the “Hedges Platform”, which features especially his creation of the “tapping” style of play along with percussive effects).

This is not to minimize the great guitar work of guitarists who are highly schooled, skilled, and allied with more traditional streams of musical exploration.  Here are the whole great school of British and Scottish folk musicians (John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, etc), Celtic guitar, jazz and folk fusions (Chet Atkins, Tommy Emmanuel, Pierre Bensusan, etc), and the more classically oriented free explorations of innovators like Ralph Towner.  The distinction I am making is that the movement of guitarists I am speaking of is more of a folk movement, although not allied to traditional music genres (like jazz, blues, roots, Celtic, etc), mostly self-taught, and seeking new expressions.

I think there can be little doubt that the field is dominated by “Fahey Platform” guitarists, and almost no exponents of the Basho or raga-style platform, (Steffen Basho-Junghans in Germany is one of the few).  Which brings us to my own explorations.  I have always preferred the term “free raga style” as being a much more accurate indication of what it is I am up to,  in musical roots, in methodology, and in terms of deeper connections (meaning here:  to a view of man’s being in the universe and the place of music in our journey).

The Fahey Platform is dominated by double-thumbing technique and is therefore tied down typically to 4/4 rhythms, and easily becomes mere “pattern picking”, especially when coupled (as it usually is) with open tunings.  As a young guitarist, I came under the sway of Fahey myself, but never found any freedom in Fahey’s style.  This was probably reflective of personal limitations, but I basically just learned to play everything Fahey had created.  Then, having already myself been a passionate fan of Hindustani classical music since 1964, , when I first heard Robbie Basho in concert in 1968, I immediately recognized the promise of expressive liberation contained in Basho’s new raga style. 

The hallmarks of the Basho Platform raga style are:  being rhythmically free (untied to folk fingerpicking patterns or 4/4 rhythms) and often highly syncopated, with attention paid to its emotional/spiritual content, melodically driven and improvisatory.  This last aspect is of special importance to me, as being an improviser is what keeps one’s explorations free, fresh, and authentic.  Although I always refer to this as a “raga style” of playing, once one has liberated oneself from the rhythmic constraints of double-thumbing and those of harmonic structure, the techniques used can actually incorporate and move in any direction whatsoever.  Thus, you may hear in my own explorations strong echoes of Bach or Beethoven, Japanese koto or Celtic resonances, Santoor or oud…..

You may still lump me together with all other “American primitive guitarists”;  it’s good company that I keep.  I ask only that you spell my name correctly!  But for accuracy’s sake, terms like “raga style” or “folk composer” feel like a better fit.

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