Jeff Greene: TriBeCaStan’s Global Groove Hunter
Beginning The Cycle
“Music, especially dance music, is all about the 1,” Greene says. “Where is the 1? That’s the question you have to answer if you want to get deeper into the rhythm. In Balinese and Sundanese gamelans, they don’t count from what we think of as the 1. They count from the last beat of a cycle; it’s a different way of thinking musically. If you can grasp it, it opens up endless possibilities in your playing.”
A Friction Drum
G Water Udu
H Chinese Opera Gongs
I Uileann Chanter
N Remo Spring Drum
O LP Flex-A-Tone
P Quijada (mule's jaw bone)
S Steel Pan Drum
X Halo Drum
Greene has been exploring those endless possibilities for as long as he can remember. He grew up in Chicago, not far from the home of Muddy Waters. His parents took him to a local roadhouse to listen to the blues, but they also loved jazz and ethnic music from around the world. He was exposed to the music of other cultures while his peers were focusing on rock and roll. “I used to take drugs and stay up all night playing piano,” Greene recalls. “I got pulled into the music of Alice Coltrane. I tried to copy what she was playing. I used to spend summers in Nova Scotia. One year, I heard a group that played Middle Eastern music and I asked if I could play with them.”
The band needed a percussionist. Greene got hooked the minute he touched a hand drum, but the real turning point was a trip he made to North Africa when he was 17. “I hitched across the desert. When I heard Berber music in Algeria, it was so strong, it rocked my world. Ever since then, I’ve been interested in Muslim music. When I got home, everyone I knew was playing rock. I was playing Arabic scales.”
Greene studied painting in college, but spent a lot of time between classes traveling and looking for exotic instruments. “There are a lot of questions implied every time you pick up a drum,” Greene says. “Where did the music come from, how did it get here and why is it played the way it’s played? The rumba goes back to the Congo, cha cha and bolero come from Cuba, but the sounds of Cuba can be traced back to Africa and the fusion of Arabian and European music that took place during the Moorish occupation of Spain. What we call fusion has been going on for centuries, but it has been accelerated by technology — radios, stereos, and now, digital media. Today you could have monks in Nepal listing to klezmer on their iPods.
“Music and emotion defy logic. You can’t figure it out. There was once a natural stage for music in our lives as part of ceremony and ritual. They’ve found bone flutes that are 30,000 years old, so music’s been around for a long time. It was a sacred occupation, with its ability to create a magical, mystical feeling that goes right to the heart and transforms the air you breath. It was put on stage around the time of Bach, but it’s only been turned into a commodity in recent times. One of the things that I’m interested in doing is finding a process to return music to its natural place in our lives.”
While he pondered these questions, Greene started EverGreene Architectural Arts, a company that creates and restores murals. While working a job in Nashville a few years ago, he connected with a group of folk, country, and bluegrass players. When he applied his world music scholarship to American music he traced it back to its Celtic roots, then back through the Balkans, the Ottoman Empire, and further east. He traveled to Central Asia, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Algeria to play with traditional musicians, learn their techniques, and ask them what the music means, how it figures into their daily lives and traditions and how these traditions evolved. He followed the Silk Road in Asia through Uzbekistan and the Xingjian region of China, an area with a strong presence of Chinese Muslims and Uyghurs, to play music in the desert with men who rode for miles on their motorbikes to come and jam with him. When he got back to New York, he heard similar music coming out of a café in Brooklyn. He realized the process of fusion was even taking place in his own backyard.
Greene met Kruth at the jug band jamboree he hosts every Labor Day weekend. Greene’s parties feature washtub bass and jugs cohabiting with hurdy-gurdy players and Tuvan throat singers. Kruth and Greene clicked and spent the next few weeks playing music until they dropped from exhaustion. Both wanted to compose world music filtered through the prism of American folk, jazz, and punk. They chose TriBeCaStan — and New Deli — to honor their neighborhood’s ethnic diversity. “The delis are run by people from Yemen and Korea and they’re stacked to the ceiling with food and music. Not to mention the songs from Haiti, Bangladesh, Tibet, and India the cab drivers are blasting out.
“Some people complain because every TriBeCaStan song sounds different,” Greene concludes. “But we’ve accumulated a large musical vocabulary; we want to explore as many sounds as possible. We don’t work off a formula. The process is intuitive and experimental, almost telepathic. Music goes by so fast, you have to listen intently and complement the other players. It’s like hocketing (linear rhythmic or melodic interplay) — all the parts lock together. We’re not solo players trying to outdo one another. It’s a band with all the voices intermingling. Purists may look at us and say we’re not playing a real Afghani rhythm, but look at recent musical history. American music has been influencing what’s coming out of Ethiopia, India, Thailand, and other places since the ’60s. We’re just returning the favor, but in reverse.”