Keith Terry & Crosspulse: World-Music Traditions
“Body-Tjak took ten years to put together, but it was an amazing experience. As the group evolved, we found out we wrote well together and performed well together. We found out we shared an adventurous musical spirit that was ready to jump over barriers of language, religion and culture. We invented our own Balinese/English language and over time, we became an amazing ensemble. Then after three months of performances, it was over, so I began wondering what it would be like to have an ongoing group of culturally and racially mixed men and women to do cross-cultural music and dance.”
That question led to Crosspulse, which is still going strong, six years later. “Although everyone in the band has a strong grounding in their own particular culture, we don’t use the term ’multicultural’ because it’s a buzz word, and I see it used in so many contradictory ways. We tend to concentrate on the mixing and bending of the influences we bring to the music,” Terry explains. “It makes working together more difficult in some ways – at any given moment we all have a different take on what’s happening. We all look at music and performance through a different lens, but what comes out of our collaboration can be much richer and more fascinating. It is sometimes the tension between our different approaches that creates powerful music.”
“Someone will always raise the question of authenticity, when you do this kind of work,” says Cambón, Crosspulse’s resident expert on Latin American rhythms. “We’re not bastardizing traditional rhythms, because, in a sense, there is no ’pure’ rhythm. When the rhythms that became the rumba came from West Africa to Cuba, the people who brought them suffered terrible conditions, and since they were not allowed to have drums at first, they had to adapt to keep the music. In Cuba today, the rumba is the most flexible style. It’s played on the street corner, in apartments, anywhere. The most swinging rumbas happen in the places where people connect to the daily tradition. I don’t play the bata rhythms from religious ceremonies and try secularize them. But there’s nothing wrong with playing different rhythms in new combinations. The last time I visited Cuba, I played our first CD for them, and the Cuban folklorists loved it. How can the critics complain if the people who live in the tradition love it?”
While auditioning prospective members for Crosspulse, Terry didn’t look for any particular cultural mix, and only wanted to find musicians who could work well together. “I heard Keith was auditioning people for some kind of drum group,” said djembe player Graham. “I went over to his house and hung out. At one point we were walking around playing these big metal tubes by banging them on the ground. I kept thinking ’When is the audition going to start?’ But playing around with the music was the audition.”
“I didn’t want to have a group that worked by formula,” Terry adds. “I wanted people to bring in their own ideas, and teach their way of making music to us, so we’d all contribute to the repertoire.”
On stage, Crosspulse moves like some kind of musically omnivorous amoeba. One witnesses a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of rhythms, dance steps and singing, as styles rapidly rearrange themselves. A bit of taiko drumming becomes an excursion in body music, or a samba can transform into a rumba, before flowing into a joropo and finishing up as a funky rap tune with Spanglish lyrics. These moments that seem so free and spontaneous on stage are actually the result of a long collaborative process, and it’s this spirit of experimentation that makes the sparks fly.
“My strength is in Afro-Cuban, Afro-Uruguayan and Brazilian rhythms, but since I grew up in South America, I bring my own execution and interpretation to them,” explains Cambón. “I draw elements from tradition, but I don’t play in a traditional style, and I have to adapt to the group’s limitations, although I’m using that word in the most positive sense. In a tune like ’Maxine’s Mozambique,’ for example, Keith starts playing Maxine, a bird-like metal structure made of conical bells. The melody is drawn from the phrasing a piano would use while playing a montuno on a salsa/son style, but since there is no piano in the group, we execute that part on Maxine’s bells, dumbek and congas. This changes the feel, but it’s still great musically and visually.
“Then there’s the theatrical element. Everything is choreographed and if we’re doing a traditional piece, we try to get the steps right. We’re not all great dancers, but we’re not shy, so this too forces us to break our limitations. Five years ago, I couldn’t imagine myself doing body music. Now I add that to a piece we’re working on.”
“It’s a challenge to take a traditional song and play it in a nontraditional style,” says Jackeline Rago. “When you play outside your tradition, you have to be creative to get that same feeling. In Venezuela the national dance is called the Joropo. Usually it would be played on a folk harp and maracas, but in Crosspulse we have hand drums playing some of the harp parts. We stay closer to tradition in the singing, but the colors we bring to each piece can change the traditional sound.”
It’s an entirely different challenge to take pieces that work well on stage and try to translate them into a format that will work on a digital disc. The band’s latest effort, Serpentine, was recently released on Ubiquity Records. The band took their time – three years, to be precise – and gave free reign to their creativity.
“The studio is a different medium, so we concentrate on different aspects of the music when we record,” Terry explains. “For one thing, we can draw on the incredible pool of talent we have in the Bay Area in the studio. We can include people like Linda Tillery, who is an incredible vocalist, Karl Perazzo (percussionist with Carlos Santana) and David Balakrishnan (a violinist from Turtle Island String Quartet.)”
In the studio, Terry likes to experiment with sounds and techniques that would otherwise be impossible to use during Cross-pulse’s live performances. “There’s a song called ’Colo do Rio,’ on which I play water,” Terry explains. “We brought a mike in close to the bucket and damped the bucket by laying towels around the rim. Then I move my hands in the water, let water drip off my fingers and plunge my hands into the bucket, to get different sounds and textures. On stage, those kinds of sounds might not work, but that’s the magic of the recording studio.”
Studio trickery of a different sort figured heavily in the band’s arrangement of “Come Together” from The Beatles’ Abbey Road album, one of the few covers in the Crosspulse repertoire. “I’d been thinking about doing ’Come Together’ with a slight Sundanese jaipongen-esque feel, when I Wayan Sinti, who is an incredible artist on the rebab (Indonesian spike fiddle), and one of the men who introduced me to Indonesian music, came to town.
“I didn’t have anything in a finished form. I just had the gong tracks, but I played them for him and cued him when it was his time to play. Later on, Linda [Tillery] laid down her vocals and we added all the percussion tracks. It’s a long track, and Linda sings the first half of the lyric in half time, and the last half in double time, which is one of the ways they stretch out and compress time in Indonesian music. When I finally finished the tracks and played them for [Sinti], I was really nervous, because he’s fairly classically oriented. At the end, he looked up and smiled and said ’It sounds like the blues.’”