Jeff Greene: TriBeCaStan's Global Groove Hunter

jeff greene

“I have a severe case of IAS — Instrument Acquisition Syndrome,” says hand drummer and master percussionist Jeff Greene, one of the founders of the world music collective TriBeCaStan (speaking of an ailment you may know by its cruder common name, GAS — Gear Acquisition Syndrome). “I have too many instruments; my wife says she’ll divorce me if I bring home any more. I’ve been to a 12-step program, but every time I go, I keep finding out about instruments I don’t have. After the meetings, I try to find out where to get them.” Greene is only partially joking. His living space is filled with hand drums and percussion devices he’s collected on his travels around the world. He has the expected stack of guiros, marimbas, dafs, bells, Jew’s harps and gongs, along with more exotic pieces. There’s a mobece, a bamboo instrument that’s used by pygmies to create interlocking rhythms, a tunable berimbau, and a marimbula (large thumb piano) that he discovered in Cuba. (“I was playing dance music and was so excited by its tonality and the crowd reaction that I played until my fingers bled.”)

All these instruments, and many more find their way into the mix on New Deli, TriBeCaStan’s third and most adventurous album. The band may have a humorous name, but the music it creates is anything but frivolous. TriBeCaStan specializes in fluid global rhythms that weave in an out of odd time signatures and unique timbres to create their own individual place in the space-time continuum. Greene and the band’s cofounder, composer and multi-instrumentalist John Kruth, are both voracious ethnomusicologists, determined to make music without any temporal, rhythmic, or cultural boundaries.

One Nation Under Music

“My approach is all about sound and timbre,” Greene explains. “Every geographical area has an essential musical quality. European music is based on harmony, African music on rhythm, Middle Eastern on melody. Central Asia uses timbre, especially the quality of the overtones. It’s a whole other way of understanding music. As a drummer, I’m especially interested in overtones. I like hand drums that can be tuned. I have a daf (large Persian/Kurdistani bass tambourine) that has an inner tube inside the frame. You can tune it with a bicycle pump. It’s handy because natural skin goes limp on a rainy day. I also have a melodic tambourine with a bicycle brake on it; you can tighten and loosen the skin while you’re playing it. It can sound like a talking drum and has about two octaves in it. On our first album, Strange Cousin, I use it on ‘Mopti,’ playing an African 6/8 rhythm.”

Greene and Kruth started playing under the TriBeCaStan moniker in 2007. They made their recording debut the next year with Strange Cousin. They brought in Brahim Fribgane on bendir and riqq, master shell player and trombonist Steve Turre, and a few other pals. But it was mostly Kruth layering up interlocking parts on his collection of exotic string instruments and Greene, who supplied tonal color with his own eclectic take on hand drumming. The music was both rootsy and otherworldly, skittering across diverse genres and cultures with an effortless grace, adapting jazz, Middle Eastern, and Asian modes into something unique.

On 5 Star Cave, the second TriBeCaStan outing, Greene and Kruth were mashing up even more diverse styles. They composed Asian Country and Western tunes, Balkan bebop excursions and Middle Eastern surf music, all designed to scramble your neurons by merging unlikely combinations of sound and genre. New Deli takes their vision even further with the help of the 11-piece TriBeCaStan FolkLorkeStra. “The big band allows us to make arrangements that are more complex, with more variety and room for diverse percussion accents,” Greene states. “Every time we play, we push against what we thought were our limits. We wanted to make a record with danceable rhythms and the flow of a live concert.”

While their previous albums were put together in the studio, this time they included four tracks cut live at Orange Music Sound Studio, the facility favored by Bill Laswell for his dub-centric fusions. “Song For Kroncha,” one of the live tracks, opens the album with an invocation to the mouse that accompanies Ganesha in Hindu mythology. The track combines South African Zulu jive played with a Celtic feel, long melodic horn lines, and skronking free-jazz interludes. Depending on the flow, Greene alternates between touches of subtle percussion and full-bore freak-outs to complement the work of Todd Isler’s drum kit and Boris Kinberg’s Latin percussion.

Greene adjusts his playing to the music, looking for tones and colors that support the TriBeCaStan feel. On “Freaks For The Festival,” a Rahsaan Roland Kirk number, the underlying rhythm is supplied by Greene’s berimbau. “The Brain Surgeon’s Wife Serves Lunch” takes a boogie-woogie turnaround and gives it a playful, folksy approach. Greene plays a mahogany marimba and adds sneaky percussion effects that slither, slide, and twang, hinting at gamelan and circus sideshow music. Soul legend Tami Lynn sings lead on “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,” using an arrangement that suggests a Balkan belly dance. Greene and Kruth wrote “The Mystery Of Licorice McKechnie” to honor the Incredible String Band singer and percussionist who vanished in 1990. Badal Roy contributes tabla to accompany Tine Kindermann’s eerie musical saw, while Greene adds subtle fills with his collection of hand drums and a water triangle.

“The water triangle has a cone on its end that amplifies the sound,” Greene explains. “It’s covered and has some liquid in it, so you have the attack of triangle, but moving the water in the cone gets you a lot of different tones.” Greene also uses a Waterphone, the invention of Richard Waters. It combines elements of the kalimba, Tibetan water drum, and 16th century peg violin. Greene plays it with a bow and a Superball mallet. Dragging the Superball across the drum’s surface produces a pulsing, vibrating tone that you can bend by shifting the water inside the drum’s base. He also has an udu drum with a water chamber. It’s played by hand in the usual way, but the water chamber allows him to bend notes.

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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.”

Jeff Greene

Greene’s Setup

Percussion
A Friction Drum
B Santur
C Bendir
D Kanjira
E Crumhorn
F Garrahand
G Water Udu
H Chinese Opera Gongs
I Uileann Chanter
J Caixixi
K Milltone
L Shekere
M Cabasa
N Remo Spring Drum
O LP Flex-A-Tone
P Quijada (mule's jaw bone)
Q Berimbau
R Balafon
S Steel Pan Drum
T Cimbalom
U Marimbula
V Riq
W Daf
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.

Harmonic Diversity

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.”