Keith Terry & Crosspulse: World-Music Traditions

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Crosspulse hits the stage like an international hurricane – a blazing whirlwind of people, color, sound and movement. As they skip, hop, jump, dance and spin around the stage, the five band members juggle an amazing array of instruments: djembe, cajón, congas, bells, shekeres, bongos, guiros, dumbeks, okedo, wok cleaning brushes, maracas and children’s toys – not to mention guitar, mandolin and the human body. They also tackle a diverse array of musical styles, including kecak from Bali, son from Cuba, samba from Brazil and Angola and joropo from the Colombo-Venezuelan region, to name but a few.

They dip their hands and feet into many ponds, living up to their name. Drawn from a cross section of cultures, both from the San Francisco Bay Area and across the world, Crosspulse features Keith Terry, a former jazz drummer, from Albany, California, born in Waxahachie, Texas. Raymond Graham, the group’s expert on West African rhythms, comes from Harlem, New York, and now lives in Oakland, California. Guitarist, singer and vocal arranger Claudia Gómez lives in Palo Alto, California, and is originally from Medellin, Colombia, where she immersed herself in the folkloric music of Afro-Colombian regions of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. Edgardo Cambón was born in Uruguay, raised in Argentina, and specializes in Cuban and South American music. Jackeline Rago, who was born in Caracas, Venezuela, has been singing, drumming and playing cuatro and mandolin since she was four years old. Rago came to the Bay Area to study music and has a BA in mandolin from San Francisco’s Institute of Music and Arts.

As Terry’s brainchild, Crosspulse grew out of his increasing interest in world music, particularly the planet’s diverse drumming traditions. “Strangely enough, I got turned onto world music in the early ’70s, when I was in Dallas, waiting to be discovered,” Terry says, as he putters around his Albany rehearsal studio, sorting tapes and sheet music in preparation for a Crosspulse performance of “Excursion Fare” (a collaboration with Manhattan Tap) at Joyce Theater in the New York City.

“I’d been playing traps in a group called Joint Effort, which mixed rock, jazz and folk music. Very eclectic. We’d recorded about three albums’ worth of material at Electric Ladyland in New York,” Terry laughs. “Our producer was shopping it around and we were holding our breath, waiting for our big break.” While he waited for the record deal that never happened, Terry began delving into Indonesian music, particularly gamelan. “I knew Steve Reich was using it as a source of inspiration for some of his compositions, and suddenly the path opened up for me in ’74. I was on tour with PDQ Bach, and found the Center for World Music in Berkeley, where I heard live gamelan for the first time. That experience made me listen to all music differently. I went back to New York, got rid of my apartment and moved [to Berkeley] to study at the Center for World Music. I started with gamelan, but wound up studying all kinds of stuff – South Indian classical music, West African rhythms, Japanese taiko, and the rhythmic systems from a variety of musics from around the planet.”

His studies at the Center for World Music inspired Terry to return to school, and he eventually earned a degree in world music through an independent study program in Antioch University. In the meantime, he supported himself by playing in jazz combos and supplying percussion for the Pickle Family Circus, San Francisco Mime Troupe, Make-a-Circus and the Jazz Tap Ensemble, a group that included three dancers, piano, bass and Terry on traps.

“Looking back, I can see how the work I did with the Jazz Tap Ensemble started me onto the path that led to Crosspulse,” Terry says. “I started playing what I call body music, by playing what I played on the drums on my body,” Terry says. “It was the older dancers who encouraged me to explore it. I finally left Jazz Tap to explore what was coming out.”

As he experimented with body music, Terry found out that many cultures around the world have discovered ways to use the body as a rhythm instrument. He explains, “There’s hambone in the United States, saman in Sumatra, Ethiopian armpit music, Balinese kecak (ke-chock), Inuit throat singing, palmas in flamenco, and all kinds of slapping, snapping and stomping.

“At first, I did collaborations with other artists, usually as a duo. I did pieces with Geoff Hoyle, who is now on Broadway in Lion King, Blondell Cummings, a wonderful dancer and actress, and Bobby McFerrin, who also uses body music and a cappella sounds to create his rhythms. This all led to doing solo work, which kept getting closer to my core – attempting to find a way to get to the music that was inside of me.”

While Terry developed his body music, he also became involved in multicultural collaborations, working with groups like Gamelan Sekar Jaya, a Berkeley-based ensemble that plays traditional Balinese gamelan, and San Jose Taiko, a troupe that plays both traditional and contemporary Japanese drum music.

“In 1990 I reconnected with I Wayan Dibia, who is a master of Balinese dance and at the forefront of kecak, which is sometimes called ’monkey chant.’ When we first met in 1980, we started talking about combining body music with kecak. The result was the creation of a group of 12 Balinese and 12 American musicians and dancers to combine the two. We called the piece ’Body Tjak’ (body chock) and it was performed in the Bay Area, Seattle, San Diego, L.A., Bali and Java.

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“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.’”