Thursday, January 16, 2014

In Conversation--Earth Frequency & the Eucalyptus Tree

photo credit Mitch Tobias 
Global Didgeridoo: In Conversation with Stephen Kent

Since we live in a world surrounded by traditional instruments, some hailing back thousands of years, some misunderstood exploited by dominate cultures such as with indigenous instruments--didgeridoo comes to mind, we must grow more conscious of our relationship to these instruments. I explored this concept in my (now between publishers) book Whole Music, in the chapter about indigenous music.

Recently, I wanted to include an article on didgeridoo or interview with a player on Whole Music Experience.  Through synchronicity and me spacing out, I came across Stephen Kent, or I could say I became reacquainted with his musical contributions to world and other types of music because I reviewed his CD, Oil and Water many years ago.  Quite accomplished as a player, musicians from various genres and countries have invited Kent to collaborate with them leading to some fascinating music fusion.  And with three decades of performing on the didgeridoo, someone could write a book on Stephen Kent.  In the meantime, here’s a short interview that was done via e-mail. And the quickest turn-around I ever had in a musician responding to my questions.

Whole Music Exp: When did you first encounter the didgeridoo and what qualities of this instrument drew you to it?

Stephen Kent: I first encountered the Didge when I was offered the job of Music Director of Australia's first (now National) contemporary circus, Circus Oz, in 1981. As the group was very politically motivated and supporting Aboriginal Land Rights, along with Sexual Politics (redefining male and female roles both in the show and within the company structure as a whole) were top of the agenda in the groups' work, I felt as MD I would make some of the music of the show a distinct reflection of the political direction of the group. Also, as a brass player, I was able to make sound on the Didjeridu easily, though the Circular Breathing required was more challenging to learn at the time. On a more personal note the sound of the Didjeridu resonated with me partly because it reminded me of one of my all time favorite pieces of music, a wedding procession of Ugandan horn players (Music in the World of Islam - Strings Flutes & Trumpets track 19) - I spent formative years in Uganda - and I felt that the Didge gave me the possibility to create something along those lines myself.

I was taken then by the dramatic quality of the sound and vibration and the resonance that it had with its indigenous background and a feeling of deep connectedness with The Land. At the same time I also saw its potential as a contemporary musical voice in the world, and one which had hardly been explored in that way at all, as far as I was aware.

WME: Recently, I pulled out Rahim Alhaj's CD Little Earth which includes the Iraqi oud player collaborating with musicians from around the globe.  And your collaboration with the oud player, the track Qaasim caught my attention.  How did this collaboration come about?

SK: Rahim called me on a chilly January morning a few years ago and proposed the collaboration, which had been suggested by D.A Sonneborn (aka Atesh), Director of Smithsonian Folkways. He had "Qasim" in mind already - a piece dedicated to his nephew Qasim, who had been wantonly killed by American soldiers along with 4 of his friends as they left a restaurant after having a lunchtime reunion in Baghdad. They were completely innocent of any crime. I flew to Albuquerque a week or two later and after a day getting to know each other and playing together we went into the studio in Santa Fe in the snow and recorded the piece. Later we performed the CD release of Little Earth at the Globalquerque Festival in Albuquerque.

The piece got a tremendous ovation and the result was an annual booking at Globalquerque for myself and several different group projects, including my band Baraka Moon - a collaboration with Pakistani sufi Qawaali singer Sukhawat Ali Khan - and The Earth Sounds Ensemble with R.Carlos Nakai & two visiting Mongolian musicians in 2012. Rahim Al Haj and I look forward to further collaborations...

WME: What has been your experience collaborating with a vast myriad of instrumentalists and musical performers? I saw that you also worked with a circus at one point?

SK: Hard to speak of this in short form since it has continually been my vocation in over 30 yeas of performing and recording with the Didjeridu to introduce it in collaborations with a multitude of musical cultural forms and genres all over the world. For myself perhaps most notable of my collaborations has been the work I have pursued with Tuvan throat singing group Chirgilchin, with whom I have toured extensively in the USA and in the UK, although due to mismanagement and negative music biz dysfunction the only piece ever released in recorded form of this combo is "Khoomei Song" on Oil and Water, with singer/igil player Igor Koskendey.

However, I could name any number of my collaborations as significant - those with Airto Moreira, Glen Velez and Zakir Hussain were for sure and, recently, I have been recording the entire works of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe written for String Quartet and Didjeridu (4 works to date), which, coincidentally, I was influential in inspiring, as my exploratory work in 1992 with the Kronos Quartet was what directly inspired them to ask Sculthorpe to compose for that combination! This recording, to be released later this year on Sono Luminus is with the Del Sol String Quartet.

Other significant collaborations include working with the late ethno-botanist Terrence McKenna on "Alien Dreamtime", a work that was performed live in a San Francisco SOMA warehouse rave in 1993 and recently celebrated its 20th Anniversary at Art Basel Miami 2013 in another performance, this time with visionary artist Alex Grey taking on Terrence's spoken world role. Further significant collaborations have been in Japan with contemporary Taiko artist Leonard Eto (formerly Artistic Director of Kodo) and Choi Jong Sil of Samulnori in South Korea. I plan to bring my lifetime interest in indigenous musical forms in Africa to fruition with an upcoming series of duo collaborations with African artists, perhaps later this year.

WME: Have you experienced any healing effects from playing didgeridoo? For instance, Charlie MacMahon on his website mentions that players protect their lungs from viruses and bacteria, build immunity, and build lung capacity with the circular breathing.  Sound healers have worked with didgeridoo CD and the instrument to remove blockages from chakras and shake up and remove stuck energies in the body in general.

 SK: As a youth I suffered greatly from myriad ear nose and throat problems and, after an automobile accident in 1979, was told I would never play a wind instrument again, I have found the Didjeridu to be a massively healing instrument in my personal life. I now feel my general resistance to such infections is in large part due to the long term health benefits of playing the Didjeridu. I am also aware that, in the aftermath of a medical study published in the British Medical Journal some years ago (conducted by a Swiss medical team) which suggested that playing the Didge can have very beneficial effects on people who suffer from a variety of breathing issues such as Sleep Apnea that, teaching the basic techniques of playing the Didge to those who suffer chronic Sleep Apnea, can be hugely helpful in reducing, if not eradicating their symptoms completely.

However, the application of the Didjeridu as a "Shamanic Healing" tool by New Age practitioners in the western world is something that is extremely controversial for Aboriginal Australians who, I am told, in their tradition only use it thus rarely and on those occasions the instrument may only be performed by initiated elders.

That increasing numbers of non Aborigines often with no connection at all to the source culture from which the Didjeridu comes blithely set themselves up as "Healers" or even "Shamans" to work with the Didge as a healing force is deeply concerning. My own story with the Didjeridu came about through my own personal journey into Aboriginal culture in the early 1980's and for me it was important to receive permission just to play the instrument. My "contract" as such is that I may play the Didge with the utmost respect for its origins while not attempting to represent (or misrepresent) or appropriate Aboriginal culture in doing so. As such, while I appreciate that sound and vibration can have transformative effects on those receiving them in optimum circumstances, I cannot and will not define myself in those terms. I believe that it is not for me to do so, whatever the apparent positives of using the Didjeridu in that way might suggest.

Final Words:

As someone who has walked a deep path with this extraordinary musical instrument for over three decades I am continually learning and evolving both as a player and a person. For me the Didjeridu is a whole body instrument and the playing of the Didge is an intimate reflection of the journey of self realization that I have been on for most of my life. The power and culture of One Note is a vastly complex and nuanced story and, as such, provides me with constant educational opportunities in a world which, frankly, has very little regard for what that can possibly mean, and largely dismisses the ancient wisdom of indigenous peoples on the one hand while relentlessly proving with its science on the other that those same ancient peoples have vast "libraries" of knowledge that we in the 21st Century are only just waking up to - yet with a different form of communicating that knowledge. The implied application of those prejudiced viewpoints could be considered testament to my own shallowness and lack of ability - that I am still plowing this deep groove with this music 30+ years later. However I am not done yet and I feel that with the passage of time comes more and more wisdom - wisdom which cannot even enunciate its significance in words alone. 

You can find Stephen Kent on Face Book at