Lo many years ago, I published my first article for pay. It appeared in “Mondo 2000”, a periodical that presaged “Wired” in reporting on the intersection of tech/science and culture. The publisher and gnome, R.U. Sirius, still owes me fifty bucks for the following piece of what might pass for journalism. Whatever. It’s just a brief review of the music of a fine old band, Rare Air, and an interview with one of its non-leaders, Grier Coppins.
Metamusical Notes: Experience Replayed © Solomon 1989
Blasting out of the granite heart of the Berkshires on the bitter end of a three day burn, I was looking forward to some long-delayed sleep. Through daggered winds, blinding sleet and fog, I piloted the venerable Zephyr V8 out of the mountains and smack into the web of coincidence.
The cassette machine had just broken, disgorging my most precious Grateful Dead bootleg in ribbons of vinyl confetti onto the muddy cabin floor. I flipped on the radio to land on the AM band. Bigots, spinsters and cranks traded misanthropic bile and hallucinating mind sets on talk radio. Tuning in FM 109.9, I was treated to the worst hits of the past decade, all presaging the coming wave of ‘80s nostalgia. God help us.
However, low down on the dial in the NPR/College Radio ghetto, odds noises begin to percolate and rasp out of the tuner. It’s a proud stomping jig! Bagpipes and whistles are madly chasing over and ‘round each other as gongs, middle eastern goat hide and temple bells collide. KEE-RACK! There’s a percussive explosion that resolves into something improbably melodious and even sort’a pretty. Somebody is playing a guitar that sounds like the hormone-drenched mating call of an ancient lizard king. This is good. Good and weird.
Diverting, mind warping and appealing all at once, they make a sound like no other band. It’s a sound that launches the notion of World Music at a feverish, giddy pitch. As the bright music crackled into static and faded into the night across the mountains, the DJ reveals the source of the musical confabulation; Canadian born, world-bred Rare Air. Yes, this is what the planet needs now; the first and only Celtic bagpipe-middle eastern/asian/scat jazz-funk fusion band!
Shortly after my little journey, I took the time to get better acquainted with the arguably demented, perversely contented cabal of musical sorcerers behind the deadpan socio/acoustic brew that is their unique creation. I tracked down Grier Coppins, cofounder of this strange unit and wizard of the highland bagpipes, whistles, synths and bombarde. Following are excerpts from our interview.
Steven Solomon: The pipes have such a haunting sound. How would you describe it?
Grier Coppins: Obnoxious. Rude. Sometimes wispy or melancholy. Strange, though. That primitive tuning won’t really sit on a piano, if you know what I mean.
Steven Solomon: Now, how did you decide to play this weird blend of music? Did you wake up one morning and say, “Hey, guys, let’s start a bagpipe-funk-fusion band with Japanese gongs in the mix?
Grier Coppins: Actually, it began when we lived together in Brittany, France. I was a pretty isolated area. We wanted to learn Breton music, and that’s where I learned the bombarde. We were always open to learning whatever interested us. It’s never been really conscious, but the music just evolved this way as we did what we wanted to do. So, we tend to escape labels.
Steven Solomon: So, how does that relate to the commercial side of things? Yours is not a convenient attitude in terms of marketing and doing music as a business.
Grier Coppins: Well, one effect of the recent acceptance of what folks are calling World Beat, I guess is that it’s easier to make a living today. Just the same, we’ve never really thought about commercializing it. (End of transcript)
Indeed, how would one go about commercializing so strange and rare a thing, this Tonique Sonique? It is a thing of the heart, from the heart; vitally and purely human. The process might have gone something like this…
- 30,000 BCE: Deep in the heart of Africa, Humankind discovers that hollowed tree trunks struck with stones make a sound that scares even the lions.
- 10,000 BCE: In a shallow cave nearby the coast of what is now called France, spatular Cro-Magnon pluck a bison shank from the embers of a campfire and fashion a flute with tools of stone. A song goes up to the heavens, praying for a good hunt.
- 3,000 BCE: High in the Himalayas, the eerie ringing of crude, bronze temple bowls heralds the coming of a total solar eclipse.
- 600 BCE: Under a leaky sod roof, in a neighborhood later know as the Scottish Highlands, somebody sews a dried goat bladder to a reeded flute and thus creates the grandaddy of all bagpipes. A rude, obnoxious bleating noise ensues, meant to invoke a dispel some gloomy, grey-bearded northern god of foul weather.
- Late Seventeenth Century through the 1990s CE: We see the eventual decline of the ancient Oriental and Islamic empires and the rise of the decadent west. Electricity is tamed, modern chemistry emerges, and the phonograph and radio are invented. Then comes, in a single generation, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. The kids discover ever better methods of making their glands sweat, their feet jump, and getting their elders upset and concerned. Canada moves to the fore in the search for world peace and universal love with the advent of Rare Air. Fans across the globe throng to hear the music.
Just that easy!