Amidst Holland Tunnel traffic is John Kruth, decked out like a Technicolor Bedouin, conducting the blaring horns of frustrated drivers with a pencil, and channeling a hybrid symphony of New York noise. Next appears the slyly unassuming Jeff Greene, whose conventional attire belies a profound first-hand knowledge of esoteric overtone flutes, Arabic scales, and all things ending in “-stan.” We’re not in Soho anymore.
Welcome to TriBeCaStan, a country without borders tucked away in a corner of downtown Manhattan. This country of the mind is home to Uighur mountaineers and Croatian zookeepers. Drum and fife corps march alongside Slovakian shepherds with six-foot-tall pipes and Indonesian scales warp rock mandolins. Strange Cousin (EverGreene Music; July 14, 2009) captures the ancient future of this imaginary land where Swedish nykelharpas and Pakistani taxi horns can live together harmoniously both in peace and mayhem.
TriBeCaStan was founded during a particularly raucous celebration of World Jug Band Day (also known as Labor Day), when the washboards and tubs turned into a parade of “radical trad music,” as Kruth calls it, on the streets of Tribeca. “We knew we had to keep doing this.” So Kruth, known for his "banshee mandolin" playing with punk bands like the Meat Puppets and the Violent Femmes, united with ethnomusicological whiz Greene to found a new musical nation.
The caravan soon picked up rock-solid Ween bassist David Dreiwitz; Steve Turre, conch shell virtuoso better known as the trombonist for the Saturday Night Live band; the eerie power of the ex-Be Good Tanyas’ Jolie Holland and her voice and box-fiddle; and ethno-jazz reed master Matt Darriau of Klezmatics fame.
If TriBeCaStan had patron saints, they would be the least recognized folk musicians in the world: “People like Don Cherry and Yusef Lateef were just as much folk musicians as jazz musicians. They are the epitome of what we’re striving for,” Kruth explains. “They took folk melodies from around the world and improvised on them,” an overlooked facet revealed on songs like “Mopti,” a banjo-laced cover of the Cherry tune based on a Malian village song. Or on “Yusef’s Motif,” where the peculiar resonance of an African flute and the overtones of a Slovakian shepherd’s pipe pay homage to mentor and inspiration Lateef.
The same principle applies to TriBeCaStani original “Dancing Girls.” “We took a Tajik melody, then made it our own and added a Bulgarian kaval (shepherd’s flute) and an Afghani rubab (short-necked lute) and some Moroccan drums like the darbuka. And of course, there’s a plucked mandocello doing a rock thing,” laughs Greene.
“It’s a natural sonic evolution of where urban folk music is going,” Greene continues. “How can you ignore all these influences? How can you synthesize them organically, so they sound like the music belongs to you, to one place or person. That is what we are trying to accomplish. We are making music that has meaning. It's an honest evolution of these influences.”
TriBeCaStan’s influences are as freewheeling and wide-ranging as their instrument menagerie, but they all flow from what Kruth and Greene feel is the deep inexplicable resonance they’ve experienced in the streets of Split, Croatia or in the melodies of the Sahara, where Greene spent a season hitchhiking as a teenager.
Every time Kruth returns with his partner to Croatia, “I hear these Eastern European melodies, and people tell me they sound Jewish. I didn’t grow up listening to klezmer, so maybe it’s the echo of my DNA.” This echo deeply resounds in songs like “The Flower (that I Placed at my Ancestor’s Grave Spontaneously Burst into Flame with their Appreciation),” which features Klezmatic clarinetist Matt Darriau, and in a shout-out to a deceased relative “Tonko the Zookeeper” that gets wildly TriBeCaStanified with a dulcet Uzbek dutar (strummed lute) and a curious Moldovan kaval flute discovered at a French convention of thousands of hurdy-gurdy players—where else?
A tape Greene bought during a ride in the mountains of Indonesia sparked “Sunda Sunday.” The pentatonic melody Greene found intriguing called out for Turre’s conch stylings, as well as a Trinidadian steel drums. “Raphaela” started out as a song Greene picked up in Havana, with Kruth adding some klezmeresque touches for an out-and-out “Juban” jam. And “Otha’s Blues,” a blues riff once played by Othar Turner’s fife and drum corps, only needed a towering Slovak overtone fujara flute to gain a full TriBeCaStani pedigree).
Inspiration often strikes far closer to home, right on TriBeCaStan’s borders, with the phone number of a Uighur musician in the remote region of Brooklyn or a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam in Lower Manhattan. “I was walking down by the Holland Tunnel, and everyone is just jammed in traffic. I pulled a pencil out of my pocket and started conducting this traffic jam,” Kruth recalls. Even the most belligerent New York drivers couldn’t help but smile and allowed this strange figure to direct their horn blasting. “It was wonderful, something Albert Ayler or Ornette Coleman would have gotten a kick out of; a wild hurricane of sound.” Kruth would know, having played with Ornette and the Master Musicians of Jajouka.
Back in the recording studio this moment later became “Tribecastani Traffic Jam,” a free jazz explosion flowing from loosy-goosy, point and wave conducting. “Something amazing happened during that piece. It was like mental telepathy,” Greene explains. “Everyone was on the same wavelength.”
Nailing down the multifarious culture of TriBeCaStan—or even getting it to hold still for half a second—is a tall order. Kruth and Greene have purposefully aimed to tear down the clichéd boundaries between world, folk, and jazz and rejecting all genres as adequate definitions.
“I like to think of us as avant garde, doing something new. But what are we doing? Just like Art Ensemble of Chicago, one of my favorite bands, we compose and play Ancient Future music. Sun Ra would play music from the roots to the fruits and music from next Tuesday that you haven’t heard yet,” muses Kruth. “I like to think we are playing music you haven’t heard yet.”
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