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The Kora Epic

A pandemic tale for the new year – In March 2020, when it became clear we were hunkering down for the long haul due to the pandemic, I decided to order a kora. I was thinking that it would be an engaging creative way to spend my time, seeing as I was out of work. A kora is a West African 21 string harp built out of a large calabash gourd with a long neck made of wood. I’ve wanted to learn it from the moment I first heard one in 1990 when a friend came back from Senegal with street vendor cassette tapes he’d scored. I thought then and still think now that it’s the most enchanting instrument I’ve ever heard and have long thought it would be a retirement goal to learn how to play one. Well, why not now with all this time?

One of my favorite kora players is Sona Jobarteh from The Gambia ~ If you haven’t heard of her she is most decidedly worth checking out. She is the first woman to be widely recognized as a master in the griot tradition of the regions where kora music comes from. I discovered that the luthier that she has worked with for years in developing an evolved kora has them available for sale through her website. They’ve taken the best elements of the instrument from it’s traditional form, and added contemporary hardware and structural reinforcement to traditional materials and have created a concert quality instrument. I reached out and learned that each instrument was custom made upon ordering, and set the process in motion. After all my research and decision making, by now it was late March.

The first question I got asked was how I would like the top of the neck and the handles to be carved. The image that immediately leapt to mind was a spiral and without hesitation I wrote right back. Within a day I was sent a photo asking if the design was alright. I was blown away and said yes. Soon after I started getting photos of the neck as it developed, and then a picture of the calabash gourd that would make up the body of the instrument. Needless to say I was thoroughly stunned at what I was seeing, and that they were sending me step by step pictures of the instrument being created from scratch.

After a couple weeks of back and forth with design choices I got a message that the kora was finished (!!!) and that now the luthier would tune it up and stress test it for 2 weeks to ensure everything settled into place before being shipped. Oh man was I blown away seeing these pics and knowing this glorious creation was soon to enter my life. I also fell in love looking at the place this was made, seeing the palm trees in the yard, and truly hope I can visit there someday.

I finally got a message on May 14 2020 (will never forget the date) letting me know that my kora was finished & passed through all of the stress tests before shipping. There was only one problem – now the national mail service in The Gambia was closed due to the pandemic. Dang. So now I began my wait. Long story short – this turned into a masterclass in patience. International shipping resumed mid October after a couple of agonizing false starts, and we walked in the door Halloween night (!!!) to find this lovely surprise after waiting over 7 months from when I ordered.

I ended up in a lovely correspondence friendship with the agent for The African Guild due to this extended process, as we exchanged emails weekly that became increasingly personal ~ I look forward to meeting him someday. And now I’ve embarked on the most enchanting musical relationship I’ve ever known.

This has been a profound process throughout, especially knowing that the instrument that I now play daily was made specifically for me. Sometimes I walk into my office studio and just look at it, marveling at it’s journey across the ocean and into my home. The kora truly is a magnificent creation, a work of art that implies a cultural sophistication and aesthetic depth far beyond what is typically attributed to the region where it comes from. There is such a wealth of musical heritage and creativity born through the kora, and I am honored to hold one in my hands. It teaches me daily, and I’ve never known an instrument to lead me on as readily as this one.

And our adventure together has only just begun…

First couple of days discovering… November 2020

A Song A Day…

This might very well be the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. If you’re reading this, then I’ve committed and can’t postpone or talk myself out of it anymore.  

The Short Version ~ I’ve challenged myself to release a piece of music a day for however long I can, starting on March 17, 2020 (also the first day of Coronovirus isolation in our household).

Take Me to the Music Yo!

The Longer Version:

Put me in front of 1000 people as a vaudevillian and I thrive. Put me in front of 20 people with a guitar and I may appear confidant, but inside is sheer terror. Sharing original music is one of the most intimate things a human can do. We become vulnerable in a way that very few other things make us. We are emotionally naked and fully exposed and standing in front of a full theatre in our underwear just waiting to be judged. But you’re reading this, so I’ve committed. Let’s jump off the deep end together…

I’ve been playing music for just as long as I’ve been a juggler (since early high school!), but most of my friends and acquaintances probably don’t know that. My music-making has mostly been in the spirit of “this keeps me sane and balanced” and more like self-guided personal therapy than anything else. With a few memorable exceptions, I’ve mostly kept it to myself over the years.

I’m sensing that it’s time to change. I have a deep reservoir of music that I have been recording for 30 years now, most of it solo, but there have also been some excellent collaborations along the way and one flat out band. Even if one person other than myself hears any of these things, it’s doing more than sitting on my shelf gathering dust, so I think it’s time to let some of them out.

Maybe some of these creations will even be appreciated…

I’m not exaggerating ~ I have hundreds of recordings from over 30 years of self-guided musical therapy ~ I’ve thought of these as explorations of my emotional spectrum turned into sound. The pieces weren’t meant to be “songs” in the traditional sense, nor do most of them seem to fit anywhere genre-wise. Most of these pieces were written either as meditations, as sonic reflections on a thought or a feeling, or they helped me to work through challenging emotional passages or situations. Sometimes I listen to something years after the fact and think that I captured an archetype, or at least drew a personal map through turbulent waters. But when all is said and done, Music has been my comfort animal, reassuring to keep close, but definitely with a mind of its own.

So I’ve set myself a challenge ~ I’m going to release a piece of music a day for at least a month, probably more, and see what happens. I’m calling it Eric’s New Eccentric Music Archive (E.N.E.M.A.), as it’s a huge release of material that has previously been pent up. 😉 Sorry not sorry. I had to go there. I hope that made you smile. But it feels accurate ~ I’ve been holding on to this stuff for far too long.

In this day and age of pre-recorded loop libraries and samples, I ask you to keep in mind that throughout this archive 98% of the things you hear are original sounds being played by me ~ I have a fair collection of acoustic and electric instruments as well as various hand drums and percussion instruments, and am also very fond of creating new sounds and textures in synthesizers. There’s also a didjeridoo and a ukulele, two of my favorites. On rare occasions, I resort to utilizing a pre-recorded drum loop because I’m hearing the need for something in the mix that I don’t know how to play myself or can’t figure out. But for the most part, even in the most densely layered compositions, everything is being played by me unless otherwise noted.

In going through my archives I’ve realized that there are a significant number of pieces that I truly love and have helped me through some pretty challenging times. In probably every case, I never shared them because I’m a perfectionist and they were never quite “there” in a public way, or I was too insecure and felt too vulnerable sharing such an intimate thing. And then my creative process always has me looking over the next horizon and so I never followed through and finished or polished a piece because I was already moving on to the next inspiration, or the next thing to work through.  

So I’m done with that ~ a big part of the reason why I feel compelled to let all of these things see the light of day now is to just get over that feeling of “it’s got to be perfect” before I want to share because you see where that’s gotten me ~ 30 some years worth of creativity sitting in a vault. Maybe I’m just at that point in my life where I don’t care anymore whether these things are perfect or not, or whether they’re sketches never fully realized… I’m ok with that.  

I’ve come to realize that I’d rather share and let go of these things to change my habits, as I don’t think these habits have been serving me very well for all this time ~ musically I’ve become an inadvertent hoarder, where in real life I cherish sharing whatever I’ve got. It’s time to realign my energy, deepen my integrity, and stop being so afraid that I will be judged for not being good enough.  

I’m going to start this offering with the most recent project I’ve been working on for a couple of years now, and the creation that I’m certainly the proudest of ~ The Small Craft Advisory. It started with writing a poem that I thought might be fun to set to music, which turned into something else entirely. There are now 9 or 10 (or 12) of these things and each one has been a profound discovery process. I’ve come to think of them as a series of podcast opinion pieces set to theatrical sound sculptures. That might be the name of their genre. This collection also feels decidedly activist, and perhaps they may serve some purpose.

So here they are, in all of their imperfect glory, for what they are, warts and all. Starting tomorrow, a musical creation a day for at least a month, in all likelihood more. This is how I’m going to spend my Coronovirus retreat from the world. 

If anything speaks to you, I’d love to hear about it! If something moves you or causes you to think of someone in particular, please consider sharing it with them and passing it along. I’ve come to appreciate that creativity in any of its forms only becomes real when it’s shared and touches someone else’s heart ~ please let me know if I do.

And if you think to yourself “Damn I’d love to mix this into something else entirely” please do and let me know ~ I’ve long suspected that many of these creations are only going to be fully realized by changing context completely, and that’s something beyond the scope of my wheelhouse. I’d love to collaborate with someone who knows remixing and Ableton type things well ~ I’ve got even more snippets, phrases, and themes that I’ve never done anything at all with that would lend themselves to electronic composition and remixing.  

In other words, are you my George Martin? Where are you, George? Let’s take this to the next level. I’ve got boundless musical creativity and I need you…

Ultimately I’m feeling the need to clear my creative energy out so that I have room for whatever comes next. I’m also experiencing in my heart of hearts that for a thoughtful caring human, the challenges of our times demand a response.

This is my response… Positive creative caring energy cast into the world like seeds into a garden.

Aho.

Now take me to the music….



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What Will It Take?

A few months ago I reached out to a fair number of friends and family asking them to video themselves reading a line from a spoken word piece I wrote and then send it back to me.

Little did I know that receiving video clips from so many different people would also mean getting almost just as many different formats and resolutions and other little inconsistencies that ended up making it really difficult to stitch together a couple of dozen clips, and it took far longer than anticipated.

But in the end, all of the puzzles were solved and the result is something that I had been secretly hoping for the entire time ~ the whole is indeed much greater than the sum of its parts. My vision with having a community read of this piece was hoping that it would have greater power with humans from many different walks of life working together to create something.

I’ve been struggling with the fact that each of these questions needs to be asked and contemplated by everyone alive, and this piece was born from my own process of learning how to deal with the immensity of the issues facing us. Because when all is said and done, each of us will end up facing these things regardless of whether we choose to confront them directly or be taken kicking and screaming. I’d prefer head-on and eyes wide open myself.

As always, if this video does anything for you, or makes you think of anyone in particular, please share it and pass it along. The intention behind this effort is to help awaken and stir the pot because every drop in the bucket adds up, and if many of us start contributing drops then the sooner we’ll arrive at a cultural critical mass and begin to effect fundamental changes.

I am proud to present the first public TemplEarth creation, the community reading of “What Will It Take?”


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