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Basket Full of Basho

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A new tribute album underscores why guitarist Robbie Basho still matters.

by Derk Richardson
July 20, 2016

If John Fahey is the Mississippi River of “American Primitive” acoustic steel-string guitar playing, Robbie Basho is the Ganges. If Fahey is the Everest, Basho is the Fuji. Though overshadowed in life and death by his fellow Mid-Atlantic area native, Basho—he was born Daniel R. Robinson, Jr. in 1940 and died at age 45 in 1986—has been the subject of renewed interest for the past decade and a half. His immersion in Asian philosophy and Persian and Indian music—his quests included creating an American raga system—positioned him perfectly for discovery and veneration by the freak-folk movement, and attention to Basho’s legacy has mounted in recent years.

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In 2010, guitarist and luthier Buck Curran curated a Basho tribute album, We Are All One, in the Sun, with performances by Steffan Basho-Junghans, Meg Baird, Glenn Jones, Fern Knight, and his own duo Arborea, among others. Over the past few years, Glenn Jones has been reissuing Basho albums and releasing archival concert tapes on Grass-Top Recording. In 2015, British filmmaker Liam Barker premiered his documentary Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho at the Raindance Festival in London. A new Basho website is packed with photos, documents, interviews, videos, and free music downloads. And on July 5, Obsolete Recordings released Curran’s second collection of covers and homages, Basket Full of Dragons: A Tribute to Robbie Basho Vol II.

The artists who contributed to the 13-track album include both U.S. and international musicians: Glenn Jones and Matthew Azevedo, Richard Osborn, Chuck Johnson, Michael Gulezian and Henry Kaiser, Tamman Saeed and April Centrone (Syria and the U.K.), Paolo Laboule Novellino (Italy), Yair Yona (Israel), Basho-Junghans (Germany), and Mariano Rodriguez, Jonah Schwartz, and Karina Vismara (Argentina and the U.K.).

In an email exchange, Buck Curran—who also released an enthralling solo psychedelic-folk album, Immortal Light (ESP-Disk/Obsolete Recordings), in July—addressed Basho’s significance and his own motivation for organizing the tribute albums.

DR: Why is Basho so important as to warrant not just one but two tribute albums?

Buck Curran: To look closely at the timeline of when Basho started composing and recording (along with U.K. guitarist Davey Graham, John Fahey, Sandy Bull, Joni Mitchell, and a few others), he was pushing the musical boundaries of what was then known possible on the acoustic steel-string guitar, exploring musical colors and moods present in the music of Northern Indian, Japan, and Persia music to a far greater degree than any of his contemporaries. Native American cultures also greatly inspired his music. And it’s important to realize he started composing all this groundbreaking music throughout the 1960s, in a time when many guitar players (both electric and acoustic) were primarily focused on reviving the blues, or like Jimi Hendrix stretching the blues into new forms. Sadly, to this very day, and despite everybody’s efforts over the years (especially with all the great work Steffen Basho-Junghans has done with the online Basho archives), Robbie Basho’s musical legacy, unlike Fahey’s, is still very much underground. On both tributes, you’ll find a balanced mix between instrumentals and vocal-led songs. Basho’s approach to singing and songwriting was very unique and dynamic, similar to the emotive qualities of a Flamenco singer. It would be an injustice to focus just on Basho’s output as a guitarist without also acknowledging his great depth as a singer. To get an idea of the power of his singing, a good place to start listening would be “Salangadou” from his album Basho Sings (1967), “Wounded Knee Soliloquy”from The Voice of the Eagle (1972), and “Blue Crystal Fire” from Visions of the Country (1978).

DR: How did you choose who would be on Vol II?

BC: There are a couple repeat artists from the first tribute, important acoustic players like Glenn Jones and Steffen Basho-Junghans. The heavy influence of Middle Eastern music on Basho led to seeking out contemporary oud players from Iraq and Syria and to including a guitarist from Israel. Basho also had a strong feminine quality to his music, and he celebrated woman in a respectful and spiritual way, so it’s been important to invite female artists to collaborate on these projects. And there are many artists from all over the world who love Basho’s music whom I’ve gigged with or connected with through travel or the Internet, and it was quite natural to expand the project to include great talent from Italy, South America, North America, and the U.K.

When I asked California guitarist Henry Kaiser, who improvised a piece with Michael Gulezian for the album, about Basho’s importance, he said, “Robbie Basho matters so much because he is a nearly forgotten artist of the stature of Werner Herzog, Philip K. Dick, or Paul Klee, to select three oblique examples from other modes of artistic expression. A tribute compilation like this says both “aloha” and “mahalo” to his spirit, and it offers a set of signposts directed at Basho for listeners to follow back in time.”

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