Some albums take a while to warm up to, but every so often I come across one I know is going to be a fixture in my music collection for a long time. The first few bars of harmonica on Senegalese singer-songwriter Badu Boye’s new release We Can Win decided it for me.

"We Can Win" by Badu BoyeBadu Boye’s open-hearted harmonica, guitar, and vocals on We Can Win evoke Bob Dylan at his best in the early 1960s, but with a thoroughly contemporary edge incorporating electric guitar, bass, drums, trumpet, violin, cello, mandolin, and other instruments. Composed individually, the songs represent different musical moments from over a decade, including “Mboolo Mi” from the 1997 album Woyou Talibé, which Badu released with Pape Armand Boye, his brother and the producer of We Can Win.

The Boye brothers debuted on Senegalese television in the early 1990s with a sound that was a bit different during a time when synthesized mbalax music dominated the airwaves: a simple pairing of acoustic guitar and bass. Through their ground-breaking early performances and recordings, they led the establishment of acoustic music as a genre still thriving today in Senegal.

A current of optimism runs throughout We Can Win, not least of all in the title track’s call for positive development and image building across Africa. “Everything single thing I do is to make you proud,” Badu sings. “I know that we can win—yes we can.” On “Senegal,” one of the album’s very strongest tracks, he describes the experience of living abroad while still cherishing the country he has left behind: “Everything is beautiful, but I’m homesick for Senegal my country. I’m sure that one day I’ll be back!”

The album’s arrangements are layered around Badu’s signature harmonica and acoustic guitar, and are filled with bursts of shimmering, beautiful sound when you least expect them. Sukjong Hong’s violin catches you unawares with its pure sweet sound on “Politique,” while Will Martina’s cello ripples in and out of the melody toward the end of “Mboolo Mi.” Of all of the tracks though, the loveliest of all perhaps is “Melokaan,” a simple arrangement with Badu’s brother joining him on acoustic guitar.

We Can Win is one of those albums I pull out when I need a gentler perspective on life after a harsh day, and more than deserves its place as a long-term fixture in my music collection. Samples of the tracks can be previewed on Badu’s website.


Somewhere between electro-acoustic and folk, and between forest and ocean, emerges the music of Arborea, a husband-and-wife duo from Maine.

Arborea: Shanti and Buck Curran (courtesy the artists)

Since releasing their first album Wayfaring Summer in 2006, Buck and Shanti Curran have toured regularly across the United States and Europe, absorbing sounds and experiences along the way that filter into their music.

Red Planet (Strange Attractors Audio House, 2011), Arborea’s most recent album, conjures images of barren landscapes and misty forests; of sunny afternoons and contemplative hours; and the happy, although swift, passage of time.

The minor key and atmospheric electric guitar of tracks like “Phantasmagoria in Two” and “Wolves” lends a touch of mystery to the album, which is balanced by the lighter sounds of “Spain” and “A Little Time.”

Buck and Shanti both skillfully play a large number of instruments—guitar, banjo, and harmonium to name only a few—and Red Planet features a handful of instrumental tracks, such as “Fossil Sea.” Shanti sings on most of the songs though, in a warm, sweet-sounding voice at times tinged with plaintiveness.

Arborea’s music is captivating and unconventional in a way that keeps you wanting to experience more, and it’s well worth setting aside some time to listen to one of their albums.

Already this spring, the duo has performed at SXSW and on NPR for a Tiny Desk Concert. They took time out of their busy schedule, which includes touring and homeschooling their two children, to catch up with Apsara in an e-mail interview.

Arborea’s music has been dubbed as “psych folk,” “indie folk,” etc. How would you describe it?

We’ve been called “avant folk,” “indie folk,” “psych folk,” “dream folk,” “free folk,” “folk rock”…but it’s not strictly folk. With elements of rock, blues, and Eastern modal music, you might describe it more as “soundscapes.” More often than not, our music is created as if it were a soundtrack for the landscapes and environments we’re moving through or interacting with, so it’s really impossible to say it’s just one thing. A lot of people associate us with forests and mountains, but we’re equally inspired by the power of the ocean and the rugged coast of Maine, as well as countries we often visit: Ireland and Wales, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Your first album Wayfaring Summer came out in 2006, and you recently released your fourth album Red Planet. In what ways has your music evolved over this span of time?

Our music has evolved quite a bit over the past seven years. We’ve gotten so much stronger and intuitive as a duo because we’ve dedicated everything we have to playing music and spend most of our time each year touring throughout the US, UK, and Europe. We heard a term recently in an old interview with Marc Bolan (T. Rex), in which he talked about the reality of life as an artist and touring, and how you don’t make a lot of money. But you do it because you “live your environment”—and that’s exactly what we do.

Red Planet features renditions of “Black is the Colour” and “Careless Love” alongside your own compositions. How did you approach interpreting these traditional songs, which have been performed by musicians from many different genres?

“Careless Love” is actually two distinct traditional songs. One version is a folk song about pregnancy, and the other is a blues song about frivolous love (Bessie Smith recorded a notable version in 1925). It’s origin though is an anonymous poem. Shanti randomly discovered the short poem in an old literature book and at the time we didn’t know about the other versions. We took words from the poem, then composed the song with our own rhythm, melody, and song structure. Our song is linked closer to the folk song, with the references to young love and pregnancy, and wearing the apron high and low.

“Black is the Colour” is our own arrangement of a version that’s on the 1987 Martin Simpson and Jessica Radcliffe album True Dare or Promise. That song was passed down to Jessica from her mother, and most likely the source of the version that’s best known comes from the American composer and collector of traditional ballads John Jacob Niles. It’s a song with Scottish origins, brought to the Appalachians by immigrants from Scotland. The River Clyde in Glasgow is referenced in the lyrics and shows direct lineage to Scotland. We also have a version of “This Little Light of Mine” that we recorded for an Odetta tribute. Interpreting traditional songs can be a really fluid process and a lot of fun, because you have a solid reference point from which to start. Our approach is quite simple because the framework of the song is established. We can then improvise with all the existing parts: varying the melody, removing words, and adding new ones. One thing that’s of great importance to us is making sure that there’s plenty of space in the recording so the melody can shine through. That’s how we try to produce all of our music though, not just traditional songs.

This month, you performed a lovely, three-song Tiny Desk Concert at the NPR headquarters. What was this experience like?

We had such a great time! Bob Boilen and all of the crew at NPR are really down to earth and professional, so it made for a relaxing, fun experience. We homeschool our kids, and they were on tour with us and also got to see the NPR headquarters. After our session, NPR let us keep our van in their garage, so we took an amazing family walk around Washington, DC, and eventually ended up at the Air and Space Museum.

Arborea on NPR Music


Israeli musician Idan Raichel shares the incredible story of jamming with Malian guitar virtuoso Vieux Farka Touré and uncovering a diamond.

Vieux Farka Touré (left) and Idan Raichel in concert. (Nitzan Treystman)

Two years ago Vieux Farka Touré and Idan Raichel met in a rehearsal room in a south Tel Aviv recording studio simply to jam. Deciding it would make good archive material, they recorded the spontaneous three-hour session.

“There was something about this session that just brought out our love of music,” Raichel said during a recent phone interview.

A week later Jacob Edgar from Cumbancha Records contacted Raichel with the idea of turning the session recording into an album. Raichel initially hesitated at the thought of cutting down the 15- to 20-minute improvised melodies into album tracks. But after spending a few months listening to the recording, he realized it resembled an unpolished “diamond” and took on the task of producing the album.

Raichel’s work paid off in the form of 11 shining tracks. Under the name the Touré-Raichel Collective, The Tel Aviv Session was released on Cumbancha last week. The four musicians from the original session—Touré (guitar), Raichel (piano), Souleymane Kane (calabash), and Yossi Fine (bass)—form the core of this acoustic album. A select group of guest artists, including harmonica player Frédéric Yonnet and singer Cabra Casay, also lent their talent to the album.

“Vieux Farka Touré and I are very song- and production-oriented, so it was a very different experience for us,” Raichel said. “[But] The Tel Aviv Session album ended up as one of the most exciting works that I have ever done as a musician.”

During production, Raichel kept the album focused on the original 2010 session, especially the unrehearsed musical exchange between the artists and the overall atmosphere of the studio. Like on a jazz recording, the musicians take turns leading, and when they all play together they create shimmering cyclones of sound. An occasional breath or sigh even comes through on the recording. Listening, it is easy to imagine the excitement and connection between the musicians during the session.

“[With the album,] I tried to emphasize the best part of each musician,” Raichel said. “But the most important thing was still the communication between the four of us.”

There is a feeling of freedom and experimentation on the album, and even of heightened virtuosic ability. On the track “Bamba,” for example, Raichel plays glissandos and plucks the strings of the studio’s grand piano to create the sound of a West African kora. Touré’s dazzling finger work and tone especially come through on tracks like “Hawa” and “Ai Houde Bakoi.”

The guest musicians also add energy and texture to the album. Yonnet’s high-power harmonica playing on “Touré,” for example, shakes up the middle of the album, escalating the rhythm to a foot-stomping pace. And Mark Eliyahu’s haunting kamanche weaves in and out of the melody on “Alem,” until it fades away with Touré’s guitar and closes the album.

Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)
Touré and Raichel in the studio together. (Nitzan Treystman)

The Touré-Raichel Collective begins a two-week tour of the United States and Canada on Apr. 13. Tapping into the spirit of the 2010 session, they will improvise around the album’s tracks.

“What we will try to do onstage is not to play the album, but to play the idea of the album,” Raichel said.

The concerts, like the album, provide a unique opportunity to experience Touré and Raichel—two of the most talented musicians of their generation—come together in such a personal and open style of performing. And it creates an uncommon experience for the musicians too, like discovering a diamond.

“Special moments like the Tel Aviv session are very rare,” Raichel said. “And we are very lucky to have them.”

Join the tour on Twitter for backstage photos and insights from the road.


Appalachian Mountain dulcimer doesn’t always take center stage in American folk music, let alone in a rock band. But in the band Twang Darkly, it gets the spotlight.

The Sound of Secret Names (Mar. 2012), the first studio album by Shreveport-based rock trio Twang Darkly, breaks out of the standard mountain dulcimer folk repertoire with songs that could just change the way we view this unassuming Appalachian string instrument.

Twang Darkly founder Michael Futreal, a North Carolina native and multi-instrumentalist who Apsara featured last August, bought his first dulcimer in college and hasn’t looked back since. After experimenting with “Appalachian rock” on several of his own albums, The Sound of Secret Names firmly establishes Futreal as an innovator of this genre, and especially of the dulcimer.

Futreal and bandmates Troy Messina (percussion) and Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and electric guitar) have released an all-instrumental album of beautiful folk rock, gritty roadhouse rockabilly, and harmonica-fueled blues. Twang Darkly specializes in improvisation, and although the album was recorded in Futreal’s home studio, several of the songs are first-takes.

The Sound of Secret Names features acoustic and electric dulcimer, harmonica, flute, and banjo. It draws inspiration from Bruce Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Jethro Tull, and Tom Waits, as well as surf rock, spaghetti western and 1970s television soundtracks, and a whole host of other musical influences.

But this isn’t a crazy quilt of sounds. Futreal, Messina, and Boultinghouse have created something that’s both entirely original and rooted in musical traditions from Appalachia and the American southeast. We look forward to future releases from Twang Darkly, and hope to see them at SXSW next year.

Apsara spoke to Futreal recently to get the story behind this intriguingly named album.

Twang Darkly: Troy Messina (L), Joel Boultinghouse, and Michael Futreal (courtesy the artist)

How has Twang Darkly evolved as a band since Live from Wire Mountain (Feb. 2011), your first set of recordings?

In one simple respect, on a technical level, I’ve built a recording setup that is appropriate to capturing a band live in multiple tracks, allowing for a proper studio mixing approach without diminishing our live mojo. My previous studio setup, as employed on Devil’s Stomping Ground for instance, was entirely geared towards me working alone to layer together different instruments. I did some overdubs on this album working in that way, but the primary essence of each track was born from a live take on which we played together in some combination.

Our primary power as a band is the resonance that allows us to improvise together upon a loosely structured “song” idea. Though I’m the primary “writer” of our material, what happens when we perform together is emergent and it’s always beyond what I imagine for any particular piece.

We’ve played a lot of shows together since we captured Live from Wire Mountain as a kind of field recording, and the accumulation of that experience puts us all very much more on the same wavelength. We have a feel for how to work together that lets us do things that surprise us all and approach new ideas very fluidly and rapidly. We took advantage of that in the recording process to capture some stuff that was very fresh. For instance, two of the songs, “From Flatlands Starlings Rise” and “The Beautiful Years Roll,” were first-takes on the same day that I introduced those pieces to the band. Similarly, Joel doesn’t even remember recording “Pastime with Good Company.” But if I start a song, he just starts playing along and we ride it where it leads—that’s what happened with that one.

What’s behind the name: The Sound of Secret Names?

The idea of “secret names” appeals to me primarily through the folkloric notion of something’s true name holding a magical power over that thing—a power to conjure or to hold, for instance. A good literary exploration of this idea is found very prominently in Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea books, of which I’m very fond, but it’s an idea I’ve run across many times from a wide variety of sources ranging from Tolkien to Springsteen.

The given titles to instrumental pieces hold a power of suggestion over how people experience listening, but I also like to think that these pieces all have other secret names that will vary from listener to listener. For example, what to me paints an impression of how it felt to behold a particular desert landscape at a certain point in my emotional history will, for another, call upon other scenes and feelings appropriate to their own imagination and memory. The song they hear will have a different secret name than the song I hear. They may not even know the name they would choose, as they may not be accustomed to navigating such impressions or making such choices. But if they feel the music, then that name is there, if perhaps just out of their grasp.

Two songs on the album feature very beautiful, very organic-sounding flute—what type were you playing?

On “Her Secret Name,” I’m playing a bamboo renaissance flute that my parents gave me back in my college days. I actually learned to play that thing in a place at North Carolina State University called the “Free Expression Tunnel,” a pedestrian tunnel under the railroad tracks that bisect the campus. I used to go down there at nights and play as people painted (it was the place on campus where graffiti was officially sanctioned), enjoying the wonderful echoes that made even the simplest bits of music into magic.

On “Spirit Defenders of Nikwasi,” I’m playing a Native American-style double flute. It actually has two pipes, one of which serves as a drone as you play through the divided mouthpiece. That flute, which is made of aromatic cedar, was built by a fellow named Odell Borg out in Arizona. I adore that flute—the drone set against the other pipe’s scale makes it the wind equivalent of a dulcimer to my way of thinking, so it’s a natural fit to my particular musical brain. I’d only had it a short time when we recorded that song, but that conceptual mapping makes it a natural instrument for me.


Not all songs need lyrics. On his newly released album World Behind Curtains, Israeli musician Yair Yona once again shows his talent for communicating to listeners without saying a single word.

Yair Yona, Feb. 2009 (Facebook/Yairyonamusic)

Yair Yona immediately wanted to sell his bass and switch to guitar after buying a Bert Jansch album eight years ago in London. His life changed direction again a few years later when he discovered the instrumental acoustic music of guitarist Glenn Jones.

Yona, who just released World Behind Curtains, his second album for guitar, says his unmapped journey of discovery, frustration, and inspiration has all been worth it and life is better than ever. Although he’s immensely talented on guitar, he doesn’t actually call himself a “guitarist” and identifies more with behind-the-scenes roles in the music world.

It’s not difficult to see where he gets this self image from. In addition to writing, recording, and performing his own music, Yona keeps busy as a co-founder of the music label OutNow Recordings, manager of freestyle saxophonist Albert Beger, and writer/publisher of the music blog Small Town Romance.

World Behind Curtains, at heart an acoustic guitar album with cinematic inspiration, builds on Yona’s first album Remember (2009). Incorporating instruments like electric guitar and french horn and a special mother-son piano/guitar duet,  Yona has developed his musical voice in an even further, more meaningful direction.

He spoke with Apsara about the journey leading up to this latest album.

You first discovered fingerstyle guitar when you lived in London studying audio engineering. What drew you to this style of playing?

I played bass in London, and in my dream world I believed that I was going to find a psychedelic rock band, go on tours, and become ridiculously rich and buy more bass guitars. That was the plan anyway.

Then one day when I went into a record store in Camden and stumbled upon Bert Jansch and Jackson C. Frank’s first albums and I bought both of them—I’d never heard of either of them or their music before. There was just something about the album covers that made me curious to pick them up and listen to them. When I first listened to Bert Jansch’s music it immediately felt so familiar. I don’t know how or why—it just sparked my senses. I remember that feeling even today. It was like the excitement of the first time you see the girl of your dreams.

Has fingerstyle guitar been the focus of your music since then?

When I discovered Bert Jansch’s music, I immediately wanted to sell my bass guitar and become an acoustic guitar player. That was it. I’m a person who makes strong decisions and usually goes to the extreme with them. And then I meet myself somewhere in the middle. I didn’t even know how to play except for the basics, but something inside of me just felt so right so I went in that direction.

I don’t actually see myself as an acoustic fingerstyle guitarist, or as a guitarist at all. To me, a guitarist is someone who takes the time to practice for five hours a day, and knows all of the notes, scales, and modes. And I don’t. I have no formal musical education and everything I know about guitar playing serves my music only. If you put me in a band with a guitar in hand, I have no idea what to do with myself. I’m a good guitarist for my music—I think that’s the right definition.

I think art has nothing to do with formal music education. I like to improvise as I go along. But I do think if you know the musical rules and then go and break them you’re in a better position. Still, Paul McCartney’s musical education started later on in his career… I’m feeling good with myself and with the path that I’ve taken. I’ve just followed my heart, and my heart has taken me to where I am now. Things are going great and I’m happier than ever.

World Behind Curtains is even more of an instrumental album than Remember (2009). Guitar still takes center stage, but there are other instruments, including the violin and piano. How did the idea for this album evolve? What’s the meaning of the title?

When I initially thought about how to do the marketing for this album, I thought about tracking down a film director and proposing to make a film for which this would be the soundtrack. It was born out of lots of soundtrack listening hours—lots of Americana and 1970s Italian composers. The music was composed on solo acoustic guitar, and just evolved out of itself in a way.

“World behind curtains” is a phrase that my girlfriend wrote in the first line of a story. Translated from Hebrew it is something like: “The girl looked out of the window and saw the world behind curtains.” I told her: “That’s a good name for an album.” Only later did I learn that in English it can mean “someone behind the curtains.” It somehow fit me perfectly. I was always behind the scenes, as a label manager who was managing artists or as a bass player who wasn’t the focus of the rock band. This is an album that says: “This is a picture of the guy who’s behind the curtains.”


You’ve dedicated several songs in the past to musicians who’ve influenced you. On this latest album, for example, you’ve dedicated one track to guitarist Glenn Jones. What has his music meant to you over the years?

When I discovered Bert Jansch’s music and the whole world of British folk music I tried to write songs in English, which isn’t my native language. When I tried to sing it just didn’t sound right to me because of my accent. I kept comforting myself by saying: “Nico had a German accent and that’s okay, it worked for her. And Björk has an Icelandic accent and it works for her, so I can do it too.” But it didn’t feel authentic to me, and I felt I would be lying to myself if I continued that way. I had a couple of hard years because I desperately wanted to be a songwriter, but it didn’t feel right and I was really frustrated by that.

Then by chance in 2006 or 2007 I listened to Glenn Jones’s first album, which was released on Strange Attractors Audio House, the same label as my albums. I had known of him before as the guitarist of Cul de Sac, an experimental rock band I like very much. When I listened to the music on his first album, which was for six- and 12-string acoustic guitar, it made so much sense. He said so much without saying a single word. It just liberated my mind. I listened to the music and said to myself: “You know what? That’s a good way to express yourself. You don’t have to sing.” I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, I could just do it my own way. It was all thanks to Glenn Jones’s music.

Since then he’s released three more albums, and people are starting to recognize him now. He signed on to a bigger label—Thrill Jockey—and he’s touring. He’s seriously amazing. And he’s been a big supporter of my music. When I finished the work on Remember, I sent it to him on a CD-R before it was released. He wrote me such an amazing note afterward. Reading those words coming from the most important person to me in that field was the ultimate stamp of approval.

In the liner notes for World Behind Curtains, you write that you composed the song “Bella” while watching TV: “The song just poured out in a couple of minutes.” How did this beautiful song, which features your mom on piano, come about?

It was written about two-and-a-half years ago for my previous girlfriend, whose nickname is “Bella.” Someone had bought me a guitar instruction DVD by Kelly Joe Phelps that I was watching. He’s a really amazing guitarist and a soulful singer. I like to watch guitar instruction DVDs because I like to see how guitarists move their hands and how they hold the guitar. I really like to study from other people. He was playing with an unusual tuning: C-G-C-G-C-D. I tried to retune the guitar and that melody just poured out in five seconds. It just wrote itself, and when that happens you feel like you’re the luckiest person on earth, seriously. Then I recorded the demo of that song so I’d have it at home to work on.

My mom was a wonder kid on the piano. But she stopped playing for about 40 years and just returned to it about four or five years ago. I decided that it would be amazing if she’d play piano on the album. I wanted to give her a stamp of approval again. She sees me as her “son the musician.” So I decided to bring her into the studio for the first time in her life, and have her put headphones on and make her part of the process. I was very excited and also very nervous because I was on a tight schedule and had limited time in the studio. Everything had to be quick, but it was very, very exciting. It was a different level of connection between mother and son. She was really happy with the result. She said she loves the album and that it’s so beautiful, but that’s just mom talking.

World Behind Curtains released Feb. 14 from Strange Attractors Audio House. Preview it, and Farthest South, Yona’s latest musical project, on Bandcamp.


Today, just five days before Christmas, U.S. President Barack Obama held a ceremony to conclude the Iraq War. But battles sometimes come to a standstill even without official sanction, as John McCutcheon sang about on his 1984 album Winter Solstice.

German soldiers celebrate Christmas during World War I

Christmas 1914: Groups of German and British soldiers living in cold, muddy trenches in France struck up an unofficial armistice. Lonely and far away from home, these young men met spontaneously in the “No Man’s Land” between the trenches to sing carols, play football, and toast the holiday together.

American folk musician John McCutcheon captured this event on his album Winter Solstice, released on Rounder Records in 1984. Listening to McCutcheon’s song “Christmas in the Trenches,” the beautiful simplicity of the 1914 truce still hits home a century later.

‘There’s someone coming towards us!’ the front line sentry cried
All sights were fixed on one lone figure coming from their side
His truce flag, like a Christmas star, shone on that plain so bright
As he bravely strode unarmed into the night.
Full lyrics

McCutcheon says that he first heard the armistice story from an unassuming janitor backstage at a concert decades ago. “Christmas in the Trenches” has become a beloved holiday classic, and it’s one of McCutcheon’s most well-known songs.

The entire album deserves being listened to each holiday season, and it’s no wonder after three decades that it still appears on “must listen” Christmas music lists.

McCutcheon’s delicate hammer dulcimer both kindles the warmth of being inside on a late December afternoon as well as conjures the crisp chill of the days leading up to the solstice. He was joined on the recording by members of the Washington Bach Consort and of Paul Reisler’s folk ensemble Trapezoid.

Winter Solstice features songs as diverse as “Willie’s Waltz,” a melody written for McCutcheon’s oldest son, and the popular Hebrew love song “Erev Shel Shoshanim” (Evening of Lilies).

As our own war concludes and we move into the holiday season, the lessons of the 1914 Christmas armistice are well worth remembering: peace can be spontaneous and the truest kind is often unofficial.

As McCutcheon sang on Winter Solstice: “The walls they’d kept between us to exact the work of war, had been crumbled and were gone for evermore.”

Full Winter Solstice track list

1. Christmas Day Ida Moarnin/Un Flambeau Jeanette Isabella

2. Erev Shel Shoshanim

3. Willie’s Waltz

4. Christmas In The Trenches

5. Star In The East

6. Old Christmas Morning/Breaking Up Christmas

7. Jesus, Jesus, Rest Your Head

8. For Unto Us A Child Is Born

9. Huron Carol

10. Detroit, December

11. Down In Yon Forest/New Year’s Eve


The winter solstice creeps nearer each day.

An autumn sunset (Flickr/Josh Libatique)

Winter has not yet descended upon Northern California, but the wind bit at my cheeks as I walked along the ocean yesterday. I’m starting to dress in double layers and crave comfort foods like vegetable stew and fruit sauces flavored with allspice.

Acoustic string music kindles my late fall and wintertime memories of listening to folk music records, and watching the sun set through the bare branches of trees in the backyard.

“Up High in the Clouds,” a song from harpist Diana Rowan’s album the Bright Knowledge has always sounded both watery and wintery to me. On her website, Diana explains that this Romanian tune does have winter roots:

“[The song contains] variations on a holiday folk melody I found in the UC Berkeley music library, hidden away in a dusty book that hadn’t been opened in years. I was drawn to the melody’s combination of sweetness, strength and offbeat phrase lengths, much as I’m drawn to people.”

“Up High in the Clouds,” Diana Rowan


Looking out a rain-spotted window at Seattle’s Capitol Hill. (Flickr/sea turtle)

We just celebrated Diwali (the Hindu new year) in our household, kicking off a season of new beginnings while winding down the current year. My birthday is also around the corner, so lately I’ve found myself thinking not only about the current year but also about years past.

Like many people, music strongly calls to mind for me a specific time and place in my memories—all of which connect to where I’m at, the music I listen to, and the person who I am now.  From now until the end of December, Apsara will feature a number of artists and albums who represent important influences on the road leading up to its creation in April 2011.

And along the way, we’ll also showcase some of your picks for the music that comprises the soundtrack to your life. We welcome you to e-mail us at apsaramusicblog [at] gmail.com with the name of an artist and album that reminds you of a significant moment or era in your life, with a few sentences about the place that it takes you back to.

I’ll go first, with an artist and album that I only “discovered” just this weekend, but whose music reminds me both of my years in Seattle and of my life in California now.

Robert Deeble is not exactly a household name, but this understated indie folk artist has been garnering critical praise with his albums and performances since the late 1990s. He only releases recordings every few years. The gap between his last album and his forthcoming November release spans six years, for example.

There’s a languid pace to his music that reminds me of life on the California coast, so I was not surprised to discover that Deeble hails from Long Beach. But he’s also spent several years in Seattle, and to my ears that sound comes through in the mellow guitar chords and quiet lyrics. Listening to “Blue,” I’m at once standing on the cliff overlooking Steamer Lane and sitting in the bus to Capitol Hill watching raindrops roll down the window.

you make me smile
when your mood
lies down
here for awhile
could you afford a major chord
to make us all smile?

shine down
let your blue light hue
touch the ground
do you mind keeping time
here with my sound? 

Now that I live in California, I feel that I’m “home.” But I’m also a little wistful for the rainy days of dreaming in coffee shops, and I’m grateful for the many friends and amazing musical experiences that I had in Seattle that continue to influence and make my life fulfilling today.


The dulcimer a traditional instrument? Not so, says Michael Futreal, a multi-instrumentalist who pushes the boundaries of how people typically view this Appalachian folk instrument. Futreal speaks about growing up as a self-taught musician in North Carolina, his free-spirited approach to the dulcimer, and about his band Twang Darkly.

Michael Futreal performs on electric dulcimer. (Sherry Heflin)

In a few sentences, how would you define your music?

Picture this recurring scene from Twang Darkly shows: someone who has been listening to us for over an hour will come up to us during a set break and ask, “So…what kind of music do y’all play?” I’m always struck dumb by the question. I usually manage to answer something along the lines of “cinematic Appalachian roots rock” or “new-fangled mountain music.”

Here’s the real deal though: in attempting to create new music that I would like to hear, I try to keep myself open to discovering other related music that I want to play. And it really does feel more like discovery than a purely willful act of creation. The Muses are broadcasting on all frequencies, and I can tune into a few of their stations on the broken radio of my rambling Truckaluck. When I stay with the signal long enough, sometimes something magical remains to me through all the rain and rust. These days, I record that stuff as soon as I can, or I just play it for the band and we take it wherever we can.


Who do you consider to be your earliest musical influences? How did growing up in North Carolina and in a musically inclined family shape your first experiences with music? What is the biggest impact of your earlier influences and experiences on your music today?

My brother Andy taught himself to play guitar over the course of my childhood. There weren’t lessons and there were few, if any, how-to books—there was just a guitar. He had an acoustic, but he was primarily playing electric rock like Dire Straits, Bruce Springsteen, Blue Oyster Cult, and Jethro Tull, and that seemed perfectly acceptable to him. I remember him playing Mike Post’s TV stuff like the theme from Magnum PI…he’d create complete arrangements on the acoustic guitar for some of those TV themes. So as I grew up, he was demonstrating that music was something that you could do, not just purchase.

We grew up in Warsaw, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina…the 1970s and 80s for me. Taking charge of our own experiences was paramount because, well, there wasn’t much to do otherwise. We had no cable TV; we had books, records, a basketball goal, some lawn mowers, and four TV channels. Our parents would take us to Raleigh and we’d hit the giant flea market (comics and records!), the mall, and maybe a movie. I wanted to recreate everything that was important and enjoyable out of those excursions. I made silly movies with our 8mm camera. I created comics. It was inevitable that I’d eventually want to start making music too, and that wish took hold as I started to notice how much Dire Straits and Springsteen were speaking to me as I transitioned into those angst-filled teenage years. Love, desire, romance, blues, mojo…you name it, and I could have all those things through music in a way that I couldn’t pull off any other way.

As it happens, Springsteen and [Mark] Knopfler were very self-consciously experimenting with American folk music traditions, and this dovetailed nicely with the increased time we were spending in the North Carolina mountains. We’d traveled there nearly every summer as I grew up, but we started going a lot more as I got older. As we’d haunt folklife museums, craft guild shows, and any odd store we’d come across, I’d encounter a lot of Appalachian dulcimers (though not nearly enough actual music).  By the end of my senior year in high school, we’d actually moved to Asheville. Before starting college that fall, I got my first dulcimer with some money my grandmother had left for me. As I was already playing guitar and harmonica, I set up a crude, bounce-based recording system using two cassette recorders, hoping to do stuff along the lines of what Springsteen had accomplished with Nebraska.


Music by Twang Darkly, Futreal’s band, accompanies video footage from his family’s early vacations to the North Carolina mountains. 

Another piece of the puzzle, I think, comes from my oldest brother, Bill. Knowing I was interested in blues and folk stuff, he wisely told me to seek Howling Wolf and John Lee Hooker. Wolf’s the Real Folk Blues was a revelation to me. And Hooker N Heat…oh my god! How could anything so completely off-the-hook…so clearly performed without any plan…be so fabulously dead-on kick-ass? As usual, I wanted to be able to do that sort of thing too! It turns out to be a lifelong project, of course.

You started out playing harmonica, and would sometimes practice in the woods. What was this experience like? Do you still try out new instruments in this type of setting?

I used to take a Walkman into the woods and play along with Springsteen and Howling Wolf cassettes, because: a) you really can’t play harmonica so quietly, and b) when you first start, you really can’t play so well. So this was simply my best option for letting loose without driving everyone else crazy, and not the more enlightened communing-with-nature that it might seem. That said, I love the woods, and love to hike. I generally enjoy the birds and rustling leaves more than my own sound though, so I try to keep the mojo down low!

I really don’t do this sort of thing now, as the new instruments I’m inclined to try are often variations on instruments I already play to some degree. My wife is pretty used to strange sounds emanating from my side of the house, in any case, and she mostly doesn’t mind. I do wait for her to leave before I give that lamentable bamboo saxophone the business though.

“Crossing Thistledown”

Futreal on harmonica (his first instrument), dulcimer, and electric guitar.

When did you shift to the dulcimer as your primary instrument? What is it about the dulcimer that led you to make the switch?

I’m not sure I’ve ever had a primary instrument, but I’ve certainly decided to allow myself to focus more on the mountain dulcimer without regret. My older habit had been always to move on to something out of my comfort zone. For instance, if I was feeling pretty good about my dulcimer playing, Iâ’d try to focus on recording more banjo or what have you. I like to learn, and I like where coping with uncertainty pushes you.

The thing I love most about the dulcimer is the way you can surf the tension between the open droning strings and the limited notes available on the diatonic fret board (the dulcimer is missing frets, such that only a major scale plus a flat seven can be played on a given string). The interplay of those patterns across the strings shapes your expression similarly to the way a rule-set applied to poetry (e.g., writing in sonnet form) fosters an altered state of creativity.

“Devil’s Stompin’ Ground”

Demonstrating the range of what a dulcimer can do.

Even better, because of the weird fretboard, when you re-tune, capo, or re-string the dulcimer (I play with at least six different tunings across two different string arrangements), you get dramatically different musical possibilities. Suddenly, it’s not just sonnets, but villanelles and sestinas.

The dulcimer has also shaped the way I hear and play other instruments. When I’m playing guitar, banjo, or even gourdtar, I often employ very similar kinds of approaches, allowing some strings to drone while I pursue modal melodies and chords that work against the drones. I use a lot of dulcimer-inspired “alternate tunings.”

Sailing in the Junkyard Sea, an album you released with your brother Andy, features the oud. How did you decide to pair a North African/Middle Eastern instrument with Appalachian folk instruments like dulcimer and banjo?

I wish I could tell a good story about the epiphany that put these things together, but in this specific case it has more to do with what instruments were on hand and what happened that particular day…our only plan was to play and record whatever happened. So most of the tracks on that album, including the title track, began life as pure improvisations recorded live during two days in Cambridge, UK. Andy usually has a simple stereo recorder set up in his den, right next to a bunch of acoustic instruments, including laud, oud, and several guitars. He keeps each of his guitars in a different tuning (which I started doing myself after that session), so they really are effectively different instruments. The title track “Sailing the Junkyard Sea” happened when I randomly picked up a guitar and started playing along with something he happened to be doing on the oud at that moment. As soon as there are two of us playing, we’re drawn into some flow…and something beyond either of us emerges.

“Sailing the Junkyard Sea”

Title track from Michael and Andy Futreal’s album.

At some point, I’ll probably reconstruct the essence of my part in that recording and then unleash it within a Twang Darkly session to see where it goes. Bassist/guitarist Joel Boultinghouse and I work together in a substantially similar way, just riding the resonances that happen when we start playing.

More broadly, though, I just really enjoy unexpected combinations of instruments. From my point of view, getting too hung up on tradition and what “goes together” risks comfortably reproducing expectation at the expense of creativity. It’s not that traditional musical forms and instrument matchups can’t be creative tools, but more that I simply enjoy going sideways.

You first started playing dulcimer in an unusual style at a medieval-themed dinner in college. Since that time, in what other ways have you pushed the boundaries of how people normally think a dulcimer should be played?

Well, some folks would be quick to point out that I play electric dulcimer with free use of distortion, neither of which is “traditional.” I think the electricity brings a new layer of expressiveness to the instrument. It is easier to work with electrics in a live setup, which is part of why I do it, but I’d be needlessly limiting myself if I ignored the additional musical possibilities that the electric dulcimer offers.

I think another aspect that puts me in a minority has to do with the way I maneuver outside one of the supposedly important division within our ranks. That is, the dulcimer-playing community seems to be concerned over the distinction between traditional “drone and noter” playing and modern “chord style” playing. I’m certainly willing to play chords and chord fragments, but drones figure prominently in what I do, and I’ll often use these chord fragments as a way to play harmonized modal melodies.

“Greensleeves in Blue”

Twang Darkly’s rendition of a famous English folk song.

I’ve encountered folks who talk about the dulcimer as a “traditional” instrument and get rather defensive about how it should be handled, what repertoire it should play, etc. According to dulcimer historian Ralph Lee Smith, though, the dulcimer tradition only seems to date back into the early 19th century, maybe 1818 or so. Before that, there were no mountain dulcimers, but rather some folks migrating south from Pennsylvania with a different instrument, the scheitholt (a Germanic zither). Once these folks got among the Scotch/Irish people down in the Virginia Appalachians, someone broke with tradition and created something entirely new. I’ll bet that probably tweaked some of the scheitholt players. Traditions arise from change, so I figure it’s fine to be willing to try new things with “old” instruments.

The bottom line here is that I’m not too keen on arbitrary limitations based on supposed tradition. I make choices, yes, but I don’t find it too useful to believe that my choices in one circumstance mean that I’m obligated to make similar choices across the board. And I certainly don’t believe that someone else having made a choice a long time ago warrants any special consideration simply because a lot of folks followed suit so as not to “do it wrong.” Tradition is valuable, but never more so than when it provides building blocks for “new” ideas.

The members of Twang Darkly jamming together. (Courtesy Michael Futreal)

Of all of your musical projects over the years, what is your favorite to date? What is your latest Twang Darkly project?

I’d have to say that the band Twang Darkly itself is my favorite musical project to date. We’re building an extensive repertoire, both from our ongoing re-imagining of my older material, as well as from the outpouring of new material that our collaboration has prompted. We’re feeling out how we can perform and what our music can be.

I feel incredibly lucky to have found Joel Boultinghouse (upright bass and guitar) and Troy Messina (drums). They’re gifted musicians with an almost supernatural ability to ride a groove wherever it leads. I have a very loose improvisational approach with most of our material, elaborating on the structure and melodies in whatever ways seem right on a given night. Joel and Troy are always right there with me: we’re listening to each other and feeling our way. Being part of that is like an out-of-body experience sometimes. I think, “How are we doing this?” But this is the best part of music, being in a non-verbal resonance with your musical partners. It’s a powerful and fine intimacy to share.

I’m very excited that we’e about to embark on recording a new album. Our first collection, Live from Wire Mountain, was recorded very simply with a recorder out in front of our PA at rehearsals. For the new stuff, I’ve invested our Twang earnings into a new studio setup that can better accommodate a band. We’ll likely still record the core of the songs live, because that’s what we do best, but we’ll also be willing to do a bit of the fleshing out that a studio approach affords…things like adding a bass line to a tune where Joel and I are both playing guitar for the live version. Maybe I’ll explore more flute and such too.  Who knows? We’re making it all up as we go! I hope somebody listens to this new album and wonders, â”What kind of music is that?”


Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)
Guitarist Yair Yona (Tal Argov)

Given that many of the seeds of American folk music traveled across the Atlantic Ocean with the country’s early European immigrants, it is not entirely out of the question then that some of the techniques and sounds that evolved over the past couple of centuries should eventually double back. On Remember, an album originally released in 2009 by guitarist Yair Yona, American folk music has traveled through the Straits of Gibraltar and found its way to Israel.

Reissued last year, Remember boasts 10 masterful (and musically witty) fingerstyle guitar melodies embodied with the spirit of American and British masters of the genre and, of course, Yona’s own wonderful creativity. The tracks consist largely of fingerstyle acoustic guitar, with a variety of other instruments and different styles of music joining in on some of the songs.

“Russian Dance”

On the track “Russian Dance,” for example, Yona conjures up the sound of a Russian folk dance. The instruments—12-string guitar, banjo, accordion, and mandolin (sounding like a balalaika)—blend perfectly here, with the banjo carrying much of the tune. Through the changes in tempo and intensity, it is not difficult to imagine the dance steps that would accompany the song.

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through (As It Carries the Passenger Fahey On It)”

“Floodgate Opens to Allow a Ship to Come Through” pays homage to late guitarist John Fahey, and is another song in which Yona’s talent for sonic imagery displays itself. Electric guitar builds the crescendo behind six-string acoustic guitar, signifying the floodgate opening and the passage of a large ship through it. As the melody winds down, the heavy gate closes and the ship continues on its path downriver.

Remember is by far one of the most original and enjoyable albums that I have discovered this summer. Listen to it for just a few minutes, and you will find yourself unconsciously tapping your feet and swaying your head in time to the rhythm of its pleasingly twangy melodies. Be sure to check it out, as well as Yona’s site, which contains samples of his forthcoming album due out later this year.