Mystical minstrels | AspenTimes.com

Mystical minstrels

Stewart Oksenhorn

Boulder band KanNal closes the Carbondale Mountain Fair with a performance Sunday night.

When Tzol chose Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” to sing for third-grade show-and-tell, he was simply absorbing the sounds of his habitat. “It was back in East Texas,” explained Tzol, who didn’t go by the name “Tzol” at the time.The music that Tzol began playing in his 20s was a universe away from Kenny Rogers-style country. But the approach, the notion of connecting to the local sonic source, wasn’t so different. As a 20-year-old, Tzol – who chooses not to reveal his given name – was a traveler in Guatemala and Mexico. Wandering around with ancient Mayan ruins and old Mexican villages with his acoustic guitar, he started playing songs with a tribal feel to them. It wasn’t “The Gambler,” and it wasn’t the skate-punk he sang during his teenage years in Germany, where his father worked as a private pilot.”I was traveling and playing my songs and just tapping into the vibe of the music there,” said the 31-year-old from his current home in Boulder. “The days of skate punk were over. It was a lot less screaming, a lot more singing.”Tzol, who took the Mayan word for “sun” for his name, was so captivated by Central America that he stayed for five years. When he began to find musical partners, however, they weren’t natives but fellow travelers. The first significant collaboration was with Tierro, a Canadian-born guitarist who shared Tzol’s interest in music and Mayan culture. They dubbed the duo Kan’Nal – a play on the Spanish word for “channel,” but also the combination of two Mayan words: ‘Kan” for serpent, and ‘Nal’ for corn. “Both are major symbols in Mayan mythological culture,” said Tzol. The twosome played in small bars and courtyards throughout Guatemala and Mexico.

From the beginning, Kan’Nal had a vision of something more than just music. At those early gigs, Tzol and Tierro would decorate the stage with fresh-picked flowers to enhance the experience.”The thing I discovered there was that Kan’Nal was not just supposed to be music,” said Tzol. “It was music mixed with theater, spoken word, dancers. So the whole event tells a story.”The Kan’Nal experience has grown larger. Three years ago, on a return trip through Central America, Tzol and Tierro met three more traveling musicians – bassist Rodolfo Escobar III, drummer Gilly Gonzales and didgeridoo player Aaron Jerad – who joined the group. When Kan’Nal appears at the Carbondale Mountain Fair this weekend, closing the musical portion of the fair with a 7 p.m. set on Sunday, the band will feature five musicians. And two dancers. And one video projectionist, who adds a suitable video component – volcanos erupting, mountains and oceans – to the sound. And one Guatemalan-born shaman, Aumurak, who performs Mayan ceremonies, and who gave Tzol his name.

Tzol says that Kan’Nal’s music is rooted and earthy. But it is not, in fact, rooted in Mayan musical traditions, which Tzol has never studied. So Kan’Nal’s music is not an approximation of Mayan sounds, nor is it supposed to be. The music is more closely connected to the idea of ancient cultures.”Sometimes there are native beats, but they’re all kinds of native beats – sometimes African, sometimes Native American. Sometimes it’s Middle Eastern, because the percussionist plays tablas and djembe,” said Tzol, who has become a fanatic about Mayan culture. “We call what we do a psychedelic, tribal, shamanistic rock band. It’s very rooted and guttural and earthy. It’s got an ancient cultural root, but there’s also a rock edge to it.”When Tzol sings, what mostly comes out are primal, hoarse sounds that originate down in his throat. It is reminiscent of Jim Morrison; Tzol says the band is occasionally compared to the Doors (as well as Jane’s Addiction and Pink Floyd).”It’s just what came naturally. It’s in my soul,” he said. His bandmates, likewise, were naturally inspired to play music that puts one in the mind of ancient civilizations. “To me, any true art is when someone surrenders and opens up and lets it flow. You can really feel an open heart, and that’s what we do as a band.

“Everyone in the band is a traveling, mystical minstrel. That’s what we are as people; that’s why we were all down there traveling, looking for something.”The band’s travels have landed them in Colorado. Two years ago, performing at the Dreamtime Festival in Paonia, Kan’Nal met Dik Darnell, a musician and producer who is in the thick of the native American music scene. Darnell formed a management group to work with the band, and relocated them to Boulder.Kan’Nal recorded its full-band debut CD, “Dreamwalker,” at Boulder’s Orchard Studios. Just as they were self-distributing it, the CD was picked up by Sony’s Red Distribution, which has pulled back the record and given it a new release date of Sept. 20. Tzol believes that, like himself and many listeners, the Red Distribution folks liked the idea of a sound and experience they hadn’t heard before.”We just played at the High Sierra Festival, and I searched around there, and there was just nothing like us,” he reported. “People try to figure out what we’re doing. They usually tell us it’s refreshing to see something different.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com