World PiecesFor David Lindley, the world is still flats (sharps)
European classical music mixes comfortably with bluegrass. Cuban rhythms seem an obvious mate for American hip-hop. Indian sounds are folded into a be-bop context and Pakistani qawwali music meets electric fusion, and rather than a chaotic collision of cultures, it sounds like an effortless intertwining.All of it puts a big smile on the face of David Lindley. Four decades ago, the visionary string master put together the Kaleidoscope, what some consider the first example of a “world music” rock band. Now Lindley opens his ears on a world full of world music, and it makes his voice get a case of the warm and fuzzies.”It’s great. Mission accomplished,” said Lindley from his Southern California home. “People know who King Sunny Ade is, and Toots & the Maytals, and these throat singers from Tuva. People know what’s going on.”The well-traveled Lindley says technology – everything from travel to recording techniques – has made such cross-culture leaps inevitable. “Because of cassette machines, you could go to Nepal and hear Michael Jackson,” he said. “I met some guys who used to smuggle records into East Germany, and they would smile and say, ‘Now we can listen to anything.'”Listening to a world of sounds and styles must have seemed like a natural to Lindley. Growing up in Los Angeles, Lindley’s father has an extensive collection of 78s that ranged from Korean folk to Indian sitar music. After Lindley picked up a succession of instruments – first violin at age 3, but he broke the bridge; then baritone ukelele in his early teens, and on to banjo, on which he won the Topango Canyon Banjo and Fiddle Contest five times – he made his way into the folk music scene of ’60s L.A. What he encountered there was a vast eclecticism that he found scintillating.
“You’d go to the Ash Grove and the Troubadour and hear flamenco, classical Indian music, Russian folk,” he said. “People would learn all kinds of dances, Balkan folk dances, and I’d meet the musicians who were playing. People were listening to everything. The radio played all kinds of stuff. It was OK then.”Lindley, however, was one of the first to move from listening to everything to actually playing everything. In his early bluegrass groups – the Dry City Scat Band and the Mad City Ramblers – he worked up grassy versions of “Greensleeves” and Paganini’s “Perpetual Motion.” With his long-running band El Rayo-X, Lindley combines a variety of American roots styles with a heavy dose of Jamaican reggae. On his recent album “Twango Bango III,” recorded with his frequent collaborator, drummer Wally Ingram, the sounds move from America to Ireland, through Turkey and Mexico. Lindley is not content merely to mimic the rhythms and melodies of distant cultures. From early in his career, Lindley has attempted to master the instruments themselves that make the music. Asked how many instruments he plays, Lindley estimated it to be a “cubic shitload.” When he comes to Snowmass Village this week – to open for Leftover Salmon today, June 11, at the Chili Pepper & Brew Fest – Lindley will bring a small portion of his collection for the solo performance: a Turkish saz, a Middle Eastern oud, an Irish bouzouki, Hawaiian guitars and a good ol’ American six-string. Learning all those styles and all those instruments seems a monstrous undertaking, rife with confusion. But Lindley sees all music as fundamentally connected, not separated. This monolithic view makes switching gears from Tex-Mex to Tibet a snap.”It’s all one style. It’s just twang,” said Lindley. “It’s really easy. A lot of stuff is related: Irish folk music and Arabic or Turkish music and Appalachian music – the stuff sounds very similar.
“I like to point out the similarities and use different instruments and combine instruments that no one should ever play together. But it works. It becomes something else. That what people have done for years, to make something else.”The one cross-culture adventurer Lindley chooses to illustrate the point of mixing techniques is not a musician, but the late king of martial arts cinema. “I’m an admirer of Bruce Lee,” said Lindley. “He’d take different things, different styles of martial arts, take what is useful and make it his own. I like that idea very much.”While he jumps from one instrument to the next, Lindley has great admiration for the musician who slavishly gives himself over to one master. Banjoist Béla Fleck, for one, has earned Lindley’s respect. And Lindley has marveled at the way Fleck has used the banjo to bridge the gaps between jazz and bluegrass, classical and funk.”The first time I heard him I said, ‘OK, here we go. Fasten your seat belts,'” he said. “I was so glad to see that. It’s encouraging when you hear people playing on that level. You say, this is what happens when you practice a lot.”Lindley, too, has clearly done his musical homework. No one gains an expertise on so many instruments without spending a lot of time alone in a room.
Yet, Lindley’s public persona is more that of a comic kook than a studious sort. He has put in plenty of time in the mainstream music world – he was a featured member of Jackson Browne’s band for seven years, and has recorded with Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt and Crosby & Nash. But his own bands take on bizarre alter egos; his duo with Ingram sometimes goes under the name Los Chromasomés, with Lindley as El Rayo-X and Ingram as El Rayo-Y. His albums have odd names and goofy cover art, and even goofier songs: “Twango Bango III” opens with the back-to-back tunes “Meatgrinder Blues,” about the unhealthy byproducts of modern life, and “When a Guy Gets Boobs,” a critique of the American diet.”I’ve always liked songwriters like Warren Zevon, who could write something goofy and also really serious,” said Lindley. He offers as examples his own “Methlab Boyfriend” and “Sport Utilities Suck”: “It’s like life and death,” he said. “It’s the best way to look at something, rather than be preaching, shaking that finger bone.”There is something maddening about how Lindley combines virtuosity and comedy, salsa and Appalachian music, with almost no effort. So it’s comforting to know that even Lindley, in his effort to hold the entire world of music in his fingertips, has run into some unscalable walls. The gamelan music of Indonesia and Bali he finds “really dense,” adding “it’s hard to get into it. You need an orchestra, a big band, to play it.” And Lindley has given up hopes of ever mastering the pedal steel guitar. “It takes over your entire being,” he said.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Here’s a glimpse at what skiers and riders may encounter in their quest for some turns at Aspen-Snowmass this season.