(repost, published by me aprox two years ago at the Plugg blog)
Takoma was one of the most important labels in the world throughout the sixties and seventies. The label dedicated itself to blues guitar albums, artistically conducted by the late John Fahey. Except for the fact Fahey was an outstanding guitar player with lots of soul, he also had a good ear for new talent. That’s how he recognized the great potential in a young 12 strings guitar player named Leo Kottke. The other important figure in the triangle of leading artists in Takoma was Robbie Basho. For me, Basho was the most fascinating one of the bunch, both as a guitar player and as a composer.
Like Kottke, he mainly played a 12 strings guitar, but he was far from the ‘academic’ approach of Kottke, he was more of a ’street musician’ who emphasized the feel and unique touch rather than any other aspect. He was a brilliant singer with a soulful voice and pathos-full singing style. With his baritone voice, he could make the sky shake when he opened his mouth. Challenging himself constantly with alternative tunings, bizarre guitar arrangements who were far from the tunings known to popular music. It was mainly because his world music influences and desire to make guitar sounds like eastern instruments.
So there you have it, the Takoma triangle. Fahey was the father, Kottke was the son, and Basho was the holy ghost.
I can’t say much about Basho’s history as there’s very little known about him. All that’s known is that he released his albums in Takoma, then a couple on Vanguard and then joined the new label by guitarist Will Ackerman – Windham Hill. Windham Hill was established under Basho’s influence on Ackerman..but more about that some other day. After several of records with WH, Basho couldn’t make a living off music and reached a point where he released his album on cassettes only, in the early eighties. These same cassettes are long gone and there’s no sign of them anymore, like many of his albums that were never reissued and forever forgotten to the ether (unless you were fortunate enough to buy them back then or are willing to fork over a small fortune on eBay).
Basho also had a problem of miscommunication with his listeners when he constantly released hard to handle, challenging albums. The fact he was such an enigmatic figure didn’t help and looked like Basho’s career was doomed for a commercial flop – one album after the other. With these starting points, no wonder you probably never heard of him.
The wonderful label of Bo’Weavil had recently released a rare documentation of a live Basho concert that took place in 1980 in Bonn, Germany. For me, news like this is equal to reading on the daily paper – “new life forms were discovered on Mars” – except that a Basho reissue is much more significant! So when I first heard about it – I was shocked and immediately ran to the store to buy myself a copy of this important recording. And boy, was I thrilled to hear these sounds!
Basho managed to deliver his entire mix of influences in one show, when he played tracks from his entire career, one piece after the other of deep, emotional and thrilling compositions. The mixture of Appalachian, Persian, Arabic, Folk, Jazz and Classical music reveals a gentle soul and amazing composing skills, accompanied by an intensive, almost a militaristic way of playing. These same elements make Basho one of the most important musician in history – for me.
The songs are long – 8-9 minutes each. All are demanding, challenging and thrilling. There’s something nice in the fact we almost don’t know anything about Basho’s life, as we only have the music as the interpretation of the person who created it.
The recording itself is lo-fi, as it was brought from a second-generation audio cassette recording but I’ll take what I can get! For one, it adds charm and mystique. Second, it’ll be like complaining about the quality of Nick Drake’s lost recordings. With all my love for Drake, and there’s a lot of it, a lost Basho recording is a once in a decade event, and I hope other Basho albums will be re-issued in the near future.
The ‘New Takoma’ US label – Tompkins Square - had actually released Venus In Cancer in a beautiful digipack (get it! it’s a masterpiece!). Personally, I’m waiting for them to reissue his best album – Zarthus.
Rocky Mountain Raga
I can’t say much more about Basho’s music and the feeling it brings on me, as some things can’t be described in words, and emotions are usually shape-less. All I can say is that you’re welcome to hit the Play button, sit back and relax and let the music carry you to a new world of sound and vision.