Robbie Basho: a guitar flying on Raga

Robbie Basho is a cult figure in the world of lovers of acoustic guitar and fingerpicking. A discreet and quiet man, not inclined to the notoriety and the theatricality of the musical world he has been a keen and intelligent investigator for solo guitar managing to create an ethno-spiritual music that assimilates white music, black music, Latin music (flamenco) and eastern music ( Indian, Persian, Japanese). Basho was born in Baltimore in Marryland in 1940 and soon became an orphan, he was adopted by Donald R. Robinson and his wife and grows as Daniel R. Robinson in a typical middle class American frame. He began his musical adventure after buying an old 12-string from a sailor for $ 200. He traveled a lot, becoming a Beatnick and beginning to write his poems and to deal with Zen and Japanese literature, and it’s after his discovery of Matsuo Basho, perhaps the most famous Japanese haiku poet, that he changed his name to Robbie Basho, now musician.

He met John Fahey in the early 60’s who will introduce him to the steel string, while Max Ochs will help him to discover the folk music. In 1962, the real radical change after attending to a concert by Ravi Shankar: Basho starti his initiatory path, and almost feverishly he hunts Shankar’s recordings and listen to them for hours, stopped playing blues and protest songs to study the raga, applying its lessons on the guitar through the use of open tunings, special intonations and he already speaks about “esoteric doctrine of color & mood” or “Zen Buddist cowboy songs.” In any case, he starts to be recognized as a one man band with his 6 and 12 strings steel guitars, he became a disciple of Meher Baba and i twill be in these occasions that he will meet and study with Ali Akbar Khan, master of the sarod and influential as the same Shankar. Between 1965 and 1971 he will record his most important albums for John Fahey’s Takoma with the only exception of Venus in Cancer who was recorde with Blue Tumb label in 1970 and reprinted a few years ago. If the first disks as the Seal of the Blue Lotus and The Grail and the Lotus are disks with a more bitter and harsh flavor, while concealing a wild beauty, it’s starting with the two volumes of Falconer’s Arm and Venus in Cancer until the masterpiece of Song of the stallion that the poetry of Basho assumes an increasingly intense and torrential temperament.

His music, a magical combination of old America made up of blues, folk and country music with Arab, persian, Indian modal scales has no equal today, while his unique singing tenor will be a sore that someone would not bear. His music will come to a certain classicism with Voice of the Eagle and Zarthus recorded in 1972 and 1974 for Vanguard, while four years will pass before the Windham Hill pubblishes Vision of the Country and Art of Acoustic Guitar 6 & 12 the year after. After Rainbow Thunder (songs of the american west) exit for the small Silver Label in 1981 Basho had great difficulty in finding new music labels interested in his music so much that the last disks Bouquet and Twilight Peaks are mere self-productions on tape. Within a couple of years became seriously ill with cancer, until his death in 1986 at 45 years.

Like Fahey, Basho applies a kaleidoscopic method to his creative research, assimilating European classical music, Indian music, Japanese, Chinese, Middle Eastern, Spanish and American folk forms, blues, Cajun, trying to translate all of them in his own style and in his own poetical and musical form. It’s of course impossible and antithetical to its deep essence, be able to enclose the sense of Eastern music in a definition of a few lines, Basho metabolizes Indian music in different ways, sometimes with specific technical and harmonic forms derived from Indian instruments like the sitar or the veena, with the use of the drone and modal tunings, sometimes drawing from the essence of Raga an attitude of extreme spontaneity in the creation and execution, improvisation is conceived as a means to interpret in a different way each time the same musical ‘mood’.

Another interesting factor is the attempt to combine the infinite rhythmic and melodic variations of Hindu’s music with parts with a bigger harmonic structure, building progressively an instrumental style and his guitar technique: the use of alternating bass typical of traditional American styles, combined with more strictly classical or flamenco’s arpeggios, alternative and advanced techniques that are increasingly dependent on A more specifically musical outcome. His goal was to create a classical music for the “Steel String Guitar” and even if his intent has remained largely unrealistic, it ‘s been used to create the conditions for a greater awareness in the next generation of guitarists

Forgotten for a long time the name of Basho has returned in recent years in the wake of a new generation of folk and fingerpicking guitarists who have taken as a model his music and his ideas, reinventing interest around his figure. Names like Steffen Basho Junghans, Jack Rose, Glenn Jones and James Blackshaws have repeatedly both in their own records and interviews set out their cultural and musical debt with Basho.

Takoma 1005 – The Seal Of The Blue Lotus (1965)
Takoma 1006 – Contemporary Guitar (1966) (antologìa)
Takoma 1007 – The Grail & The Lotus (1966)
Takoma 1012 – Basho Sings! (1967)
Takoma 1017 – The Falconer’s Arm Vol. 1 (1967)
Takoma 1018 – The Falconer’s Arm Vol. 2 (1967)
Blue Thumb 10 – Venus In Cancer (1970)
Takoma 1031 – Song Of The Stallion (1971)
Vanguard 79321 – The Voice Of The Eagle (1972)
Vanguard 79339 – Zarthus (1974)
Windham Hill 1005 – Visions Of The Country (1978)
Windham Hill 1010 – The Art Of The Acoustic Steel String Guitar, 6 & 12 (1979)
Silver Label 029 – Rainbow Thunder (Songs Of The American West) (1981)
Windham Hill 1015 – Windham Hill Records Samplers ’81 (1981) (antologia)