In The Artist's Own Words
How I Saved Myself Three Centuries of Research by Making a
Fake World Music CD: A Confession by Don Rooke
One of the hopes I had for my new recording, Atlas Travel, which is the first CD I've released under my own name (I usually record with The Henrys) was to make it clear and simple. This goal is not unlike what Andreas Aase described in his column on these pages about his music. I don't know Andreas or his recordings (coincidentally he plays with a Norwegian fiddler and my new CD features the Swedish nyckelharpa player Johan Hedin), but we may be on a parallel search for simplicity.
Andreas looks for simplicity at the essence of Norwegian music by, in part, stripping away ornamentation. I try to get at simplicity through my own compositions, and I bypass tradition almost entirely. My instrument is a 1920s koa wood acoustic slide guitar. In my case, the "tradition" would be blues, Hawaiian or country music. I love them all, but I don't practice them much.
For Atlas Travel I wrote a series of melodies that I then spent hours harmonizing with whatever appropriate or available notes I could find in my tuning - and reach with the steel bar I use to fret the strings. It was a long and informative exercise that had me going all over the neck to find the right combinations of two or three notes at a time. For a working title, I gave each piece the name of a country, which seemed to help with the direction and evocation. When I got more into it, I took out maps to find place names that I really liked – Villa Huidobro, Nuevo Laredo, Shimoda, Blackpool. The idea evolved further: a person, the listener, was now sitting in his or her basement pouring over an atlas, looking at far corners of the world and imagining music to accompany each discovery.
Using this conceit I could incorporate exotic instruments that would suit each song, but would not necessarily be culturally authentic. So there's bawu on a track called "Filadelfia, Paraguay." There are pump organ and a duduk on "Alexandria," and nyckelharpa on the piece "Little Alpold, Hungary." Conversely (appropriately), there are steel drums on "Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe," and "Donegal Bay" features acoustic violin.
The whole point became not knowing the traditions, which dovetailed easily into my saturnine nature, and the fact that I don't know them anyway. I was free to rely on sounds and the imagination. It was doubly cool: I saved myself centuries of study and stuck to what I know – playing simple melodies on my old slide guitar from this parochial basement in Toronto, Canada. - Don Rooke
Don's recordings are available online from his own web site in Canada or from cdRoots in the US.