The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.
Never one to eschew opportunity, French-born Ariel Kalma has been following serendipitous roads to productive musical and spiritual beginnings since the 1970s. Rarely remaining in one place for long, Ariel’s nomadic existence led him to encounters with the Dagar Brothers in India, Pierre Henry’s INA-GRM in France, Don Cherry and the Arica School in New York, and finally, to Australia where he currently resides with his family. From playing sax in 1960s Parisian rock ‘n’ roll and jazz bands, crashing in the catacombs of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in 1970s New York, or fashioning his own Dream House (despite having never experienced La Monte Young’s MELA Foundation installation) in a tiny flat in Paris, Ariel’s brush strokes across the canvas of experimental music are wide, deep, and textured. His harmonic trajectory has given rise to a vast catalog of cacophonous glee and psychedelic excursions devoid of pretense. As if guided by cosmic forces, Ariel’s evolution continues to into the present.
A compilation of Ariel’s archival work, An Evolutionary Music (Original Recordings: 1972 – 1979) was issued by RVNG Intl. in late November, 2014. A collaborative record with Robert A.A. Lowe, also known as Lichens, was recently announced and is forthcoming from RVNG this spring.
JCL You live in Australia now, right?
AK We do, yeah.
JCL How’d you end up there?
AK It’s not an end. It’s a new beginning. (laughter)
JCL How’d you start there? (laughter)
AK It’s a long story. Ama, my wife and beloved partner—we met and fell in love in Germany and stayed in Germany for a while. I didn’t like Germany so much, so we were thinking, where do we go next? One of our projects was to go to Tahiti, actually. But Tahiti was really the antipodes. There were three places we wanted to go: Maui, Hawaii, where we had spent a beautiful holiday; Australia, where we had never been; and Tahiti. So we decided first to go to Maui—we stayed twelve years. (laughter)
JCL When was that?
AK That was until ’97. At that time we had a ten-year-old boy and Ama’s grandmother, an eighty-five-year-old woman, was living with us. We all sat around the table, and we said, “Where do we go next?” I needed to go somewhere to think about it, because it was too heavy for me to decide on the spot. I don’t function like that. So I went to some garage sales—that’s a spot I love. (laughter) It’s fantastic on Maui, there are great garage sales. Anyway, at a morning garage sale, I found a wonderful, wonderful t-shirt from Australia with Aboriginals playing music around a campfire. It struck me, so I put the t-shirt on and said, That’s it, we go to Australia. I came home, and we sat around the table, and they looked at me and said, “We decided! We want to go to Australia.”
JCL My understanding is that you’re out in the countryside. You’re not in a major city, right?
AK We are in the countryside. It’s just beautiful and so quiet here. It’s just gorgeous. It’s a dream place.
JCL In the liner notes to this new record here, there’s a bit of the story about your beginnings and going to India, which we would both love to hear more about. Maxwell and I are both big fans of North Indian Dhrupad music, and I saw that you met the Dagar brothers. Can you talk a little about that? That trip seemed to be a point when things really changed for you, musically.
AK It was like that. I was playing music in all kinds of bands—rock ‘n’ roll—and I felt unhappy. That music with those sentences that you repeat: there is a chorus, and there is a verse—it did not really lead me anywhere. It was the end of the ’60s, the Twist, and everything like that. So what was a saxophone player doing at that time? He was screaming the choruses. I had to slide on my knees on the stage at the feet of the singer, who’s yelling “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” into the microphone. (laughter) I felt that there must be something else.
I was looking for something else, and Paris is a very culturally rich place. One of my friends said, “There is this Indian concert. Maybe you would be interested?” At the time, I was also playing Medieval and early music. There’s a photo in the centerfold of the booklet of me with a beard playing the recorder and the foot harmonium. Medieval music is very modal, and I had an inkling for that kind of modal music, where the chords don’t necessarily change, and you stay in a state of mind, and you express what’s happening inside that. Maybe Medieval music was kind of a timid move in that direction.
I did not know who Dagar Brothers were then, absolutely not. I went to hear them, and it completely shattered me into pieces, emotionally. I did not understand what was happening.
MAC What were the circumstances under which you went to the concert? Where was it and what was going on at the time?
AK As far as I remember, it was a concert in one of those places in Paris that have classical music concerts from all over the world. Paris was extraordinary for that. You could have Miles Davis playing in a small cave in the Latin Quarter, and Roland Kirk playing next door, and then they would jam together. I don’t remember which venue this was though. Maybe it was Radio France, because they were organizing these kinds of concerts from all over the world. Anyway, I go there and I see these two guys, one was Zia Mohiuddin. I started crying, basically. Because, you know, when they play, it’s like vibrating the strings inside. I did not understand what it was, but what I understood is that I needed more of this.
MAC You’ve said that you came to India, and were immediately aware of this universally tuned aural experience. Can you speak a little to that? And then, beyond that, why do you think something like that exists in India and not elsewhere in the world?
AK That’s an interesting question. The circumstances first, because it’s interesting. I was on tour, actually in Japan, with this pop singer. I was not really enjoying it, but was enjoying going to Japan, enjoying the culture, meeting people, and the money was good. Then we took the plane from Tokyo to Bangkok and Bombay; and from Bangkok to Bombay, there was a monsoon, and the plane went through really bad turbulence—up and down, shaking. We landed in Bombay a bit fazed out—happy to be on the ground, actually.
MAC This was with Adamo’s band?
AK Adamo’s band, yes. During that flight, he didn’t want to buckle his seatbelt, and he banged his head. He was sitting near me, and suddenly I see him go flying. We landed and we were glad to be safe on the ground. Then we took a bus from the airplane to the hangar, because the airport was in construction—this was in 1972 or thereabouts. The airport was not so international. It was raining so hard—I mean, we’d almost died because there were huge pot-holes on the runway. It was just amazing. We reached this poor hangar, and they had—of course, like everywhere in India—all these stalls. All I could see was stalls selling wooden flutes—which I bought immediately—and incense, and all kinds of little tourist things. I don’t know what happened. The feeling of the monsoon and the way they were talking and being friendly: “Where do you come from? What are you doing?” Something vibrated within me, and I said, gosh, I have to come back here.
It took me a bit longer than I thought. I went back in Paris, and was doing the rock ‘n’ roll thing. I was playing with a new band that would become famous, and everybody knew that, and I was faced with—well, not really clean stuff. I’m not a perfect guy, but I’m not into heavy drugs. And they were into—it was not so good. Then a friend from England came to visit me and said, “Ariel, either you get out of here or you die.” And he gave me a one-way ticket to India that was going to expire in three days. (laughter)
JCL That’s amazing.
AK Three days later I was in Bombay and was completely shocked. My friend was a good advisor. He had been in India many times, working with Mother Theresa—and he told me, “Listen, go to India for a non-Western experience, for an Indian experience. Cut your hair, buy a kurta and a lungi, and disappear. If you do that, you will have a very deep experience.”
So, that’s what I did. I immediately went to a hair-dresser and cut my long hair. I was terrified in Bombay, because it was too much—the poverty, the children in the street, and me coming from the rock ‘n’ roll world—it was a shocking experience at first.
My friend had given me the address of a singer who taught Westerners, and he said, “Why don’t you go there and learn something about Indian music?” I went and they gave me a pitcher of water, put me in a room with a bed (and bedbugs), and that was it. I had music lessons everyday.
It was really humbling. It took me maybe two weeks just to tune, to listen to the tanpura and get in the tuning. The guy was saying to me, “Listen. Don’t just play—listen. You don’t listen deep enough. Where is it in your body? How do you resonate with that? Listen to the tanpura.” The tanpura is just incredible, with these harmonics coming in and out, and if you start looking and learning and tuning to each harmony, one after the other, it gets deeper and deeper. I really was humbled by this.
Because you are musicians, I want to tell you about an experience. I was there with my flute, my silver flute, which cost more than what they earn in two years, and I could not even tune. Then the guy said, “Okay, let’s drop the lesson. Let’s go to the market. I’ll show you India.” So we went to the market, and we arrived on top of a hill. We saw the market, and that’s when I got it. When I saw all the different colors and the mounds of spices—gosh, I have goosebumps again—that’s when I got the richness of what India is about. Because it’s everywhere—you have millions of people doing the same thing, so the thing is to do it as good as or better.
MAC I find it really intriguing that you discovered harmony in India, in a place that, from a lot of outsiders’ perspectives, has a sort of cacophony and chaos.
AK It’s complete chaos!
MAC And you found it in chaos. It’s great; I love that.
AK It’s chaos, but then suddenly the train comes through—“Woo! Woo!”—and it’s a perfect fifth. (laughter)
MAC Harmony in chaos.
AK Harmony and chaos! And that’s the principle of my music, actually. That’s India. It’s so extraordinary. You have two million people in the streets, and then one guy starts singing, and another guy starts playing the flute, and it’s in tune. It’s simply, universally in tune.
JCL India was the first place that the zero was used as a mathematical number.
AK It goes beyond the zero; it goes to the bindu.
JCL The bindu, right. Maxwell and I have both practiced yoga for a long time, and I taught yoga in San Francisco for many years. I’ve always been interested in the correlation between what, broadly, we might call spiritual practice and music. Obviously, Indian classical music is very intertwined with the spiritual—it’s religious music. As a musician who, like myself, is self-trained and also interested in spiritual practice—can you talk a little bit about your experience integrating these aspects of your life? You’ve mentioned something about having to put down the music for a little while, or there being some type of ego involved in the music that conflicted with your spiritual practice. That really hasn’t been my experience so much, so I’m curious if you could talk about that for a little bit.
AK Do I understand right, Jefre, that you’re saying that you have not experienced that limitation in your musical past?
JCL I would say that, for me, once I started getting deeper into spiritual practice, there was a conflict for a little while, but then eventually I realized that I just had to give up any kind of goal and just make music for the pleasure of it. And then everything was fine. (laughter) But I never stopped for any long period of time really, and I actually found music to be a form of devotion, in a way, a form of practice in itself.
AK It’s exactly the same with me. I have never stopped, really, playing music. What I have stopped is having any goal-oriented direction toward the outside, toward making something out of music in terms of bringing in money or having a career.
JCL I can get with that. (laughter) Today I was looking at your Bandcamp page, and it seems like you’ve been continuously making music. Maxwell and I both release music that way as well. I think it’s a powerful way to connect directly and cut out the BS.
AK Exactly. I stopped the BS, basically, but I kept doing the direct thing. And I was involved in other things, which were, let’s say, more important for me in the direction of the human development. It’s been difficult to talk, for me, about spiritual practice, because spirituality has connotations that—it smells a bit like new age music.
MAC That’s a problematic term, for sure.
AK Exactly. I’m too old for new age music. (laughter) Why did I stop? I mean, I didn’t stop, I never stopped. But I was doing things which were actually the inspiration for my music.
JCL I would love to hear a little bit about your experience in New York in the ’70s—meeting Don Cherry and living in the basement of Saint John the Divine. It sounded like a pretty fertile time for you.
AK It was. Actually, I have to say, my life has been fertile, which is just unbelievable. This is why I didn’t produce very much, because there were so many things happening. When we put ourselves into the flow, and we don’t fight with life, life simply takes you on its shoulder.
JCL I think that’s very true.
AK So, it has been a continuous, extraordinary journey. These archives that Matt discovered at my place are showing me the person I was before. I normally don’t look back. It’s all now. “It is now, it is now, it is now.” By the way, that was Arica training. There was a song which went on for twenty minutes: “It is now, it is now, it is now …” When you do that every day, something happens in your brain. So … where were we?
MAC (laughter) New York in the ’70s.
JCL You went there for Arica training to play with the musicians, and that didn’t work out, right? But you met Don Cherry playing in the park. So, that’s not so bad! (laughter)
AK The whole thing was beautiful experience. New York is an extraordinary place. It’s just amazing. It was, from the beginning, completely magical like India. I went there with a one-way ticket, offered by a friend, and I joined her in lower Manhattan—a beautiful, luxury flat. She was deeply involved in Arica, and was going to introduce me to them. Well, they had a closed community there and my friend could not really introduce me to these people. The musician groups ignored me completely. Though, one time I was playing on the side of them, because I couldn’t join them, and the main guy, Oscar Ichazo, came to me and said, “That’s very interesting what you play! Very interesting! You guys should be interested in him!” (laughter) But they were not.
Then, two days later, my friend told me that I should bring some money to the house because the house was expensive. I had no money, so what could I do? I was on the street in Times Square with forty dollars and no return ticket. Meanwhile, a friend said to me, “I have a place you can stay, but you have to be very discreet and not go during the day; nobody’s supposed to see you.” He gave me the key, and we went to the cathedral of St. John the Divine. I entered this huge room, a vaulted room under the main vault of the cathedral. There was a huge table where maybe forty people could sit. I stayed there with my white dove, who took refuge under the car when we arrived. He had a broken wing, so I said, “You have a broken wing, I have a broken wing, let’s live together!” (laughter)
After a few weeks, I was a bit less discreet. I did not go during the day, but I went at night and there was a lot of activity, Sufi groups and dancing and chanting. I did all this, and it was beautiful, and then I became bolder and bolder and I discovered that at night nobody was there, so I could play the organs there. I taught myself the rudiments, let’s say, of my style. What I developed there, I don’t know what to call really. I was just listening to the sound becoming huge.
I would go out to go work some places on getting my return ticket, which took a very long time. Then I discovered the under-basement, which was basically earth and the foundations. It was pretty long so it had a resonating echo, and that’s where I practiced. I had my soprano saxophone with me and I practiced circular breathing, which I had learned in India but had never practiced on the soprano, and there I was undisturbed for hours. I could really do that until my head was spinning. It was hard work.
JCL A few months ago, I got to see Phillip Glass play in a church here in New York on the organ, and I realized that I think churches are really made for music. The whole shape is really made for music. The architecture is actually there to support sound.
AK Absolutely, yes. Churches were made to resonate with spirit.
MAC To change gear a little bit, when you were back in Paris after you had been in New York, and you had seen and experienced—or I read that you had not actually experienced La Monte Young’s Dream House?
MAC But, you heard about it when you were back in Paris? And I’ve read that you tried to recreate something in your own fashion, a Dream House in your Parisian flat, which was a one-room studio. Can you speak a little bit about that? And, going back to what you said earlier, if churches are perfect resonating sound structures, this idea of trying to make something in a small space that’s maybe not perfect, and how you can maybe get great things out of that as well.
AK Well, home is where the heart is, so spirit is where your inner being is. We can create our church everywhere. If we sit in meditation, there is no church, the sky is the limit, and that’s not even the limit, that’s the point. By that time I had kind of a grock of what was going, what was happening. I was in India where the tuning is universal. I was in New York where, I heard about La Monte Young, who created this dream place. And I had a background in electronic studies. So, I need to talk about this for a moment.
If you input a sine wave with another sine wave, you start seeing a third wave. And if you tune very carefully, at the perfect fifth for example, the third wave becomes tuned to a very specific point in space. So, knowing universal pitch from India, knowing electronics, and knowing what La Monte was doing, I said, I can do that. I made my keyboard play as close to a sine wave as possible—which was pretty close because it was an old-style organ, no effects, no vibrato, nothing. I took that sine wave and mixed it with another organ placed somewhere else in the room, and then with another sine wave tuned to the fifth. By now I knew, from tuning the tanpura, how to create harmonics, and voila! I had my dream house.
JCL And was it on all the time? Did you keep it on all the time?
AK Of course. You moved in the room. That was why some frequencies were not there. The low frequencies need a lot of space.
JCL I know that Robert Aiki Lowe came out there and played with you, and I actually heard some of that record. Rob’s a buddy of mine and he played some for me. It was really beautiful—you were playing saxophone, I believe. I think Maxwell and I both found out about you probably through Osmose, but that reissue came out a few years ago. There really hadn’t been much and now there’s this new interest in your music, at least the stuff from the ’70s, and maybe more now as well. So, how does that feel? And how was the collaboration with Rob? How was it to collaborate with someone from the other side of time, in a way? Someone from a totally different generation but to whom you could actually relate.
AK There is no other side of time because when we play music there is no real time. For me, music is the closest to silence, so when we can vibe together in quietness any boundaries disappear: age, race, ideologies … What is left is simply a meeting of souls.
JCL So did that happen?
AK It did. When we were the closest to silence, it did happen. So to go back to the question, when Rob and Matt came here … It is great to have this opportunity because I always want to play with younger people. I always do. I feel that there is a complacency that older people have about having career in a certain way, and I always provoke myself to be not in the comfort zone, necessarily. I have some demands, which are, when we play, there should be attention and listening and playing together and space for each other. But if this is possible with younger people, then I prefer that. For me, the good example is Miles Davis, who was never stopping at his own style. He was always looking outside, to go out of his comfort zone. So when Matt suggested that, I jumped on the idea. While they were here, Matt spent some time in my studio, in my room, and he said, “What else have you done?” I showed him my archives and he said, “Wow, what are you going to do?” And I said, “I don’t know. I’m going to produce one after the other.” Because I was trained in sound engineering and I did this for a long time—I had bigger studios, smaller studios—I kept all my old tapes.
JCL You worked at GRM in Paris, right?
AK Yeah but it started even before when I had one ReVox and another one, and so on and so on. It has always been like that for me. I have boxes of tapes.
JCL Here’s what I’m using. (Jefre holds up a large reel-to-reel tape recorder)
AK (laughter) Nice! I know that one.
JCL It’s great. It’s what I made my record Songs of Remembrance on.
I want to hear more about how it is for you to have this old material come out in the world now in a pretty big way.
AK I’m very happy. I feel I’m ready for it in the sense that I don’t have other occupations which are more important than having a career. I’m open for whatever.
JCL Your early music seems very relevant right now as well. I think a lot of people would be interested in hearing this record of your archival material.
AK I think that’s part of an avant-garde process. When I made my first record, I went to the shops, I went to the distributers, and they looked at me and said, “We have no box to put it in. It’s not jazz, it’s not pop, it’s not dance, it’s not classical, it’s not folkloric … ”
MAC There’s definitely a sense of timelessness. Was that present in your mind when you were making the music, or were you just going with the vibe of the moment?
AK I think there is a sense of synchronicity. If we fall really into the moment completely, then—“It is now, it is now, it is now”—the outside world disappears, and it is only really now, and we come to a sense of universal synchronicity. It’s the same way I felt when I first heard the Dagar Brothers. I was completely blown apart.
MAC I wanted to ask you about something. I’ve heard from so many—I’m not classically trained—and I hear from a lot of classically trained musicians who say that they wish they didn’t have the training, which is interesting because, I guess, their perception is that, as non-musicians, we’re tapping into something completely different. I don’t know what …
JCL I’ve always loved Brian Eno’s statement: “I’m a non-musician.“ I stand by that.
AK I’m a non-musician.
MAC Can you speak to that, either way, Ariel?
AK Absolutely. It has been my experience all along, and this is also part of why I did not pursue a career. I didn’t want to pursue anything. I wanted to find myself, basically. I’ve met so many classically-trained musicians who’ve said, I wish I would not have these cumbersome scales and chord changes and automatic fingers, and I wish I could quiet down and forget it. To go even further, this is even why I never wanted to learn to read music and write music, because I did not want to get trapped in a system which had limitations and closed circuits.
But, I also feel the limitation of that approach because now I would like to open a book and play with my fellow musicians, play something which has meaning. I would love to do that now, but I can’t. But I have ability to do things which nobody else can do. That’s it.
Jefre Cantu-Ledesma and Maxwell August Croy have operated the Root Strata record label since 2005 and are both musicians in their own right. Jefre is based in Brooklyn, has participated in countless collaborations and is preparing to release his latest full length record, A Year With 13 Moons on Mexican Summer in early 2015. Maxwell has also contributed to many collaborative projects outside of his regular duo En (with James Devane) whose third full length record City of Brides is due out mid-2015 on Students of Decay. He is temporarily in residence in Marfa, Texas, working on his first solo record.
The black figure has always been a subject of entertainment in popular culture, as well as an image to sell things. In some ways, that’s how people relate to us—because they’ve seen us on television.