Rivertribe Interview

One of the most impressive, and well-deserved, success stories in
recent
Australian musical history is that of two Melbourne musicians who, in a
relatively short space of time, have been catapulted into national and
international limelight with some of the most original and innovative
Christian music ever!
That duo is Rivertribe.
While the critical and popular acclaim they’ve garnered in the past two
years has elevated them to the status of one of Australia’s country’s
major
Christian acts, there’s still the unmistakable feel that Rivertribe has
only just begun to tap their creative potential. That’s quite a claim,
considering what they have accomplished.
Formed as a means of expressing worshipful meditation on the Scriptures
in
a culturally appropriate way, Rivertribe has found enthusiastic support
among a wide audience.
They have performed on streets to big auditoriums, including the 2000
Olympic Games in Sydney, the Singapore River Festival, the Asia-Pacific
Political Forum, Sydney Opera House, Melbourne International Festival,
United Nations Day of the Older Person, and Awakening 2000 concert at
Stadium Australia.
Rivertribe features Mike Lane on didgeridoo and African drums, Irish
low
whistle, Armenian duduk, Native American flute, Oriental flute and
Bamboo
saxophone, and David Gleeson on classical violin, percussion,
didgeridoo
and Native American flute.
With the release of their new CD Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble,
Rivertribe takes its unique mix of meditative, spiritually charged
instrumental music to the world.
Wes Jay speaks with Rivertribe’s founder, Mike Lane (ML).
How did Rivertribe start?.
(ML) Rivertribe started with a gift. I was playing in a funk band when my
brother gave me two didgeridoos. Once I picked up that instrument my
whole
view of music changed and Rivertribe grew out of that..
What does the didgeridoo mean to you?.
(ML)It’s a beautiful instrument that has a strong cultural and political
agenda
behind it. I’d say it’s a good unifier because culturally all
Australians
identify with it, and within Rivertribe, the didgeridoo tends to unify
our
sound. You could say it’s a good canvas to paint over.
Like a drone or pedal point in medieval and renaissance music?
(ML)Yes. You’ll find there’s a drone basis many music traditions including
Indian, Middle Eastern, Irish and Scottish.
What do you think drones symbolise? Is it just, as you suggested simply
the
canvas on which the more melodic instruments can ‘paint’? Or is there
another role?
(ML) I think a drone has deeper implications culturally and spiritually
because
it seems to be part of so many religious and spiritual traditions.
For example, Tibetan monks have a harmonic droning they do with their
voices. And the Uilleann Pipe is an ancient instrument in the Celtic
tradition that’s also deeply rooted in a spiritual background.
So, you started to look at music differently after you were given the
didgeridoo. What happened then?
(ML) There came at the same time a vision of what Rivertribe would be and
sound
like and the elements it would have. So, I started looking for the
right
people to fill those roles.
What was the vision for Rivertribe in those days?
(ML) Originally, it was to create instrumental worship music or meditation
music
with a Christian basis that would speak to all people. Someone could
listen
to it without being alienated by the message.
What you’re saying is anyone could relate it to their own spiritual
journey
whether they were aware of the music’s Christian roots or not.
(ML) I think people generally are aware of the basis of our music. From the
CD
covers, they’ll know it’s based on Scriptures from the Bible, spiritual
writings and poetry, which makes it fairly clear what we’re about.
Even so, I want them to feel comfortable to use the music however they
like. I can see when we play the music, it has an effect on people
either
emotionally or in their spirit, and they respond by wanting to take the
music home to listen to and use.
Music is something very personal and spiritual. What is it about your
music
that touches people in their spirit?
(ML) You could look at the surface and say the melodies are emotive or the
instruments we use create beautiful and interesting sounds.
I think though, when you talk about a spiritual element it comes from
something deeper, because there is always some kind of spiritual basis
to
music.
In Soul music, the basis is sexuality and the way people relate to one
another. Rock music has a spiritual sense of rebellion.
Rivertribe’s music is a reflection of our own spirituality and what’s
happening in hearts. I don’t think you can escape that. It’s not just
the
melodies or the sounds of the instruments that touch people.
Before we explore that further – there’s a number of musical or even
religious traditions in your music. I think it is probably fair to say
yours is a unique sound worldwide.
(ML)I think so. Although there’s a world music tradition, music generally
tends
to follow specific national or cultural groups like Armenian, Romanian,
gypsy or Native American.
What we’ve done is to draw from many traditions and use the instruments
of
those traditions, some of which might be generally regarded as pagan.
But an instrument doesn’t possess any spiritual power in itself. It’s
the
choice of the person playing the instrument and how they use it whether
it
has a positive or negative spiritual power.
Similarly, Christians of the thirteenth century considered an organ in
the
church a “profanation”; the Puritans of the seventeenth century called
it a
“squeaking abomination”; and John Knox described it as a “kist o’
whistles”
fit only to entertain children.
I guess we could say the same thing about electric guitars. We quickly
forget the origins of rock and roll where those instruments were first
used.
You mentioned earlier that after receiving the didgeridoo from your
brother, you made the change from playing funky music to more
spiritual,
ethereal music. Was there something else besides that gift which
sparked
the change?
(ML) I don’t think there was any deeply spiritual event which occurred so
that I
hated scratching around in pubs at 3:00 am after gigs then crawling
into
bed in the early hours. It just wasn’t doing anything for me
physically,
spiritually or as a lifestyle.
What music do you listen to at home?
(ML) I listen to a wide range of music and enjoy a lot of the new music
that’s
about; people like Moby, Endorphin, and Fat Boy Slim. He’s not new now,
but
is still innovative. I like the creative dance music that’s coming out
now.
Bands like Radiohead are just so radical in what they’re doing.

How has all this spun off into your own music?
(ML) It just inspires me creatively to push the bounds of what I’m doing and
to
really explore the resources I have to come up with the best music
possible. People like Moby, for example, use a very simple range of
instruments.
There’s nothing special in the equipment but the sound he creates is
just
amazing.
Some people may find it difficult to understand how the rock tradition
can
have an influence on a genre way outside its boundaries.
(ML) Yes that could be true but I think what drives creative artists
generally
is having the opportunity to do their own thing. They hear something
but
they can say what they want to say their way and not the same as
somebody
else.
What drives you?
(ML) Just that. I’ve got things I want to say but I want to say them so that
people will take notice.
What are you saying then through the music of Rivertribe?
(ML) That there’s a spiritual element to life, which we’ve largely taught
ourselves to ignore both inside the Church, as well as outside it. I
hope
when people hear our music it will remind them of that aspect of their
existence and in a small way plant a seed.
Another obvious element would be the healing nature of your music. It’s
like David soothing King Saul by playing his harp.
(ML) Initially, I just wanted to create spiritually driven music. But people
started coming back to me and saying they use the music in various
kinds of
therapy, and the CDs are the perfect length for a session.
For example, the music therapist at The Royal Melbourne Hospital uses
our
music with oncology patients and so there is a healing in our music
which I
hadn’t realised at first was there.
I guess my prayer for our music is that people are not just buying a CD
with nice music but in some way, whatever their situation, it will
bring
the healing they need.
One lady recently told me she’d lost her father and was very
distressed.
She bought the CDs to take home and put on to be part of her grieving
and
recovery process.
Someone else said their mother had loved our music and when she died,
it
was played at her funeral. Things like that really touch me.
The closest one to me was a lady who goes to our church whose mother
was
dying of cancer. I met her mother when she came to our church and at
that
stage obviously didn’t have much longer to live. She’d really enjoyed
the
music so I gave her all our CDs. I told her to take them home and use
them
however she wanted. When she died, I wasn’t able to go to the funeral
because I was interstate, but a friend who went said the first thing
they
heard at the opening of the service was the sound of kookaburras. It
was
actually New Day, a track from one of our CDs, The Blessing.
I hear other stories that our music is being used at all stages of
life.
It’s a special privilege to have your music being played as part of a
birth
when an expectant mother puts it on while she’s in labour.
We know of Rivertribe music being played at weddings, funerals,
birthdays,
and all kinds of significant events in people’s lives.
Recently, I talked to a fellow who’s a Catholic, and he told me his
priest
was using the music for meditation sessions.
That’s happening across all denominations where our music is being used
regularly for meditation as part of the service. We’ve played in
churches
where the people are already familiar with our music because it’s been
used
as part of the worship.
So, Rivertribe music is being used in meditation and therapy. Where
else is
it being used?
(ML) There’s three or four projects on the go now where film and documentary
makers have asked permission to use our music. There’s one guy making a
movie on the preservation of the Snowy River. He’s done a kayaking trip
up
the river and our music is the background to the film of that trip.
It’s
also being used for background music at the National Gallery of
Australia.
What opportunities do you have to play live?
(ML) We base what we do around playing on the street. It’s an important part
of
our vision to be where people who like our music are doing their
shopping
or visiting a craft market or just anywhere that people gather.
What came out of doing that, for instance, was a request to play at the
Singapore River Busker Festival which was a roaring success for us.
Then
came an invitation to play at the Toronto Busker Festival last year
which
is one of the biggest festivals of its kind in the world.
Then there’s been major events like the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney,
the
Asia-Pacific Political Forum, Sydney Opera House, the Melbourne
International Festival, United Nations Day of the Older Person, and the
Awakening 2000 concert at Stadium Australia.
What we’re about is exploring our own gifts and offering them to each
other
in the group and to God. People stop and listen to that and enjoy what
they
hear.
Much of your music is improvisatory. Is it like the improvisation in
jazz
where there are structures you play over, or more free form?
(ML) I think it’s a little like jazz. We have a standard structure to each
piece, which is usually programmed, and we let that run. Then we don’t
necessarily have someone in the group tied down to performing that
role.
Over the top of that comes the live instruments and everyone is free to
improvise and contribute to the sound.
Our whole aim and constant focus is to create space for one another, to
play less rather than more and let each phrase have an effect on us
before
we play the next. We’re always putting the brakes on one another to not
play too much and to think about what we’re doing.
Is it like having a conversation with a friend, contributing both as
speaker and listener?
(ML) Listener more than speaker.
Now that our performances are getting bigger, we actually have less
structure. In a set where we’d have normally done six pieces we’ll play
four and link them.
What we do is write a note on the set list to say, for example, that at
one
point I’ll play the duduk [an Armenian instrument which goes back to
500BC]
and we’ll have time set aside for me to fully explore the sound and
feel of
the instrument before we move on.
While I’m doing that, the other guys might be accompanying me, but
they’ll
all be speaking encouragement and listening intently to what I’m
playing.
When I feel I’ve given all I have to give or want to give at that stage
we’ll transition to something else.
How do you get all your instruments such as the duduk?
(ML) There’s a story behind every one.
The duduk I got from a guy named Pedro who plays woodwinds. We’re like
penpals over the Internet writing backwards and forwards encouraging
each
other.
He plays duduk, so I asked him about it at one stage and then maybe six
months later, he wrote to say the guy who makes his duduks had turned
up in
LA. Did I want one? I ordered two and he selected them and sent them
over.
One of the things I did when I started out was to make a list in my
diary
of all the instruments and resources I needed and didn’t have. I
started
praying for each one, and one by one they have come through one way or
another.
I’ve never had to buy a didgeridoo. I’ve been given three now, all in
different keys.
The duduk was an amazing one because I’d heard it played and loved the
sound, but it’s very difficult to get a good one. You can buy really
bad
ones quite easily, but short of going to America and finding the maker
I
really had no way of getting one until Pedro turned up.
And the Celtic pipes?
(ML) I saw Davy Spillane playing them on Riverdance in that solo piece which
really touches your heart. I knew I had to learn how to play the pipes
and
to get them. I just went through the process of finding someone through
the
contacts I had.
I came across a local guy named Francis O’Mara who put me onto a guy in
the
Blue Mountains who makes them. I put in an order and 18 months later
they
came through.
Dave Gleeson is a violin (or fiddle) player. How does playing
instruments
that are more traditional fit in with the more exotic ones?
(ML) Very well! I think because what we regard as traditional or Western
classical instruments have a complete melodic range so you can play any
note on them. You can change the feel of those instruments simply by
playing different keys and modes.
A violin can sound Indian, Middle Eastern, Irish or Southern American
by
playing in the modes and scales of those countries and in the keys
their
instruments are tuned to.
Back to the didgeridoo again. You’ve said that every time you perform
with
it you’re making a spiritual and a political statement. To what extent
does
Rivertribe have political objectives?
(ML) We recognise that indigenous Australians were not only here first, but
they
also have a far greater cultural and political contribution to make
than we
have really allowed them to express.
So, when you pick up a didgeridoo you’re very aware you’re picking
almost
the ultimate symbol of that culture.
You’re aware you’re not just playing a wind instrument but you’re
actually
making a political statement. You can avoid the idea and say no, I’m
just
playing an instrument. But it becomes obvious you’re not by the
responses
you get from people and the effect it has on them. It is a political
thing.
The instrument itself has some unusual qualities.
It comes down to a lot of physics I don’t understand and every
didgeridoo
is different in that respect too.
When you play some of them, you’ll get this awful harmonic sound going
on
behind what you’re doing or maybe two or three harmonic sounds.
Perhaps the secret to a good didgeridoo is having those harmonic sounds
work with the note you’re playing.
It is strange because you’re buzzing with your lips to create the drone
in
much the same way you’d play a tuba or a trombone yet you’re vocalising
at
the same time.
Somehow that sound is projected through the buzzing of your lips and
comes
out as barks, kookaburra sounds and all kinds of weird and wonderful
sounds.
Often it bears little resemblance to the sound you’re making with your
voice. It’s like an extension of your vocal chords as you project your
voice and express yourself out of the end of this long tube.
What happens to you when you’re doing circular breathing? How does it
make
you feel and what does that do to the music?
(ML) I think it comes back to what we discussed before where that drone is
produced which continues right through the piece of music.
On a physical level, there’s a vibration that comes from the
didgeridoo, a
sort of resonance and you feel part of the instrument.
A good didgeridoo will give back as much as it gives out. It relaxes
you,
but it is the chicken and egg thing because you have to be relaxed to
play
it well and produce the sound.
So, you need to learn techniques to relax yourself and the circular
breathing assists in that process. It’s like a circular relaxation
process.
If you don’t come out from practicing the didgeridoo feeling relaxed,
then
you’re probably not playing it very well. And to play the didgeridoo
well
you only need a small amount of air to produce a quality sound. It’s
not a
matter of getting as much air as possible into your lungs because
you’ll
just end up hyperventilating. You’ve got to learn a balance.
That reminds me of an acrobat we met at the Singapore Festival a couple
of
years ago who, as part of his show doing traditional Chinese hand
balancing, talked about the key to what they do is balance and focus.
I guess that’s the same for playing the didgeridoo as well. If you’re
not
focused and balanced in your approach then it won’t come out right.
How does that concept of focus and balance have an impact on
Rivertribe?
(ML) Probably because it moves out from the didgeridoo. That’s why I call it
the
unifier. It frees the other instruments when there’s just this one note
happening that has a calming effect and a really open ended nature to
it,
inviting you to make some sound over the top of it.
Hopefully that has the effect of encouraging the other musicians to
really
explore what they can do with the instruments they’re holding at the
time.
Elevate Records recently released Did You Feel The Mountains Tremble
worldwide. This project is the group’s first major label release and
follows two successful local independent releases, Journey and The
Blessing.
For more information check out Rivertribe’s website:www.rivertribe.com; orwww.inpop.com

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