We talked with Joel Laviolette of Rattletree about his latest musical project, a Zimbabwean style marimba band based out of Austin, Texas.
AUSTIN DAZE: Tell me where the idea came from to bring African Music to Austin.
JOEL L: I’ve played Zimbabwean music for about 15 years now. I discovered this music when I was going to jazz guitar school in Denton—I was a jazz guitar major. Then I discovered Thomas Mapfumo and the Zimbabwean stuff and I started to learn that and the mbira—which is the traditional Zimbabwean instrument. I met a guy in New Mexico who played the mbira and I dropped out of school and moved to New Mexico and joined a band there, Jaka. We played for several years together and toured and all that kind of stuff—this was in Santa Fe. This whole time I had been traveling around the country studying the imbira (for about 8 years) from whoever I could. I finally tapped that well of mbira players in America and realized I needed to go to Zimbabwe. I was also doing field and studio recordings of different types of Zimbabwean music and I came back to New Mexico and started a non profit record company called Mhumhi Records. I have the twelve recordings that I made in Zimbabwe and the money that I made from those recordings go back to musicians in Zimbabwe and Mozambique. When the music scene in Albuquerque dried up I came to Austin one day to visit a friend and instantly, that weekend, found a job, found a capoeira group that I could play with and met a woman. It was all just, “Austin is the place to be.” So I packed up and moved to Austin and because I moved here the music came. It wasn’t a plan other than that’s just what I do.
AD: How is the reception here to African music?
JL: I think it’s good. I’m really surprised, because of how fertile the music scene is here in Austin, that there wasn’t already a Zimbabwean music scene. This music is addictive and beautiful and I know that everybody says that but in this case it’s true. People hear it and they just fall in love. Now I teach three marimba classes a week—so I’ve taught lots and lots of people. In America the Zimbabwean marimba music started in the Northwest. There was a guy, Dumisani Maraire, who came to the University of Washington in the 70s. So it kind of got bigger and bigger and it’s like this virus that is spreading and now it’s reached Austin. So yeah, the reception is wonderful; people love to dance. And all ages. We are doing these all kid shows now. It hits people so I’m honored to be bringing it here.
AD: Have you been playing music since you were a kid?
JL: Yeah, I started on the guitar.
AD: When did you know this was something that you wanted to concentrate on?
JL: Well when I was going to school in Denton it was a real high pressure, practice 8 hours a day; do the jazz thing. That whole time I was trying to write these songs that were cyclical and polymelodic and have it all sort of weave. It was literally driving me crazy—I couldn’t figure out what I was trying to do. Then I heard mbira and realized that was what I was trying to do. It was just such a relief because I realized I didn’t have to invent anything, I just had to learn how to play it. Mbira is what I’m supposed to do.
AD: How did you initially connect with people here?
JL: I did ads in Craig’s list saying, “Come learn Zimbabwe music on the marimba.” I just went ahead and built the marimbas. It started with two guys that would just come over a couple of times a week and I would teach them the music and they would bring their friends.
AD: Tell us a little bit about your creative process.
JL: I teach all the parts. I do the arrangements and directing of the band. The vast majority of what we play is traditional music. So what I’ve done is taken the music of the mbira and put it on to the marimbas. On the mbira you can play four or five melodies at the same time. So I’ll just pull one melody and give that to a marimba. The full marimba band is just what one mbira is doing. So that’s how it all works.
AD: Is there a lot of improvisation going on in what you do?
JL: There is but within the tradition of the music. Like jazz, there is a language you learn. You have your foundation and then you have the variation and this variation and that variation. And all these variations are leaves on the same tree and as long as they are variations within that language it’s OK. It works. Even improvisation in jazz is so within that language that you can find the structure behind it. I feel free. When I play, I feel like it’s all improve but it’s definitely within that song.
AD: How do you go about choosing what you are going to play?
JL: We play two different styles: we play contemporary styles, or drumming and singing which we put to the marimba and I would say that is more surface level. And then we play the deep stuff. As far as how I choose those songs, they are all amazing. Once you get into that repertoire it’s all beautiful.
AD: Do you have a favorite?
JL: I have a favorite that the band does but as far as the traditional music, no. I call it a musical Mandela because it’s all the same thing. Every song is the same but then they are not. There are different songs for different spirits.
AD: Who are some of the different spirits? What do they use them for?
JL: This music is Shona music. The spirits are the ancestor spirits of whatever families. So as an mbira player in Zimbabwe my job would be to go and sit and play mbira for a spirit medium and their family and that spirit medium would get possessed by an ancestor of that family. It would be like your great grandfather. It’s a family spirit that would come communicate what needs to be said with their family. There’s that level and there’s hierarchies of Mhondoro spirits which are the totem spirits. I can’t play ceremonies for them. My teacher does.
AD: How come?
JL: It doesn’t matter if I’ve been playing for 20 years or whatever. My teacher has been playing for 70 years. All that really matters for my job is that I can go and play to a level where you get possessed or the spirit gets possessed. It doesn’t matter if I’m white or how long I’ve been playing. They call my teacher and will drive across Zimbabwe to get him to play. They know who is going to be able to call the spirit quickly and not have to sit there and play all night. It’s a big thing. It’s like throwing a benefit for Obama and if Obama doesn’t show up…you want to make sure he is going to be there.
AD: I’ve got to ask, is it hard to load in?
JL: Compared to a PA, I’d rather load and unload the bass than a PA. We can set up anywhere. It’s only acoustic so we can set up in the park. It’s a pain but I’ve got five people and a school bus so we can do it pretty quickly.
AD: How does somebody learn the music?
JL: I teach classes at Drumz. The easiest way would be to email me or contact Drumz. They are monthly classes. Or, come talk to me at a show.
AD: What sort of wisdom would you pass on to someone trying to start out something new?
JL: For me it wasn’t a choice. My words of wisdom would be: you don’t need to try to do anything you just do what you are here to do and then it will be easy. Our day to day stuff might get in the way but if we are doing what we are here to do on this planet then it just falls into place. I look at the jazz guitar thing and I struggled and I wanted to be a jazz guitar player so bad and I was a horrible jazz guitar player.–it was so disappointing and frustrating. As soon as I realized and found this thing that I’m good at and that I do, all this stuff just fell away. That would be my words of advice: if someone hasn’t found their thing, just remain open and it’s ok.
AD: Anything else?
JL: Just that I’m really happy to be doing this in Austin. It’s a real honor to bring this music to Austin. Every other place I’ve lived, this music has already been there. I love being a part of it. It’s what I’m here for.