The past ten years or more has seen a renewed interest in what's come to be known as roots music — in other words, the musical styles that have shaped American (North American) pop music. From the holler songs of the slaves in the field, old country versions of Scottish and Irish ballads, ragtime piano, Carolina bues, gospel, and, well… the list is as long and diverse as the people who have settled in one part of the continent or another.
By now there's pretty much a hard and fast definition of what constitutes roots music. Usually acoustic, and most often a variation on either early blues or country music, it is played on guitars, drums, banjos, and other "traditional" instruments from our rural pasts. It usually conjures up images of families gathered on the back porch playing, or old ramshackle bars in the south.
Although the harmonica was originally a German import, it was quickly adopted by both black and white musicians into their respective music as an alternative to vocals or using more complicated wind instruments in simpler songs. It was adapted from its original usage to fit the needs of the various styles of music, as it could be both a rhythm and a lead instrument.
But as seems more often the case than not when it comes to the arts, and music in particular, like the harmonica, roots music has more to its history than how we hear it played today. In pockets all over America, music has been made on instruments that have not withstood the ravages of time or the whims of popularity. Different ethnic groups would bring their instruments and their music with them, which wouldn't ever achieve the popularity of blues or country, but in their playing, would influence the musical styles of a region.
The harmonica has remained, but the same can't be said for the claviola, the cimbalom, the contra bass saxophone, or the lute guitar. But all of those instruments have been played at one time or another across North America. Now the band Hazmat Modine has recorded an album of roots music utilizing some of these, and others, forgotten instruments, and their first album, Bahamut, kicks over all our preconceptions of musical history.
Before we go any further, this isn't some sort of anthropological music album that we're talking about here. The music is just as alive and vital as any of the other albums of traditional country, blues or gospel being released today. It's also every damn bit as good as what we've been listening to.
"Steady Roll" is the precursor to Chuck Berry-style rock and roll; "Dry Spell" could easily be a New Orleans jazz song; and "Everybody Loves You" could easily be a hard driving blues song from the Mississippi Delta. But America's roots are as European as they are African and so why shouldn't any of these songs include tuba solos, or reflect our Asiatic roots as the harmony vocals in "Everybody Loves You" do?
Okay, so maybe throat singing from the plains of Siberia is not something you'd expect to find on a blues track probably ever. The fact that the four-piece band Huun-Huur-Tu not only sings on the song "Everybody Loves You", and that it doesn't sound like some weird novelty act, but a sensible contribution to the song, shows you how much our definition of roots music needs to be broadened.
I'm sure to some of you this is beginning to sound like a dreadful mishmash of music where a bunch of artsies have gotten together to try and sound cool. But you couldn't be further from the truth with that sort of guess. They haven't just done things for the sake of being different; they are trying to find a sound that is inclusive of all the musical sources that have made their way to our continent.
While these instruments may not have come here for the purposes the band puts them to, they are striving to create "American" music and these instruments are now American. The sound of the wind instrument, the claviola, may sound alien to our ears, but the music it is playing is familiar. When it is introduced into the mix with instruments we do recognise, it is no longer as jarring as it was initially.
The same goes for the vocal harmonies and instruments played by the men of Huun-Huur-Tu. Throat singing has a wildness to it that at first makes you wonder how in the world it's going to fit into any familiar style of music. But in the end we lose track of the exotic nature of the sound and accept it as an important element of what is being performed.
Aside from the diversity of music being performed on this disc, Bahamut is distinguished by the virtuosity of the players involved in Hazmat Modine, either directly or as guests. But there is an intangible quality to this music beyond it merely being a bunch of skilled musicians playing neat instruments really well.
There is a hint of that in something that Wade Schuman, leader of Hazmat Modine, says about country, blues and jazz music having a certain directness and simplicity that's very moving, and that's hard to understand. That simplicity and directness, he says, comes from a place deep in the soul of America that you have to tap into.
Hazmat Modine, on their debut album Bahamut, show that they are fully capable of tapping into that simple and direct part of the American soul; the part that can cut through the shit and peel back the essence of a feeling or a moment and put it to music with courage and conviction.
Bahamut contains some of the best music I've heard this year, period. No one serious about knowing the potential that lies within traditional American music should miss listening to the disc. It will open your eyes at the very least, but hopefully also your ears and your heart.