Tarde y Noche en Chiloé (“Day and Night in Chiloé”) is another of Alfonso Chacon’s compositions, this time within a rhythm called sirilla. Chiloé is an island off the coast of central Chile where people have been living for a good 7,000 years. Even through Spanish colonization and modernity it’s been known to be culturally (and even defiantly) isolated from the mainland, more oriented towards the sea than Santiago. I can’t recall any in depth conversations with Alfonso about Chiloé or sirilla, other than that it is a popular dance rhythm of the island.
From the moment I first locked into the opening and foundational strum pattern Tarde y Noche has been one of funnest tunes I play, a jolt of energy and good feeling. And it’s one of the most pleasurable from a purely physical standpoint. It’s basically a sensational tummy rub. Musically its structure takes me back to my days as a rhythm guitarist playing reggae and disco music in bands in SE Michigan in the 1990s.
As I reflect of the origins of my guitar obsessions, I suppose that this is a good time to make something a confession. As a musician, I’m kind of a knucklehead.
I’m not saying I don’t a have a certain aptitude for music. It may even be genetic – my father sang semi-professionally with a vocal group through his adult life (in addition to church choir and a folk trio), his sister was a career classical violinist in orchestras in Washington DC and her daughter is an accomplished bluegrass fiddle player. Growing up Yankee Presbyterian in Syracuse NY, ours was not the kind of household where music was played together, but musical education was definitely valued, and I would even say that music was appreciated as the highest form of art. Lessons were mandated in addition to participating in the school bands, and a healthy respect and admiration for good musicians was something imparted from my dad. As a kid in the 1970s there was still a lot of musical performances on variety show television as well as regular broadcasts of entire concerts from the stars of the day, which might only be trumped by football in our family viewing time.
And I can’t say I am completely without a kind formal musical education. A few years taking trumpet as a kid, a year of piano lessons when I was 13, and then bi-weekly private guitar lessons with a local jazzer through high school. He was a great guy and an amazing 70s-style fusion guitarist who definitely challenged and inspired me to practice my instrument and develop a basic grasp of music theory. Trying to play jazz standards though, with jazzy guitar soloing, was way beyond anything I could really grasp or appreciate at that age, let alone pull off with any competency. Really though I just wanted to rock Who tunes and Ramones tunes with enough sloppy blues riffs to get me through 12 bars in my high school garage band.
It wasn’t until I was in the enviable position of being a young man in Ann Arbor MI with an easy university job and time on my hands that I came into something of a calling on the instrument.
In my undergraduate years (at Penn State) guitar playing was mainly for drunken singalongs, and a raucous cover band riding through my final summer before starting grad school at the University of Michigan in 1990. I rarely played at all during the two years I spent getting my Masters degree, but in that time I experienced a revolution in my sense of aesthetics.
I lucked into having a housemate from Ireland and I soon found myself hanging out with a diverse circle of fellow grad students from that country as well as the UK. Together we’d get high and they’d put on records of trippy London house music, dub reggae or long psychedelic afro-jazz jams. I loved the enveloping hypnotic effect of all of it, breaking my ears of the expectations of song structure, and especially digging the sexuality. We’d have little dance parties or go out to clubs. I always had kind of a secret love of dance, a natural extension of a love of music and athleticism - I even took ballroom classes for gym credits in college (a part of me still wonders what would have been had I had the notion and confidence to get into dance as a kid). Dancing for hours, letting go to into the deepest funkiest music one could find became a preferred pastime of my 20s.
Ann Arbor, MI in the early 90s was a great place to be. I was an immediate fan of the fantastic WCBN-FM Ann Arbor student/community radio station. On top of a foundation of freeform, ‘CBN had regular programming dedicated to contemporary Jamaican dancehall (as well as ska and rock steady), emergent Detroit techno, plus the full range of worldwide avant and historical freakitude one would expect from an elite college town station. There was also vibrant local music scene with many venues and still strong ties back to the days of the MC5 and the Stooges. Unlike State College PA, where the bar bands just played classic rock covers, in Ann Arbor the bands were all original with artistic ambition and wild energy. It was easy to become a fan of the town.
Long story short, in 1992 I received a Masters Degree in Communication Studies and was offered a half-time faculty job in the department to oversee the course on public speaking and the dozen graduate students who would teach it (another great story, but not for now). 50% of a baseline lecturer salary was plenty of money for my 24 year old self, so I gladly took it. With notions of an actual academic career running out of steam, all I wanted to do was play electric rhythm guitar and explore the possibilities of making dark sexy minimalist funky music.
This is probably when I should have been pursuing some sort of straight career. But upon pondering Greil Marcus and Joseph Campbell, I came upon something of a personal artistic mission.
To my senses, the great musical artistic hero’s journey available to a middle class state school educated WASP like me was to be found in the narrative of smart bands like the Clash, the Jam, and Talking Heads who all evolved from some form of punk rock into something much greater by fearlessly grasping to play reggae, r&b and African styles with the intelligence and self-confidence to maintain their own voice in the process. It was obvious they came to get good at these styles because they loved them and ultimately had opportunities to learn from real players. As some kind of existential bonus, the process itself of playing Afro-American/Latin rhythms seemed to make them better humans for it, too, as all their works became less neurotic. For those, like me, who loved ¡Sandinista! more than all, it is not because the Clash became a great reggae band. It is loved it because in the process of learning to be an authentically solid reggae band they came into a wholly unique expression unto itself, and a offered a ticket to those wish to do the same. The impact of the music of these artists on myself and those around me seemed so profound – white dudes teaching white dudes to appreciate life and love the human body. I couldn’t imagine anything more important in this current cycle of than to participate in reproducing these ideas. To continue to prove them true and offer the experience as evidence for the next generations to come.
And, it just so happened to be the guitars in this music that most drove me most crazy – stark repetitive patterns, with clean and textured tones, functioning as a supportive cog in the machine, rarely playing melodies or solos.
Once I was on board, any time there was a band on tour from Africa to Detroit, or a package reggae tour, I’d be up against the stage. Invariably there’d be a guitarist standing totally still in the back of the stage, next to the drummer the other side from the bass. He’d have a look of quiet stoic bemusement on his face as his right arm bobs in a tiny perpetual up stroke down stroke, hitting chords, dampened strings or empty spaces, too quick to follow visually. His left hand grips the center of the neck with the slightest most efficient finger adjustments between two chord positions or 3-4 note riffs. The sounds he is making are in the middle range connecting the low range of the bass with higher pitch of the voices or horns. You have to concentrate your ears to find it as it works as something like a “thickener” to unify the sound of the band in the ear. No soloing, no moments of individual expression, no spotlight, just steady consistent rhythmic momentum, going round and round slowly turning off the spigot of your analytical mind over 15-20 minute vamps. Against the crazed charismatic vocalist or soloist his part is the mythic hypnotist’s watch swinging in the background. Totally at peace.
I could I do that. And not only that, I figured, but this is what music needs. And further, from what I can tell, there seems shortage of guitar players willing to do this. There is less good music than their could, and I wanted to help right that ship.
With limited skills, I put up ads in the record stores and miraculously found some likeminded souls. Over the next several years I became part of a small community of musicians, artists and freaks that formed many bands and had a quite a great time of it.
Epochal in this story was meeting a Jamaican musician named Carlton Dawes. Carlton was schoolmate of Ziggy Marley’s and a drummer in early versions of the Melody Makers, touring soccer stadia in Europe and South America as a teenager. He left that world for a marriage that ended up not working out and found himself living in Ypsilanti, MI. When I first encountered him he was a dynamic front man for the Trinidad Tripoli Steel Drum Band, a Detroit musical institution and the biggest Caribbean band in the area. They could pack any club in Michigan at their peak, and Carlton brought a lot of energy to their show as lead singer. He had joined up with them when he first settled in SE Michigan, but eventually he felt he wanted to put together his own reggae band with people outside the scene. He saw an ad I had posted in a record store that mentioned an interest in reggae and gave me a ring.
Carlton was a real professional musician, way beyond what my friends and I were doing or capable of. He politely jammed with us a couple times, which was fun and instructive, but he was way out of our league and had serious and professional intentions about reggae music as a means to work. We were in a very early gestational stage of being in a band, with probably a more purely “artistic” idea about what we were doing. Playing music “for money” was way outside our mental landscape.
Nonetheless, a year and a half later, out of nowhere, Carlton gave me a ring saying he needed an emergency guitar player for a gig with his new band. I was terrified, of course, but over that time my first band came into formation and I started to have some stage experience and a hunger for more – I was ready. Next thing I know I’m stage with Carlton in some suburban Detroit bar faking my way through the Bob Marley catalog. He offered me the gig full time as the summer season was kicking off, and within a couple months I helped bring in the bass player from my original music projects, Billy Noah.
From 1993-1999, I had a two-track career happening in music: playing three set gigs in Reggae Ambassada with Carlton, Billy and a rotating cast of characters at country clubs, frat parties, weird country bars, suburban block parties, corporate yacht outings and summertime outdoor festivals; and then playing esteemed original music clubs with Billy in the bands Butterfly and later Ground.efx, creating sets of live psychedelic drum-n-bass (dancehall and house) music in the way a DJ would spin, and hugely informed by our now growing knowledge of Jamacian music.
There aren't a lot of recordings, but this is from Butterfly's first cassette demo, an exercise in rock steady I wrote and sang called Love is True:
None of these were “successful” bands by any economic measure, but they each had moments of high hopes. Once in a while Reggae Ambassada would get a really special gig, like playing Sierra Afrique in Detroit, or backing a touring artist (I once got to share a stage with Leroy Sibbles). Butterfly eventually had a little deal with an independent record label from money trickled down from Ted Nugent’s empire which funded a well-received EP. We attracted some attention from national record labels, and was even brought out to a weekend playing for a private label party in New York (stayed at Chelsea Hotel and everything), but nothing came of it and the band eventually splintered apart as these things do. Ground.efx didn’t last long, but we had earned enough respect in the region to be featured on the cover of the Detroit Metro-Times as a hot new band.
Nonetheless, this era was really my music school. I got fulfill my fantasy of the rhythm guitarist and as hoped, and it delivered experiences way beyond what I could have imagined.
Both the jobbing reggae bands and the original music projects were about putting 4-6 people on a stage for the purpose of getting a crowd of people to dance and to keep them dancing. You do this enough and you start to understand there is a kind of mad science to it. Each member contributing a different specific rhythmic element, like atoms gathering to form a molecule. The more precisely correct the parts are played (and the more precise the negative spaces of “not-playing” are), the more energy it will emanate, as the molecule continuously forms and reforms with each rhythmic cycle. If you take that energy from the molecule and let it simmer over heat consistently over many minutes it will transform into a new substance.
Reggae Ambassada was especially instructive as we would often have to go through the process of getting an audience moving from dead cold – getting their attention and hopefully inspiring their bodies up and moving with something familiar or spectacularly fun, until they are warmed into a collective momentum. And if it all works, it takes on a life of its own and we can just groove. On a perfect night the third set might only really be 2 or 3 tunes. But if something was just a little off, maybe because of a weak new member of the group wanking too much and not sticking to rhythm, it wouldn’t be as effective.
In basement parties and smaller original music clubs, my band Butterfly had the benefit of having fans and spaces to play where we could launch the set already from a kind of peak. We were part of the same social continuum that was making music and throwing parties in the techno/rave scene, the energy for what we were doing was intense. Unlike your average funk band, we brought in elements of noise and pure abstract soundscape – music that you can’t begin to appreciate unless your body has been in rhythmic motion for at least an hour or two.
Precise rhythmic consistency playing raw funky rhythms with endurance and soul. People love the results, but it’s tough finding musicians who want to do that.
I started this story in explaining how I’m kind of a knucklehead, musically. It’s true. I’m very satisfied with two-chord vamps and lots of empty space. I have what I call “slow ears”, easily overwhelmed with too many notes. I’m generally incapable of following any lyrics the first dozen times I hear a song (if ever). I’m weirdly kind of indifferent to melody – not that I don’t love a good melody, but it’s not necessarily necessary to my musical enjoyment - and anything beyond simple harmony is generally from other planets I leave to others to decipher. For that I’m useless as a guitar soloist in a standard jazz/rock sense, nor do I care as noodling is never usually what I want to hear.
In the Ann Arbor music scene I got to meet people from the music school and developed a healthy jealousy/intimidation towards those who had fundamentals drilled into them at an early age. I’ve also met true natural talents, who seemingly were born with a direct line of communication between their sonic imaginations and their motor skills – they don’t need to practice technique, they just play.
In the world of musicians, I’m the gym rat who has to sneak on to the basketball floor to shoot 500 jump shots before the game. The blue collar role player in it for the love of the game, committed to the gameplan and making sure the star is going to shine.
I wanted to tell this story to give the reader the sense who I was as a musician when I met Alfonso.
I was not a classically trained guitarist looking to transition from the Bach lute suites to South American composers. I was also not an accomplished guitar hero looking to shred in another language. I was a rhythm guitarist seeking new dance music strums.
Solo guitar music was immediately satisfying to me because through Alfonso I could see how the full “rhythmic molecule” I understood from my experience in bands could be accomplished on a lone guitar. I would just have to get in the reps to condition my hands to do it.
Solo guitar is also something doable as a knucklehead – I wouldn’t have to worry about clashing with jazzers or the formally educated, I could play music on my own terms, and use the repertoire I was learning as means by which I would gain a new education. As roots music everywhere, most of Alfonso’s repertoire came down to being 2-3 chord vamps, of course.
Tarde y Noche en Chiloé is the fruition of the long process. Or to me, still the beginning of the fruition. It would be something extraordinary to be able to travel to Chiloé and see how sirilla music is played and danced to, but that is probably not likely to happen.
What I do try to do is bring is a sense for how dance music functions as a universal concept and try to get that to click within these forms as best I can. Playing dance music is about giving space for dancers to move, swinging between stimulating their attention (“positive space”, ie, singing choruses, big melodic riffs) and disappearing (“negative space”, pure groove, breakdown) and giving it enough time to build to a catharsis. Whether you’re in a loft in Brooklyn or on a remote island in Chile the dynamic is the same.
What’s funny is that I no longer get to play to dancers. Whether I’m on stage for a concert or playing for a cocktail party people don’t dance to solo guitar, but as I’m flipped back in my mind with eyes close they are, and I swear it’s what makes the music good.
I would say more about sirilla if I could, but there’s not much out there. If you’re on the iTunes there’s a haunting track called “Sirilla” on an album called Canta e Lotta attributed to: Various Artists - Azzurra Music.
I’ll leave with this though, the one track I could find on YouTube. Too fun:
So this one is for the knuckleheads out there, and all those who dedicate their lives to some crazy vision. It ain’t easy, but there’s always hope.