While Burlington, Vermont has turned out its share of noteworthy artists in the last decade, perhaps none might be more musically compelling then West African/Indie/Groove artists Barika. On the heels of the band’s busiest and most successful year, the band is pushing the boundaries of the high energy, dubbed-out, danceable sounds they are known for. Layering samples and electronic elements into the mix has inspired new excitement from the band’s members and audience. From that energy, studio album number four, titled A Simple Light, took form.
The intention for the new record has been to mix the band’s rhythmic, melodic and atmospheric sensibilities with new sounds and invite some friends to collaborate. At the core, and true to form, this new music is held together with the poly-rhythmic traditional sounds of the West African N’goni front and center, led and played by Craig Myers (Rubblebucket, Mike Gordon).
Myers began Barika in 2008 while performing with Gordon and touring heavily with Rubblebucket and the band has evolved and spread a cohesive energy of musical interplay that makes a listener go from curiosity seeker to fan within the span of a song. The band features Caleb Bronz (drums), Giovanni Rovetto (bass), Colin Lenox (guitars/keys), Mateo Davide (sax) and Christopher Hawthorn (trumpet/synths).
Glide recently had the chance to speak to the multi-talented Myers about the new album and how Barika is leading its own musical charge led by the N’goni.
We are really excited about this one. Barika has been through a lot of transformation since our first album in 2011. I think each album has had something that links it to the previous and, at the same time, brings something a little different than before. With this album, I wanted to continue that evolution but also bring in some songs that really break out from what we have done in the past. Everyone in this band has many talents and bringing that out in the tracks was a priority. We have been exploring the use of more samples on this one as well as the talents of Christopher Hawthorn’s synth creativity.
Although your music seems very improvisational when live, if you listen deeper it has more realized and specific mission composition wise. How does Barika compose its new music and where do you most likely find the inspiration for new music?
Well a big thing for me with Barika’s music and my writing style is to focus on collective playing, for the greater good beyond our own need to be heard. It is very important that all of the pieces work in rhythmic and melodic harmony, we work very hard at that. This music is not about any one part or person standing out from another, though every section will have some sort of focus and feature. It’s rather a swimming musical collective effort to create something beyond ourselves. As far as improvisation goes, the intention is to find the area between “solo” and “fixed melodic ideas”. I really enjoy when a soloist plays with the intention of supporting the foundational groove, being careful to not overplay, coming up with creative phrases and fluid movement. Of course, there is a huge responsibility of the rhythm section to listen with big ears and fully support the soloist. To create a strong musical pallet of support. It’s important to me that the music holds a strong rhythmic foundation yet keep a feeling of ethereal angelic like suspension, a floating dreamscape so to speak.
As far as musical inspirations go, I’m not really sure if there is any one place that I gather inspiration to write songs. I listen to A LOT of different kinds of music, everything from 70’s West African highlife, 90’s hip-hop, old school reggae, trap, hardcore, metal, and singer-songwriters like Neil Young. Usually, a song starts by me simply just picking up the N’Goni and messing around. I usually fall into some sort of repetitive pattern and a light will go on in my head, my inspiration. From there the songs are born. I will hash out songs on a midi controller until it is at a place where I feel I can share it with the band. Once they have had some time with the tune to interpret parts, we will get together and rehearse it to bring it to life.
After watching your performance on VPR – Live from The Fort- I was really astounded with what you have going with Barika. Its danceable music but seems to be communicating musically in perhaps a bygone language. How do you best communicate with your instrument – are you more interested in the groove vs something more descript?
The Kamel N’goni is a very rhythmic instrument. It is an open pentatonic harp coming originally form Mali, Burkina Faso. It is very groove orientated. The majority of our songs start from an N’goni line and build from there. The groove is the pallet for sure, it is the foundation of our music. From there we build outward, finding lead lines and ethereal dream scapes to surround the groove.
We all based in Burlington, VT so I have had the opportunity to see all of them play in other projects many times. All of them had something that stood out to me. They are all very hard working and multi-talented musicians. Colin has such a soulful approach that felt very much in line with what I am trying to do with this band. I had seen Chris playing around town with Mal Maiz and was very impressed with his playing and professionalism. Matt Davide came to the band via a recommendation from Chris which turned out to be a great decision! Caleb and I have been playing together now for so many years it’s hard to remember how it all started! Giovanni is such a great player and friend, it just made sense for him to hold down the low end. I feel very fortunate to be able to play with such a talented and kind group of musicians.
As the musical leader of the band- where do you lead and where do you follow with the N’goni?
Well, the N’goni is a very expressive instrument. Just the smallest increase of tension to a part will insinuate the building of a section. I also have some “turn around” phrases that I play that let the guys know it is time to change. Beyond the N’goni’s roll in this, there are physical cues that the band pick up on. Caleb is so good at reading my body language it’s scary! He knows what every scrunched face and subtle body movement means and reacts accordingly on the drums. As far as following goes, it’s all about having those big ears. If someone takes a chance or creates something in a solo or moment, it is important to support and follow.
What is the greatest misconception about the N’goni?
Well, it is not an electric Sitar for starters! People often ask me if I feel limited by the N’goni being an open tuning, pentatonic scale instrument limited to a certain scale. I don’t feel limited, the N’goni is a very unique and versatile instrument that works quite well in conjunction with all that surrounds it. Beyond that, most of what I hear from people is based on it’s origin. Some ask if it is Indian like the Sitar or Japanese similar to the Koto. Both Mali and Japan often use pentatonic scales but have extremely different musical backgrounds.
Mostly People just want to know what it is, where it is from, how to spell it and where they can get one. so here it is!:
Name: Kamel N’Goni (camel-in-go-knee)
Origin: Mali/Burkina Faso, West Africa
Where to get one: I make them myself! PM me at Craig Myers fb
What did you take from your experience with Rubblebucket that has transferred over to Barika?
When I started Rubblebucket with Alex and Kal, it was my first real experience being in a touring band. There was a serious learning curve, from the idea of being in a touring band to actually being in one. It takes a lot of hard work and energy beyond actually being on-stage playing. There are a lot of moving parts and hard work needed to keep it running. I think the biggest thing that I strive for in Barika is to make sure everyone in the band feels appreciated and is seen for the efforts they bring to the band. A happy musical family is a productive musical family!
In Mike Gordon’s band you are the percussionist but in Barika you are the leader – what have you taken from Mike Gordon’s role as a band leader that you can transfer over to your band?
I’ve learned so much from Mike as a leader. He is extremely inspired and motivated. He is always thinking from a place of possibility and chooses his words wisely. He is very good at making you feel appreciated and seen for your efforts and is always open to entertain an idea. These are things I appreciate about Mike as a leader and try my best to integrate into my roll as the leader in Barika.
Talk about the Burlington music scene these days and what bands and venues have been most supportive of Barika’s growth?
First and foremost we have a great deal of appreciation and admiration for Nectars! They have been very supportive of the band since day one and are considered by us to be our home! That being said, there are so many great venues in Burlington’s thriving music scene and we definitely have love for them all. As far as bands go, I think one of the things that make Burlington’s music scene so great is the artists’ enthusiasm to collaborate.
As far as bands go, I think one of the things that make Burlington’s music scene so great is the artists’ enthusiasm to collaborate. Every artist in town seems to be in multiple projects and are constantly coming up with new configurations to highlight each other’s music. I have love for all who make music in this town, putting their heart and soul out on the table for all to see and feel! That being said, there are some amazing musical humans who have put a lot of thought and effort into Barika’s music. Robinson Morse, Kat Wright, Andrew Moroz, Stephanie Lynn Heagheny, Seth Yacovone, Craig Mitchel, Michael Chorney, Luke Laplant, Zach Tonnison, Jake Whitesell, Ivamae, Bob Wagner and the list goes on and on!! All have these beautiful humans/artists/musicians have played a part in Barika’s music and for that we are thankful..
Band photos by Brian Jenkins