Bluegrass singer Peter Rowan performs on Tuesday in Gainesville
Published: Friday, November 8, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, November 7, 2013 at 7:10 p.m.
Peter Rowan could tell something was missing.
Peter Rowan and His Bluegrass Band
What: Grammy-winning bluegrass singer/guitarist Rowan performs, with Tibetan vocalist Yungchen Lhamo opening act
When: 7 p.m. Tuesday, doors open at 6 p.m.
Where: Thomas Center, 302 NE Sixth Ave., Gainesville
Tickets: $25 advance, $30 day of show if available
Info: 373-5514, http://bit.ly/162v2xn
He had gotten himself a band together, hardly a surprise. Rowan has joined bands for years, and made himself a leader as well. As a station-giveaway trivia question, the Tampa radio station WMNF-FM once challenged listeners to name as many groups Rowan had belonged to as possible.
He had material he wanted to play out, an album the group had recorded and released earlier in the year. “The Old School” featured mostly his material (the exception is an Odetta cover) written in the styles of some of the bluegrass founding fathers. “They're not tributes,” he said. Exercises? Meditations? “That isn't it either. How about dancing with ghosts on a dirt floor?” Anyway, he had a band. He had new repertoire, he had the songs he knows his committed fans always want to hear a selection from. But something was missing.
“Bluegrass has an opening to it, a place that can be expanded into somewhere you can fly around some,” Rowan explained from his home in the San Francisco Bay area. “I needed something to help open that space, and then fly in it with the guys.” He mentioned this socially to Charles Sawtelle, the founding singer-guitarist for the '70s progressive bluegrass group, Hot Rize. The next time they saw each other, Rowan said, “He handed me this cassette and said, 'Just listen.'”
What he heard was Yungchen Lhamo, a Tibetan Buddhist singer-songwriter who had walked, after receiving a blessing from the Dalai Llama, from her Himalayan homeland to santuary first in Australia and eventually in America. She records for Peter Gabriel's international-music label, has sung duets with Billy Corgan, Annie Lennox and Natalie Merchant.
Removed enough from Western culture that she sings with the resonance of transportation and writes songs suggesting an inner journey just as deep, she makes a spiritual connection that places singer, songwriter and listener on the same journey. In a large context. Call it a greater power, if you so choose. As an exile from an oppressed culture, Lhamo recalls Miriam Makeba's performances with Harry Belafonte back in the late '50s and into the '60s, the northern folk singers who embraced Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter as an authorial singer from the lynchings beyond Ledbetter's death in 1949. She also recalls the musicians who framed the Civil Rights movement in the context of such Christian spirituals as “Swing Low Sweet Chariots” and “We Shall Overcome.”
“What I noticed was horse rhythms,” Rowan said about the tape. “There's a rhythm to a horse walking, pulling a cart that Bill Monroe and a lot of other rural musicians heard in their heads,” Rowan says, referring to his boss in the early '60s. "The horse was half a world away, but the rhythm was the same. Yungchen comes from a land that was a horse culture until the Red Army invaded.”
He learned more about her and then contacted her. “She's the first singer I wanted to invite as a special guest on a tour,” said Rowan, who will perform with his band in a show that Lhamo will open at the Thomas Center. "I've worked with other singers, but this was a case of I don't know what we'll do, but I want to do it.” He was aware of pitfalls. “There were a lot of Latin music fanatics who resented me when Flaco Jiminez and I did the Free Mexican Air Force,” he recalled, so he knew he had to ensure his audiences wouldn't resent her and that he wouldn't look like a cultural thief. It hasn't worked that way.
“We've never had a show in which she participated as the traditional opening act,” he said. “We could try it, but you have to understand that when she goes out and sings, the guys in the band want to go sit in. The way we all react to playing with her opens up that space. Her songs travel though it.”