Common ground, with gongs

Boston Globe, May 27, 2007

Eight small round gongs lie horizontally in a rectangular box and shimmer to the touch of soft wooden sticks. The sound is intricate, playful, liquid, the tuning flexible and untethered to a specific scale. Now hand drums weave in, offering a loose countervailing beat. A laptop beams loops and samples from field recordings: traditional music groups, children at play, street noise, a call to prayer taped off a hazy transistor radio.

This is the soundscape of Electric Kulintang, the venture of wife-and-husband team Susie Ibarra and Roberto Rodriguez that conjugates her Filipino and his Cuban cultural heritage with the experimentalism of the New York improvised music scene they inhabit. Deeply rooted yet entirely new, it is one of those refreshing projects that ushers the listener into a total sonic experience just past the edge of the familiar, in the process subjecting the superannuated concept of “world music” to some much-needed creative destruction.

With an album released last year on independent label Plastic Records, Electric Kulintang visits the Museum of Fine Arts for two daytime sets tomorrow as part of the museum’s Memorial Day open house. It’s an inspired programming choice, as the music is of a nature to captivate children and adults alike, and its textural qualities suit it for both intense and casual listening.

On the phone from the couple’s home in the Hudson Valley, where they are awaiting the birth this summer of their first child, Ibarra explains that in the Philippines, the word “kulintang” has three meanings. It designates the eight-gong instrument, a larger ensemble that adds various vertical gongs and other percussions, and the type of music that these instruments play.

Kulintang’s roots are in the indigenous cultures of the southern Philippines, particularly the large southern island of Mindanao, Ibarra says. “It’s a region where there was a lot of trading in the 14th century, with the Arab world, Cambodia, and China, before the Spanish arrived,” she says. “But Kulintang is definitely a native music.”

She explains that kulintang is still a very active folk tradition: “It will blow you away if you see how much gong music is going on in Mindanao,” she says. It’s also been historically a feminine art, passed down by women, often within the same families.

Ibarra, 35, comes from outside the tradition strictly stated. She’s Filipino-American, born in California and raised in Texas. Like many first-generation Americans, she didn’t travel back to her family’s home until she was in her teens. In high school she played drums in punk-rock bands. “I still have an inner punk in me,” she says. “I have an affinity for the energy, the grass-roots mentality, and the openness.”

Suitably enough then, it was a performance of the far-out Sun Ra Arkestra that convinced her, while in college studying visual arts, to become a career musician. She entered the New York downtown scene and has made a name for herself working with creative music mavens like Dave Douglas and John Zorn, on whose Tzadik record label she has released several albums. She is mainly a drummer but has worked in the kulintang among other percussions: “I’ve used it in different contemporary settings in my music,” she says.

It was in this milieu that Ibarra connected with Rodriguez, a percussionist born in Cuba who came to the United States at age 9, and who became an expert in Jewish music and culture by virtue of growing up in Miami. Rodriguez has developed a Latin dimension to the neo-klezmer movement that is in full bloom in New York, with two critically acclaimed releases also on Tzadik.

But Electric Kulintang is a very different project from these, let alone from rarefied downtown avant-jazz, and Ibarra and Rodriguez have stressed this in part by releasing their album on the virtually unknown Plastic label, free of any predetermined audience expectations.

“It’s a very different music and project,” Ibarra says. “It’s important to give a creative work its own space. This one crosses over between our audiences and a totally different audience, as well as the Filipino community.”

Indeed, with its global influences, the improvisational impulse of jazz, and the ambient electronica of the finished package, Electric Kulintang exists happily outside genre. At the same time, the employment of traditional Filipino instrumentation means the project’s ultimate roots are in the archipelago. The field recordings, from a trip the couple took in 2004-05, only further the sense of place.

That journey was the first time Rodriguez visited the Philippines, meeting Ibarra’s relatives and discovering a culture with uncanny connections to Cuba, particularly the fact that both countries were colonized first by Spain, then by the United States. He says he noted similarities, for instance, from the introduction of the same Spanish musical styles in the two cultures but also felt a more intuitive comfort and familiarity.

The approach he and Ibarra took, traveling around the islands in an unhurried way, gathering sound and allowing impressions to develop at their own pace, is a method he recommends highly: “People want to do world music, but they don’t go and feed off the place. For me that’s key: You have to go to the place, hang out, and take it in. That’s how I’ve lived my whole life, living in different places, that process of digesting.”

Electric Kulintang is in its own way a manifesto, for the immersion of the journey but also, in the end, for the cosmopolitan integration of influences and techniques that can happen when you return home to a global metropolis.

“I didn’t want to come back! I want to spend a lot of years of my life there,” Rodriguez says of the Philippines. “Yet we do come back because we know this is a place where you can expand and create in terms of developing your art, in a way that’s limitless.”