(Originally appeared in Mutant Renegade Zine #9, Fall 1998)
Stephen Kent is known as one of the foremost non-aboriginal didgeridoo players in the world. With his solo release “Landing” Stephen brought the didgeridoo, known mostly as a drone instrument, to the forefront as a primary musical instrument that could drive a composition as well as support it.
While maintaining an uncompromising integrity and respect for the didgeridoo and the spirituality of music in general, Stephen has forged a non-traditional style, which is best described as ethno-ambient world. Stephen introduced people to the deeper qualities of this intense instrument with his solo album and has since broken all boundaries with his musical styling on the didgeridoo and an array of other instruments. Stephens musical genius also shines on releases by Lights in a Fat City, Trance Mission and Beasts of Paradise, all bands in which he plays an important part.
I had the opportunity to speak with Stephen a few years back on the heals of the Beast of Paradises release “Nobody Knew the Time”. Since then, Stephen has toured extensively with his band transmission, had a child with his wife Eda Maxym (who is the lead voice for Beast of Paradise), and has loaned his musical talent to many other musicians in the San Francisco Bay area.
MRZ- I’ve heard that you use to play music in a circus.
SK – I was appointed as musical director of a circus company in Australia in 1981, that was called circus OZ and it was a circus without animals ssentially. It was more like a political theatergroup parading as a circus, and it was that connection , working with that group, which lead to me playingthe didgeridoo.
MRZ – Even though you are a multi-instrumentalist, you are recognized best for your expertise on the didgeridoo. How did you end up with that instrument?
SK – I guess what happened to me was as soon as I arrived in Australia, I realized that there was a power to the land that was not really being recognized by the Western culture which pretty much occupies the outer limits of the Australian continent, the coastal regions. And coming from Europe which is pretty much built into the ground, deep into the earth, it seemed to me faintly ludicrous to see all these buildings perched on top of this enormous continent that appeared to be pulsating with a much deeper vibration. In the work that I did in the circus I determined that I would like to reflect some of that quality in the music of the show.
I actually heard the didgeridoo played fairly early on in my time in Australia and I was a brass player at the time, I was trained as a French horn player. I was fascinated by the sound of the didgeridoo and tried to check out what it would be like if I learned the circular breathing technique on brass instruments. And applied didgeridoo styles but played on brass instruments to the trapeze and some of the more spectacular parts of the show. So what I did was ended up developing that style and composing music for tuba and for sousaphone as a foundation that sounds very much like the didgeridoo.
In fact if you listen to track #2 on my c.d. Landing it has a tuba playing the didgeridoo part. Although you would think it was a didgeridoo. I have to say that there is a didgeridoo on that track too, but the tuba is holding the didgeridoo line as well, it changes the note.
What actually got me into playing the didgeridoo is, after a couple of years of working in the circus, I gravitated more and more towards understanding something deeper about the Australian Aboriginal culture. I left the circus to go traveling and spent time in the center of Australia and up in the Northern territory staying on some aboriginal settlements and feeling the land which was really the big teacher. The land is the teacher.
The aboriginal people in Australia are similar to the Native American Indian people believe that they belong to the earth, the earth belongs to no body. And a lot of the culture is learnt by contact with the earth itself. So for me, my experiences in the desert and very much out in the bush over a period of time spoke very deeply to me and I found myself beginning to play the didgeridoo at that time. And that’s been something that I have been developing ever since. That was 1983.
MRZ – You mention the circular breathing technique, what exactly is that?
SK – It’s kind of tricky to explain because it really requires a visual, but circular breathing is the ability to maintain sound for a long time without apparently breathing. You don’t stop for breath. Anyway, what happens is you manage to push air out of your mouth at the same time as taking a sniff in through your nose. So you maintain sound. It’s almost like your cheeks become the bag of a bagpipe at that moment that you breath in through your nose and so a good didgeridoo player can continue playing without a break for hours literally.
It’s also a technique that’s used widely in jazz music. A lot of jazz horn players use circular breathing. Roland Kirk is one example. Archie Sharp is another one that I’m aware of, Evan Parker. There are many horn players that do it. Also if you listen to music from different cultures, the music of Tibet again is widely utilizes circular breathing as do many of the Islamic cultures that play wind instruments.
MRZ – One of the groups you’re in, Trance Mission, is composed of Kenneth Newby, who also is in the group Lights in a Fat City with you, John Loose and Beth Custer, who is also in the group Clubfoot Orchestra. The members are from England, Canada, New Hampshire and New York. How did you end up hooking together.
SK – I was touring initially in the States in 1991 with Lights in a Fat City and Kenneth Newby, a Canadian, had joined the group for that tour. At the end of that time in late 1991 I decided to settle in the San Francisco Bay area and I met up with Beth Custer who I did some improvised performances with. And invited John Loose in, he’s the main percussionist in the group, specializing in frame drums and basically hand drums and techniques of drumming from south India and North Africa, Middle Eastern styles.
We began playing as a trio, but it felt to me that it was something was missing that could be added to and the connection that was made with Kenneth was so powerful that we invited him into Trance Mission, that pretty much sealed the deal.
His techniques are fairly phenomenal. He has a lot of experience in music, in Indonesian particularly having lived several years in Bali and Java. Kenneth adds a very different type of taste to the music that we play and it’s been an interesting project to date.
Our first album, which was simply called Trance Mission came out last year and I think it really documents the meeting of the four of us. It’s pretty much a live recording, using the acoustic instruments to the full extent. However Meanwhile, our new c.d. that come out about a month ago is a much more studio orientated project and is much more layered. We all get a chance to play more of the different instruments. I play some cello on there, I play a lot of percussion, as well as a battery of didgeridoos. We actually worked in the studio much more to produce Meanwhile, which was actually produced by Simon Tassano, who’s an original member of Lights in a Fat City. It’s really kind of like a marriage of all the directions I have been working with over the last 5 or 6 years.
MRZ – With all influence from the different band members, how does the group go about composing a song? Does they develop out of jam sessions?
SK – Yes, essentially. The basis of this band has always been improvisation. We come together with rudimentary ideas from one or two people and jam around with them. It’s a very consentual process of composition. There’s not a single piece on this new album where all the ideas came from one person.
For me the interest in this kind of work and in the majority of the music that I played over the last ten years or so has been that kind of conversational basis. It’s not simply somebody comes in and directs a piece, all though we do occasionally have one person taking a little more of the lead than others in pieces. It’s very much a process of deliberation and consultation between the four of us. We also bring in other people, such as Eda Maxym, who’s a vocalist.
MRZ – Tell me about the video that you are working on that’s described as technowave psychedelic?
SK – Well we have made a short video to go with one of the pieces. Actually off our first c.d. that’s being re-released on a compilation by our label, City of Tribes, called Event Horizon. Along with some new unreleased Lights in a Fat City and pieces by some different members of the ensemble of musicians.
It’s kind of a family of musicians who form the record label. So there’s a lot of different people working with each other’s project. SO far I’m not really sure that that video got out into the world, we’re working on getting that promoted out into the TV land out there. But it’s hard for small independent labels to break into the monopoly situation of … well MTV is the extreme, but I don’t suppose we’d be shown on there. But keep your eyes open.
MRZ – What other projects are you working on?
SK – There’s one other band that I’m working on, it’s called Beast of Paradise, and this is much more of a vocally orientated group. It features the singing of my wife, Eda Maxym, who also is on the new Transmission c.d. and also on my Landing c.d.
Beast of Paradise is a group that has as it’s fundamental line-up, orchestral harp, voice, a kind of tableau and hand drums, upright bass and didgeridoo. And they just came out with a sort of mini c.d., a 5-track c.d., Nobody Knew the Time, on City of Tribes. I’m very excited by the direction of this group. It moves more into more of a folk region of sound than anything that I’ve worked on before.
I’m also currently working with Kenneth Newby on a new project which is going to be more in the realm of the ambient dancing but using more of the acoustic sound as the foundation. It’s just in the early phase of development, so we have to wait to see where that goes.
There’s been a difficulty with a definition of this kind of music. Whenever we play out there people go wild, we just played some gigs up in the Northwest and it’s wonderful to see thousands of people jumping up and Down to our music. There’s still a lot of convincing to be done in terms of people who run the ropes of the music business, because they really don’t know what to call the music we play.
It’s doesn’t fall easily into any of the defined categories the music business has at it’s disposal currently. I think that’s something that requires looking at. There’s a whole lot of new music coming out that defies some of the boundaries that have been set up by marketing person in order to sell music.
I think we’re living in this most extraordinary time where we have unprecedented access to many myriad’s of different cultures around the world. There’s a lot of communication and interrelationship going on between sounds and the music of all manner of peoples that’s producing a lot of new music and it’s time the music business woke up and said okay this is happening rather than trying to keep everything in the jazz, rock, new age, pop, vocal, world music category. So that’s my recommendation.