Robbie Basho - Biography
By J Poet
Robbie Basho humbly billed himself as Father of the American Raga. He was one of the big three acoustic steel sting guitarists who rose up in the 60s – John Fahey and Leo Kottke were the other two – with a determination to expand the parameters of the instrument and destroy preconceived notions of what a solo guitarist can and can’t do. He’s not as well know as Fahey and Kottke, possibly because his music is deeper, darker and more challenging, incorporating Japanese, Classical Indian and Chinese scales, open tunings and rhythms adapted from Celtic, Medieval, Persian, Arab and Native American music. His work isn’t instantly accessible, but with repeated listening his ragas and suites continually reveal new levels of feeling and expertise. His music demanded close attention and in his later life, unable to find a label willing to take a chance on him, he put out his own cassette-only releases, now extremely rare. He died in 1986.
Robbie Basho’s dedication to his music and his solitary lifestyle make details about his life hard to come by, but some facts are known. He was born as Daniel R. Robinson Jr. in Baltimore, Maryland in 1940. He attended a Catholic grammar school, a military high school and studied pre-med at the University of Maryland. He lifted weights and played trumpet and lacrosse in college, but when he bought a 100-year-old Mexican 12-string guitar for 200 dollars, his life changed.
He started delving into music, folk, bluegrass, and classical and began playing guitar. When he discovered the Japanese haiku poet Matsuo Basho he changed his name to Robbie Basho. He met John Fahey in 1961 and thereafter played only steel string instruments, gaining a reputation on the Washington DC folk scene performing blues and protest songs. After hearing Ravi Shankar in 1962 Basho stopped playing the blues and spent hours every day in his room developing open tunings so he could play his kind of American ragas. He moved to Berkeley California in the late 60s and recorded half a dozen stunning LPs for Fahey’s Takoma label.
Robbie Basho Vol. 1: The Seal of the Blue Lotus (1965 Takoma) (AKA Guitar Soli) included six extended pieces with cryptic names like “Sansara in Sweetness After Sandstorm.” They’re full of droning bass notes and showers of shimmering sitar-like 12 string arpeggios. The Grail and the Lotus (1966 Takoma) followed with more amazing picking and extended, liner compositions with a marked influence of Japanese, Chinese and Classical Indian music, in particular the playing of sarod master Ali Akbar Khan. The Falconer's Arm, Vol. 1 (1967 Takoma) included the melancholy 12-string meditation “Lost Lagoon Suite” and another raga the blends the blues and Indian music. The Falconer's Arm, Vol. 2 (1968 Takoma) includes the flamenco raga “Pasha” and a lengthy live improvisation “Variations on ‘Shakespeare Wallah.’”
The rest of Basho’s albums are: Venus in Cancer (1969 Blue Thumb) features Basho singing in a voice as idiosyncratic as his playing. “Song for the Queen” is complimented by a subtle string arrangement. Song of the Stallion (1962 Takoma) Arab, Indian, Persian and Western classical music collide with Persian spiritual poetry. “North American Raga” incorporates Native American melodies into the mix. The Voice of the Eagle (1972 Vanguard) is a collection of songs. Basho sings melodies based on Native American modes that may sound jarring to those unfamiliar with pow wow singing. Zarthus (1972 Vanguard) features Basho’s piano playing in tandem with his guitar to produce music soaked in overtones as well as the 12-string guitar showcases “Khoda e Gul e Abe” and the title track.
In 1978, guitarist Will Ackerman, founder of Windham Hill Records, who cites Basho as a major influence, signed Basho and released Visions of the Country (1979 Windham Hill) and Art of the Acoustic Steel String Guitar, 6 and 12 (1980 Windham Hill.) After one more outing on Silver Label, Rainbow Thunder (1981), another album of Basho singing in Native American styles, the guitarist remained without a label. He released at least two albums on his own cassette only label - Bouquet (1983) and Twilight Peaks (1985) - before his death in 1986.