When on Feb. 28, 1986, Robbie Basho, the passionate singer, guitarist, composer passed away, the world lost a little known musical genius, a very unique voice in the landscape of music, a true original with an intense personal journey.
Robbie Basho, nearly forgotten in the music biz for many years, was an eccentric pioneer of the contemporary acoustic guitar (besides John Fahey, Sandy Bull & Davy Graham) and the so called new age-movement.(Basho, Bull and Graham were seen as the inventors of world music into the guitar movement.) He influenced Windham Hill-founder William Ackerman, Alex de Grassi , the early Leo Kottke and many other musicians.
Who was Robbie Basho?
Born in 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland, he became an orphan in his early childhood and got adopted by Dr Donald R.Robinson and his wife and grew up as Daniel R.Robinson jr. with a very typical middle-class childhood and youth. He spent his early years, up through high school, in Baltimore attending catholic schools run by nuns. At the high school level, he went to a military school and then on to the University of Maryland (1958-1962), where he was a premed student, but he didn't graduate and didn't have a major listed. He was athletic -playing lacrosse, doing weight lifting and other sports; he sang in school choirs and played the trumpet. He discovered the guitar. In the beginning he was impressed by the flamenco guitar playing of gypsies and he started with nylon strings. Guitar became his main creative outlet and he came into the steelstring after meeting "steelstring folks", hanging around, including John Fahey in Washington, DC, in the early 60s.
After his junior year at the Univercity of Maryland he bought his century-aged mexican 12string from a sailor for $200 and discovered every possible music, classical music, bluegrass, oriental, improvisations on Bing Crosby...His 6 string (an old Weymann from the late 20s) was a gift from a friend who had discovered and repaired it in desolate condition. He became a beatnik, became interested in Japanese literature, began to write his own poetry, dabbled in painting and guitar. After discovering the most famous Japanese haiku poet, Matsuo Basho, he changed his name into Robbie Basho, the musician.
He "received" his stage name in the 60s "after spending a night on a mountaintop and ingesting a great deal of peyote", Fahey wrote in 2000 for the liner notes of Bashovia.
The next morning, Basho said he was the reincarnation of the Japanese poet.
He entered the upcoming musical scene of Washington within a few month. Max Ochs (can be heard on Takomas 1st guitar sampler "Contemporary Guitar") introduced him to the huge music library of folk music. Robbie began playing and singing blues and a mixture of foreign protest songs. The young Leo Kottke heard him perform: "It was the first 12string I heard and he was the first player I heard who was doing something with his fingers that was his own,...I was mesmerized by him."
In 1962 Robbie heard sitarist Ravi Shankar and "nothing was like before". "I got Shankar's records and just laid in a dark room and listened for hours...I dropped blues when I came into the raga thing." He began to use open C (CGCGCE) and a lot of more exotic tunings, developed his 'Esoteric Doctrine of Color & Mood for 12&6 string guitar' and talked about "Zen-Buddhist-Cowboysongs". Like Fahey he decided "to present the acoustic steelstring guitar as a concert instrument".
After a time full of trouble, experiences, the States-crossing "hunts", he settled in Berkeley. The Bay Area became his home. He studied North Indian music with legendary sarod master Ali Akbar Khan. There he met fellow guitarist Hank Mindlin, a follower of Meher Baba, the silent Indian spiritual teacher. Basho devoted himself to Baba's teachings and joined Sufism Reoriented, Meher Baba's spiritual school in California. After discovering Baba, Basho refused to teach any guitar students who were using drugs.He experimented with several healing methods including Chinese medicine, herbalists, acupuncture, massage, and he went to several chiropractors. (During his lifetime)
Until 1971 he recorded 6 LP's for Fahey's TAKOMA Label (and the amazing, nearly forgotten 16 minutes tour de force "The Thousand Incarnations of the Rose" on "Contemporary Guitar", which was inspired by the Berkeley Rose Garden, not so far from his home) and one for Blue Thumb.
Basho traveled to India in 1969 to participate in the "Great Darshan" program to honor Meher Baba who passed away that year. He performed one of his guitar ragas at this gathering in the beautiful summer palace of the Maharani of Baroda known as
'Guruprasad' in the city of Pune in April 1969. "He regarded it as one of the most memorable experiences of his life and very forcefully felt the living presence of the divine." fellow guitarist Hank Mindlin said.
After 2 LP's recorded for Vanguard (1972, 1974) it took 4 years to find a record company again. The 2 LP's for Windham Hill, the Label, founded by William Ackerman, who calls him one of his main influences, made him touring across different countries. "From the standpoint of my guitar playing, nobody has influenced me more", says Ackerman, "That 4/4 pick he called the running Himalayan rondo formed the basis of all my early writing". The look and feel of Windham Hill was influenced by Robbie's self-image and vision.
After an album on Silver Label Recordings he couldn't find a new label for his album projects again until his death, but he published cassette- editions by himself. Robbie Basho never made a very good living at his playing, but just before his unfortunately death he had new plans, new ideas for projects. Over the years he had studied classical composition and harmony. "The ideas got too big for the guitar -I had to learn piano to stretch them out." These works include a score for a self-described Sufi symphony -seven years in the writing- and one for piano and orchestra, dealing with "the Spanish culture and the Christ-force coming to America", that took four years.
Basho has had many musical incarnations. He always tried to discover who he was, using the way of music. Perhaps that's why he passed through so many phases with acute details. Robbie Basho's albums span everything from classical European artistry to songs of the Old West -he wove his Hindu, Chinese and Japanese scales and moods and Persian, Arabic or American Indian themes. He was sometimes criticized for taking too seriously the ragas that he offered up to the Beloved Higher Mind, but he also saw the lighter side of his musical cloud-tripping. "If you do it with reverence, it's not as much of an insult to the Hindu gods", he once joked in a Guitar Player interview.
"The superego isn't satisfied with meat and potatoes music anymore, it really wants the best it can get... Music is supposed to say something, music is supposed to do something", Basho said in a 1974 interview on KPFA radio (see "Ode to Gravity") in Berkeley
Basho created a distinct sound that was his own, that what he understood as North America's own voice.
Robbie Basho had an intense life journey, has been a very spiritual, but difficult person. Some say: he wasn't from this Earth, touched by God. Other people say: He was sometimes tough to be around, fussy, moody, self absorbed and a bit of a hypochondriac, and thought, Basho's spiritual quest was a bit of a show and called the poetry overly effusive.
What he wanted most: Love - he never got. Till today (or just today??) it's difficult, but nessecary trying to understand the person Robbie Basho, his intense life journey to understand the musician, the guitarist, singer, composer, poet Robbie Basho.
When his ash was given into the ocean, a circle was rounded: A sensitive soul, that came from 'somewhere' to sing the worldsong of love and peace, was going back to 'somewhere'.
Jerome Burdi, a journalist living in South Florida, tries to give a good image of the person Robbie Basho:
"Robbie Basho was an angel. I don't believe he was terrestrial". in elephant journal ,
but the part, how SBJ came into Berkeley is totally wrong: ("...A German guitarist who took on the Basho name made a pilgrimage to Berkeley to meet the maestro. But by the time Steffen Basho-Junghans got there it was too late....")
- "When I came to Berkeley in late September 1994, I knewed about Basho's death since Summer 1986. So I didn't come to meet the maestro, maybe to 'meet' his spirit!! -
to be continued soon... For questions, corrections or contributions to continue this archives please contact Blue Moment Arts.
There are still many questions: Where are his 6string guitar, notes, unpublished works, tapes...? Does anybody know anything? And please: If You have old handbills, posters, photos and You are thinking of selling - when You make a scan, please think of sending an image to the archives. Everything is very welcome. And when somebody could add some notes, stories..., please send a message.
Robbie Basho in his Berkeley appartement, Nov 1985
articles / specials/ notes online: