I sat down over tea with composer and multi-instrumentalist, Mike Tamburo, near his home in the Highland Park neighborhood of Pittsburgh. We talked at length about the arc of his musical career from the middle half of last decade to present. Mike will be on tour starting in July, supporting his latest recording as Brother Ong, Mysteries of the Shahi Baaja Volumes 1 & 2.
W&W: It seems like whenever I’m out performing there will inevitably be someone who, after finding out I’m from Pittsburgh, asks: “How’s Mike Tamburo? Make sure you tell him that I said hello.”
W&W: The community that’s loosely formed around guitar music tends to be a small world. You’ve obviously made your way around it and left a positive impression. Can you reminisce for a bit about the years when you were touring extensively: where all did you go and who were some of your touring companions?
First of all, tell them all that I’m fine. (laughs again) In 2005, I decided that I wanted to permanently stay on tour. I’d just been through a traumatic shift in my life… honestly, at that time music was the only thing that I had. I didn’t really know where to start. A lot of people were connecting for the first time through the internet. So I started reaching out to people that way, booking shows during the three week period before I left. Nick Schillace found me and suggested we go out on tour together. I listened to his music, which was incredible, and said “let’s give it a try.” Other than talking to him on the phone I didn’t know anything about him or his life…
W&W: It’s a quick way to get to know someone!
(laughs) … definitely, and we were headed through a part of the country that’s a little bit harder to tour in, making our way from Detroit to Seattle. I remember South Dakota was very difficult. We ended up playing at a Christian Bookstore and I accidentally offended the promoter. It’s one of the memories that is sure to keep Nick and I close (laughs again)… we endured the “red” states together, and parts of the country that neither of us had any experience with. We had beautiful shows in Iowa City, Nebraska, Minneapolis (where I met Paul Metzger) and Seattle. By the end of it, Nick had become one of my closest friends. His older songs feel like the soundtrack to my life during that time.
W&W: I imagine your approach to booking evolved quickly…
Yes. I view that initial stretch in 2005 as more of a fact-finding mission. Previous to living in Pittsburgh, I’d been in Edinboro (Pennsylvania), where my friends and I had some interesting stuff going on around art and music. I assumed there had to be more “weirdo” kids out there. I was looking for those people mostly, the ones developing things in smaller towns. I found some, but also found that in some places they just don’t exist or that I could not find them. But I started to build a niche for myself. Eventually, it just didn’t make sense to head through the places that where I wasn’t finding some kind of scene that I connected to.
I spent some time on the west coast with my friend, Matt McDowell, and travelled a good deal with Keenan Lawler, who I’d met at the Transmissions Festival (North Carolina) in 2000. I did a long stretch by myself, between San Diego and Maine. It was cathartic to travel across the country alone. I was definitely letting go of my troubles and developing every time I met a new person. I did a lengthy tour with Larkin Grimm in 2006, and on that summer solstice met Eric Carbonara.
I ended up playing around six hundred shows during that period (2005-2009). There was a bit of excitement building around my music, which was beginning to change. I can recall when I played an acoustic guitar show in Mankato, Minnesota one year, then came back the next and gave a much noisier offering. People who’d come out were yelling at me, I cleared a lot of the room and they were flipping me off from outside the window. (laughs)
W&W: That’s odd, since it’s not unusual for a modern composer to shift focus or change media. I’m thinking of, say, Jim O’Rourke, who was one of the more popular underground musicians leading into that time, and was constantly mixing it up, playing folk blues on a guitar one moment and droning on a chord organ the next, etc…
Sure, and he was a huge influence on me. I feel like Gastr Del Sol helped people connect to a whole new world of sound.
I guess that people often identify with me more as an instrumentalist than a composer. Depending on when someone sees me or meets me, they may have a completely different idea of what kind of music I make. Some folks only know me as a hammered dulcimer player, or a guitarist, or a gong player, or a shahi baaja player… though I feel like there’s a definite vision to my compositional style no matter what instrument I’m playing.
W&W: I was living in Chicago during the time when O’Rourke was really championing John Fahey… producing the Womblifealbum, bringing him in to play the Table of the Elements music festival. Jim’s guitar album, Bad Timing, also came out right around that time. It seems like those events prompted the careers of a number of players…
Return of the Repressed (The John Fahey Anthology from 1994) seemed to help start that the resurgence also. But Womblife was such a statement: a terrifying, terrifying album. It seemed like a total clearing for Fahey. That was one of the places I felt like I was coming from with Ghosts of Marumbey (2007)… letting my darkness out. It was good because once it was out I felt like it was pretty much gone.
2007 was a fantastic year… many of the friendships I forged then have endured. I did more touring with Eric (Carbonara)… his playing put me in such a beautiful place. It was the same feeling as playing with Nick Schillace… just fantastic to hear his music every night. It put me in the perfect state to perform.
W&W: Let’s talk about your recording catalog for a bit, going back first to “The Tenth Gate,” a hammered dulcimer epic that I’ve seen you perform a few times… was that piece sort of a touchstone event for you?
“Vitvivatora” was the first hammered dulcimer piece I composed, for my friend Ian Bonnet’s mother, who’d passed. I took “Vitvivatora” on a tour with Jenks Miller’s Horseback in 2007, leaving all of my other instruments behind and playing only solo hammered dulcimer for the first time. “The Tenth Gate” followed and was definitely a milestone. The way I’d originally written it was like a palindrome, with cyclical structure. I feel like I had control of the instrument at that point. That piece developed the more I played it. It evolved and changed each night. “Another View Of the Gate” (2010) recorded just two months later captures one such live permutation.
W&W: I remember at the time being impressed by how your technique had suddenly crystallized…
And that’s the amazing thing about touring, for me it’s the number one reason for doing it. My playing gets so tight. I used to practice my pieces for hours on end, but there’s nothing that can replace having to play it from beginning to end each night.
W&W: The recording of “The Tenth Gate” was 32 minutes long and your discography features a number of lengthy pieces. Whether building to a crescendo or revealing a theme you always seem to work gradually, with great patience. What do you see as the virtues of longer works?
I’m trying to remember the exact quote, but La Monte Young said “tuning is something that develops over time.” I always thought that was really beautiful: that you could hear something that sounds out of tune at first, but if you listen for an hour (laughs) it doesn’t sound out of tune at all.
W&W: Your ear calibrates…
Yeah, exactly, and the idea got me interested early on in writing longer pieces. It gives the listener time to really enter into the environment I am creating. I also hate hearing clapping between songs, it really frazzles my brain. I wanted to devise performances where, if people were going to clap, it was going to be at the end… there’d be no breaks in between.
W&W: What’s striking with the dulcimer pieces in particular is the physical stamina that’s required of you, it really becomes part of their expression…
That was the thing about “The Tenth Gate,” the stamina that performance took: being very delicate for so long and then to the extreme, where I’m playing as many notes in a second as I can. I put all of myself into those performances, often moving myself to tears. It was also the first music related to where I was with my yoga and meditation practice. Earlier on, I would often feel like something would happen when I was playing music… I’d enter a timeless state, at least when I was at my best, not always. Once I found other ways to attain that consciousness, I was able to put the focus and energy back into the music. “The Tenth Gate” came out of that: a total crown chakra, or pineal gland awakening.
W&W: The physical demands of the yoga are the other side of the discipline that would seem to go hand-in-hand with the longer music…
Sure, just being able to hold your hands up in the air for thirty minutes. You go through all sorts of things, sometimes beautiful, sometimes terrible, sometimes your emotions are pouring out and sometimes you leave time and enter into a whole other realm.
W&W: Can you sense when and audience is with you, or perhaps resisting you?
At that time, I was doing so many exercises to keep myself present and full of vitality… I feel like everybody was always with me. I’d connected to the dulcimer right away. With my guitar playing, I always felt like I was fighting against a tradition, or against comparisons. With the dulcimer there was none of the self-consciousness that comes along with playing fingerstyle guitar.
W&W: Along those lines, let’s skip back to The Language of Birds. I listened to it in preparation for this interview, but otherwise hadn’t heard your guitar music in a long time. I wasn’t surprised… more pleased by what a well-played collection it is: full of acoustic folk blues solos, which is not a style I associate you with now, and also fantasias that were a little tighter in scope than your dulcimer work. Looking back on it, do you consider that collection and pieces like “The Last Museum” a high water mark of your work on the guitar?
“The Last Museum” felt like my “Fare Forward Voyagers”, structurally I really started opening up and allowing my themes to develop differently… more organically, and my technique was strong enough to carry the narrative. At the time, I was recording as much as possible and just had so much material, seven records worth of music (that went on to become the first box set and a good deal of Ghosts of Marumbey). I loved playing it, stuff like “For Vanishing Eyes In Hiding” and “Glass Bead In The Hawaiian Eye.” I couldn’t wait to get through a bridge to the next part.
W&W: You recently got a classical guitar…
Yeah, I started playing guitar again. It’s been several years since I had played. I’ve found that I can’t play the “hits” of my old live show. I’m not as fast as I used to be; my playing now is more deliberate, much slower. I play guitar every morning for about an hour. We meet for yoga at 4:45am and the last hour is chanting, during which I accompany myself on the guitar. So I’m playing every day, but still pretty far from a guitar tour, if that’s even something I would do again.
The nylon string is completely different from the steel string. I now understand what (Eric) Carbonara is doing a little bit more with the nylon string and what the fingers can handle. There’s something very nostalgic about the steel string, the nylon string is more romantic to me than nostalgic.
W&W: A lot of steel string players seem to get caught up in a specific picking technique…
Sure, and I got stuck in that myself. It’s probably one of the things that pushed me away from the guitar. It seemed like there were so many rules and, at the time, so many people playing the acoustic guitar…
W&W: As a result of this “revival” we touched on?
Yeah. But I think a lot of people came to it independently. In a short time the Anthology of American Folk Music was reissued, as well as a number of Fahey and Basho CDs. Suddenly, there was all of this new music, or new “old” music, for guitarists. But it was wonderful when the people who’d come to it independently started meeting.
W&W: You’ve shifted away from performing and releasing records under your own name in favor “Brother Ong.” What does that signify?
Just as I’d reached a point with the guitar, I reached a point with the hammered dulcimer where I felt like I was starting to repeat myself. I toured with Ben Reynolds in 2009, which was the last tour that I did… I stopped playing solo for awhile, but kept playing the dulcimer in Kukeri¹, which I loved.
I really felt like I needed break. It was right around the time Jack Rose had passed, which threw me for a loop. I felt some similarities between myself and Jack… we were both bigger guys that loved eating food, enjoyed a good party and living on tour. There were certain tours that I’d come home from and feel like I was dying almost, just from neglect of my body; from not moving, being stagnant in the car. That’s the worst part of touring… you don’t know where you’re going to wake up, or if you’re going to have time to even take a walk. His passing made me look at my life a bit differently and my priorities changed. I started connecting to myself in a deeper way and really started to connect with my wife, who wasn’t my wife yet… we became married less than a year later.
Then my wife bought me the shahi baaja in 2011 and this led to my transition into Brother Ong…
W&W: Can you explain what the shahi baaja is?
Sure. It’s an Indian electrified instrument that you strum with your right hand, with keys that you play with your left, and it has open sympathetic or “swar” strings tuned to a scale of my choosing. As soon as started playing, it was pure creativity, there were no blockages;I was finding that higher realm of sound again. I have a spiritual name in the Kundalini community, but one of the problems with touring with your own name is you can lose a sense of it. “Mike Tamburo” became something that I was selling, a sort of myth that I’d created around myself. I didn’t want to use my spiritual name for that reason. “Ong” is a word for “creation” that I chant every day and “brother” is…
W&W: Self explanatory…
Right. So it’s like “brother of creation.”
I was doing very intense yoga practice and had my equipment all set up next to where I was practicing. I would raise my energy and then I would just channel it through the instrument. All of the recorded Brother Ong music is pretty much improvised… no analysis, whereas my hammered dulcimer and guitar stuff would sometimes take me months to write.
W&W: Do you consider Brother Ong to be almost a form of devotional music?
Most definitely. To me it is pure inspiration through creation. I am trying to reach that state through all of my sound work: chanting, the gong, the dulcimer, looping and guitar. In my tradition we follow something called the Shabd Guru, “Shabd” means “sound” and “Guru” means “wisdom.” So it’s “wisdom through sound,” and that’s been my main philosophy all along.
¹ Kukeri is the excellent group consisting of Mike on dulcimer, his wife, Gallina Tamburo, on harmonium, Chris Niels on 12-string acoustic guitar and Michael Dodin on tabla.