Since 1961, over 200,000 Americans have traveled to 140 different countries to heed President John F. Kennedy’s call to serve their country and the cause of peace in the Peace Corps.
Celebrating the Peace Corps’ five decades of service, the global fusion trio Free Planet Radio is performing at The Grey Eagle in Asheville on Sunday, September 11. Chris Rosser sees the group’s blend of Middle Eastern, Indian and Western music as the perfect soundtrack for the evening. “It’s sort of a musical United Nations, in a small way,” he smiles.
Free Planet Radio features Rosser on a variety of Indian and Turkish stringed instruments, piano and melodica, Eliot Wadopian on electric and acoustic basses, and River Guerguerian on drum set, frame and hand drums, and percussion.
“Post-September 11, when things started getting tense, we talked about how this is probably the best possible time for us to be playing Middle Eastern music, to sort of balance out peoples’ views of the Middle East and that culture,” Rosser says. “There are so many negative views of it in the media, that it’s nice, in our tiny way, to be ambassadors spreading some of the positive aspects of that part of the world. Music and art and poetry is a huge part of the Middle East.”
Rosser grew up in Cazur, North Carolina, in a Bahai family. “I grew up around a lot of Persian music,” he says. “In high school I heard the band Shakti, and that got me really interested in world music, especially the percussion. It was sort of similar to what we do, kind of a jazz hybrid. It was the first time I’d heard tabla. I got more and more into Middle Eastern music as I went along.”
While studying jazz piano at the University of Miami, Rosser also studied tabla drums. He received a grant to study the sarod and other melodic instruments at the Ali Akbar Khan School in San Rafael, California. “It was all traditionally taught. It was amazing,” he says. “My goal wasn’t to be an Indian classical performer, but to learn about those rhythms and scales. I took the concepts from tabla, and used those. I heavily engrossed myself in pure Indian music for a few years.
“I studied the sarod and its long classical tradition. But with Free Planet Radio I play the folk version of that, which is called the dotar. It’s not nearly as common, and doesn’t have the classical expectations. I still think of Free Planet Radio as jazz musicians using some of the scales and ideas rather than playing pure versions of Indian music or Middle Eastern music. I wouldn’t necessarily consider what we do as being Indian or Turkish music. It’s sort of a global hybrid of different musics.”
Bassist Eliot Wadopian won a Grammy Award with longtime ambassador of world music, Paul Winter. “Eliot studied Indian music with Paul, and played a lot of world music with Paul,” Rosser says. “He’s played a lot of Afro-Cuban and Latin music and knows much more about that than I do. He plays classical music (Asheville Symphony) and can pretty much read anything put in front of him.”
River Guerguerian was born in Montreal, Canada, to Armenian Egyptian parents. The family moved close to New York City when he was 14. While studying jazz and classical percussion at the Manhattan School of Music, Guerguerian met frame drummer Glen Velez, and was soon incorporating finger-style drums in his repertoire. “From way back I played drum set and classical percussion,” he says. “Glen opened me back up to the music that I was listening to in the womb, the Middle Eastern music that my parents played.”
Free Planet Radio has released two albums, New Bedouin Dance, and The Unraveling, and they’ve started pre-production on a third. “I’ve been writing some new tunes, and we’ve tried writing tunes where we sort of start jamming and write as a group,” Rosser explains. “We’ve done that a few times and it’s worked out pretty well, so we’re going to do more of that.”
Rosser has been the group’s most prolific composer. “On past CDs I’ve probably brought in most of the tunes, originally, but it’s definitely a group process of arranging them all,” he says. “They’re kind of like jazz tunes, so they’re still two-thirds improvised anyway.”
Guerguerian’s tune, “Seventeen Eights,” puts a Middle Eastern groove in a jazz context. “Even though it doesn’t sound like jazz, there’s sort of a head, and then the whole thing’s up for grabs,” Rosser says. “Some tunes are more arranged than others, but a lot of them are melody in, melody out, and in between is the solos.”
Rosser likes to spread his sounds around. “Sometimes the first time a melody happens I’ll play it on cumbush [Turkish banjo], and after the solos when we come back to the melody I’ll play it on piano. Songs evolve after we’ve played them more. There’s a whole percussion-based trading section in a song called ‘Radio Toure’ that isn’t on the CD.”
The jam “Radio Asheville” shows off the band’s playfulness and high comfort level. “We’re probably at the point where I can just raise one eyebrow to cue the band back to the top,” Rosser suggests. “We’ll have one little phrase that is the cue between sections. Just to keep it interesting, a lot of times we consciously try to play something completely different. Whether it’s playing parts soft that we normally play loud, or River suddenly dropping out for a section…it’s just trying to keep it fresh, keep each other on our toes.”
Lately, Free Planet Radio has been the backup band for such artists as Armenian singer Marian Matossian, Grammy-winning Celtic flutist Rhonda Larson, and local roots troubadour Aaron Burdett. “We’ve played together so often, we can fall into a lot of different kinds of music. The feel’s kind of there already,” Rosser says. “It’s being comfortable with each other and speaking the same language.”