Sunday, May 31, 2009

Ross Daly, the World's Greatest Musician

The premise that there is a “world's greatest musician” is absurd. There are so many different kinds of music in the world, and so many brilliant and accomplished practitioners of music, most of whom are unknown to us, that it would be impossible to make a convincing case for the primacy of just one player. However, it is an interesting mental exercise. When I think about my favorite musicians, a lot of names come to mind, many of them my good friends, but a few stand out in terms of importance to me. One is Jordi Savall, the Spanish-Catalan viola da gamba player who introduced to modern ears the music of Marin Marais and others who played the abandoned instrument. Another is Randal Bays, Seattle-area Irish fiddler who, after discovering Irish traditional music rather late in life, was soon lending guitar accompaniment to great fiddlers like James Kelly and Martin Hayes, and who went on to become one of the best players of Irish fiddle in the world. Yet another is Martin Simpson, the English guitar wizard who introduced me to open tunings and his signature “guitar frailing” technique, with which any clawhammer banjo tune may be perfectly imitated on guitar. These musicians and many others are truly great, but finally, my mind comes to rest on Ross Daly.

Ross is an Irishman whose parents were diplomats. He grew up all over the world, and studied music from an early age. As a young man, he traveled to Greece. He found the traditional music he encountered there captivating, and not unlike the Indian music he had already studied, with its modal basis and uneven time signatures. Greek music gives us the seven “modes”, or scales, of Western music, but it actually contains more than seven modes. It contains notes between notes that Western musicians might consider “out of tune”, but which are actually very precisely played micro tones. Greek music also often involves odd meters, in which the beats are grouped into twos and threes, using time signatures such as seven-eight, which sounds like “ONE-two, ONE-two, ONE-two-three”.

Ross studied very diligently, and mastered many instruments, including the Cretan lyra, a pear-shaped lap-fiddle with three main strings and many sympathetic strings, which is extremely difficult to play. Instead of pushing the strings down against the fingerboard with the pads of the fingers, as on the violin, the fingers rest beside the strings so that the strings are stopped by the large, smooth surfaces of the fingernails. The result is an eerie, haunting sound with rich sustain and expressive vibrato, reminiscent of the human voice. Ross also plays many plucked-string instruments, including rubab, an Afghani banjo; lauto, a Greek lute; setar, a Persian lute; and various Turkish lutes, called saz. He has mastered many forms of music from Greece, Turkey, and Iran, and has transcended these forms, developing a fusion that mixes traditional instruments and themes.

Ross has also become a prolific composer. His tunes evoke a mythic past, shrouded in Aegean mist, while remaining fresh and urgent, embodying the longing, love, and tear-wet sorrow of human existence. His compositions, like their traditional models, are melodically and rhythmically dense and complicated. Once Ross and his collaborators have established the musical territory of these compositions, they launch headlong into the open space of improvisation, soaring to ever-new heights of imagination and freedom, gliding among iridescent, melodious birds before plunging down through unknown stratospheres to dive with shimmering rhythmic fishes, and deeper, to the very darkest sub-marine trenches of music.

Daly has trained and mentored an entire generation of younger musicians from the around the world. When he started playing traditional music it was not popular among the youth of its native countries, many of whom were seduced by the “cool”, modern pop music of the West. The music of their grandfathers was seen as staid, boring and conservative. Ross Daly, an outsider, nurtured a new appreciation for some of the greatest musical traditions in the world, and brought his interpretation of those traditions to enthusiastic audiences who had never heard music like this before.

Ross Daly is now considered to be a national treasure in Greece. The government of Crete has provided him with a historic villa, which serves as a museum, housing his collection of hundreds of instruments. It is also the home of the “Labyrinth Music Workshop,” where musicians flock from every continent to attend master classes with top players and singers in pan-Near-eastern styles. Some of his famous protégées are Stelios Petrakis, the great lyra and lauto player from Crete; Bijhan Chemarani, Paris-born Iranian zarb master; and Sokratis Sinopoulis, player of the politici-lyra, from Athens. Ross Daly's accomplishments as a player, a composer and an ambassador of music are unparalleled by any other living person I can think of, and that's why, for my money, he is the greatest musician in the world.

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