By Moriah Hope
"If we can explain music, we may find the key for all human thought.”
- Howard Gardner
Ever since I was a young girl I was always innately able to harmonize with music without any training. What’s that about? Something that I have been pondering over the years is the idea of musical intelligence. What is musical intelligence? Let alone what is intelligence? Howard Gardner, American developmental psychologist and professor at Harvard University, developed the “Multiple Intelligence Theory” which has deeply influenced education. He defines intelligences as ways of knowing and understanding yourself and the world around you.
Everyone possesses some capacity and ability in all intelligences. But undeniably, some people function at a higher level of ease than others. Through musing with my dear friend Biko, percussionist of Rising Appalachia, I noticed immediately that music has been innately and intelligently structured within his spirit and body from a young age. He has learned to harness the divine phenomena of sound that is already in place and channel it through his creations, inspiring thousands across the globe with his rhythmic presence and humble essence.
SYJ (Moriah): I envision instruments (Including our voices) as extensions of the soul. What music seems to translate touches on every level of our being. We experience physical, mental, and spiritual reactions. As such a magical phenomena is seemingly ineffable – I’d love to muse with you on this. Give us a taste of your musical philosophy.
Biko: A recent insight that has changed my perception of music is that we don’t create the music we play. What I mean by that is music already exists in the cosmos and in everything.
This brick pillar I am sitting by has its resonance. Everything has its resonance. My philosophy these days is that instruments are a way to channel sound which is already occurring in the known world. It is imperceptible to the eyes but perceptible to ears only when we amplify it somehow. Rather than the instrument creating the sound, the instrument is more like a tuning fork that’s tuned into the sound and brings the sound through. What we’re doing when we make music as we’re trying to utilize it as a force for healing is literally just creating a way for the relationships that are already in harmony in the universe to come through our instruments and through our voice. When you can find that channel through an instrument and through your voice, those relationships that are intrinsic in the universe amplify and reflect something that’s already beautiful and harmonious in the world. Everyone feels connected to it because it’s already occurring inside of them rather than being created externally. That’s what I have been looking into a little bit more lately.
SYJ (Moriah): Wow. And you make and play a West African string instrument, the ngoni. Can you tell us more about the instrument and why you chose to work with this specific musical tool?
Biko: Yes, I am making Ngonis, the african harp, with Arouna Diarra from Burkina Faso. I lived in Burkina Faso for a couple of months. I wasn’t studying and building Ngonis at the time but I was there and didn’t start playing until I came back. Now I have started building. What’s really exciting about it is it’s a harp, so you can put an infinite number of strings and tune it however you want. Through research you can find really harmonious relationships in your tunings. And then as soon as someone starts to play it, they are bringing that harmony into people’s perception. It’s amazing for that. You don’t necessarily have to learn to play it in order to appreciate the sounds that it produces. That’s been really cool and exciting for me in furthering my studies in the realms of sound, melody, harmony, overtones, and the way that music develops upon itself. Now I am able to choose what tuning and what kind of creation I am interested in exploring, which is really neat.
SYJ (Moriah): What do you use to make the Ngoni?
Biko: We use a calabash gourd. Some we get in San Diego and some Arouna’s family sends from Africa. We use different kinds of wood that we typically collect from scrap bins at hardware stores: fishing string, guitar tuners, upholstery tacks, and a skin!
SYJ (Moriah): Are you particularly inspired by African culture?
Biko: Well speaking of sound and vibration, I was named Biko after the South African non- violent revolutionary who was the leader of the black consciousness movement in South Africa. So for me I guess the resonance was always a part of my life because that was what people called me. I got my first drums when I was 14 but I was playing on everything else before that… It’s something in the cells. It’s difficult to explain. It’s like you have a sound that is your name and you follow that to find who you are. When I left home I went to South Africa first. I spent time living there and learning the language and then went to New York. It was there I met my Djembe teacher Papa Ladji Camara. So it was showing up for me. It’s very confusing when you’re living in Tennessee and you would rather be alone singing in a language that nobody understands than hanging out with all your friends listening to pop music on the radio. But I just had to honor it.
SYJ (Moriah): Not too long ago you embarked on a 30-day solo winter music retreat in a dome in the mountains around Asheville. I imagine there is much to be said about your experience. What arose for you and stood out the most during your time up there?
Biko: Thank you, Moriah, for asking. So many things emerged during those 30 days alone in the mountains this winter. One of the things that stood out for me was the value of tradition and elders. I organized that retreat to focus on music, and did my best to establish a routine of meditation and practice that I thought would be transformative. I think I could have received more had I sought out more guidance from elders grounded in tradition.This is part of a much larger cultural scenario in which we, as a culture disconnected from our ancestral roots, are trying to piece together initiation ceremonies on our own.
SYJ (Moriah): Rising Appalachia is in collaboration with the Permaculture Action Network which seeks to bridge art and culture with ecology and social justice. In what other ways do you bring activism into your musical journey?
Biko: It has been so amazing to work with the Permaculture Action Network, who is actualizing a dream that has been shared by many for a long time. Years ago, after going through 9/11 in New York City and being very active in the pro-peace movement following that, I decided that I was not going to spend energy “fighting against” a foe, but instead use my energy to strengthen the good things I hope will succeed. I feel that my work within this container as a musician is to strive to clarify the dreams in my heart and the visions in my mind of how we can work together to build a bright future. By having a clear heart and mind, (which is not something that comes easily to me) I have the opportunity to subtly awaken dreams in others through music. Attention is very powerful, and as artists receive a lot of attention, we have a responsibility to channel that attention into valuable and revolutionary work. This is an indirect form of activism, and when touring slows down I would love to be more involved in more direct forms of activism as well.
SYJ (Moriah): You just played one of the most majestic outdoor venues around: Red Rocks Amphitheater——where many legends such as Jimi Hendrix, and The Beatles have graced the stage. I’ve always been curious about the performer’s perspective there. As the crowd is angled above the stage alongside the natural rocks, energy and sound waves travel in a different manner from your typical concert venue. How would you say this has an effect on you as a performer? And how do you imagine this affects the crowd compared to other venues?
Biko: As a performer looking up at several thousands of people and the two huge rock outcroppings, I felt such a sense of having arrived. It was less about it being a career milestone, and more like I was where I was supposed to be——in a sacred place. I had so much gratitude just being there. Any time we are reminded to be present, and thankful for where we are, a different kind of strength flows into us. At Red Rocks you can really feel the power of the land itself, which is rare for a concert venue. The effect on the performers and audience is deep and profound and somewhat of a mystery.
SYJ (Moriah): Speaking of career milestones…. Red Rocks certainly is considered one of them for musicians. What other future milestones do you seek to fulfill as an artist?
Biko: Thanks for asking that… as much as I would love to play on Saturday Night Live and the Tonight Show, I have tried to appreciate where we are as a band and not get carried away by thoughts about being bigger or better. That being said, we in the band are huge World Music fans so playing at the WOMAD festival would be a milestone for us. Another dream is to leverage success on a greater scale and bring together a Regenerative Caravan. I think it would be amazing to expand the work Permaculture Action Network is doing by combining several bands and crossing the country on tour doing regenerative work on wounded land and in communities that could integrate the influx of energy. This would be the actualization of a life-long dream.
SYJ (Moriah): How can our readers stay in touch with you and your musical-activist endeavors?
Biko: I have an active Facebook account (Biko Casini) where I do my best to share photos and inspirations from touring as well as awesome work created by others around the world. One can stay in touch by following Rising Appalachia Music as well. My newest project with West African Balafon and Ngoni player Arouna Diarra is still in the budding phase, but look for an album from the two of us within the next year.