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This article by Jean Hanff Korelitz was prepared for the May 7, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Rani Arbo’s Gleeful Sound
Some of the more surprising things about Rani Arbo,
35, are things she isn’t. She isn’t, for example, a native of Appalachia,
or a fiddler who took up her instrument before she could walk. Listen
to her onstage, rocking out to the traditional mountain lament "Red
Rocking Chair" or the Georgia Sea Island calling song "O Death"
and you might be forgiven for thinking she grew up in the holler and
got her degree from the school of hard knocks.
Truth is, Arbo grew up on the upper west side of Manhattan and cut
her musical teeth by singing Gregorian Chants at the Cathedral of
St. John the Divine. She established Manhattan style musical street-cred
by hauling her cello all over the New York subway system and then
went to a first rate college in Massachusetts, majoring in geology.
The twist her life took would never have happened if she hadn’t, one
fateful night, attended a concert of six folk fiddlers.
"I had spent nine years playing classical music on the cello,"
she says now, "and this was the first time I had ever seen live
fiddlers." The performers that night included a 16-year-old Alison
Krauss and 80-year-old Claude Williams, who had once played with Duke
Ellington. "I was floored by the variety of music that could be
made with the fiddle," Arbo recalls.
The fact that in most traditional fiddle styles the instrument is
actually harmonizing in itself was a link, she says, to her childhood
experience as a chorister. "It had a completeness to it that my
experience of playing classical music never had. There was a wide
lens picture of what was possible." Within weeks she had borrowed
a fiddle from her college’s music department "and launched a miserable
experience for my roommates."
In 1991 the new self-taught fiddler Rani Arbo turned up at an Amherst,
Massachusetts, strings shop for a banjo workshop with John Hartford.
He never showed, but the handful of disappointed participants unpacked
their instruments and began to play.
This fateful beginning led to the formation of the 1990s folk group
Salamander Crossing, which earned a strong reputation on the American
and Canadian circuits with its synergy of American roots and folk
music, blues, and newfangled rock. Salamander Crossing produced three
albums, "Salamander Crossing" (1995), "Passion Train"
(a 1996 work now available as a two-album set entitled "Henry
Street: A Retrospective"), and "Bottleneck Dreams" (1998).
Though it had a reputation for its "Neo-Old Timey" enthusiasms,
the band’s most widely played track was a musical setting of Alfred
Lord Tennyson’s poem in contemplation of imminent death, "Crossing
the Bar," which Arbo composed and sung to her own cello accompaniment.
Salamander Crossing — so named for a tunnel in North
Amherst constructed to prevent migrating yellow-spotted salamanders
from being squashed by traffic — ended its own crossing in 1999,
but Arbo fans did not suffer long. Her new band, Daisy Mayhem, surfaced
in 2001 with a dizzy, frothy, and downright gleeful new album of swing
covers called "Cocktail Swing."
The album featured songs by Fats Waller ("Pretend There’s a Moon")
and Lefty Frizell ("I do my Cryin’ at Night") and focused
on Daisy Mayhem’s enthusiasm for music from the 1930s. The new group
of four musicians included, in addition to Arbo on lead vocals and
fiddle, Salamander Crossing-alumnus Andrew Kinsey on bass, banjo,
and ukelele. Kinsey, who Arbo says is singlehandedly attempting to
elevate the ukelele as a serious instrument, had possessed a tape
of songs "oxymoronically entitled `promising ukelele tunes’,"
a number of which found their way onto "Cocktail Swing."
Rounding out the new band were Anand Nyak on guitar, and Arbo’s husband
Scott Kessel on — well, not drums precisely. Kessel plays a conglomeration
of percussion non-instruments he calls "The Drumship Enterprise,"
comprising tin cans, cardboard boxes, and even a Danish Butter Cookie
container. According to his official bio, "nothing that delivers
response when struck is safe in his hands."
When the band travels, everything packs nicely into the largest of
the boxes. (A practicing Buddhist, Kessel reportedly enjoys that moment
at airport security when he is asked what’s in the box and gets to
respond, quite truthfully, "A box.") And when the band doesn’t
travel, Arbo travels on her own: she moonlights as the backup fiddler
for Joan Baez, and is soon to do a turn in an Eileen Fisher fashion
spread. Her day job? Not the musician’s usual standby of waitress
or temp. She’s a contributing editor for FamilyFun Magazine.
Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem will appear on Saturday, May 10, in the Concerts
at the Crossing series, held in the Unitarian Universalist Church
in Washington Crossing. "It’s a really nice space," Arbo says.
"The acoustics are fantastic, and we’ll be in the church itself,
not in the basement, which is kind of a graduation for folk bands."
Scott Cullen, who launched the series seven years ago, says he booked
Rani Arbo & Daisy Mayhem for the first time last year, sight unseen,
because he had admired Arbo’s work with Salamander Crossing.
"I knew what a charismatic performer she was, and she didn’t let
me down. It was a dynamite show, one of those shows where I just couldn’t
leave the room. They have such a wide range of material that they
draw from. It really was an event." Cullen will bring the band
back to the area on Saturday, November 22, for a concert at Grounds
At the May 10 concert, Arbo and her bandmates will be performing every
track on their forthcoming album, "Gambling Eden," which she
calls "the first chance we’ve had to make a CD that reflects the
creative vision and the musical sound that we’ve percolated over the
last three years."
Songs include sublime renditions of the Appalachian song "Red
Rocking Chair" and the Georgia Sea Island calling songs "O
Death" and "Turtle Dove," as well as the American folk
standard "Stew Ball," and original songs by Arbo and band
member Nayak. The album’s producer, Dirk Powell, brought the Cajun
flavors of his native Lafayette, Louisiana, and contributed accordion,
banjo, and piano backup to the project.
"It’s extremely well recorded," Arbo says, "so it comes
out sonically rich and deep." As a whole, says Arbo, "the
songs on the record address the tenuousness of happiness. There’s
a lot of reflection and searching in the lyrics, but the grooves are
— Jean Hanff Korelitz
Unitarian Church at Washington Crossing, Titusville, 609-406-1424.
Jennie Avila opens the show. $15. Saturday, May 10, 8 p.m.
of Her Peers" and "The Sabbathday River" and the forthcoming
novel for children, "Interference Powder." She lives in Princeton.
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