Global Rhythm OCTOBER 5, 2005 - by Jim Bessman


By now it's a cliché to say that music is the universal language, even though few people have had the opportunity to experience - live - more than a smattering of the music of the world. Mixing and recording it has been equally daunting, given the logistics of moving unwieldy electronic equipment to remote locations. But thanks to the miniaturisation of digital technology and the determination of a couple of visionaries comes 1 Giant Leap, a highly ambitious, high-tech attempt at demonstrating the universality of music as performed by world-class international musicians while using the interactive capabilities of the emerging DVD format.

The disc and companion theatrical release and CD soundtrack to 1 Giant Leap have been released through Palm Pictures, the music and film company operated by Chris Blackwell, the Jamaican-born impresario who also founded Island Records, home of Bob Marley, and numerous other fabled reggae and world music stars.

The program's title, of course, is derived from the immortal phrase one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind that were the first words uttered from the surface of the moon by astronaut Neil Armstrong. 1 Giant Leap may not be quite so adventurous, perhaps, but it's certainly no less far-out, at least in terms of the musical reach of most earthbound homebodies. The one-hundred-and-forty-minute film (plus extensive additional interactive musical and spoken DVD material) traverses more than twenty countries, juxtaposing the remotest villages of the developing world with the most technologically advanced cities of Europe, Asia, and North America. The result is a multicultural melange of stark contrasts and unifying characteristics, or unity in diversity, to echo the stated goal of filmmakers Jamie Catto and Duncan Bridgeman.

Thus, the DVD (and soundtrack CD) features such unlikely, if not unimaginable, collaborations as Michael Stipe, the outspoken leader of America's supergroup R.E.M., and Asha Bhosle, India's legendary Bollywood movie soundtrack playback singer, who is undoubtedly known to more people worldwide than Stipe. Also, South Africa's equally legendary female vocal trio Mahotella Queens are suitably teamed with Ulali, the Native American female a cappella trio. And roots rock band Grant Lee Buffalo's front-man Grant Lee Phillips is paired with reggae star Horace Andy.

Other artists featured on 1 Giant Leap include Arrested Development's rapper Speech, Scotland's singer-songwriter Eddi Reader, Senegal's pop superstar Baaba Maal, and India's classical flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia. Also included are Ghana's percussionist Mustapha Tettey Addy, vocalist Tim Booth of the British rock group James, dance/rapper Neneh Cherry, ex-Police drummer Stewart Copeland, ambient pop composer Brian Eno, socially conscious funk-rapper Michael Franti, London MC Maxi Jazz, African thumb piano and kora master Pops Mohamed, new-age artist/theorist Gabrielle Roth, India's electric mandolinist U. Shrinvas, South Africa's Soweto String Quartet, ex-Police guitarist Andy Summers, turntable artist DJ Swamp, and British pop star Robbie Williams.

Alongside the many name artists are numerous unknown but no less worthy traditional world-music players from the most remote outposts of the globe, a group that includes Uganda's Baligashma Xylophone Group, India's Varanasi Drummers, and New Zealand's Maori nose-flute player James Webster. In addition to music performances, they all offer remarkably similar social and philosophical observations, supplemented by contributions from human-consciousness explorer Ram Dass, British futurist Lynne Franks, actor Dennis Hopper, novelist Tom Robbins, and The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick.

The DVD's contents are divided into twelve chapters: Braided Hair, Inspiration, Time, God, Money, Masks, Sex, Confrontation, Death, Happy, Blasphemy, and Unity.

It follows a sort of 'cubist' narrative-like a Picasso picture, says Catto in characterises the expansive finished product. There are all these different views and viewpoints mixed and matched in a cubist fashion, such that you end up with unity, which is a fantastic paradox, and the thread of all the great religions and literature. And that's the exciting thing: that no matter how diverse everything seems to be, there are always ways to make them link up.

As an example, Catto cited a death aversion segment in the Death chapter, where a scene in India of mourners preparing a corpse for cremation is intercut with a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles discussing the procedures and costs involved in performing facelifts and boob jobs. It's ironic and poignant, and in depicting diverse things that are universal, conveys such a strong message without really saying anything, he explains, and it gets the message across without ever 'preaching.' So instead of people closing their eyes and ears, they can figure it out and experience it on their own without it being explained.

Music At The Core

But it's Catto's and Bridgeman's music that is at the core of 1 Giant Leap. For Bridgeman, the music's improvisational nature reflects the filmmakers' spontaneous approach. It was all about keeping your eyes open and going where your nose wants you, he says, and that's essentially how the project came about. But the film is as much an invention of self-discovery as it is the artists' extraordinary exploration in multiculturalism.

It's all part of the journey to get me to where I am now, explains Bridgeman, who like his partner would seem an improbable director of such a far-reaching undertaking. An accomplished musician himself, keyboardist/programmer Duncan Bridgemanfirst gained notice in the English soul band I Level, whose hit Give Me was a Top 5 R&B hit in the U.S. in 1983. He then spent ten years years as a producer and remixer, working with the likes of Duran Duran, Eurythmics, Shakespeare's Sister, Paul McCartney, and Transvision Vamp. After producing British teen boy band Take That's debut album Take That And Party, out of which later came Robbie Williams, Bridgeman toured Europe in the electronica band Tribal Drift, and eventually hooked up with Jamie Catto in conceiving the globalist 1 Giant Leap film project and soundtrack album.

Catto, too, is a musician of renown, having been a founding member and art director for the British trip-hop group Faithless, out of which came fellow vocalist Maxi Jazz, and Dido, whose breakthrough debut album was partially produced and engineered by Bridgeman. But he's also an acclaimed photographer, graphic designer, and music-video director.

I did a decade of pop producing until I went mad! declares Bridgema, who had clearly become frustrated in these pursuits. When you're a musician and making music all day that maybe you don't really like-well, I just couldn't work out what was good or not any more. So I decided to do music I liked, which is what I stayed doing through where I am now, which is hopefully the brink of huge success.

While this remains to be seen, Bridgeman and Catto certainly succeeded in following their common muse.

Jamie and I were especially fans of the very few good hybrids between electronic and ethnic music, continues Bridgeman, singling out the two really inspired early role models in Brian Eno's and David Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts (1981) and Peter Gabriel's 1989 Passion soundtrack to Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation Of Christ.

But very few such fusion attempts really work, Bridgeman adds, blaming the prevalence of the Yamaha DX7 synthesizer in particular. The DX7 caused a lot of damage to African music and reggae music because it replaced brass sections and drum machines. I use computers a lot, obviously, but I feel that they make people very lazy. People now want to hear something more alive, so when we went to record drummers in Senegal, for instance, we wouldn't just get them to play one bar and loop it, but had them play the whole song.

Incredibly, Catto and Bridgeman, who also use 1 Giant Leap as the name of their composing/recording partnership, recorded all the music and lensed all the footage using a single laptop computer and digital camera. Their original intent was to write some songs, input the basic tracks into the laptop, and then go out into the field (or desert, or jungle) and add onto them basically using singers and instrumentalists whom they happened upon organically in their travels. Not only would this process not require electrical hook-ups, but it also allowed successive participants to play along directly with the previously recorded artists rather than to record their parts in a vacuum for the producers to splice together in the mixing studio. The duo had input some fifteen pieces of original music into the laptop, just music we liked rather than music the world would like, notes Bridgeman. It was just two friends making music - grown-up music - and we hadn't even planned on making a film at this point.

Enter music visionary Chris Blackwell. It turns out that 1 Giant Leap's manager Tim Clark had worked with Blackwell at Island in England way back in 1965, a man who is credited by its founder as being a key player in the eminent label's growth. Still fiercely independent, Blackwell now heads Palm Pictures. As its name suggests, the New York-based company is involved in film production as well as music audio product, and Blackwell immediately sensed upon the potential in 1 Giant Leap for both audio and video releases. Clark brought Blackwell a cassette containing a lot of samples and general thievery, recalls Bridgeman. He told [Clark] to get rid of the thievery and record musicians around the world - and show music unity around the world.

I believed so much in the spirit of it, says Blackwell, recalling in an aside his own career-long emphasis on introducing the uninitiated to the wonders of world music, and the value of giving attention and time and exposure to people in the world who aren't as fortunate as we are living in America with all the luxuries and opportunities that exist here, [where] we tend to forget about the fact that most of the world lives in incredible hardship.

1 Giant Leap, then, is something that glorifies the spirit of these people, declares Blackwell. I was tremendously excited when I first heard the music: To me it seamlessly integrated in one track music from different parts of the world, and it was so beautifully and creatively done so that you didn't feel like it was composed music, but the most natural thing in the world. Blackwell surmised that 1 Giant Leap could improve upon its original concept by travelling to different parts of the world and recording musicians live rather than relying on synthesised samples: My idea was simply to take a camera along and film the whole adventure, and give them the opportunity to express themselves fully and protect them from too much [record company] meddling.

So the world became our recording studio, rather than a small dark room, says Bridgeman. We used our laptop like a multitrack tape machine, and as we were travelling, if we met people in the street who we wanted to record, we'd get the headphones out and play them what we had and then overdub their parts. We chose everything because we liked the way it sounded - not because we knew what it was. But finding out what it was was really exciting, and as we travelled we interviewed people about various subjects, not for them to give answers but to raise more questions and make you think.

Here Bridgeman singles out Baaba Maal, who considers it an honour to have been included. All of the movie is really interesting, but especially when people talk about what they're singing, and that we all believe in something - the same thing - especially now with the war and the world going mad, says Maal. And the way it makes the links between musicians, between Asia and Africa and South America and Australia and [American pop artists like] Michael Stipe. It shows we can all have the same feeling inside each other, no matter what instruments and if it's the modern style or traditional.

Bridgeman notes that some musicians, including Maal and Stipe, were on a pre-production wish list. We definitely wanted Baaba Maal and Michael Stipe from the beginning, and we knew we had to go see Michael Franti, he says. And we sent Speech a CD of all the tracks and then went to his house in Atlanta and did everything in his living room in three hours.

I've never recorded that way before, says Speech, whose vocal track for Braided Hair was later mixed with Neneh Cherry's. Speech continues, When you mix those cultural experiences and musical influences together, you're bound to come up with something interesting. And edifying, too, since as Americans, we're so closed to the world of music out there, generally.

But cultural unawareness is also universal. Bridgeman admits to not knowing who Asha Bhosle was when he and Catto fortuitously bumped into her at a hotel in Jaipur, India. The pair patiently waited for her to finish her curry, then set her up with the laptop in the hotel garden and recorded her impromptu devotional prayer. Similarly, not expecting to gain anything out of their trip to New Zealand, they returned with recordings by five participants and, in Catto's case, Maori tribal shoulder and arm tattoos. We had a particularly amazing experience in Uganda, says Bridgeman. We heard about these 'earth drummers' and singers with fifteen huge marimbas over a big pit in the ground [Baka Bulindi and Friends]. We gave them four sets of headphones, and I'll never forget the look on their faces! I don't know if they'd ever worn headphones before.

Kaleidoscopic Images

Visually, 1 Giant Leap is full of such amazement, as it kaleidoscopically intercuts images of cross-cultural connections and jarring contrasts, all inevitably celebrating the richness of the human race. But it should be noted, too, that the program is not without shortcomings. Depending on one's stage of enlightenment, spoken commentaries from the likes of Dennis Hopper, Ram Dass, and Tom Robbins tend to come off as the ponderous new-agey platitudes of misplaced hippies (Robbins: Death appears to eliminate an awful lot of options.); unfortunately, they're echoed by the we are the world nature of the pronouncements from musicians and speakers the world over.

Also, it would have been benefited the world music student had the musicians, instruments, and locations been identified with subtitles, though Blackwell notes that the interactive DVD should allow for ready identification. From the standpoint of the music traditionalist, some may find fault with the filmmakers' global fusion efforts, though not Blackwell.

I'm not a purist, even though I've worked all my life in world/ethnic music, states Blackwell, remembering the days when he was slagged for adding guitars and synthesizers to Bob Marley's sound. My role in life is to try and help these artists reach a wider audience, and part of the way of doing that sometimes is to add elements to their music to make them more palatable to that audience. As for 1 Giant Leap's collaborative approach, Blackwell adds, I don't believe it in any way damages or betrays the spirit of the music by doing collaborations with artists who are sensitive to the fact that it's essential to be true to that spirit. I don't mean to disregard or devalue what the purists think, because they definitely have a point. But these guys have done a beautiful job in pushing the envelope without desecrating the purity of the music.

It should be noted, finally, that 1 Giant Leap now joins very few moving-image projects that have tried to tackle the vast unknown of world music, those that quickly come to mind being One World, One Voice, a 1990 BBC concert CD/video featuring the likes of Sting, The Chieftains, Salif Keita, and Peter Gabriel, and Baraka, an exquisite 1992 global travelogue using music from the Andes, from Tibet's Dip Tse Chok Ling Monastery, and that of Indian violinist L. Subramaniam. The 1983 theatrical documentary Koyaanisqatsi (a Hopi Indian term for life out of balance), which Blackwell distributed through his Island Alive company, also deserves mention, for while it relied on Philip Glass's score, it also tied together images of natural and human-made environments. If Blackwell should now succeed with 1 Giant Leap, it's likely that there will be at least one sequel.

We're looking at 1 Giant Leap 2, says Catto, to take place wholly in New York as a microcosm of [1 Giant Leap] 1. It will show the same diversity, but all in New York: unity and diversity in one of the most diverse cities in the world!