Free Planet Radio’s worldly sound — inspired by studies of Turkish, Indian, North African and Middle Eastern traditions, among others — is built on vibrant melodies and complex rhythms tempered with modern accessibility. The latest result of this balancing act is the 2015 release Global Symphony Project, which the instrumental trio will perform at The Altamont Theatre on Friday, Feb. 5.
“We do a lot of stuff in odd time [signatures],” percussionist River Guerguerian says. “The music just comes out that way. We still want it to groove — meaning you can sing along and tap your foot — yet it’s unpredictable at the same time.”
“Sadhana” exemplifies that blend of challenge and reward. The song starts with a four-count meter and later switches to seven, nine or 11 beats per measure. “The melody is very much Indian, but in traditional Indian music, you wouldn’t really have the changing meters like we have. That’s our own little twist,” says multi-instrumentalist Chris Rosser. “Since that melody was singable in my head, my hope is that it’s a little catchy and singable to other people, too.”
The track “The Reed Sings of Separation” begins tentatively before taking on a seductive tone. Focusing on Guerguerian’s riq tambourine, you can almost feel the hip sway of a belly dancer. Later, in the final measures of “Doctor Zhombus,” his cymbal handiwork mimics the sound of a coin losing momentum while spinning on a tabletop. “People see me with a bunch of percussion instruments, and they don’t realize each one has its own technique,” he says.
Meanwhile, Rosser colors the album with a 17-stringed Indian dotar, Turkish cumbus oud, guitar, piano and melodica. And, though Elliot Wadopian’s upright bass is typically considered a backing instrument, the two-time Grammy winner takes on lead melodies with aplomb. That’s particularly true of his dexterous call-and-response with Rosser during “Hamza.”
Most of Global Symphony Project was originally written for the trio. Then Rosser was awarded a national grant by Chamber Music America. It allowed him to compose and perform a 10-minute piece with Opal String Quartet and made Free Planet Radio’s years-long desire to partner with the local group financially feasible. Rosser wrote the commissioned piece (which takes the form of three movements called the “Ecstatic Verses”) in roughly 10 days. With the help of his bandmates, he added strings parts to the rest of the album.
Even outside of the band, the members of Free Planet Radio have an ongoing impact on Asheville’s music scene. All three perform at nonprofit fundraisers and teach in various capacities, including youth music camps. Introducing students to the wonder of world music, Rosser says, is a first step to promoting cross-cultural harmony, since art provides a counterpoint to the international turmoil in the news.
“Between the three of us locally, we’ve probably played on 200 or 300 CDs,” Guerguerian says. “I think people like to use us because we go out there into the world, and we learn these things and bring [them] back to our community. Sometimes it’s a hassle to travel, but I love going away. … I feel like it makes me more valuable to my community when I have a wealth of knowledge.”
The rhythmist often takes time to give live audiences a mini-lesson before starting a song with a tricky beat. “Instead of [a person] just sitting there like, ‘I kind of get it. What the heck is going on?’ let me give them one or two little hints to listen to,” he says. Building that shared understanding between performer and observer, he says, might lead to greater engagement and appreciation. Guerguerian also launched the Asheville Percussion Festival five years ago to position rhythmic instruments as having “a lyrical side, a melodic side and a harmonic side.”
For the upcoming Altamont concert, Free Planet Radio will play the Global Symphony Project songs in their original trio format while experimenting with new solo parts to keep the live show evolving.
“We’ve done so many things with guests over the last year,” Rosser says. “We were thinking since it’s a small, intimate place, it might be nice to do a show with just the three of us.”
WHAT: Free Planet Radio
WHERE: The Altamont Theatre, thealtamont.com
WHEN: Friday, Feb. 5, 8 p.m. $16 advance/$20 day of show/$30 VIP seating