We discussed spirituality, politics and cultural appropriation, in an exclusive interview with the man behind this truly global piece of music
“My ultimate purpose is music as a spiritual practice. The work of anti-racism, the work of unity, the work of healing, and the work of political consciousness is ultimately the work of spiritual practice. We go at any of those with ego, it is only going to serve violent ends, that is at worst, and at best, it is division.”
These are the words of the musician behind the album Codes of Creation by Human Tribes Collective, Erik Rabasca. He sat down with us to discuss his latest release, his influences, as well as the impact of spirituality on his work and the world.
Rabasca released Codes of Creation in May of this year, although he initially intended not to release it. Rabasca was vivid in his explanation that “it was like an army of angels came through [him] and said ‘you need to finish this music now’”. It had all been precipitated by several factors, including his travels abroad in Africa and Asia, his musical influences, and his interest in spiritual practice. The founder of Highest Frequency Records told us that being in Cairo around the time of the Arab Spring left a profound impression on him: “Just being in that ancient setting in a modern time was really fascinating to me and the feeling stayed with me.”
However, it was his visit to Ethiopia in 2018 that really left its mark. Rabasca was part of a delegation of 70 people, including leading politicians, UN representatives, and interfaith ministers, with the intention to promote peaceful engagement in the ‘Land of Origins’, and to arrive at coexistence amidst the backdrop of the Eritrean-Ethiopian war.
“It was a wonderful gathering, we were kind of a spectacle… all different colours, ages, shapes, sizes, moving through Ethiopia and having this really beautiful, collaborative, loving experience.” Rabasca continued: “There was no judgment amongst any of us, we all accepted each other wholly as individuals and as representatives from wherever we were [from], so the feeling of that, I think, is what really inspired what eventually became Human Tribes Collective.”
On these trips, and on his travels to Thailand, Morocco, and Tanzania, Rabasca had purchased instruments that eventually featured on his latest album. However, what Rabasca really gained from these voyages was a perspective that formulated the basis of the album. Perhaps his main influence, however, is his spiritual practice. Rabasca fondly recalled his student days when he first began to practice meditation. “It was the one thing that actually prepared me for life, you learn how to be present and really take things in.”
For Rabasca, spirituality and music have always been intertwined. He wistfully reminisced about his early musical awakenings. It is no surprise that much of the music he connected with was by artists we popularly consider to be spiritual. “What George Harrison did with Within You Without You, as a young kid, I was like ‘what is this strange sound?’ It just washed over me. That song continues to unfold mysteries for me.” He went on to talk about the renowned saxophonist and father of free jazz, John Coltrane, who represented a tremendous shift in style from his early years listening to the giants of British heavy metal, Iron Maiden. “[Coltrane’s] music was about service to God, and I am not necessarily a God man, but I am a person of spirit that understands that energy and a pursuit of an ego-less life of service, will feed quality music.”
Rabasca’s interest in experimentalism flourished, as he jokingly described himself as a “musical schizophrenic”, and that is evident upon listening to his eclectic album. He is clearly a man who listens widely, and aside from the aforementioned genres, during the interview he counted raga, klezmer, Middle Eastern horns, krautrock, and perhaps most importantly for this album, Jamaican dub music as influences, citing the likes of Lee “Scratch” Perry, King Tubby and Augustus Pablo as instrumental in developing what he ultimately sees as a dub album. The dub inspiration is particularly pronounced on tracks like Dubzone and Moroc Dub, but it is audible as an influence throughout.
In making the album, Rabasca stated that he used samples, but would often add his own percussion and strings on top. He is a guitar player first and foremost, but for this album, Rabasca told us he did not want to use traditional Western instruments like guitar and bass, so instead he relied on his synth to produce a wide range of sounds, as well as the santoor from India, the guembri from Morocco, and other Eastern instruments. “The choice of instrumentation comes through very organically… I didn’t have any real preconceived notion, it just happened as I was in the flow of creation.” Moreover, not only the instrumentation was improvised, the lyrics were too.
The lyrics have certain resonances, and at times have political and social interpretations that can be seen as relevant in a year full of turmoil throughout the world, but in particular in Rabasca’s native United States. That said, there is ambiguity at times, a quality that Rabasca himself noted. “I have referred to ‘con man’s alive like a mob boss in line’ in Desert Tribes. That was a Trump reference, but that could be Putin as well, that could be any authoritarian… it could be China, who knows? If it is about using force and it is about intimidation, that is any mob boss really.” One might be hesitant to call this a political album, however there are definite moments where the main thrust of the album seems to be unity, a pertinent message in the hopelessly divided political and social landscape of America, highlighted in particular after the murder of George Floyd and the ensuing protests.
The message of unity is also depicted in the actual music of the album, as well as the lyrics. The sounds of Codes of Creation are not your typical world music, instead it is a truly wide-ranging attempt to include as many styles of music as possible. Chetan, which was written initially for use in a short film based in India, and therefore fittingly has a predominantly South Asian feel to it, in much the same way as Lost in the Labyrinth does. Both also contain elements from the Far East, which is perhaps more pronounced on Seeking the Mystics, a song that also contains African percussion and Caribbean steel drums.
Right: Human Tribes Collective's music accompanying a video produced by an organisation called A Better World
On first listen, the album could sound cacophonous, with its free, improvisational feel and lack of structure, but on a deeper dive it reveals many interesting elements, and a universality that is hard to come by in much of world music as a genre. Perhaps our favourite track is Camel Head, which is exemplary of this. The song begins with North African-style drumming and a Latin American shaker, perhaps a maraca, before then moving onto an oud-like instrument, giving the song an Arabian flavour that remains throughout. What is most striking on this whistle-stop tour of global sound is the gospel-like outro. In it, he seems to almost argue with himself, and the vocals reach an intense climax that is almost spiritual.
Upon hearing how important spiritual practice is in Rabasca’ life, we wondered if the spiritual themes in the album were included to encourage people to adopt mindfulness and meditation themselves. “I don’t think it’s my intention to convert anybody to anything, but if I can open some ears and people get excited about wanting to go deeper on that and maybe be inspired by that through the music, then that’s OK because that’s how I’ve been inspired.”
Though you won’t find catchy, pop-friendly hooks and riffs on this album, what sets it apart, and what drew us toward it, was its unique approach in attempting to forge a global sound as opposed to a sound that is identifiable to one or two places in particular. However, within these parameters come pratfalls. How does Rabasca reconcile himself with potential charges of cultural appropriation? Clearly it is an issue he has considered, and Rabasca himself brought it up in our conversation, and he reflected thoughtfully on the topic.
He is mindful of theft, as the album is inspired by all these different cultures, yet he does not know how to balance that scale because most of the music he took inspiration from throughout his life was not from white European sources. He said that local culture is something that should always be celebrated, but when art meets the commercial world, it can often end up exploited. “I don’t want to be someone who takes without giving back. I hope that anybody who hears it, thinks that it serves and it doesn’t take.” Overall, however, he believes that more cultural cross-pollination is better, and having grown up in multi-cultural New York City, he has seen first-hand the benefits of this.
In some ways, his music is very American, being representative of the melting pot the United States has become. In our view, while world music has sometimes been inappropriately used to define everything that is not from the West, we do believe that the term has its place when correctly attributed. In the case of Codes of Creation, the album has an authentic world sound that takes from a variety of countries and continents, but does so with tact and care. Perhaps this genuine world music feel roots in the universality of spirituality, as all who choose to engage in spiritual practice can benefit from this album regardless of nationality or heritage.
“How do we elevate ourselves? How do we connect ourselves to the deepest level spiritually? How do we ultimately bring people together?” Rabasca pondered. Maybe the answers to his questions lie in his music, and in music more generally. Music has been long known for its transcendent qualities, for its ability to unite people, bring them together, and at its best help us understand our collective humanity. Music is a world within itself, and as such contains multitudes and is reflective of life itself. Rabasca echoed these thoughts: “I have Jamaican friends in the reggae circle, everybody likes to say music is life, and it really is. It never stops being wonderful and giving and serving.”
Above: Photos of Rabasca's instruments and his travels