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Gifts of Music

Wednesday, January 25th, 2023: Arts, Music & Dance.

Paying It Forward

Most music lovers owe their families or friends a debt of gratitude for the gift of music – not just for introductions to songs or artists, but for the mind-expanding opening of doors onto new genres, and sometimes even unfamiliar cultures.

For musicians, discovering new music has even deeper significance, because it can inspire and even influence our own work.

I’ve been especially blessed because I grew up in a culture which treated music as an indispensable way of life. Even before I formed indelible memories I was immersed in music, and for as long as I can remember I was singing and playing music with my family.

The 1960s music revolution unfolded in the outside world as I progressed from junior high through high school in our small farm town. Until the end of the decade, we only had AM radio, so cutting-edge music could only be found on LP record albums and 45 rpm singles at distant big-city record stores. They couldn’t reach us until someone’s parents drove them there and back, and were either played for groups of us in listening parties or briefly loaned out by the lucky few.

Beginning in the 1970s, my friends and I made and shared cassette copies of our own music and LP records, and that continued over the next three decades, ending in the new millenium when we could burn music CDs on our computers. Schooled in the DIY culture that followed punk rock, we appreciated these cassettes more than the later CDs because cassettes were a little more tangible – they wore our friends’ handwriting and sometimes handmade art, and they had their own dedicated mobile device, the boom box, which had speakers so a room, car, sidewalk, or beach full of friends could all listen.

At this point, the only way I can repay this debt is by paying it forward. Here are just a few of the cultures, genres, and artists gifted to me by family and friends. In most cases I’ve avoided posting live videos of the artists performing, because they’re not available, because the sound quality is poor, or because I want to save them for a later topic.

Delpha & Stella

Maternal grandmother Stella and paternal grandmother Delpha represented my rural Scottish cultural ancestry. Delpha and Stella sang me to sleep with Scottish lullabies, and throughout my early childhood, we met with their large extended families at the Williamson and Carson homeplaces out in the country, for reunions and Sunday sings, all of which featured Appalachian mountain hymns and songs, many of Scottish origin.

Thus it was like coming home when I discovered the Stanley Brothers of Virginia in the mid-1970s. They sang just like my Williamson uncles, with much the same repertoire. “Angel Band” was a song rendered sweetly by Uncle Wib, and “Amazing Grace” was one Stella sang to inspire neighbors in the nursing home before she died.

That old Appalachian music is the first and one of the most important influences on my own work.

After his brother Carter’s death in 1966, Ralph Stanley regularly included a song on each of his albums performed in the ancient style of lined-out hymnody, which was brought to North America by exiles like my Wiliamson, Carson, and Carmichael ancestors in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Joan & Vern

My parents met during the post-war jazz revolution – the birth of bebop – and they were both aspiring musicians, Joan training as a concert pianist and Vern studying violin but jamming on jazz percussion and vocals. I heard so much jazz growing up in the 1950s that it simply became my natural environment, and I didn’t even learn all the names of artists or songs until, in some cases, decades later.

But at the same time, Mom and Dad also loaded our huge hifi sound system with world music and classical music. After they divorced and my brother and I moved to our mom’s hometown, she regularly took us to jazz, classical, and world music concerts in the big city. And after I grew up and left home, my parents avidly followed my music and kept listening and exploring new genres and artists. My dad was listening to Nirvana in his 80s!

I never tried to play jazz, but jazz styles and ideas crept in unconsciously, and I can recognize them occasionally in my work. And today 1950s jazz is one of my favorite listening genres.

My dad was a great whistler and scat artist, and he often whistled “Scotland the Brave”. He gave me one of my first LP record albums, a recording of the Black Watch pipe band. Scottish bagpipe melodies have also occasionally found their way into my work.

Miriam Makeba is the first African artist I ever heard – again, on my parents’ record player.

In parallel with the British Invasion that sparked the 1960s youth music revolution, there was a much quieter invasion from a Portuguese colony – the collaboration between American jazz saxophonist Stan Getz and Brazilian popular music. Despite the stiff competition, Stan’s Brazilian albums stayed in rotation at our house. This was the first international “fusion” music I ever heard, and I followed in Stan’s footsteps two decades later, as I tried to integrate African styles with my Appalachian heritage.

My mom tried to teach me some Bach on her piano, and one of her favorite artists of the 60s, the Swingle Singers, made a career out of jazzing up Bach in a capella. I was obsessed with European classical music in college, and every now and then a classical theme will still pop up in my work.

Mom took me to meet her linguistics professor at Indiana University, who sang old folk and blues songs with his wife, and they introduced me to the Pentangle, a lesser-known but unique British jazz-folk fusion group I still listen to often.


I’ve eulogized James elsewhere in Dispatches – one of my principal elders and mentors, leader of a group house in Menlo Park that I shared for little over a year, in 1978-79. But what a productive year! I drew, I painted, I taught myself bluegrass banjo and flatpicked guitar, I wrote stories and songs. And James, an amateur musicologist and passionate social critic, introduced me to the transgressive sounds of the Velvets, the Modern Lovers, and punk rock, all of which became the main inspiration for my work in the next year – not to mention the inspiration for most rock music throughout the following decades.


Mark is one of my two best friends from high school. We were introduced by my mom because we both wanted to form a band, and we did, and wrote songs together then, sang and played together throughout the 1970s, wrote and recorded together again in 1980, and recorded sporadically throughout the 80s and 90s as a guerrilla music and art duo, the Didactyl Brothers. We’ve always inspired each other in our shared habit of making music, art, and literature with equal passion.

Mark has written and performed both rock and country songs, and we share the love of old-time Appalachian music. But shortly after James introduced me to punk in Menlo Park, Mark was discovering post-punk down south at CalArts. The transition from one to the other was like the blink of an eye, and when I started Terra Incognita in San Francisco in 1981, we were operating in the very loosely-defined post-punk realm. Mark and I listened to Public Image and Joy Division constantly, but you will hear very little of their direct influence in any of my work. I agreed with them that our society and its culture were failing, but instead of wallowing in the failure, I wanted to start exploring the alternatives.


Jon was a founding member of Terra Incognita, a vocalist and percussionist, and one of our leading lights. Culturally voracious, he introduced me to West African music and led or co-produced TI’s ventures into performance art, multi-media cabarets, community-building, and art/science conferences. He arranged the party at our loft which brought together legends of African music for the first time, and triggered my obsession with Nigerian Yoruba music that remains one of my primary influences.

The first African cassette Jon gave me was of the Ramblers Dance Band from Ghana, but I found their highlife style too sweet, so Jon recommended Fela Kuti of Nigeria. I found this album at the legendary Down Home Music in the East Bay, and “Water No Get Enemy” remains my favorite of Fela’s. It may have been an inspiration for the sax I picked up a few months later.

At the same time, Jon gave me a book that heavily referenced the father of juju music, I. K. Dairo. I didn’t actually hear juju until almost two years later on King Sunny Ade’s first international release, but when I did, the genre became my main obsession. I finally saw Dairo in Berkeley in the 90s, shortly before he died.

Jon is also an Asian scholar, and gave me a cassette of this Indonesian gamelan album in the mid-80s. It became a favorite for late-night art sessions at the loft.


Scott joined Terra Incognita as a bandmate and one of the first loftmates in 1981, playing drums and sometimes experimenting brilliantly on other peoples’ instruments that he was completely unfamiliar with. I’d moved on from Joy Division by then, but Scott showed me that the re-formed New Order had potential – after all, they released what may be the greatest rock song of all time, Joy Division’s “Ceremony”, that summer. Years later, after I’d recovered from my African fixation, I finally embraced New Order’s decades-long repertoire, and it made me want to resume writing rock songs.


Katie was my life partner, songwriting partner, and bandmate for four years, helping me resurrect Terra Incognita and turn it into a successful performing band. A developing singer and bassist, she was a very sophisticated listener, introducing me to everything from Nina Simone and Kitty Wells to The Raincoats and early REM. But it turned out to be her cassette copies of the Meat Puppets and Holger Czukay, which we listened to over and over, year after year, in the car on road trips, and in the loft during art sessions, that became pillars of my library and inspirations for my later work.

Katie also turned me on to grunge in the early 90s. It inspired a few songs as I revisited rock in my new band Wickiup, and became a staple on mountain-bike rides, but didn’t survive the millenium.

This slow-burning track by dubmeister Czukay includes one of my favorite guitar solos of all time.


The Portuguese artist Sebastian Mendes was only a friend for a short time in the mid-80s, but he had a profound and lasting impact when he gave us a cassette copy of two albums by this English chamber ensemble, because he thought they sounded like our early recordings. It may seem like a stretch, but we did use some of the same instruments – ours were electrified but retained the crispness of their acoustic kin. The Penguins’ composer, Simon Jeffes, was also adventurous and had a sense of humor that TI lacked, and they remain my all-time favorite instrumental group.


Josiah was a member of The Invertebrates, an underground San Francisco band that started roughly the same time as Terra Incognita, and in the same place – Club Foot. But we didn’t meet until 1985, when Mark, fiddle player in the reborn Terra Incognita, met Josiah, and our two bands began sharing gigs.

Josiah’s best friend from college, another artist, became one of my best friends, and Josiah became part of our extended family of artists and musicians that persists to this day. He was also writing for a music magazine and passing me cassette compilations from time to time – he made sure that reggae and dub became pillars of my library.

One cassette Josiah gave me in the 90s contained a one-off album by alcoholic Texan Jon Wayne that became my ultimate icon of music that’s so bad it’s brilliant.


In early 1988, having spent a year recording an album and unsuccessfully trying to pitch it to independent record labels, Katie and I decided we needed new talent and a bigger sound. I put up ads for backing musicians with a “spiritual” dimension, and Mike showed up raring to be our drummer and percussionist. He’d studied under jazz-funk adventurer Ronald Shannon Jackson at Boston’s Berklee College of Music and Woodstock’s Creative Music Studio and he’d briefly worked in New Orleans. But most important to me, he played talking drum and had worked in Ken Okulolo’s band, a Nigerian who played bass on King Sunny Ade’s early international tours.

Mike became one of my best friends while stage-managing our performances and introducing me to an amazing variety of music from around the world, both live and recorded.

Sun Ra is Mike’s guru of spiritual music, but with my grounding in Scottish pipe bands and old-time hymns, Albert Ayler’s spellbinding fusion of jazz, gospel, and military bugle calls struck a deeper chord.

Early on, Mike gave me a tape of pygmy music that I’ve never been able to source anywhere else, calling it the “ultimate music of the world”. I studied it seriously and, bewildered, attempted to reproduce it, and in the process discovered how it was made – spontaneously by everyone in a multigenerational community of hunter-gatherers, based on what they’d learned from animals and their ancestors and added to with their collective creativity.

But even before studying it I agreed with Mike. Pygmy music really is the ultimate music, making modern jazz, and centuries of European classical music, sound like the bumbling of ignorant toddlers. I could never hope to do anything this sophisticated.


Millie and I became partners two years after the 1989 earthquake that destroyed the Terra Incognita loft and ended the Terra Incognita band. I had realized my dream of establishing a spiritual home in the desert and mastering aboriginal survival skills, and we began exploring remote parts of the Southwest together. She was a talented singer and dancer and wanted to start a band, but mixing music and romance had ended badly for me, so I continued to work alone and she taught herself guitar and started a rock band with a girlfriend.

But like Katie, she was a sophisticated listener, and got me hooked for life on the unique Scottish band Cocteau Twins, which I had ignored in the 80s, along with so much of the developing post-punk scene, as I became obsessed with African music.

A musical friend in the late 80s, saxophonist Benjamin Bossi, had tried to get me interested in Hugo Largo, a newly formed East Coast band that used nearly the same instrumentation as Terra Incognita – electric guitar, bass, and cello. But as usual, I blew him off, and didn’t even give them a listen until 1991, when Millie gave me a cassette of their second album. The lyrics remain some of my favorites 30 years later.


Shortly after our debut in 1985, the reborn Terra Incognita was recruited for a multi-media extravaganza celebrating the legacy of Julian Beck and the Living Theater. Algerian-born Serge El Beze had been a member and was one of the organizers, so I got to know him first as an experimental theater person. We did more shows together, and I saw him perform music with free jazz pioneer Don Cherry, but with the rise of North African DJs and the international dance scene at the start of the 90s, Serge reinvented himself as Cheb i Sabbah, international music DJ.

From year to year, he migrated between residencies in San Francisco clubs, producing magical nights that were a healthy alternative to the bone-thumping, mind-numbing house music scene. Almost every time I went, I discovered new artists, rushing back to the booth to ask him who it was. I developed a bad habit of dragging new dates to his shows, partly because it was the best dance scene in town, but also partly to impress them with my worldliness. Serge was always friendly and generous in his courtly, gentlemanly, professional manner.

Gnawa music became one of only two genres of African music that I regularly listen to in the desert – the other being Nigerian Yoruba apala, which I discovered on my own.

The kora music of Mali became a staple of “world music” in the 90s, but Kasse Mady earned a permanent place in my library for his loyalty to rural traditions. Like Ralph Stanley, he’s a singer who will send chills up your spine. This piece is more urbanized, but it’s the first track I ever heard from him, the one that sent me back to Serge’s DJ booth to find out who in the world it was.

  1. Jean says:

    Outstanding review Max! Listening to music with you (including yours) has always been enlightening.
    Good memory btw 😉

  2. michael j corbett says:

    Yes Max great report – like the Sun Ra cassette-and that is my favorite Fela song -played it with Kotoja and always great playing music with you.

  3. David says:

    Thanks Max, that was a wonderful adventure into your music world! Truly enlightening for me on many levels. I more than anyone in my family appreciates music the most and has regularly listened to it the longest. I have always appreciated your music as well as your appreciation for music, Thank You for sharing

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