Encountering The Kutandara Tribe

Behind the Glass

It’s hard to not stare when you meet a new tribe.

You know what I mean: you see a group of people, different from the norm but tightly-knit, and you just want to study them a little.

I stumbled across a new tribe a couple years ago, one grounded in a shared love of the music of another continent. I had heard of this band over my years in Boulder, but I never had an inside view until they came to record at my live video studio.

Boulder claims a lot of cool, unique businesses, including a school of African music called Kutandara Center. When I started peeking into the Kutandara world, it felt like I was missing out on a party. The school’s culture was so immersive that I caught the same vibe from everyone I talked to: raw, shared excitement about the music and the culture that they all shared.

I was approached by the school to see if we could record their main performance band, also called Kutandara. It featured a couple of instructors and plenty of bright-eyed kids wielding mallets and dancing to the music. A big question mark for me right away was whether the group’s seven marimbas would fit into our tiny live recording studio.

Now, this was months after I recorded Steve Mullins and Doug Walter of Rim of the Well, and I vividly remembered how much of our room was swallowed by one marimba.

(Sidenote here: I noticed a request for more music from RoTW in a recent letter to Copper. Visit http://stevemullinsmusic.com/rim-of-the-well to buy a CD, or contact Steve there to see if he’s got some high-res recordings up his sleeve.)

Doug’s marimba was of a certain type, and possessed a commercial polish. Kutandara had several they wanted to bring, including one or two that were a bit larger than Doug’s. Most of their instruments looked like they were hewn by hand.

So I visited the marimba school to eyeball the situation. Their practice room wasn’t any larger than our recording room, and they were using every square inch to fit their host of marimbas in there. The mic situation was a compromise — they hung a single small-diaphragm mic from the ceiling above each instrument.

I had briefly tried this approach with Doug, and didn’t like the flatness of the resulting sound. If I switched from a cardioid pickup pattern to omnidirectional, I felt like I lost some of the transient impact of the mallet hitting the wood, and the bass response wasn’t much to get excited about.

For those reasons, and the fact we’d have no room for video cameras, I started to rule out that method of recording while walking around the practice room. Due to our approach at Second Story Garage, we often got high-octane, happy-energy performances from our visitors—and those needed to be seen. Watch the videos below, and I think you’ll agree that seeing Kutandara do its thing is better than just hearing it.

A bit of negotiation followed. I considered plenty of options, and even thought about bringing the band out into the newsroom of Boulder’s newspaper, the Daily Camera, and recording live amidst the feverishly typing journalists in that very large open space.

Ultimately, Kutandara and I struck a compromise: I really wanted them in the studio, and I wanted to mic the marimbas just like I had mic’ed Doug’s. And we really needed to fit as many people into the room as we could, while leaving a space for the cameras. So the band said they would work on new arrangements over the next month that featured only three marimbas, rather than seven. Ambitious, I thought, but really the professionalism that I witnessed at every step with these guys made me feel confident we would get a good finished product.

The day finally came, and even with three marimbas I was a little wide-eyed as we were loading in. But everything in life gets solved step by step, and we got straight to work setting up the instruments. As always, I like some mic bleed and I like recording with a band all in the same room. But I’m not a madman — I still try to use clever mic technique to minimize negative impacts of this approach where I can.

For instance, with Steve and Doug, I brought Doug’s music stand closer to Steve’s mic because it provided a sound shield which kept a lot of marimba energy out of the guitar mic.

With Kutandara, I knew the big wooden marimbas would load up the room with energy, so I had to delicately balance the mic distances so I’d keep some mallet attack in the sound without overloading the mic capsules.

Now that I’ve gotten to this point in the retelling of this recording session, let me tell you. If you’ve never been in a small room in the middle of three African marimbas being wailed on, I can tell you it is quite a sonic experience. There are tones low enough to make your clothes vibrate, and some that buzz your skin like a Sharper Image massager. There isn’t a ton of energy in the presence range besides the mallet-strikes, so the overall volume doesn’t seem very loud. In spite of that apparent volume, the actual feeling of the sound energy is astonishing.

The group brought several African instruments for use in their two songs. On “Nhemamusasa,” you can see the two girls in front playing the mbiri, a gourd with tuned metal tines inside which is played with thumbs and fingers. The girl on the right in both videos shakes the hosho, which are shakers made from dried African fruits.

Once the marimbas were placed and we had everyone mic’ed and feeling good about the monitor mixes, we took off. Typical of our best sessions, Kutandara completely made me forget that they were playing newly-learned arrangements, and they nailed their songs in the first takes.

Of course they did.

When you watch the video you see no sense of nerves, or of struggling to access memory. You just see love for the music, love for the culture and the words, and love for one another. I’m so glad we had this tribe come to visit; even though I wasn’t attending the school, I felt as if I learned from them.

Take a look below—I think you’ll agree.