Berlin in October can be horrifying. In many years it was just cold and grey. This year however, the sun has been shining every day. When we visit Steffen Basho-Junghans in his apartment and studio in East Berlin, he is about to complete one of the tunes for his new album, entitled ‘Days of the Dragon’ to be released in the ‘Wooden Guitar Series’ on Locust Music later this year. His apartment looks like he´s getting prepared for the winter. In his kitchen, plants are growing all over the place and you can´t help but think of a jungle. The idea of landscape comes to mind, a term he often uses when describing his music as well as his paintings and drawings. Even though Steffen Basho-Junghans is best known for his guitar music, he also works as a visual artist. He grew up in a small village in the South Harz, a hilly rural area in East Germany. “Because of that, I have a strong sense for the atmosphere of the seasons. For example, I can feel it two days in advance when it will snow for the first time in the year. The album I´m currently recording has a distinct autumnal feel to it”, Steffen describes the sound while he plays us parts of the album.
Listening to ‘Days of the Dragon’ with its pastoral guitar Ragas brings back memories of the 2003 release ‘Rivers and Bridges’ that came out on Strange Attractors Audio House (SAAH). “The title track is actually from 1997”, says Steffen, “but when I listened to the tape, I noticed a few background noises that I couldn´t filter out. I tried to replay it, but it´s not that easy playing a tune again after 8 years have passed.” Steffen records everything at home in his art studio. He uses small hanging microphones, which make his guitar playing sound very rich and warm on his records. “Luckily, I live in a pretty quiet area. Still, it sometimes happens that while I´m recording, a truck passes by even though there had not been any noise on the street for an hour.”
‘Days of the Dragon’ will already be Steffen´s third release this year. In February, the Italian Sillyboy label released ‘Unknown Music I.’ In June, ‘Unknown Music II’ followed on Preservation Records from Australia. “I got the idea for the Unknown Music Series a few years ago. Sometimes late at night, I don´t have anything specific in mind while I just play around with the guitar. In the middle of the session I often get carried away by the music. When I listen to the recording the next morning, I kind of like it. So I got the idea to release these sessions as something very personal, similar to a page from a diary. The concept of the Unknown Music Series is to release a whole session instead of compiling an album out of different tracks I have.”
Steffen´s approach to music and painting is very intuitive. He explains: “Over the course of weeks, sometimes months, I assemble ideas in my mind, which I then try to realize while playing freely. Some ideas disappear and some stay. My outside influences, like the light of a certain season or a night around town are absorbed on a subconscious level. I usually don´t write things down. My music originates both in free playing and composition, but I don´t want to translate the music into a different language. If I would write my music on sheets, it would probably make the work on the details easier. At the same time however, I would have to use a transistory language that I don´t consider necessary for my interaction with the guitar. It´s like John Coltrane said: ‘You go on stage and strike the first note. What´s coming afterwards, is pure adventure.”
Steffen Basho-Junghans has been exploring sound on record with 6 and 12 string guitars for a decade now. So far, he has released more than 10 albums, many of them on SAAH, some on his own Blue Moment Arts imprint. Since 2000, there has been a release for SAAH every year. “This year is an exception because I had so many other projects I was working on”, says Steffen, “I got in contact with Chris (of SAAH) through Glenn Jones. I knew Glenn from my trip to California in 1994. In 1999, I sent him some tapes and he convinced me that we had to find a U.S. label to release some of my music. That led to the release of ‘Songs of the Earth’ on Sublingual Records. Back then, Chris was doing a singles label and asked me if I would do a single, too. I was thinking ‘Why not?’ and sent him some stuff. Just a little later, Chris called me and we agreed on releasing a full length album, which was ‘Inside.’ ‘Inside’ was recorded in one session. The three tracks were recorded on January 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 1999. When I finished the third track, I just thought ‘Oh shit, another album finished.”
Despite the recent interest in American folk blues guitar, Basho-Junghans doesn´t get the recognition that fellow fingerpickers like Jack Rose and Glenn Jones receive. “It´s probably because people can´t categorize me. Especially here in Germany, it´s hard to get properly recognized. For the Folkies, my music is not folky and exotic enough. For the Free Jazzers it´s not free enough. And for the people listening to contemporary guitar music, I´m too far away from the mainstream. There´s this one guitar magazine called ‘Acoustic Guitar’, which is the main publication for guitar music in Germany. They´re not even giving me bad reviews and if you don´t get any reviews at all, people don´t know you. That´s why it´s hard to get gigs in Germany.”
German listeners don´t know what they´re missing. Steffen Basho-Junghans´ guitar playing is emotionally moving and challenging at the same time. You never know what´s coming next. Sometimes, like on ‘Rivers and Bridges’, he plays guitar Ragas in the Takoma tradition of John Fahey, Robbie Basho or Max Ochs. On releases like ‘Inside’, ‘7 Books’ or ‘Waters in Azure’, which Steffen considers his most contemporary sounding recording, he´s leaning more to the guitar avantgarde with influences ranging from jazz to 20th century classical. “My music doesn´t have anything to do with songs, it´s rooted in the instrumental tradition. My basis has always been the music itself, not the classic song structure.” You can also hear strong influences from Indian music. Steffen explains: “The Raga is a compositional form in which the musician plays the main part after a longer intro (the Alap). The intro usually serves the purpose to slowly open up the character of the Raga. It also introduces the personality of the musician. Raga means ‘What colors the senses.’ There are Ragas for every time of the day, for every season.”
No matter how Basho-Junghans delivers his vision, what he almost always succeeds in is transporting the listener into a trance-like state. Nonetheless, Steffen doesn´t like to be put into a certain category. “Many times I read that I´m playing psychedelic music. But psychedelic doesn´t have anything to do with my music. It´s certainly spiritual, but there´s a big difference between psychedelic and spiritual. Psychedelic is fleeing from reality. Spirituality means living everyday life by a certain philosophy.”
Steffen Basho-Junghans´ first encounter with the guitar happened in the early 70s while listening to someone playing in the room next door. “When I heard the guitar, it just made ‘Bing.” A few years later, he started getting interested in folk-blues fingerpicking. He grew up in the GDR where records from the West weren´t so easily accessible. In 1978 he founded the folk group Wacholder together with a few friends. Wacholder was playing German folk music with strong English and Irish influences, but focused on German lyrics. Steffen was about to become an engineer and had to move to a town 30 miles away from his bandmates who were starting to pursue a professional musical career. Eventually, he left the group. Steffen recalls: “At that point, I was sitting in this small town without a band and that´s how the solo thing began. The starting point for the music I´m playing now really was in 1978 when a friend of mine gave me two records by Leo Kottke. I heard them and I just thought ‘What the hell is he doing?’ It was something completely different from the European sound. In the early 80s, I got two Fahey records through a friend who found them boring. When listening to them, I was totally stunned. People playing contemporary music on steel string guitars were fascinating me from the beginning. Also, I liked how they celebrated their instrument. Of course it was hard to get records. They didn´t arrive in the GDR until 10 years after their original release in the West. I was never just interested in guitar music, but liked a lot of other styles, too. I always listened to a lot of jazz music and in the early and mid 70s, I was a big fan of progressive rock, like Pink Floyd, Yes and King Crimson. When I heard Yes for the first time, it opened up a whole new world for me. It got me interested in symphonic and electronic music. I guess, you can still hear those influences in my music today. First, I like playing longer pieces. I need some time to unfold. Second, my love for concept albums probably originates from my interest in progressive rock.”
When entering Steffen´s recording room, you see a portrait of folk guitarist Robbie Basho on the wall, taken from his record ‘Art of the Acoustic Steel String Guitar 6 and 12.’ We ask Steffen about the adoption of the name ‘Basho.’ Steffen started to use the name around 1995. He sees it not only as a tribute to Robbie Basho, but also to the whole philosophy connected with his music. “It´s funny. Robbie Basho wasn´t called Basho originally either. He was interested in the Japanese Haiku poet Matsuo Bâsho and his philosophy that you can find the essence of your personality through your art, so Robbie (formerly called Robinson) started using the name Basho in the early 60s. But also Matsuo Bâsho wasn´t called Bâsho from the beginning. Matsuo Montefuso adopted the name during his travels through Japan. For a while he was staying with a friend who had a banana tree in his garden. Bâsho is a Japanese word for the banana tree, so that´s where the name originally comes from.”
Steffen heard Robbie Basho´s music for the first time in 1986. “A friend of mine had one of the early 80s Windham Hill Guitar Sampler records which had two Robbie Basho songs on it. My friends were solely interested in Will Ackermann and Alex DeGrassi, but I only had ears for the Basho songs. I was absolutely blown away. About half a year later, I heard from a music journalist from Hamburg that Basho had died about the same time that I first listened to his music.” The next step in Steffen´s identification process with Robbie Basho were his travels to the United States and Mexico in 1994. “The more music by Robbie Basho I heard and the more information I got about him, the more important it became to me to go where he had lived”, Steffen tells. He was visiting his friend Janet Smith who herself had released one record on Takoma in the 70s and was a good friend of John Fahey. “Over the years, a few magical places had assembled in my head that I wanted to visit. Berkeley was one of those places. It was a great trip. It took me a long time to digest all the impressions I got. I remember this one moment when I was sitting in the hills above Berkeley and I knew that I couldn´t get closer to Robbie Basho than in this particular moment. Somebody had told me that after his death, Basho´s ashes got dispersed in the ocean and it all became clear to me: Robbie Basho´s soul wasn´t gone yet and it was looking for a related soul.”
When he returned from his journey to America, he decided to add ‘Basho’ to his last name. Soon after, he released his first solo record ‘In Search of the Eagle´s Voice’ on his own label Blue Moment Arts. The title of the CD is a hommage to Robbie Basho´s 1972 album ‘The Voice of the Eagle.’ Since his trip to the United States, Steffen has assembled many artefacts from Robbie Basho´s career like notes, tour posters, fotos, etc. for the Robbie Basho Archives that he partly makes publicly available on the Internet. He´s a bit disappointed by the support for the archives though. “When I was in Berkeley, people gave me lots of stuff for the archive, but now that Basho has been rediscovered, people rather sell their tour posters on the internet than give them to me for the archives. It´s a pity”, Steffen says.
2005 has been a pretty busy year for Steffen Basho-Junghans. Next to releasing three albums (one of them still to come), he played several festivals and shows in Sweden and Norway. In addition to his musical career, Steffen has also continued to pursue his work as a painter. His paintings show the same variety as his guitar playing. They range from abstract, expressionist studies of shapes and colors to more recognizable paintings of mountains. Just like his music, Steffen´s paintings are always surprising. What first looks like Chinese calligraphy turns out to be a mountain range in Thuringia, Germany where he grew up.
One of Steffen´s future music projects will be the release of a session he recorded in October 1998. “I had just gotten one of my 12-string-guitars from repairing. I put new strings on it and was just about to tune the guitar when I got the idea that this was a defining moment. It was like a virgin orchestra. The guitar, the strings and me had never been together in that constellation before. So I started playing. It was already 2 a.m. and I wanted to see what´s possible with this chaos. I couldn´t rely on what I already knew, but had only my musical perception to work with. The next morning when I listened to the hour of music I had recorded, I was surprised. It didn´t sound as out of tune as I had expected. So, during the next few days I recorded another five sessions. With time passing by, naturally the tuning slightly changed and when I had finished recording, the title of the session was clear to me: ‘The Virgin Orchestra – Good News From Outer Space.’ The first of the songs I recorded during the whole session has been released on the ‘156 Strings” sampler curated by Henry Kaiser on Cuneiform Records. But I´d like to release the whole session. The problem is that I have 3 ½ hours of material which would only fit on a 3-CD set and it´s not that easy finding somebody to release such a 3-CD set.” For us having had a chance to dig into the musical universe of Steffen Basho-Junghans it seems like the logical step in his exploration of the musical format. Let´s hope that he will find someone to release it. The world deserves hearing the ‘Virgin Orchestra.’ Photos: Jaro Straub
Steffen Basho Junghans is in charge of a large archive of items belonging to the life and music of Robbie Basho. If anyone has something of interest to donate, please contact him under firstname.lastname@example.org
-- Stephan Bauer & Jaro Straub (31 October, 2005)