INTERVIEW Rubblebucket Orchestra Ramp Up to Halloween Gig at Middle East

Frontwoman Kalmia Traver Discusses African Influence, Writing Lyrics

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Rubblebucket Orchestra brings their blend of Afrobeat and funk to the Middle East on Halloween night.
Courtesy of Rubblebucket Orchestra

Afrobeat groove specialists Rubblebucket Orchestra will play a special show tomorrow night at the Middle East Downstairs. The morning after a gig in Hartford, I caught vocalist and saxophonist Kalmia Traver on the phone to discuss Rubblebucket Orchestra’s past, the new record Rubblebucket, and the influence of African music on her band’s style.

The Tech: The first time I saw Rubblebucket Orchestra was when you opened for Mike Gordon (of Phish) at the Paradise Rock Club in 2008. What was it like playing with him? Are you a fan of his music?

Kalmia Traver: It was definitely special. He’s sat in with us before, and I’ve been seeing Mike and the Phish guys for years because they all hang around University of Vermont (UVM). The Christmas I got a CD player, it came with the Phish record Hoist. I never went to a show but I listened to Hoist and Billy Breathes and dug their songwriting. They write beautiful songs — I liked that more than the long jams.

TT: I find a lot of tight composition on Rubblebucket, but does your writing allow for a lot of jamming in the live setting?

KT: In the beginning we stayed from jamming. We had so much work to do to get the songs together. We do love to let ourselves go — there’s certain times in the set where we do that. People do take solos, but it’s taken time to build up that chemistry playing together.

TT: Did any songs not make the record?

KT: We had two songs that didn’t make the cut. One was instrumental and the other one a little rock-and-roll.

TT: Who in the band are the primary songwriters?

KT: Alex has emerged as the band leader. He’s written most of the music and I wrote the words to a lot of the songs.

TT: How do you write lyrics? Are you trying to fit words to the music, or do you rather see it as writing poetry?

KT: Usually Alex will write a groove or a beat with a form, and it’s pretty much there. And then I’ll sit down with it on Garage Band. Sometimes I’ll start out with shapes and melodies, random word shapes. I’ve had a few instances of being into poetry, but that’s not my inspiration. It comes from the music and the vibrating sounds in my body. The shapes become lyrics, and the lyrics come up from experiences I’ve had.

TT: I really like this one track in particular, “Ba Donso, We Did This.” There’s an interesting string instrument being played — is that a kora from Mali?

KT: Actually it’s an n’goni. It is from Mali, though. It’s actually one of the feed instruments for the whole Rubblebucket project. Craig, our percussionist, played it on the album. He had just come back from Africa and was so excited. He invited us to jam with him during a jazz festival, and it turned out to be a great party. He brought his West African friends, and we jammed all night long. It was good chemistry, and that was back in 2007. Eventually we transcribed a lot of what came out of those jam sessions.

TT: Is Ba Donso a foreign word or phrase that Craig picked up? What does it mean?

KT: The title of the song came last. I wrote those lyrics; they were coming from word shapes. Alex wrote the melody. Images came into my mind and I wanted to write something about a dirty horrible circumstance because I had been writing happy songs. I wanted to write a dirty song. It’s about living in a cardboard shack, in a hole, and being oppressed by evil. It’s a kind of metaphorical adventure of people in sadness but then they get saved by this spirit being. Ba Donso is Craig’s African nickname. It comes from Mali. Ba means big — not physically but as in grand, like a great, big person. Donso means hunter and it comes from n’goni tradition. Hunters would hire n’goni players to celebrate their return from a big hunt.

TT: Have you or any other members in the group besides Craig traveled to Africa to study music?

KT: That is such a dream — I’d love to do that! I have friends who’ve gone to Jamaica and played with reggae bands. Craig is the only one to have visited Africa. We haven’t talked about a group trip specifically, but that would be good. I’ve traveled to the Dominican Republic and studied music there. I was studying at UVM and we took a 2 week trip for a class called “The Study of Cuban Music.” We weren’t allowed into Cuba, so we went to the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico instead.

TT: Though you’re the lead vocalist of the band, I know you also play saxophone. Do you see yourself stepping away from sax to focus solely on vocals in the future?

KT: From the beginning I was singing. When it started out, I was one of the group and I was playing more saxophone and switched back and forth. Over the years I’ve emerged as a frontwoman. I was singing a lot before, all throughout college, and in my old band, but I was never a frontwoman. It’s been a crazy journey! I wouldn’t want to step away from sax. First of all, it’s cool for people to see a lady playing an instrument. I’ve studied sax for years and I love that instrument so much. It’s definitely interesting to see a frontperson moving back and forth between sax and voice.

TT: Are there any ideas or plans for the next record already brewing?

KT: We don’t have studio time planned yet. We’re still releasing out crazy built up energy from putting this CD out. A lot of us needed a break — the sessions were intense. We’re going out to the Midwest in November for a two week tour. Then we’ll take it easy in December. We’ll take January off so Alex and I have time to write and compose. Our lives have been hectic and we haven’t been able to generate new material just yet.

You can pick up a copy of Rubblebucket at the Middle East Downstairs tomorrow night. The show also features Spiritual Rez and Ila Mawana. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the door or over the phone at 617-864-EAST.