The amazing thing, said many of the people interviewed in the documentary movie Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho, which played to an enthusiastic San Francisco audience at the Roxie Theater in the city’s Mission District, on April 18, was that Robbie “never became that famous” during his lifetime. Like Vincent Van Gogh, he was recognized while he lived, but by the discerning ones. Many spoke of him as “way ahead of his time.”
“Sometimes you have to die first,” said one colleague of Robbie’s interviewed in the film.
In recent years, Basho has seemed to be on his way to his long-deserved place as a major figure in the world of music. Liam Barker, the young Englishman who has spent five years of his life making and promoting the movie, began falling in love with Robbie’s music as soon as he heard it over the internet. Many others of the current generation have had similar experiences.
“Music is supposed to do something”
Robbie Basho, who’d been an orphan (one of his musical pieces is titled “Orphan’s Lament”), was adopted as a young boy by Dr. Donald Robinson and his wife, who lived in the U.S. city of Baltimore, Maryland. Robbie was drawn to music at an early age, his stepsister says in the film, and was always good at it.
While attending the University of Maryland in the early ‘60s, still going by the name Robbie Robinson, he began his musical career doing Kingston Trio covers at cafes. Soon, however, he dove into deeper waters.
He’s still sometimes spoken of in the same breath as instrumental innovators John Fahey and Leo Kottke, but in truth, as several commentators say in the film, Basho is utterly unique. Labels such as “new age classical” or “visionary world music” only hint at the depth and breadth of his compositions.
In a radio interview recorded in 1974, Robbie says that he, Fahey and Kottke “started taking the 12-string guitar and really trying to make it a concert instrument.” But Basho went further than that, adding in the interview, “I spent years on the road singing folk songs that had no meaning. It dawned on me that music is supposed to say something. Music is supposed to do something.”
A variety of influences
Basho entered the stream of world musical, cultural and spiritual traditions, and in a career spanning two decades, created some 15 albums that embrace Hindu, Japanese, Persian and American Indian styles and values, as well as others. Among his many kinds of instrumentals are pieces in the style of the Indian raga.
Robbie’s rich and resonant voice adds visionary lyrics to many of his songs as well. Unfortunately, his life ended in a freak accident during a chiropractic treatment in 1986, when he was only 46 years old.
Robbie was gifted, even beyond his innate talent and passion, with a strong sense of synesthesia, the ability to naturally interpret one sense in terms of another. He would “hear colour,” for example. No doubt, this gift enhanced the power of his compositions.
Basho also studied Zen Buddhism in his youth. His first album, Seal of the Blue Lotus, embraces Japanese themes. During that period, he changed his name to that of a famous Zen poet of the 17th century, [Matsuo] Basho.
Sufism and Meher Baba
In the late ‘60s, Robbie studied Indian music at the Ali Akbar Khan school near San Francisco. There, he met a fellow student named Henry Mindlin. Mindlin was a devotee of the Indian spiritual master Meher Baba and a member of a group called Sufism Reoriented, which had been chartered by Baba. That group’s Murshida (or Teacher), Ivy Duce, became a mentor—indeed, almost a kind of mother—to Robbie.
Murshida Duce helped him get over some lingering effects of his youthful drug experimentation, and this gave a big boost to his music. His albums began to reflect the deep mysticism of Meher Baba and Sufism in a universal way.
Robbie believed that the same Spirit comes through each of the world’s traditions in a unique manner. Thus, he spoke of “periods” that his work went through: “my Japanese period,” “my Hindu period,” “my Persian period,” “my American Indian period.”
A tapestry of voices
In Voice of the Eagle, filmmaker Liam Barker interviews Robbie’s college friends, record producers, family members, Sufi and other Meher Baba companions, and work assistants.
Peter Townshend, singer, songwriter and guitarist of The Who and a longtime Meher Baba devotee, is on-screen quite a bit and is very appreciative of Basho’s music. Country Joe MacDonald of the band Country Joe and the Fish, who knew Robbie during a period when they played some of the same venues, also reminisces; as does William Ackerman, a guitarist and the founder of Windham Hill Records, which put out two of Robbie’s albums.
The tapestry of voices in the film creates a fascinating collage that yields an inkling of just who this “enigma”—the deep and gifted being named Robbie Basho—might really be. Revealing even more, perhaps, are the scenes of Robbie actually playing his guitar, and of his voice and music behind magnificent Nature footage, all of which Liam Barker shot himself: mountains, oceans, forests, great rocks and hawks or falcons soaring in vast skies.
Voice of the Eagle left the viewers in the Roxie Theater deeply moved. The applause after the showing ended was lengthy and heartfelt, and during the question-and-answer session that followed, several people prefaced their queries with hearty congratulations.
Listen to Robbie Basho’s 1978 song, “Blue Crystal Fire” from his album Visions of the Country, here:
images 1, 3, 4: Used with kind permission of Steffen Basho-Junghans and the Robbie Basho Archives; image 2: Max Reif; image 5: Image of Meher Baba and Murshida Ivy Duce used with kind permission of Sufism Reoriented; image 6: Max Reif