The sonic dream life of global voyagers

by Sara Harris

With the recent release of their second CD, the Tokyo-based world-music trio Tatopani sums up two years of experimentation and growth. Following their 1998 release, “Forbidden Fruit,” members Robert Belgrade, Andy Bevan and Christopher Hardy brought their eclectic brand of music to audiences around the country and have now documented that period in “Themes From Dreams.”

It was a productive, adventuresome time, and the recording, which features guest artists and new instrumentation, showcases their potential for exploration.

Tatopani’s sound draws on a variety of musical traditions and instruments, while updating them, often layering in a jazz motif. Their music crosses both national borders and time periods, combining, for example, an 800-year-old European tune with Asian-inspired vocal harmonics or percussion in the African tradition. They build a sound that is not easily defined.

“Where do you put us? It’s a problem,” admitted Belgrade in a recent conversation with the group. He brings to the creative mix years of training in jazz saxophone and classical Indian music, specifically the tabla.

Bevan specializes in wind instruments — including the didgeridoo from his native Australia, flutes from around the world and the saxophone — and also sings harmony and plays keyboards.

The group’s encyclopedic percussion element is handled by Hardy, who favors hand-held frame drums but is likely to have his fingers on any number of instruments — from the boxlike Latin cajon to a Middle Eastern tambourine known as the riq — over the course of a single piece.

Not surprisingly, each of the three has traveled extensively, absorbing musical ideas while playing in northern Africa, Southeast Asia and elsewhere. In fact, the trio takes its name from a village in Nepal.

“Themes From Dreams” especially highlights the pleasure the members get from collaborating with other artists. It features both the fluid finger work of Yuji Tsunemi on the oud, a Middle Eastern string instrument considered to be the ancestor of the European lute and Japanese biwa, and Shoko Araya’s nimble marimba work on the lighthearted “African Christmas.”

The title track sets the tone for the entire album. It is a somnolent odyssey that begins at a languorous pace then jumps midway to an enticing flight of fantasy.

In “Mukkuri,” Hardy plays a traditional Ainu jaw harp of the same name to which Bevan adds a cyclical flute melody. When Belgrade joins with vocal accompaniment, the tune takes on the character of a lullaby.

Several of the songs are composed by individual members, but a larger number are collaborations that began as sketches rather than compositions. “Bantarang,” for example, is defined only by the instruments on which it is played; there is no set melody. This gives the group the flexibility to change the feeling of the pieces, and Tatopani has given them a dreamlike quality here.

The songs may recall north African festivals, Renaissance dances or chanting monks, but interpretations are purposely left up to the listener. According to Hardy, Tatopani’s sound may be thicker than other trios, but there’s still plenty of room for listeners to imagine.

“In [listeners'] minds they’re playing along with it. It’s complete because it allows listeners to dig in and find their own space,” he said.

The members of Tatopani say their sound has developed through a combination of intense periods of focus and liberal amounts of down time. While the trio may put in 12-hour days with few breaks when recording or gearing up for a performance, they also spend plenty of time together outside the studio, which allows them to establish a solid rapport, off and onstage.

All three are involved in other musical groups and projects, with many different characters. “It’s a real focus for us,” said Belgrade of Tatopani, but “the things that we do in this band carry over into other projects that we do.”

Having documented where they’ve been, they’re now looking to explore something new. The musicians hope to add a James Brown-inspired element of funk in their future compositions. Upcoming performances will certainly include more collaborations, specifically, with vocalists and guest bass artists. One of the advantages of living in Tokyo, Belgrade notes, is there’s “no shortage of great people to play with.”