It’s the first Sunday in December and the Betterday Coffee Shop in Santa Fe is packed its entire length. At the far end, a crowd –some sitting on the floor, some standing — faces a small bandstand where two men perch among a thicket of instruments. The heads of some of those standing in the audience come no higher than the heads of those sitting. Little ones are fidgeting in adult laps. The two-man band Round Mountain is doing their annual family show and the pre-school set is getting edgy.
Suddenly, Char Rothschild, who earlier had taken a trumpet solo while accompanying himself on accordion, pulls out the gaida, a sort of Bulgarian bagpipe made from a goat skin. The whine of the instrument turns the heads of the distracted. Some of them clap with glee as Char’s cheeks puff. His brother, Robby Rothschild, introduces the next song and asks for clapping but not in the usual sense. It’s a uniquely timed clap he wants, something he calls the Ali Farka Toure clap, named for the Malian guitarist. One graying gentleman can’t seem to get it right. No problem. A young lady wearing a denim jumper who can’t be more than four-years old, her hair pulled back in a tight knot, cues him perfectly.
Family concerts come naturally to Round Mountain. The Rothschilds have been playing together in bands for over two decades and their musical connection goes back to childhood. In a phone call after the Betterday appearance, Robby explained the significance of the duo’s name and its ties to the brothers’ shared experience. “Our parents used to drive us up to the Jack’s Creek campground in [New Mexico’s] Pecos Wilderness and we’d hike up to the threshold of the high country there on Round Mountain, have lunch in the big grassy meadows. It’s a very peaceful place and, for kids, has a magical quality. Mom and dad would lie down after lunch and we’d go explore and find bones and stuff. The whole experience had a kind of resonance for us. Later as we started making this music, [Round Mountain] seemed the perfect shrine, a metaphor for the kind of musical exploration we do.”
“As children, we were lucky to have parents who were interested in music and encouraged us,” said Char. “[The idea] of family really has a full connection for us. It’s our way of being. Now we have children of our own, we’re fathers and we have our own set of experiences when we write music. The family has really helped me understand who I am, both in the sense of the nuclear family and how I relate to rest of the world. That’s where our interest comes in the different traditions from around the world, musically, of course, and in a larger sense, how we’re connected and what effect [those traditions] have on us.”
The influence of world-wide musical traditions on Round Mountain is apparent just by seeing the brothers on the bandstand. It’s cluttered with various percussion instruments, including a hi-hat cymbal and djembe, the African pedestal drum. A trumpet stands at upside-down attention on a stand and there’s an accordion at the ready on the floor. Various string instruments – guitar, bouzouki, kora — cluster around. Somewhere nearby is the small gaida or a full-blown set of bagpipes. The brothers attribute their pan-global approach to music to a combination of local Santa Fe musical influences and their travels around the world. “There was a great moment in our history,” explained Robby, “where we met up in Ireland after all of our travels. My wife and I had gone to Mali to do some study. Char was traveling around the Balkans and the Middle East. He had left with this backpacker guitar and when we next saw him he had been transformed. He was traveling with [a Turkish string instrument] the saz and had this cool haircut that he’d gotten in Turkey. In a way it was a very symbolic meeting. We’d been doing this traveling, and we thought let’s do this musically now, let’s do this form of musical travel.”
Describing the brothers’ music isn’t as easy as calling it world-beat or placing it in some all-embracing instrumental category. Its roots are in American folk and its beats can reflect American pop and funk as well as more exotic rhythms. Robby claims a Muppet drum set given to him at age four as his first instrument. Char took up trumpet in the fifth grade and studied it through college. Both took piano lessons from a grandmother who often served as an accompanist around town. The brothers participated in African drumming dance classes and busked together around the old Farmers Market site. Robby spent time as a percussionist with rock guitarist Kip Winger – he’s heard on Winger’s 1998 Down Incognito recording — and both toured Australia with American–born, Afro-pop star Chris Berry and his band Panjea. Locally, they’ve appeared with the soul band Reverend Carol King Kong and bluesman Robert Pete Williams. Char gained valuable professional experience and acquired the ability – through need – of playing more than one instrument simultaneously while in Tokyo backing the Dream Angels Circus in 1997. “I’d play the trumpet and get a horn section sound from the keyboard,” he said. “Later, I realized accordion would be the perfect instrument to play with trumpet because the left hand can do the bass and chords while the other hand plays the horn.”
Char says that their mix of musical influences has both advantages and disadvantages. Their interests have bounced from Appalachian and old-time music to Turkish and Bulgarian traditions, and their studies of these influences has often overlapped. “Being from a different culture and being interested in many styles means I haven’t been able to travel as far into any one style as I might like,” says Char. “Not knowing these traditions completely, I have to take [the music] to a deeper level where I can try to understand the dialect of what’s being said in [a particular culture’s] music. By doing that, I can work those different musical directions together in our own music.”
Writing music is mostly a collaborative process for the brothers. “I do have an easier time writing words than I do melodies,” admitted Robby, who’s something of a poet, even when speaking. “But it’s great working with Char, I’m constantly learning something from him. He holds the flaming torch as we enter the dark mineshaft of music and I follow him. We’ve spent hours together in our truck, writing words, sitting with a song and getting it closer and closer.” Added Char, “There’s no real formula as to how we do things. We each have totally different styles of writings. I have tons of fragments, tons of ideas, kicking around. One will come to the forefront and we’ll hammer a song out of it. Sometimes I’ll finish it myself, especially if it’s something I feel super connected to. Other times it’s calling out for some help from Robby.“
Landscapes are a big source of inspiration for the two. ”When we’re touring and driving for seven hours, the highway and the land can move us, reveal something of its spirit that suggests a song or helps finish one. When we were in Australia, we learned the Aborigines sang the songs of their ancestors and the music served as maps. They believed the land was created by these ancient songs as their ancestors sang them. We’ve thought about arranging some kind of song lines about our travels like that. We have West Coast songs and East Coast songs and a Colorado song line, all different. It’s amazing how much of a place can fall into the music when you’re writing.”
The brothers are working on a new recording – their fourth – tentatively set for release next summer. It’s working title is The Goat. Robby revealed that part of the title’s inspiration comes from the fact that he and his wife keep a pair of Nigerian dwarf goats at home. Could he be thinking of making new bags for brother Char’s gaida? “No,” he laughed. “They’re just for milk and making cheese.” —CabbageRabbit (portrait by James Stowe)