“ I like to create cinematic content; sonically I like to have that kind of element in the music as in a way it is a sonic narrative. ”
Percussionist Susie Ibarra is an artist whose compendium of work is defined by an exquisitely global essence. It includes a profound respect for indigenous people and their music, coupled with a cutting edge sense of the avant-garde. Her works are not a distillation or homogenization of various cultures but a celebration and appreciation of diversity. Ibarra has been refreshing both in her ability to integrate and groundbreaking in her use of ancient instrumentation and form within the most postmodern of platforms.
As a percussionist and composer, Ibarra is at the forefront of the young group of musicians that continue to nourish NYC's fertile creative music scene. She is much in demand by its leaders and has regularly lent her skill to sessions by saxophonists John Zorn, Assif Tsahar and David S. Ware, pianist Matthew Shipp, guitarist Derek Bailey and bassist William Parker. She is a jazz drummer but also a kulintang master, a musical style that is built around a series of eight differently pitched bowl-shaped gongs. Born in California, raised in Texas and of Filipino ancestry, Ibarra reflected on her move to jazz and first meeting with Parker: "I have sort of been into Filipino music since I was a child. As a percussionist I was naturally drawn to a lot of percussive based music and as a teenager I started playing Javanese and Balinese gamelan (an Indonesian musical grouping that can consist of percussive, string and wind instruments). I had a friend in the gamelan and she invited me to play with a kulintang group. I almost went at that time to Java to study gamelan... I was doing that as a teenager and that kind of stayed with me even though I was going into jazz and free jazz and improvised music and more experimental music. I had come out of playing in punk bands but the gong music stayed with me... I was a student in Mannes and after school I came to one of his (Parker's) rehearsals over on Avenue A, a Little Huey rehearsal. My ex-husband (Assif Tsahar) was a saxophonist and he said to me why don't you come to this rehearsal and I came in and I then began rehearsing with him on Mondays after school."
Following her work as a sideperson, Ibarra emerged as an innovative leader, defining a new elegant approach to jazz and creative music. Her many releases on Tzadik, most notably her trio recordings, show a demand for impeccable musicianship within inventive formats. As Ibarra explained, "I first had the idea that I wanted to blend a jazz trio and a classical trio together. Instead of piano, bass, drum or piano violin, cello I kind of mixed it and my first trio (Radiance, Hopscotch) was with (violinist) Charles Burnham and (pianist) Cooper-Moore. It dealt more with avant jazz and I was getting more into writing. Then I met (violinist) Jennifer Choi through John Zorn and I had met (pianist) Craig Taborn and invited him to play. Great musicians, great musicianship and wonderful people. I wrote the pieces, but also with the idea to have them improvise and play and I feel very fortunate in that it was just a great musical experience." The result can be heard on the classically driven Songbird Suite (Tzadik, 2002).
A trained painter, it is not surprising that Ibarra, who artfully uses her music to blend genres, has successfully ventured into cross-media pollination. Easily working with art, poetry and music she engenders holistic experiences beautifully represented by her "Lakbay" suite, a reflection on the experience of Filipino field workers. Found on Folkloriko (Tzadik, 2004), the work was a soundtrack commissioned for a photographic exhibition at the Smithsonian's Freer Gallery by Ricardo Alvarado that poignantly portrayed post WWII Filipino farm workers and their assimilation into American culture.
While some musicians may define a very narrow aspect of a specific musical form and excel, Ibarra brings her own unique abilities to a number of genres. While she utilizes a deep understanding of her Filipino heritage and its traditional music in many of her recent works, she does this in decidedly non-traditional ways. Her Electric Kulintang, in collaboration with Latin percussionist and husband Roberto Rodriguez, creates a new genre from the confluence of traditional Filipino music, Latin rhythms, electronics and dance that Ibarra terms "Filipino Triphop." Aptly titled Dialects (Plastic Records), the recording is testimony to how an artist can remain true to the essence of their heritage while introducing it into a new context.