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Artist Profiles

Susie Ibarra

By Published: August 9, 2008

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. —Susie Ibarra

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.

On the solo work Drum Sketches (Innova, 2007), natural sounds such as crowd and animal noises are wonderfully integrated into the soundscape. Ibarra reflected on her use of the environment: "I have an affinity for it. They are real sounds. I have peepers on there, those are frogs. I love them, they blend in. 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. They are not all narratives, I like abstract form too, but I like that cinematic element in music so often I bring that in because I heard it and I needed it."

Ibarra recently returned from a three-month trip to the Philippines with Rodriguez where they did field work among the remaining indigenous tribal cultures. As Ibarra recalled, "I was on a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council to research indigenous and folkloric music for two projects. One is a collaborative project with Roberto, a music film titled Song of the Bird King, which features many of the music groups in several of the islands. We are very excited about the film...and we feel we are racing with time. The elders are dying off and the youth are not taking it on. Bird King is told in two narratives... Some of the music will die off because of it not being passed on and the national bird, the Philippine eagle, is also endangered due to overabundant and illegal logging. Song of the Bird King is a parable of cultural and social awareness. The second project is a musical that poet Yusef Komunyakaa and I are developing that revolves around the American/Philippine war and pre-American colonial times when African-American soldiers were sent over to fight and they defected."

Ibarra's work crosses musical, artistic and diverse cultural boundaries; this coupled with her high degree of comfort in the international arena, augers that her impact on the direction of jazz and art in general will continue to increase in the coming years. As international artistic boundaries continue to blur, artists like Susie Ibarra will begin to occupy more of a position in defining the mainstream. If one believes that we are in an age of globalization and technology, then Ibarra is an artist for this new millennium. Her vision is one of egalitarianism, but an egalitarianism that preserves heritage and culture. As such, in a world that is plagued by violence and political unrest, she and her contemporaries are bright spots for the future.

Recommended Listening:

Susie Ibarra, Drum Sketches (Innova, 2007)

Electric Kulintang, Dialects (Plastic, 2006)

Susie Ibarra, Folkloriko (Tzadik, 2004)

David S. Ware, Wisdom of Uncertainty (AUM Fidelity, 1996)

Susie Ibarra/Denis Charles, Drum Talk (Wobbly Rail, 1998)

William Parker/In Order to Survive, Peach Orchard (AUM Fidelity, 1997-98)


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