Pianist Garry Dial and vocalist Terre Roche want to know where you're from. In the city of New York, surrounded by so many people whose ancestors once crossed through Ellis Island, or who have themselves only recently come to call this country home, Dial and Roche are curious to find the connection between musical and a global identity.
"We've had some really interesting experiences with it," Roche says with a laugh. "At first people kind of look at you, like, is this some kind of a scam? But then it's kind of cool."
Once they know where a person comes from, they sing their own version of that country's national anthem. It's a surprising thing for most people to hear these two New Yorkers break out accurate renditions of iconic songs from across the world. Frequently these are songs that individuals might not even know the words to, but still remember in some form from family or school. For Dial and Roche, these chance encounters are just another opportunity to entertain an audience in a unique, personal way.
Their encyclopedic knowledge of anthems is the result of US An'Them
(Independent, 2008), a project which Roche first began researching in 1991. The album features sixteen new arrangements of anthems from across the world, played by an enormous cast of musicians. As the project grew over seventeen years, more opinions entered the mix to create a statement about the many connotations these songs have.
"As we tried to pin it downis this about immigration, is this about nationalism, is this about who cares about the national anthem," Dial says. "It became much more about, well, how do we pin down a concept here? It became more and more global."
The project began when Terre, who sings with sisters Maggie and Suzzie in The Roches, was touring for the group's Christmas album. When she observed the reaction of audiences to these new arrangements of popular carols, she wondered how Americans, with their rich immigrant pasts, would react to fresh versions of anthems from their old and new worlds.
The other Roches didn't go for the idea, but Terre started photocopying charts at the New York Public Library anyway. She then found a kindred spirit in Dial, a pianist who was giving her lessons at the time, and who worked with trumpeter Red Rodney and saxophonist Dick Oatts.
"He would come over to my apartment, sit down at the piano, and play through them," Roche says. "Next thing you know we just started singing them ourselves."
After arranging several songs, Dial and Roche pitched the idea to record companies. The general response was that it was an interesting idea, but interesting ideas didn't make great albums. Then executive producer Bob Justich came on board, after hearing the Irish anthem at a New York Club. He also began to film the making of the project for a DVD, included with the album, and his support allowed them to fill the arrangements with a variety of names from across the city.
"We started meeting all these musicians from different countries who all lived in New York," Roche says.
Singers such as Barbara Mendes, Susan McKeown, and Sidiki Conde sang the anthems of Brazil, Ireland and Guinea respectively. A number of the best instrumentalists in the New York scene were also brought in, including tabla maestro Samir Chaterjee and Dial's longtime collaborator, Dick Oatts. But as more people came in with different takes on the anthems' meanings, the project started to face controversies.
Terre Roche and Garry Dial
Due to the legacy of World War II, the singer for the Austrian anthem felt that singing the lyrics in German would be too personal. At a performance of the Tibetan anthem in Carnegie Hall, a debate arose over whether the audience should be expected to stand. And while the recording of Israel's anthem went fine, the Orthodox Jewish singer objected to the fact that the lyrics contain no reference to God.
"We started thinking about who was going to be offended," Dial says of the decision- making process. "What takes priority? There are grooves, male-female singers, races, continents. So we basically came up with a combination of all those elements."
The new faces also meant more time in the studio trying to communicate across a variety of musical backgrounds. At times, Dial was bringing a full string section into the studio to work with folk vocalists. On the same day, he could move from the anthem of Guinea, which is learned entirely by ear, to the rigorously notated tabla music of India.
"If you have them all in the same room, you're speaking four languages at the same time," he says.
When all the tracks had finally been recorded, the vast diversity of the project shined through. Each song features its own distinct style, from opera to bossa nova. The result is a cornucopia of sounds, which appropriately represents a world full of sounds, but makes it difficult to establish the continuity of a traditional album.
"Before the music business all changed five years ago, every time I made an album I tried to make it into one piece," Dial says. "It seems not to matter anymore, because when people go on iTunes they only buy one track. So I'm not sure if this album matters as much for the sequencing, but we still tried to make it matter."
Now with the album done, Dial and Roche keep finding new chances to break out anthems. It's a way for them to speak a common language with people they've never met before. And for the musicians they met as a result of these sessions, the anthems were a way to communicate on both personal and professional levels.
"Some people didn't know them, some people were very reverent about their anthem," Roche says. "But people really said to us, thanks for asking me to do this."