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Stephen Kent: Cross-Cultural Music with Ancient Roots

September 14, 2018

When world multi-instrumentalist and composer Stephen Kent was an infant growing up in Uganda, his parents told him that every full moon, there were three full days and nights of nonstop drumming and dancing just across the way from where they lived. Although Kent was too young to actually remember it, he is certain that the deep, rootsy tones and rhythms flowed through him. “Music is incredibly powerful — it’s like water,” says Kent. “It goes everywhere, and it seeps into all the cracks and the consciousness of a listener, even if their eye is taken with something else.”

Kent’s main instrument is the didgeridoo. Originally played exclusively by indigenous Australians, but now more in the mainstream, he was one of the earliest pioneers to bring it into western music, and fuse it with music from many other cultures. “It’s only as I’ve evolved as a didgeridoo player in the world that I’ve recognized how much my African background really planted a seed which has grown within me throughout my life,” Kent told me, in a recent chat at a local cafe that revealed a life that seemed destined from birth to take an unusual musical path.

His diverse and border-crossing world fusion bands have included Trance Mission, Beasts of Paradise, Australian Bebop Ragas, and his latest, Baraka Moon, which plays ecstatic Sufi, Indian classical, and Hindi music, a group that Kent describes as “an out-and-out good time dance band, with a strongly spiritual foundation.” He will be performing in various cross-cultural configurations on Friday, Sept. 21 at Old First Church in San Francisco as Winds of Change, with Cornelius Boots on shakuhachi, a traditional Japanese bamboo flute, and longtime collaborator Beth Custer on clarinets, on Saturday, Sept. 22 as the Trance Mission duo with Beth Custer at Wu Wei Tea Temple in Fairfax, and as part of Sound Temple with Jeffrey Alphonsus Mooney (on various instruments) at The Temple on Pleasant Hill in Sebastopol on Sept. 23.

Since arriving in the Bay Area in 1991, Kent has been a prominent influence on and contributor to the world fusion music scene. Many also know him as the host of the KPFA radio show, Music of the World, which showcases music from every corner of globe, along with Kent’s richly informative and descriptive banter. His multicultural collaborations have included work with Zakir Hussain, Airto Moreira, Omar Sosa, Habib Koite, and with the Del Sol String Quartet, recording and performing the premiere of Australian composer Peter Sculthorpe’s String Quartet No. 16, for string quartet and didgeridoo at the Other Minds festival in San Francisco.

Kent was born in the rural U.K. but moved to Uganda with his family when his father, an art instructor, got a university job that involved traveling around regional East Africa to bring culture and art from the local communities into the university program.

“From the beginning of my life I was connecting with indigenous people through my family, in the dying days of the British Empire when African countries were gaining their independence from the British,” says Kent. “My parents’ interest, and specifically my father’s, was to engage with indigenous people and their world, so that was the ambience that I grew up in.” They moved back to England when he was 7.

Raised by two artists who listened primarily to classical music, Kent originally took up the French horn, and played in local brass ensembles and orchestras. In his teens, in the post-punk era, he co-founded Furious Pig, a highly experimental band featuring complicated vocals and percussion that he toured with for several years.

Inspired by his work with Furious Pig, Circus Oz in Australia, an all-human (no-animal) troupe that was passionate about Aboriginal rights, asked Kent to become their music director and move their production musically into a “different kind of art zone,” which he did. And that’s where he learned about indigenous Australian culture and connected with the didgeridoo.

“I didn’t really understand much about aboriginal culture at all, and I had heard the didgeridoo on recordings, but found it very uninteresting,” says Kent. But when he heard it performed at a live concert through a PA, he realized what an extraordinary instrument it was and saw a much wider potential for it. But as he became more knowledgeable about the plight of the indigenous people, he also became passionate about helping to support and sustain their culture.

“I decided if I really wanted to learn the didgeridoo properly, that I needed to get permission for it — I needed to go into communities and get a sense of whether it was okay,” says Kent. So he went out into the bush, and was told that it was okay, as long as he maintained respect for their culture and did not play any of their ceremonial music.

So what does Kent find so engaging about the didgeridoo?

“The didgeridoo is essentially a one-note instrument,” says Kent. “But — and — within that one note, I hear a whole orchestra of possibilities.” Using a circular breathing technique, Kent says he can focus the air in such a way that it will form different frequencies and overtones, and also produce complex, percussive rhythms. Typically made from eucalyptus logs that have been hollowed out by termites, they each have a distinctive sound and an actual key.

“I feel like I am painting a picture in sound,” says Kent, explaining that he draws from all his musical influences, including classical, indigenous, jazz, punk, and rock ‘n’ roll, which all influence his unique sound. “I bring an ability to work with conventional forms of music to an unconventional instrument.”

Along with performing, teaching didgeridoo, and visiting schools to educate kids about the musicality of the didgeridoo and the culture that it came from, Kent is constantly involving himself in new projects. The latest one on the horizon is a project that will include Jewish, Christian and Muslim musicians — a sacred world dance party tour, designed with “the intention of bringing peace, love and tolerance in this time of great intolerance, great strife, and extreme oppositions.”

“I believe music is transformation,” says Kent. “And if you put yourself in it with the right spirit, then you can really change things.”

Lily O'Brien is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the performing arts. She has written feature articles and previews for a variety of publications including Downbeat, JazzTimes, Marin Arts & Culture, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal, and Strings magazine. She is a singer who has performed professionally in a variety of genres, and an avid world traveler and bicyclist.