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The East/West Fusion Sounds Of Macha

Since its formation in 1996, the band Macha has become known for juxtaposing rock with non-Western sounds, particularly those of Indonesia. "I've had this interest in non-Western music for my whole life, because I just have listened to it more than rock music for decades now," said songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Joshua McKay, who co-founded Macha in Athens, Georgia with his brother, percussionist Mischo McKay. "It's in me.  It's very natural.  I know the stuff by heart.  And when I'm writing I let it come in."

Josh McKay feels that Macha serve almost as ambassadors, introducing people to unfamiliar cultures and sounds.  "To a large degree, people have pigeonholed music from other cultures as arcane or esoteric," he said during a recent phone interview.  "But all it takes is to get exposed to it for a little while, and you can't help but be affected by the depth and the feeling in it."

Macha's first, self-titled album came out in 1998, shortly after McKay returned from a six-month long motorbike trip through Indonesia, where he sought out the traditional music of Java, Bali and Sumatra.  See It Another Way, a mind-altering blend of droning psyche rock and Indonesian gamelan, followed the next year.  In 2000, Macha recorded the EP Macha Loved Bedhead, a tribute to the Texas-based indie band fronted by Matt and Bubba Kadane, with whom the McKay brothers had grown up in Texas.  (Josh McKay has also toured with the Kadane brothers' current band, the New Year, and played keyboard and guitar at their recent SXSW show.)

Now with the release of the band's third album, Macha continue to challenge their listening base, incorporating not just electric guitar, vibraphone, hammer dulcimer and Javanese zither, but also elements of synthy new-wave and late '60s soul into the mix. Forget Tomorrow, out on Jetset in August, is a significant departure for the Athens-based band, offering not just tranced-out, world-influenced cuts like "Paper Tiger," but also the dark, New Order-ish "No Surprise Party" and effervescent dance tracks like "(Do the) Inevitable."  

A few of the best tracks — "C'mon C'mon Oblivion" and "Forget Tomorrow" — blithely check the "all of the above" box, blending a range of styles, sounds and instruments successfully. "I've always been big on contrasts," McKay said.  "In all my records, I've put things in that are 180 degrees away from what seems appropriate, and then wondered if it's a disservice to what's already going on.  So using Kraftwerk dance beats with non-Western instruments ...it just has this perverse appeal."

In fact, if you wanted to trace the evolution of Macha, from its indie-gamelan origins right up to the hedonistically rhythmic, disco-influenced Forget Tomorrow, you could do worse than to consider the title track, which will be the first single.

"I wrote that song ["Forget Tomorrow"] on a Javanese zither, all the way back in January of 1998, just after my second trip to Indonesia," explained McKay, then as now an avid traveler and collector of musical instruments.  He adds that the zither he used was about three feet long, shaped like a small coffin, with 16 sets of double strings and four single bass strings.  "You play it like it's a phallus — it's coming out of the middle of your groin," he said.  "You're sitting down on the ground and it's extending out from your groin, and you play it with your thumb nail, so you're just working a counterpoint between two thumbs.  It gives rise to the kind of rhythms that the kalimba or thumb piano has, that kind of rolling rhythm. Basically right-hand/left-hand polyrhythm."

The track was originally a very simple folk song, McKay explains, and it sat in storage for a long time.  With studio time for the third Macha album on the calendar, however, he dug the tune out and started working with it.  "I started  putting all my standard Macha-isms in it, the drums and bass and rhythms, and it was sounding like quintessential Macha.  It could have been on any of the albums.  It was like that right up until going into the studio," he remembered.  "Then I was just like...I don't want to repeat, you know. And I had wanted to Frankenstein-ize one of my songs into a disco song for years."  

So on went the glitchy electronics, the drum machines, the Studio 54 glow, right on top of the shimmer of an obscure and unusual Javanese instrument.  The result is pure Macha, full of layers and contradictions, yet far more playful than earlier work.

McKay says that the new direction in his work came out of a few side projects he's been involved in since the last Macha album, including an R&B band called Tenderness (his brother Mischo plays with him) and a cover band playing the songs of ESG, the Bronx-based no-wave punk band.  "Everybody has started dancing again in Athens, and I've been really enjoying going to these house parties where everybody is dancing," he said.  Playing in two groove-oriented bands has been liberating, he adds, and a direct influence on Forget Tomorrow.

"The style we've been doing [with Tenderness] is late-'60s —  sort of the Motown, Al Green, Otis Redding, James Brown side of things, and pretty old-school," he explained.  "We've just been doing it with drums, electric piano and sax.  So it's ultra minimal and really melodic. It's kind of an about-face, because we've been doing this ponderous stuff."

McKay says he continues to explore unfamiliar music.  In 2000, he traveled to Bulgaria with ex-Neutral Milk Hotel songwriter Jeff Magnum to a folk festival, where he hoped to record local music and collaborate on his own songs with Bulgarian musicians.  Why Bulgaria? "Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman empire for 500 years, so they've got this Eastern European culture that has also absorbed large amounts of Middle Eastern and Turkish influence," he said.  "So there's this kind of fusion of things there, harmonically, that just go to a place that no other music can do.  

"And, let's see, for years I've been hearing that stuff and I have a huge, obsessive collection of it," he continued.  "And this festival kind of acted as the Wonka ticket, an opportunity to completely immerse yourself."

Magnum left after the festival, but McKay stayed on, hooking up with a group of musicians, living and traveling like the natives and recording the strange and compelling music of Bulgaria on DAT. Unfortunately about half of the DAT tapes got destroyed before McKay returned, and he was unable to create the record he had envisioned. Disappointed, he started working on a side project, the minimal and atmospheric Seaworthy whose 2001 Ride featured the voice of Japanese experimentalist Haco.  

During the week I spoke to McKay, the release date for Forget Tomorrow had been pushed back from June to August, scuttling plans for a summer tour and throwing his schedule into some confusion.  Now, he's piecing together a band for a probable fall tour, and looking forward to recording an upcoming album for Tenderness.   Further out, he'd like to take music-gathering trips to Nepal, South Korea and Africa, and possibly return to both Eastern Europe and Indonesia.

Yet the political climate makes such ambitions dangerous.  Given the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Indonesia, he said, "I'm the enemy now in a place where I did not have one brush with one unfriendly person in months.  The people are so welcoming, so connected, so friendly and just this political religious conflict in the air, that could put my life at risk just being there."  

And at the same time, traditional music in so many countries is under threat and fast disappearing.  For instance, McKay said, "The musical vocalizations in Iraq are some of the most beautiful examples of female singing you'll ever hear.  Their techniques and stylization and the way they sing there ... but the women are not allowed to sing there.  They have to leave the country and do it in Paris and New York and luckily some of them are able to, but it's just crazy." — Jenny Kelly [Monday, May 10, 2004]

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