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World Beat Is Not Enough

Baltimore’s Telesma digs into the elusive vibes of indigenous Music

Jefferson Jackson Steele
TILT-A-W0RLD: (From Left) Bryan Jones, Jason Sage, Joanne Juskus, Chris Mandra, Moziah Saleem, Ian Hesford merge their ethnomusicalogical and spiritual interests as Telesma.

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Before a Dec. 17 show at Fletcher’s, the seven members of Baltimore’s Telesma gathered together in the fragrantly smoky dressing room and held hands for a few minutes in a pre-concert ritual. Humming a meditative “Om” with eyes closed, they balanced themselves and internalized a few harmonies. Guitarist Chris Mandra insists that this pre-concert “toning” always makes for better shows, and sometimes even their sound man, Adam Halliday, joins in.

Each member of Telesma has a personality suited to this New Age ethos. Multi-instrumentalist Jason Sage came to Baltimore from New Orleans, where he spent a few years playing drums for Haitian voodoo fertility rituals. Percussionist Moziah Saleem, who has backup jobs for Neil Young, Leon Russell, and Victor Wooten on his résumé, spent a year and a half in Jamaica in the mid-’90s, because he “just wanted to go somewhere where everything was irie.” Vocalist Joanne Juskus wears a traditional Indian sari, and the rest of the band is wearing the sorts of facial expressions that come at the end of a really great t’ai chi session. Words like “balance” and “grounded” and “purity” pepper their conversation.

Once onstage, the septet shakes off all the spiritual sedation and rips into a fast jam called “Amor Fati” from its recently self-released live CD-R, Synesthesia. Juskus’ voice rises to spicy degrees above the rhythm section’s harmonies. Band members’ faces twist and heads bob as they stir up clattering tribal polyrhythms, rolling bass lines, and furiously built climaxes spiked with spacey synths, samples, and electric guitar. Belly dancers wriggle through the crowd, enticing others to join them.

Telesma’s core—Chris Mandra, Ian Hesford, and Jason Sage—first got together more than a year ago at the Def Dumb and Bass Freakout, a monthly gathering of bands that Mandra hosts at the Royal in Federal Hill. Since then, Telesma expanded into a septet, and its sound has grown more lush and complex. “The whole original idea behind Telesma is this bringing the primordial and futuristic together,” Hesford says. “And coming full circle with the sounds of our collective human tribal past.”

Hesford says this idea came to him when he was learning how to play didgeridoo in the mid-’90s. The sounds that came from the instrument “reminded me so much of the techno music at the time that I found so exciting,” he says. He practiced along with techno records by Sasha and Digweed, Amon Tobin, and Rabbit in the Moon, and he says his instrument’s ancient tones fit right in with the futurism of the pulsating trance.

Telesma’s goal—the musical fusion of the ancient past with the futuristic present—throws open a whole hatbox of questions. Which ancient past, specifically, is Hesford talking about? And how is it channeled? Moreover, is Telesma just another cheesy hippie band that sprouted from that Outdoors Club drum circle that used to practice on the village green?

At first glance, maybe, but Hesford dispels any such notion with his disarming sincerity. “I believe in the collective unconscious,” he says without a trace of disingenuousness. “It’s been borne out through genetics that the human species can quite likely be traced back to a single Eve, and there are a lot of striking similarities between indigenous musics. It is also my personal belief that civilization and intelligence in the human species is much older than we think it is.”

It is Telesma’s belief in and acceptance of this collective-human tribal past that allows the band to so passionately mix Hesford’s didgeridoo droning and the twang from his Filipino bamboo mouth harp (called a kubing) with furious funk beats from drummer Mike Kirby and Bootsy Collins-style lines from bassist Bryan Jones, all without muddying the colors on their palette. The rhythm section is compounded but not weighed down by rhythms from Saleem’s African dumbek, from Sage’s Pakistani darbouka, and occasionally from Hesford’s Egyptian tabla drums. Over the top all of this, vocalist Juskus keens open-mouthed syllables in Middle Eastern modes, and Sage lays down spacey samples and synth weirdness, intertwined with Mandra’s jazzy solos and skipping rhythm chops.

The mess that comes out of Telesma’s scatterbrained jamming makes more sense than it would first appear, in the same way that Peter Gabriel’s first forays into world-music fusion made sense. It’s based on the idea that indigenous tribal cultures—from Aborigines to Masai tribesmen to Arabian emirs—can be forced into an intelligent dialogue that goes deeper than the fact that such musics can sound good when played together.

Dozens of acts, from David Byrne to Angelique Kidjo to Paul Simon, have treaded the same waters, but what sets Telesma apart is that the dialogue between its members’ disparate influences doesn’t feel forced. Their approach is based on a feeling, an optimistic hunch, that everyone in the world is somehow connected, and that we can all benefit from that connection. And with Telesma, going with hunches is standard marching orders.

“The motive behind making the music is to keep it pure in the sense that it is written by us and comes from us,” Hesford says. “I don’t play traditional Aboriginal rhythms in any of our songs, and we haven’t co-opted any real traditional Middle Eastern music. We are using the sounds, and perhaps emulating the feel of a certain tradition, but the music comes from our own spirits, so I feel we can really own it.”

And Telesma does own it; its music has an irresistible groove. “Telesma is unabashedly a dance band,” Mandra says. “The goal of modern civilization is to divorce man from nature, and dance is one of the few civilized means of expression where the animal is acceptable.”

As the Fletcher’s show progressed, more and more people in the audience loosened up and began to move. Telesma produces a wall of deep, pulsing sound that’s hard to tune out and, in fact, sucks you in. As drumbeats ricocheted off one another, Juskin’s singing seemed to pause in perfect glassy harmony with the guitar and bass, and the band built a tidal wave of intense equilibrium that recalled its preparation ritual. The harmonies that they chanted in their pre-concert toning were effortlessly manifested onstage, amplified and enriched, mingling with the wild energy of the dancers in the audience.

“[Toning] allows us, in a weird way, to control time and position,” Mandra says. “It makes us freer, not as uptight. We perform best when we are expressing ourselves most freely, most purely. No one is trying to be spiritual. They’re being spiritual.”

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