The Elemental Kingdom
Leave the ego behind and the music will follow with the Yahowa 13
Many paths lead to spontaneous/improvised music. Only a few involve meat products. "He created an image--'Imagine a salami dancing,'" says Djin Aquarian, guitarist for the Yahowa 13, talking about how his spiritual/musical leader helped him shed his ego and embrace playing music without the proverbial net. "Another thing he said was, 'Let's go on a journey through an elemental kingdom.' And then he'd look at me. But that's how it was. We never made a plan."
For the past 30 years the music of the Yahowa 13--aka the Savage Sons of YaHoWa, aka Father Yod and the Spirit of '76--has entranced that segment of music heads who dig spaced-out excursions into psychedelic tapestries and krautrock tumults of infinite jams. Over nine albums recorded from 1973-'75, this outfit--sometimes a large ensemble, sometimes a core unit of guitars, drums, and bass with a kettle-drum playing vocalist--carved out a cosmic swath of exploratory sky. Guitar lines buzz and ripple. Percussion time moves from a steady tidal wash to frenetic momentum. And that voice--sometimes slightly buried in the mix--comes bellowing out with words of aphoristic genius such as "You are Jesus." These albums--released on the group's own HigherKey label--remained collectible rumors until 1999, when the Japanese label Captain Trip released a mammoth 13-CD box set of the group's entire then-available musical output, a doorstop of a cultural treasure whose title may never be outshone: God and Hair.
Immediately following an appreciation of the music's transporting vibe, though, typically comes the jaw-drop gasp of its backstory, involving a World War II veteran turned healthy-lifestyle guru in the 1960s, who became a spiritual leader of more than 100 followers in the 1970s before passing away following his first hang-gliding excursion in Hawaii in 1975. The man who was eventually called Yahowa--born James Baker, aka Father Yod (rhymes with "road"), more often than not referred to by Djin Aquarian simply as "Father"--started an organic, vegetarian restaurant called the Source on Sunset Boulevard in 1969; eventually, the young people who came to live and study with him became the Source Family, which splintered following Baker's death. Since then, the appearance of God and Hair exposed their sound and early 1970s lives to a new generation of brains, and fans have praised their music and story.
The rekindled interest in the Source Family eventually witnessed the 2007 publication of The Source: The Untold Story of Father Yod, YaHoWa 13, and the Source Family by two former Family members, Isis Aquarian and Electricity Aquarian. (In case it needs to be pointed out, Baker renamed the members of his extended family.) As part of the book's release, the music outfit rejoined for a string of reunion shows in Los Angeles.
"This whole thing has been a dovetailing of many different factors and it's almost like the spirit of the people bringing us two generations of fans that were born since we made all of our music," says Djin Aquarian by phone from his home in Mount Shasta, Calif. Cordial, unassuming, and extremely nice, Aquarian sounds excited to be talking about the band and Baker after all these years. "We were really surprised at all of the hullabaloo about us. We were pretty nervous. In a cosmic way, we knew it was all divinely ordained that all of this was happening, but on a personal level it was a little unnerving. We held it together, though. We were well-trained by Yahowa for spontaneous, out of the box, just anything can happen you're going to have to handle it kind of situations."
Aquarian, though, didn't start out playing that way. He entered the Family in the early '70s a more folk-oriented, solo acoustic guitar player. Playing plugged in with a propulsive unit never even entered his mind. "I didn't really feel comfortable playing electric music with a band," he says. "I didn't feel any of the styles that were popular in the world--the blues and the rock 'n' roll--I didn't feel that was my way of playing. I didn't do free-form music before the family. It was born in the family."
And to Aquarian, it was directly the result of Baker wanting to jam with the Family's modest band. "When Father jumped into the band, it was because he wanted to see what we all could come up with," he says. "Probably everybody was more or less tongue in cheek laughing--like, OK father, you want to jump in the band and jam with us? We love you so much just feel free to do it. We weren't even thinking in terms of it going toward anything we would present to the world. We just thought it was some kind of in-house group therapy or something."
Soon, though, Baker was pushing the group to free itself from rehearsed songs and preconceived ideas and just, well, play. "And after the Savage Sons of YaHoWa album, which is a bunch of songs, and All or Nothing at All, which is a bunch of songs, he said, 'Enough of this song stuff--it's too egotistical,'" Djin says. "'There's too much arguing and fighting with everybody, debating about who should do what and what it should sound like and the mixes.' He said, 'This is obviously not the route that we need to take.'"
What followed were the beginnings of what would become the Yahowa 13's signature sound. Albums such as Contraction and Expansion feature expansive, meditative morasses of atonal sounds and an almost childlike wonder with noise. By this time in the Source Family's L.A. existence, Djin Aquarian says that Baker was focused on the band as much as the restaurant and committed more than 60 albums worth of music to tape, all of which was lost over the years.
By 1973, the Source Family musical beast was a self-contained experimental unit trying out whatever felt right that day. And for one recording, Penetration: An Aquarian Symphony, the group stripped itself down to a quartet of guitarist Djin Aquarian, drummer Octavius Aquarian, and bassist Sunflower Aquarian with Baker on kettle drum and vocals. "We just wanted to simplify," Djin Aquarian says. "We began to think that this whole music thing is a way of getting us all to spiritualize ourselves and confront our egos and deal with all the trivia that comes around . . . it became a really great platform for him to dredge out of us all the personality that we had in us and blast it, basically, with spiritual insights and light."
The hypnotic Penetration has become the band's most revered aural slab, and it's the "Penetration sound" that the current version of Yahowa 13--Djin, Octavius, and Sunflower--tries to channel on 2008's Sonic Portation (Prophase) and the band's current East Coast tour. Yahowa 13 lacks the rawness and off-kilter energy of its '70s incarnation, more than likely owning to its members' more mature musical skill, but what it may lack in anarchic energy it makes up for in a lush, gorgeous sense of space and vibe. Yahowa 13 is still head music, merely coming from men whose heads are grayer than they were in the 1970s.
Not that they've changed how they create the music one bit. "We just get up there and know that we can come up with something," Djin Aquarian says. "We don't know what it's going to be. We channel the energies of the moment and of the audience and of the location and how we feel and how our equipment's working. It's a whole new experience each time." ?
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