Baha'i News -- East meets West Portsmouth, NH Friday, November 15, 2002

East meets West

By Jeanné McCartin

This is an East meets West tale – sort of. It’s about a rock musician who finds his place in world music and jazz, stakes his claim and leaves a real mark on his new territory. It all started when Randy Armstrong left Annie Oakley, and Ohio, to head east in search of music.
Randy Armstront
Courtesy photo

A West Virginia boy who grew up in Ohio, his search took him to New Hampshire nearly 30 years ago. Now a resident of Nottingham, he was initially lured east by the White Mountains, an area he’d spied while on tour with the rock band, Annie Oakley.

There’s been a lot of road traveled since he first planted himself here. Most of it was walked in search of a new musical frontier, one he and his many bands helped forge. With eight recordings and six or so bands to his credit, Armstrong’s latest venture, "No Regrets," is his first solo recording effort. On Saturday, Nov. 16, Armstrong will hold a release concert for "No Regrets," at Portsmouth’s South Church.

"The solo CD came out of years of requests for my solo guitar pieces that I would perform in concert," he explains.

A nine-month process, he created the compact disc on his own electronic equipment. Setting his own challenge, he created it sans "punch ins."

"I wanted it to be more organic. … I wanted to see if I could not use any electronic wizardry. … So if I didn’t play it right, I didn’t use it."

The recording, "No Regrets," is about as solo as you can get. Armstrong plays all the instruments on the album: guitar, sitar, mbira, West African drums and Lakota flute.

"It was actually challenging and fun to map all the pieces and compositions out and to perform all the instruments by myself," says Armstrong.

Working alone also allowed him the freedom to record at "the times I felt most inspired."

While that’s all fine and good during recording, it makes it a tad difficult to refabricate the sound live, which is what he’ll need to do during the Nov. 16 event, featuring The Randy Armstrong Trio.

The year-old group features Armstrong and his two longtime collaborators, percussionist Marty Quinn and bassist Volker Nahrmann. The evening of the concert, the group will include special guest percussionist Jose Duque, of Venezuela. Armstrong is in negotiations with Domo Records, a Los Angeles- and Tokyo- based company, regarding a 2003 international release of "No Regrets." But, there will be a limited pressing of the CD available for the concert, he says.

The trio he’s appearing with on Nov. 16 happens to be only one of three musical ventures with which he’s involved.

He’s also the Armstrong in groups Armstrong & Aichele and Armstrong and Nahrmann. The latter is a third-generation band of Do’ah, which was the first he was part of in New Hampshire, but was not his first band.

Armstrong discovered his life’s work at age 12. His parents divorced ("not a horrible experience, just deep"), his mother concluded he could use a little discipline in his life.

"She decided it would be great if I went to a Catholic military school. … I wasn’t even Catholic," he says with an amazed tone. "It was an amazing experience, learning about Catholicism and wearing a uniform. It was a major event. Very shaping. You’d think I’d hate it. But, I see what it did for me. It actually made me go deeper inside to see what I was.

"At 12 and 13 years old, I was being challenged all the time with beliefs."

The experience set both his musical and spiritual course in motion. Music was inspired by his two best friends. Their guitar studies prompted him to pick up the instrument.

"I knew inside, I loved playing this instrument."

Being enrolled in a religious military school set off his spiritual pursuit.

"It was quite an experience - intense," says Armstrong. "… It’s when I began to really become a seeker."

Shortly after returning home to attend public high school, he was asked to join a popular regional band, Annie Oakley.

"The guys in it were much older than I was. That experience was really something. … I was playing on the road as a pro in my sophomore year of high school. … I look back and think, I couldn’t have been that good," says Armstrong. "We had some great experiences. At age 16, we were playing to sold-out audiences, opening for the Beach Boys and the Doors and other regional groups."

In addition to performing, he "somehow" ended up taking care of the band’s books and handling the cash from shows.

"So, I learned the business," Armstrong says. "It was all very shaping for me as a performer and I learned the business before getting out of high school."

Still other experiences had him looking at the world at large and his own place in it. At the time he attended his high school in Ohio, it was in the throes of a busing experiment.

This experience, and the interracial band he was part of, helped him to focus on the message of Martin Luther King, a strong national figure at the time. Vietnam became a concern.

Through it all, Armstrong "was shaping a lot of personal thoughts."

Later still, there was Neil Armstrong’s walk on the moon. This quiet event would have a very significant impact.

"They’d begun showing the images of the moon rising over the earth’s horizon," says Armstrong. "I realized that people were living on this plant all together. And then it moved into a belief that the earth is one big country."

In Armstrong’s life, it was translated into a view of music. While never abandoning his cultural heritage, "steeped in jazz," he looked for more.

"I realized that there was a lot of music and different cultural heritages on the earth. At that point, I decided to embrace that belief. I was 21."

After Oakley disbanded, Armstrong moved to New Hampshire.

"It was a pregnant time … researching and thinking about the earth. I also became a Baha’i."

Settling in the mountains, Armstrong found a real shortage of musicians.

"There were more trees than musicians. It was difficult to find someone to play with," he says.

Unsure of what path he wanted to take, armed with a list of names he’d accumulated and his acoustic and electric guitar, he began seeking out others, looking for direction.

"Literally, I went on a music sojourn in March of ‘74. I had a list of names of musicians from New York City to Maine and New Hampshire. I literally got in my car and started calling people … and setting up jam sessions."

His quest led him to flutist Ken LaRoche, who lived in Nelson, N.H. Armstrong and LaRoche "hit it off." Eventually, they would form Do’ah.

It was LaRoche who gave Armstrong his first Indian sitar. Soon after, Armstrong began to study the instrument at the Lalit Center of Indian Music, under Peter Rowe.

"That opened up the door," said Armstrong. "Within that year, my thirst for music from different parts of the world was insatiable.

"When I’d go to Boston to study, I’d buy every recording or book I could get my hand on. Ken was doing the same thing. We went nuts. I couldn’t have been more excited.

"It reshaped the way I played guitar. … I started incorporating both the instruments and the music into what I was performing and writing."

Today, Armstrong has a collection of more than 200 instruments from around the world. Yet, his guitars remain favorites , right up there with the sitar, and Lakota Dmebe.

While first exploring this new world, he simultaneously studied Western classical music, particularly classical guitar literature. From ‘74 to ‘91, Do’ah performed its many-faceted, multicultural music, allowing it to work crossover markets, including jazz, world and folk.

The group recorded five albums: "Light upon Light," "Ornament of Hope," "Ancient Beauty" and "Companions of the Crimson Colored Ark," with Philo /Rounder and "World Dance," with Global Pacific/CBS. The last work reached the Top 10 of several national charts, including No. 7 in Billboard.

Do’ah, which means "to call to worship," received formal recognition from the United Nations for the "Peace Tour " of the United States and Canada. The group performed throughout those two countries and India.

Eventually, Volker Nahrmann and Marty Quinn joined them. The group eventually evolved into Do’ah World Music and, as such, recorded "World Dance."

In his many musical incarnations, Armstrong has played for crowds at Carnegie Recital Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City.

In 1998, he was selected as an artist representative to attend a Cultural Trade Mission to Ireland, Northern Ireland and England. In addition, Armstrong scored the music for a four-part PBS series, "Dinner on the Diner," produced by British filmmaker, Jon Guilbert, and has shared the stage with such artists as Dizzy Gillespie, King Sunny Ade and the Paul Winter Consort .

He is also on the arts roster for both the N.H. and New England Foundation for the Arts.

After Do’ah ended, Armstrong went on with Nahrmann to form Uno Mondo, which recorded a single recording, "Hand in Hand." In the early ‘90s, that group evolved into Armstrong – Nahrmann. Still active, the contemporary jazz/world fusion group is looking at recording a new album in the coming year.

Also, in the early ‘90s, Armstrong paired up with Genevieve Aichele and formed Armstrong & Aichele: World Tales. The two collaborate on story-telling projects that include theater, movement and music, using stories from around the world. They’ve produced one recording, "World Tales Vol. 1."

A&A has been awarded numerous grants from the N.H. State Council for the Arts, The New England Foundation for the Arts, the state arts councils of Arkansas, Arizona and New York and the National Endowment of the Arts.

About the same time A&A formed, Armstrong, who holds an independent study degree in composition and world music from Columbia Pacific University, took on his first single, sitar student at Phillips Exeter Academy.

"What’s happened there is it’s grown into having something like a small World Music Department," Armstrong says.

His courses now include sitar, tabla and West African drumming. He is also an affiliate of the graduate program at Plymouth State College. As for the future?

Armstrong hopes to hit the road once again. The youngest of his three sons will be moving to New York City in 2003 to study music.

During the years he brought up his boys, Armstrong stayed close to home. Now that they’re all out of the house, he plans on touring once again. What’s for sure is, what ever comes, it will be about music.

©Copyright 2002, Porthsmouth Herald (NH)

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