Brought up in the instrumental acoustic guitar work of John Fahey, Richard Crandell discovered the mbira after being diagnosed with essential tremor disorder.
Imagine that your hands shook so badly that you couldn't lift a glass of water. That's what life is like for millions of Americans who suffer from essential tremor disorder. The condition is rarely fatal, but it can be devastating if you're a musician. Guitarist Richard Crandell found that out the hard way. But the Oregon-based musician has found another way to continue composing and performing.
Crandell started playing guitar when he was a kid, but he didn't really take it seriously until the late 1960s, when he heard guitarist John Fahey. For Crandell, it was a revelation that one could create a whole orchestra with just an acoustic guitar.
In the early '70s, Crandell left his job and his marriage in Buffalo, N.Y., moved to the West Coast and started writing songs of his own. Crandell settled down in Eugene, Ore., and eventually opened for Fahey. Crandell's occasional roommate Mark Zorn says his friend's guitar rarely left his hands.
Crandell went on to record half a dozen albums. One of his tunes was even recorded by one of his idols, Leo Kottke. But Crandell never achieved Kottke's level of fame. And these days, the guitar seems to cause him more frustration than joy.
Discovering The Mbira
Crandell was diagnosed six years ago with essential tremor disorder. An estimated 10 million Americans live with the condition, which affects fine motor coordination. In Crandell's case, his hands shake when he tries to write, use a computer or play difficult passages on the guitar.
It was around this time that Crandell got a job offer. A local concert promoter asked Crandell to drive a tour bus for Afropop star Thomas Mapfumo and his band, but Crandell had never driven a bus before. Crandell successfully piloted the tour bus from Oregon to Alabama and back, then parked it in front of his apartment.
"They had totally cleaned out the bus," Crandell says. "And I looked under one of the seats and I found this mbira. And I said, 'Oh, what's this? Well I'll just stick it in my apartment.' "
The mbira is a traditional thumb piano from Africa. It's a flat piece of wood that he holds in his hands, with a row of metal strips across the top that he plays with his thumbs. To his surprise, Crandell discovered that his hands don't shake when he plays it.
Crandell taught himself how to tune and play the mbira. From the beginning, he says, he wasn't trying to play Shona music from Zimbabwe. Still, he was criticized — not by the musicians in Mapfumo's band, but by other Americans.
"There are little pockets of mbira players around the country who play traditional Shona music," Crandell says. "And they sort of look down on you if you change the instrument around or do anything else. But the guys in Thomas' band, they loved what I was doing. They say, 'Richard, play us a new song!' "
The Mbira Opens Doors
Before long, Crandell was performing his new songs in public. Even longtime friend Zorn was surprised by how quickly Crandell adapted to the mbira.
"I didn't take it seriously until I was wandering around the Saturday Market one beautiful Saturday afternoon," Zorn says. "And I heard these shimmering notes which could only have been from the mbira. As music does, it just turned my head right away and I moved toward the source, and there was Richard."
Crandell's songs also caught the ear of Zorn's younger brother, the MacArthur Foundation "genius grant"-winning saxophonist, composer and producer John Zorn, who runs a record label and a club in New York City. In 2004, John Zorn brought Crandell to the East Coast to record. And he recruited Brazilian-born Cyro Baptista to join Crandell in the studio. The percussionist says he was impressed by Crandell's sense of restraint.
"He plays enough, not more than should be, no? It's great because he plays leaving space. I could play in the betweens with him," Baptista says. "The fact that he played guitar, I think this a plus for him. Because he has a harmonic concept that probably other mbira players don't have."
Baptista and Crandell made two records together, Mbira Magic and Spring Steel, both of which received critical praise.
"'I'm grateful to have my little mbira," Crandell says. "Turns out that I've gotten more attention on that than I ever got on the guitar."
Guitar Recordings Re-Examined
That's started to change in the past few years, as more of Crandell's guitar music has been released on CD for the first time, though it's not without its bittersweetness.
"I used to not think I was quite good enough, or I didn't realize how special what I was doing was," Crandell says. "I just kind of took it for granted. So now I've got this other gift of the mbira, and being able to do something with that."
Crandell isn't taking his second act for granted. He is planning to record a benefit album for the Essential Tremor Foundation. And he has even bigger plans.
"My mission is to calm the world with this music because it seems to be so soothing," Crandell says. "And I'd love to play for the inauguration, if anyone out there is listening."
And if anyone is going to need some soothing music, Crandell figures, it's President-elect Barack Obama.