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Disabled Guitarist Finds New Sound In Mbira
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Disabled Guitarist Finds New Sound In Mbira


From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Robert Siegel. Imagine if your hands shook so badly that you couldn't even lift a glass of water. That's what life is like for millions of Americans who suffer from essential tremor disorder. The condition can be devastating if you're a musician, and that was almost the case for guitarist Richard Crandell. The musician found a way to continue composing and performing, as Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: Richard 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.

(Soundbite of acoustic guitar music)

ROSE: For Crandell, it was a revelation.

Mr. RICHARD CRANDELL (Guitarist): With an acoustic guitar, you could create a whole orchestra. In other words, I could play these solo pieces that sounded fine just the way there were.

(Soundbite of acoustic guitar music)

ROSE: In the early 1970s, Crandell left his job and his marriage in Buffalo, New York. He moved to the West Coast and started writing songs of his own.

(Soundbite of acoustic guitar music)

ROSE: Crandell settled down in Eugene, Oregon, and eventually opened for Fahey. Crandell's occasional roommate Mark Zorn says his friend's guitar rarely left his hands.

Mr. MARK ZORN: He was always practicing. He was always practicing. It was just a joy to have music in the house like that.

(Soundbite of acoustic guitar music)

ROSE: Crandell went on to record half a dozen albums; one of his tunes was even recorded by another 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.

Mr. CRANDELL: If my life depended on it and I had to play the dance section of "Be Good or Be Gone," this is how it would come out.

(Soundbite of misplayed notes)

Mr. CRANDELL: I can't play it.

ROSE: Richard 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.

Mr. CRANDELL: I was petrified because I was responsible for the lives of 14 Africans. I was not mechanical, I had a terrible sense of direction, but they trusted me.

ROSE: Crandell successfully piloted the tour bus from Oregon to Alabama and back, then parked it in front of his apartment.

Mr. CRANDELL: They had totally cleaned out the bus. I looked under one of the seats and there was - I found this mbira. And I said, oh, what's this?

ROSE: The mbira is a traditional thumb piano from Africa. Crandell's comes from Zimbabwe. 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.

(Soundbite of mbira music)

ROSE: To his surprise, Crandell discovered that his hands don't shake when he plays it.

Mr. CRANDELL: I didn't say, oh, I've got essential tremor; I better start playing mbira. I just like the sound of it.

ROSE: 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 Thomas Mapfumo's band, but by other Americans.

Mr. CRANDELL: There are little pockets of mbira players around the country who play traditional Shona music. And they sort of look down on you if you change the instrument around or do anything else. But the guys in Thomas's band, they loved what I was doing. They say, Richard, play us a new song.

(Soundbite of mbira music)

ROSE: Before long, Crandell was performing his new songs in public. Even his longtime friend Mark Zorn was surprised by how quickly Crandell adapted to the mbira.

Mr. ZORN: I didn't take it seriously until I was wandering around the Saturday market, 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.

ROSE: Crandell's songs also caught the ear of Mark Zorn's younger brother, the MacArthur Genius Grant-winning saxophonist, composer and producer John Zorn, who runs a record label and a club in New York City. In 2004, Zorn brought Crandell to the East Coast to record. He recruited Brazilian-born Cyro Baptista to join Crandell in the studio.

(Soundbite of mbira music)

ROSE: The percussionist says he was impressed by Crandell's sense of restraint.

Mr. CYRO BAPTISTA (Jazz and World Music Percussionist): He plays enough, not more than should be. It's great because he plays leaving space. I could play in the betweens with him.

(Soundbite of mbira music)

Mr. BAPTISTA: The fact that he played guitar before, it's a plus for him because he has a harmonic concept of the instrument. And plus, he have amazing rhythm.

ROSE: Baptista and Crandell made two records together. They've gotten strong reviews and even made a few critics' top-10 lists.

Mr. CRANDELL: I'm grateful to have my little mbira. It turns out that I've gotten more attention on that than I ever got on the guitar.

ROSE: That started to change in the last few years, as more of Crandell's guitar music has been released on CD for the first time.

(Soundbite of acoustic guitar music)

ROSE: Crandell says it's bittersweet to read glowing reviews of his early work.

Mr. CRANDELL: I used to not think I was quite good enough. I didn't realize how special what I was doing was; you know, I just kind of took it for granted. So now, I've got this other gift, you know, of the mbira and being able to do something with that.

ROSE: 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.

Mr. CRANDELL: My mission at this point is to calm the world with this music because it seems to be so soothing. And I'd love to play for the inauguration, if anybody out there is listening.

ROSE: And if anyone is going to need some soothing music, Crandell figures it's President-elect Barack Obama. For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

(Soundbite of mbira music)

SIEGEL: You can hear a cross-section of Crandell's music, both on guitar and mbira, at

(Soundbite of mbira music)

SIEGEL: You're listening to All Things Considered from NPR News.

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