NY Musician, Filmmaker, and Improviser Sandra Koponen of Himalayas Street Band on Playing What You Don’t Know, Ribaphones, and Taking It To The Street

October 28th, 2009

Sandra Koponen and her ribaphone, a homemade multi-percussion set that she makes sound like a thunderstorm falling on a roof made of rainbows.

Sandra Koponen and her ribaphone, a homemade multi-percussion set that she makes sound like a thunderstorm falling on a roof made of rainbows.



Honk! Festival of Activist Street Bands happens every October outside of Boston in Somerville, MA. Honk draws over 350 musicians every year from diverse locations such as Italy, Montreal, the Bahamas, and elsewhere throughout the US. I’ve had the good fortune to attend and play at Honk in 2008 and 2009 with Durham’s street band Scene of the Crime Rovers. While I love playing at the festival, the thrill for me is seeing other street bands in action. This year I was especially enamored by New York City’s Himalayas. All the Honk! bands were amazing, but Himalayas took street performance to a different place, incorporating audience participation, quirky arrangements, guerrilla theater, and skronky improvisation to their spectacle.

The highlight of Himalaya’s set for me was watching one of Himalaya’s percussionists rock out on a homemade instrument she calls a “ribaphone”. A flurry of energy, I could sense her delight in the experience. She danced the sound from her instrument, evoking a colorful collage of rhythm, melody, texture, and general sonic goodness. What an inspiration! Though our time was short, I was able to meet her and arrange for an email interview. I feel like I’ve made a new friend and hope you enjoy this interview.

Sandra Koponen (aka Sand Ra) is a NYC musician and filmmaker. In addition to our interview, I’ve compiled links so that you can see and listen to her in action. Throughout the interview, there are additional links to relevant musicians and bands to help put her background in to context.

Watch Sand Ra:

 Click here to watch a clip of the fabulous Himalayas set I saw Sandra play in at Honk! 2009. Sandra is seen on the left end of the band (the only person wearing a homemade percussion instrument). The voices you hear making the long tones during the performance were us – the audience! What fun!

 Click here to watch a clip of Sandra and her balloon bassoon brigade process on July 4 in upstate New York. This was the culmination of a workshop she did with kids for Salem Art Works. The video is a work of art in itself!

 Our Interview!

 ShannonCan you tell me a little about your musical background (or background otherwise)? (do you have a primary instrumental focus and are you self-taught, music school background,…)

Sandra – I bought an alto saxophone when I was 22; I’d had a couple years of piano lessons when I was a kid and initially got shown some basics on the horn, then just started playing. I lived in SF across the street from a mayonnaise factory and could play any time of day or night. Soon after getting my sax I started performing at benefit concerts with 12 Yr Olds, a group that had started from after dinner jams on pots and pans in Ann Arbor, Michigan. In the group there were electric guitars, banjo, drums, homemade and toy instruments, sax and whatever. 12 Yr Olds would have all day jams. It was great freedom to play with a cacophonous wall of sound. Back then I didn’t think it was such a great sounding band but now I actually enjoy listening to some of the 12 Yr Olds tapes, especially the recordings that I’m not on!!

I moved to NYC in 1984 and took some sax lessons from Roy Nathanson of the Jazz Passengers (I’d seen him playing with the Lounge Lizards). I played with many bands, including the Flophouse Society Orchestra (sloppy renditions of Fletcher Henderson and Jelly Roll Morton tunes) and started and wrote and arranged music for two bands-Seasons Greetings, a quartet (bass, drums, sax and violin) that played barely recognizable Christmas carols. Later I started a sextet with Bern Nix on guitar. Neither band had many gigs but the recordings of the band with Bern Nix got me into music school, which was a terrible setback to me musically; I put down the saxophone after a semester and didn’t pick it up for several years. In the late 90s I met and started jamming with Dalius Naujo, a very free and creative drummer. He had a studio in the basement of Anthology Film Archives and we’d have long jam sessions on “indigenous instruments” (IE, film cans or whatever was around) and that’s when I started playing percussion; it is very freeing for me because I don’t get so hung up on technique but get excited by the color, texture and pitch of different objects.

 Shannon – Do you have bands or groups other than the Himalayas that you collaborate with?

 Sandra – I play on some of Kenny Wolleson‘s other projects with the Wollesonics. We do “sonic massages” with funny and amazingly strange instruments that he makes. I also initiated a band Untyte ; Dalius had told me how great Lithuanian folk tunes are and I was asked to do a live radio performance on WKCR and got some members of the Himalayas to play the Lithuanian tunes. It was so good I got us several more gigs but then Dalius, who led and conducted the band, went back to Lithuania for several months and we haven’t gotten it off the ground again. I hope we start playing again soon because I love those tunes; they’re mystical, and the band is a good one. I’d like to do more experimental smaller groups and will soon be doing the sound track for a video I’m making.

 Shannon – How did you become involved with Kenny Wolleson and the Himalayas? Why do you play with them?

 Sandra – Dalius had been introduced to Kenny shortly before Kenny started the Himalayas, and when I met Kenny he invited me to play with the band. My first performance with the Himalayas was for the opening of the Charlie Parker Festival in Tompkins Square Park. I don’t recall that we had any rehearsal prior to the gig – all I remember is that when we were about to start parading around the park Kenny pointed at me and I blew some crazy horn before the band started up.

Playing with the Himalayas is a joy; every gig is different, different musicians show up and bring new tunes that expand our repertoire, and Kenny is a true artist, a very generous spirit and puts so much love, effort and energy into making each performance special that it’s really amazing. Often he’ll bring a truckload of instruments, film projectors and other visual effects for an hour-long performance.

 Shannon – What appeals to you about making and playing your own instrument rather than playing a ready made?

 Sandra – There is nothing like a ribaphone for sale. I like having a palette of sound to use when playing percussion; that’s what makes it exciting for me. Playing the ribaphone makes me very happy and when people see the ribaphone they immediately appreciate that it is homemade and unique.

In this pic, I help Sandra get suited up with her ribaphone.  She definitely needs a roadie!

In this pic, I help Sandra get suited up with her ribaphone. She definitely needs a roadie!

 Shannon – Can you describe your “ribaphone” and talk a little about why you chose the various components of your contraption?


Sandra – Necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes I play sax with the Himalayas but often there are so many alto players that I have more fun playing percussion. We used to have a weekly gig at Zebulon and sometimes as many as 20 musicians crowded onto a little stage. Other percussion players with the band spread their instruments out and there was no space for me to put percussion instruments. I envisioned having all the instruments I wanted on something around my body and a few days later found a discarded bathroom shelving unit a block from my house. I took it home, took off one of the shelves and added a bike bell and an old cymbal (the other shelf I used to use for extra percussion, band aids and drinks). I’ve kept adding to it and changing it; it’s never the same. Originally I hung the rack so that marimbas corresponded roughly to my rib cage, hence the name. Currently, the key elements include a bamboo marimba I made, tomato cans, a splash cymbal and a xylophone. The two tomato cans have been a rather constant element because they have a good tone and are loud. I have to change them once in a while because the metal thins out from being pounded and starts cracking. I used to have drums on my ribaphone but don’t at the moment. I just bought the splash cymbal and have other “store bought” instruments on my ribaphone. I like having an extra pocket for whistles, recorders and things to blow once in a while. I have ideas for other things that I want to add. What makes the instrument unique is that varied elements are consolidated around my body. 
Shannon – I saw you perform with Himalayas at 5:00 on Saturday October 10th at Honkfest. During the set, the director called on you to solo. Your soloing was a frenetic collage of rhythmic phrases interspersed with sound colors and textures. I can best describe my impression of the solo as a thunderstorm falling on a roof made of rainbows. Your personal energy completed the spectacle, as you seemed completely wired by the experience – as if you had so much to say that you couldn’t get it all out in one solo. During the solo, Kenny Wolleson yelled “Tell your story, sister!”, which made it even more intense.

My questions are: Do you think about what you’d like to do before hand, or does it just flow in the moment? Do you feel it is necessary to relate to the music that your solo comes out of in a linear way, or do you look at your moment as an opportunity to change the direction of what is happening (or neither….something else….telling your story?)

Sandra – A thunderstorm falling on a roof made of rainbows!! That’s beautiful! Thank you!  I never think about what I’m going to do in advance when I play percussion, I respond to the moment. For me playing percussion is most akin to dancing, and to figure out what I’m going to do in advance would be like figuring out in advance how and what parts of my body I’m going to move when dancing with someone I haven’t even met. When I start playing a solo I might reference the rhythm of the melody or continue a rhythm that’s been going on, but mostly it’s like diving through the air, knowing that I’m going to land in the arms of the band; time is limited but I feel when I solo that I have infinite space and I like to try to use it. I don’t really have time to think but I reach for the color, texture, accent or pitch that I want at that moment, something that satisfies the place where music comes together with all the other senses and emotions. I might lose track of the form of the song at times but people always seem to like my solos. I never have any objective idea of how it sounds until I hear a recording. Sometimes I can look around and take in the things outside myself but mostly I feel concentrated on my inner rhythm.

 As for the magical 5 o’clock performance, the energy was so incredible that day; the audience’s singing and participation completed the circle. That is what performance is supposed to about; the give and take between performers and audience. When Kenny called on me to solo the air was already charged, I was just tapping into that energy. As for “tell your story”, that reminds me that the only class I liked at music school was a blues class with Junior Mance. He would say “Tell your story” and I would close my eyes and “talk”. It helps to think of music as “talking”; I’m not good at improvising words to music but when asked to talk (musically speaking), it has helped me to come forth with the truth.

Sandra soloing at the Himalayas show during Honkfest 2009 in Somerville, MA.

Sandra soloing at the Himalayas show during Honkfest 2009 in Somerville, MA.

Shannon – On a related note, I just sat in on a lecture/discussion with Sun Ra personnel Art Jenkins and Marshall Allen (part of a Duke University event in which Sun Ra Arkestra played in Durham). They drove home the message that to really create music that is vital, you must play what you don’t know. They told many stories about how Sun Ra, being rather psychic, knew when they were playing what they thought they should play instead of letting their spirit come through their instruments. Your director, Kenny Wolleson, seems like he might have a similar mode of operation. Does he influence your choices or push you to play differently than you might in other situations? If so, do you feel it is beneficial to have someone pushing you to take your musical experience further out?  How do you feel about “playing what you don’t know”?

SandraSun Ra is my favorite band leader/composer/musician and I would believe anything a Sun Ra Arkestra member had to say about playing music. This is a difficult question though because there are different levels of “not knowing.” If I understand Art Jenkins and Marshall Allan, of course you must play what you don’t know; that’s where the tension lives in music. You have to experience each moment afresh and if you rely on playing something that you think you should play rather than responding in the moment you’re lost because your mind is crowded with inhibiting thoughts. A lot of music sounds dead because people are playing it safe. I stopped playing the saxophone after a semester at jazz school because being surrounded by students who were just imitating the bebop of 50 years ago seemed stultifying, yet I felt bad because I couldn’t play like that, and at that time I couldn’t play anything without feeling that it sounded awful. But it’s important to get past that. It also helps sometimes to pick up a different instrument to keep the joy of making sound fresh.

While Kenny shows other drummers and percussionists a rhythm or feel he wants he never really gives me any instructions. Recently he told all band members to play rhythm, melody or the x-factor. I think he considers me an x-factor and he likes that and it frees me. Although I have practiced the traps (Shannon notes – traps refer to a drum set) and some drumming techniques on my own, I am not a timekeeper or a groove maker by a long shot; I like playing with other drummers. I think of my ribaphone as adding color and I have enough different instruments that I can always find some sound that fits with the music being played. I am extremely fortunate to play with such great drummers as Kenny, Dalius and other fine musicians and am reminded that music is a good way to interact with the universe.

Shannon – What do you like about playing outside in the street? Do you prefer it to traditional venues? Do you think public street performances have any sort of beneficial effect on people’s lives?

Sandra – I love playing on the street. I like being out under the open sky and to hear the sounds bounce off buildings, to see the expression on people’s faces as they pass by and experience the surprise of it. Public street performances bring the 4th dimension to a space and take people out of themselves. Music is celebratory and for mind travel. I also really like walking and playing music, I feel I play better when I’m moving and I like hearing how the sound changes as you move through space and players change positions.

Shannon – Is there anything you’d like to say about your experience of playing unusual music outdoors for an unsuspecting public? My experience with being in 2 groups that play creative music outdoors is that people who wouldn’t come in to a club to see “new music” really seem to enjoy it more than I would expect them to. This leads me to realize that in some regards, I am a music snob who thinks that “normal” people can’t enjoy “art music”. Comments? Experiences?

Sandra – One time with Kenny we did a spontaneous gong walk. It was incredible. A couple people started following us like we were the pied piper and others asked us “What is your purpose?” I think that in an outdoor setting “art music” becomes more accessible to people; I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the sound transforms the space and is not expected.

Spontaneous gong walks, balloon bassoons, and ribaphones seem to encourage people to ask "What is your purpose?".

Shannon – I understand that you teach instrument making workshops. Can you tell me a little about your workshops? How about the balloon bassoon?

Sandra – I was invited to give an instrument-making workshop at Salem Art Works upstate, in preparation for a 4th of July Parade. It was a great experience. I had 8 kids and made balloon bassoons and other instruments with them. The kids were really excited by the balloon bassoons and some couldn’t stop blowing on them! I was introduced to balloon bassoons through the Himalayas. Basically it’s just a balloon stretched over a sound chamber that you blow through (that’s attached to a tube). Balloon Bassoons have a great range of sound depending on what materials you use; there are many variables. I would like to continue to do workshops with kids because it is fun to come up with new approaches to ensemble playing and it’s something to research and explore.

Shannon – Anything you would like to add to this interview?

Sandra – Thanks for this interview!  It was great playing at the Honk fest and hearing all the other bands. It’s wonderful to play with the Himalayas and playing music and performing is about the most fun thing there is to do in the world!

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Going with the “vibrations of the day” – Marshall Allen and Art Jenkins of Sun Ra Arkestra

September 25th, 2009

We’ve been really honored here in Durham, NC to be able and host the exhibit “Pathways to Unknown Worlds” at our local art council’s building. The exhibit is memorabilia related to Sun RA’s time in Chicago, Il. With the exhibit, which is sponsored by the Durham Arts Guild in conjunction with Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Center, we’ve been lucky to have a couple of high profile events related to the exhibit – namely a performance by Sun Ra Arkestra (now lead by Marshall Allen) and a discussion panel with M. Allen and Art Jenkins today at the JHFranklin Center.
I’m not going to try and describe the music of Sun Ra (if you aren’t famliar, do yourself a favor and check him out. Sun Ra Arkestra’s releases are too many to mention, but here’s a fun starting CD – Angels and Demons at Play), but there is no doubt that he and his devoted orchestra (-mmm…well, they are still playing together though he died in 1993 – so with Sun Ra that’s probably around 30 years together, 40 years together for some of these folks) are some of the most creative, visionary, and free-thinking musicians in the world.
What I want to focus on in this post is the discussion panel with M. Allen and A. Jenkins today.
They had many great stories about hangin with Sun Ra (hilarious), but what I got the most out of was their consistent attention to the idea of letting spirit create music instead of mind. Both Allen and Jenkins had stories about how Sun Ra could tell when they were playing what they thought they should play instead of what was true to their nature (spirit). Jenkins talked about doing vocals for the Arkestra and his frustration when Sun Ra asked him to create “impossible” vocals. This drove him nuts – nothing was what Ra was asking for, until he found a ram’s horn with 2 holes bored in to it in a duffle bag of Ra’s. With nothing to lose, he held the wide part of the horn to his mouth and cupped his hand over the holes, creating a vibratory effect when he sang and moved his hand on and off the holes. Upon hearing, Sun Ra exclaimed that this vocal effect was perfect – it became a signature sound of Jenkin’s on many Sun Ra recordings (Strange Strings and I think Angels and Demons were both mentioned). Jenkins talked about how holding the horn reminded him of his childhood – amazingly enough, he could not speak when most children start talking. There was a folk remedy that his parents heard about in which a child who can’t talk should drink water from a cow’s horn. Though this didn’t help his problem, it came in to play later in life, as it brought meaning to the ram’s horn for Jenkins.

Jenkins and Allen both reiterated over and over how playing what they knew was not acceptable in Sun Ra’s band. Sun Ra made them reach deep in to their souls to manifest the the spirit that made their music so unusual and beautiful. When someone from the audience asked what strategies they used to keep from repeating themselves when playing their tunes over and over on tour, Allen said “I just go with the vibration of the day”. This was a recurrent theme – we are energetic beings who can tune in with the vibrations of all that is going on within and around us (because we are part of everything). We can turn those vibrations in to audible sound if we are sensitive to them.

When asked how being of African descent affected their music, Jenkins replied again that we are all part of everything – we can learn from the birds, from nature, from everything surrounding us, and in fact he says that he learned to speak from listening to the birds.

The discussion was incredibly meaningful. Allen and Jenkins talked of the idea of “failure” and how they had to seek to be failures so that they could start all over again. In the end, they came to realize that if you are going with the vibration of the day, nothing you create is a failure. It is a perfect manifestation of the moment.

I hope I can carry this through in my own music making. The commodification of music, and the survival needs of those making music for a living are detrimental to the pursuit of authenticity in art and in life. It is always a great temptation to make music that you know everyone will appreciate, but in doing so, we create stagnation and hold back the natural progression of one of humankind’s most sacred art forms.

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