Concert review: Musicologist, raconteur Tim Eriksen digs deep into folk roots

American musicologist Tim Eriksen (centre) extols the virtues of shape-note music. -- PHOTO: TIM ERIKSEN & BAND
American musicologist Tim Eriksen (centre) extols the virtues of shape-note music. -- PHOTO: TIM ERIKSEN & BAND

You'd think 18th-century New England and Southern Appalachia would be a universe away from today's Singapore, but these worlds melded in mysterious ways at the gig of Northampton, Massachusetts-born Tim Eriksen on Friday, part of the Esplanade's A Tapestry Of Sacred Music festival.

Midway through a rousing take on the Christmas chestnut Carol Of The Birds, there was a palpable current in the air.

Among an intimate crowd at the Esplanade Recital Studio, an elegantly white-maned woman's feet started to shuffle discreetly under her seat, and an executive-looking dude's head bobbed gently to the rhythm.

"A thousand little birds all in a troop/To Bethlehem hurrying two by two," Eriksen sang sonorously, accompanied by his Trio de Pumpkintown members, Zoe Darrow on fiddle and Peter Irvine on percussion.

A communion was formed. Eriksen was the Pied Piper to new converts who might have been initially baffled by the troupe peddling instruments such as banjo, bodhran, xylophone and even a bajo sexto, a 12-string Mexican acoustic bass.

It came as little surprise when you found out that Pumpkintown is actually an imaginary seaport village in New England peopled by Yankees, Irish, Scots, Germans, Africans and Native Americans.

At times, you didn't quite know whether to believe him when he regaled the audience with how he and his 600 friends back home at their farms used to sing Christmas songs all year round; or that the trio spontaneously broke out into song rather than watch another viewing of The Hobbit on their flight here flying over the Gobi Desert.

Multicultural commingling is Eriksen's forte - after all, this former punk rocker cut his teeth performing in New York's legendary CBGB venue, and yes, he was also trained in south Indian classical music.

The magpie sensibility means the chap is wont to hook up with kindred spirits wherever he goes.

For the last third part of his gig, he and his buddies led a 14-member choir from Singapore's own Vox Camerata who were noticeably awed by the presence of a shaven-headed, silver-studded messiah in their midst.

Eriksen's magnanimity extended to wonderful accounts of far-away traditions such as shape-note (or Sacred Harp, a communal singing style based on vocal syllables fa-so-la), balladry and Afro-Celtic gospel.

He assiduously contextualised each song. Prefacing what he calls a "garden hymn", the raconteur, who also teaches ethnomusicology, explained how multiple adaptions of a source occur over generations; and how some secular songs, for instance, were promulgated by preachers who were also fiddlers.

"In fact, this song was originally called Piss Upon The Grass," he quipped and everybody laughed.

Such was the unpretentious mood: Instead of drawing up boundaries, his definitions show the fluidity of genres, of peoples, of beliefs, from time immemorial.

You hear it in that open-hearted tenor of his, drawing all into its bosom.

Whether raving about the delicious crabs they had eaten in the last two days here, or rhapsodising about Boston and Friendship, Eriksen shared freely. In response, the audience were beguiled and re-sensitised.

When he launched into a familiar classic like Amazing Grace, the song was stripped-down and invigoratingly different from what everyone was used to. The effect was a revelation.