Voice of the Eagle: The Enigma of Robbie Basho
directed by Liam Barker
starring Pete Townshend, Will Ackerman
Of all the guitarists that are associated with the renaissance of the acoustic guitar that came to pass in the late ’60s and ’70s, Robbie Basho’s name is rarely mentioned. Everyone has heard of Leo Kottke and John Fahey (if only because of Fahey’s Christmas records), but Basho is known only to guitar nerds, despite his stellar technique and large volume of work. One reason might have been his influences which guided his art. Fahey took his love of bluegrass and country blues as totems, inventing almost single-handily the genre of “American primitive guitar”, while Kottke came more from a folk background. Basho instead wanted to create “guitar ragas”, based on his love of Eastern music, primarily the droning art of Ravi Shankar and his sitar from India.
Another reason for his lack of commercial recognition forms the basis for this illuminating documentary – The Enigma of Robbie Basho. Basho, born Daniel Robinson and orphaned as a child, was a very private soul. Living in Baltimore, he became a Sufi, and his religion came to dictate his daily life. Once he moved to Berkeley, he eschewed pot smoking hippies that were becoming a force in society, opting for his studies into religion and higher planes of being, to the point that a family member thought he would become a priest. Instead of performing folk music, ala the Kingston Trio and other more pop-oriented artists, his elaborate, complex instrumental compositions for 12-string guitar put him at odds with more mainstream acts. Even today his albums are startling and fresh, demanding full attention, unlike the bland, “new age” background music that came to rule the acoustic guitar world.
This film includes interviews with fellow guitarists such as Will Ackerman, Henry Kaiser and The Who’s Pete Townshend, who, like Basho was a follower of Meher Baba. His recollections of Basho’s life and work show a deep respect for both his artistic creations, and admiration of a fellow devotees faith. Director Liam Barker is to be commended for his persistence in making this film, and providing a definitive look at an overlooked American genius of the guitar, Robbie Basho. Highly recommended.