Daniel Ho is all about doing things way, way outside the box, if only to further expand his own already super-flexible musical boundaries. Past recording projects by the six-time GRAMMY-winning ‘ukulele master span Hawaiian, world, classical and contemporary instrumental music, and thus his Between the Sky & Prairie –– a collaborative effort of arts consultants, ethnomusicologists and producers from China, Taiwan and the United States –– is a logical extension of his previous forays in far-reaching sonic cross-pollination.
“About five years ago I started working with Aboriginal Taiwanese music in order to explore its similarities with Hawaiian music, because they’re connected by the Austronesian people, who migrated from Taiwan to all the Pacific islands and Hawaii 5000 years ago,” he says. Several world music recording projects in Taiwan found Ho incorporating ‘ukulele and Hawaiian slack-key guitar with pipa and other Chinese instrumentation, which won Taiwan’s prestigious Golden Melody Award four years in a row, along with two GRAMMY nominations.
Impressed with his innovative treatment of Chinese music on these projects, Wind Music, Ho’s Taiwanese record label partners, then asked Ho to work similar magic with Mongolian traditional music.
“Our goal was to leave the original music untouched, but reframe it in a contemporary way to make it more accessible to audiences around the world.”
Featuring an all-star cast of traditional singers and instrumentalists collectively known as The Grasslands Ensemble, the sumptuously packaged Between the Sky & Prairie melds the varied ‘ukuleles, piano and arrangements of Hawaiian music virtuoso Ho with the ethnic minority folk songs of the Inner Mongolian prairies of Hulunbuir, as represented by a diversity of ethnicities including Mongolian, Manchurian, Evenk, Daur, Russian and Han Chinese.
The Grasslands Ensemble’s specialty is presenting authentic and gently progressive versions of traditional musical material, in a seamless, rich way that also highlights the stunning skills of its individual performers. Among the cast of performers are Mongolian long song master Hasibatu, dynamic Evenk singer Qiqigema, the tender-toned Manchurian vocalist Bayinhehe, “Prince of the Morin Khuur” (horse-head fiddle) Han Mou Ren and throat singer Tamir Hargana. The Ensemble is joined by the youthfully hard-edged Hasar Band, comprising musicians of varying ethnicities with a mission of carrying on the legacy of folk music through diversity in backgrounds, vocal techniques such as throat singing, and instruments including the morin khuur, doshpuluur (long-necked Tuvan lute), tovshuur (Mongolian two-stringed instrument), sheepskin drums and jaw harp.
A Honolulu native based in Los Angeles, Ho is a musician, composer, arranger, audio engineer, producer and independent record company owner who understood the challenges of preserving Mongolia’s tradition-bound music while also stretching and enhancing it with Western tools of harmonic content and textural variation. He makes no claim to being a musicologist, rather taking what he calls a purely musical and non-scholarly approach to his world-music-modernizing projects. It’s a fresh sense and style that earned Ho 14 GRAMMY nominations and 6 successive GRAMMY Awards for “Best Hawaiian Music Album” from 2005 to 2010, including Masters of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar, vol. 1 ( 2005) and Huana Ke Aloha (2010).
Ho’s guide in the making of Between the Sky & Prairie was Taiwanese producer Wu Judy Chin-tai, a respected producer and composer with a gift for the development of crossover and traditional Asian folk music. Wu is a pioneer in the art of remote production, carrying recording equipment on her back into the mountains and across streams to record the sounds of nature before mixing them with music. In 1999, she produced a popular album of nature sounds called The Forest Show. To date, she has released 10 best-selling nature music albums.
It was co-producer Wu who helped Ho find the right musicians for Between the Sky & Prairie.
“The idea was to find people that were like-minded in their musical sense and intention, and who also had a particular sound,” says Ho. “I thought we needed both female vocals and male vocals, and a balance of long songs and short songs, and something that represented difference –– it wasn’t going to be all driving songs in minor keys or long songs, it was going to be a balance of different styles. So we looked for musicians that had strengths in various areas, and then tried to figure out how to get them to play with each other for the different styles.”
Ho also credits Wu with helping him bridge the cultural divides that invariably need to be addressed in any musical collaboration in which the performers do not have a deep understanding of the others’ artistry.
“Part of her skill is identifying what people are comfortable with, not just as musicians, but culturally, too,” he says. “I don’t speak Mongolian, but she doesn’t either; Mandarin was the language that was used to communicate. So I would sit on the side and tell Judy what I was trying to accomplish –– for example, that I’d take the traditional melody and write counterpoints for it, and harmonize it in a certain way. Then I would talk to her about which musicians could play or sing those parts best, to get an equal representation of all the musicians in the Grasslands Ensemble.”
Between the Sky & Prairie boasts a remarkably organic and, better yet, surprisingly varied way in which the musics of East and West can live and flow together. The supple way the Grassland Ensemble’s deeply (but not rigidly) tradition-based vocal and instrumental artistry interplays with Ho’s modern arranging and playing gifts suggest intriguing new musical possibilities in tracks such as “Mongolian Drinking Song,” the Buryats folk song “Gray Sparrow’s Heartache,” the glorious massed-chorus finale “Genghis Khan Eulogy,” and the title track’s East/West evocations of a most beautiful place on earth.
In the world of World Music, there are always purists who don’t want any tradition to be altered or touched in any way. You can’t use a strap on a ‘ukulele! Ho has encountered all the resistance, but vows to plunge ahead.
“My philosophy about music and sound and instruments is that I want to do something that hasn’t been done before, and something that challenges me, such as this particular variation with ‘ukuleles and slack key guitar and Hawaiian percussion instruments and Mongolian music. Beyond that, I need to find a way to put the notes together so it’s not just a ridiculous mish-mash of disparate musics, and it’s something that works.”