Breaking Tradition with House of Waters
February 1, 2017
Take a family heirloom. Maybe it’s a classic time piece or an intricate locket, and break it apart to see what’s inside. Deep within the hours of hand-crafted laboring and decades of perfected technique is the life of an artisan, concentrated into this one pocket-sized masterpiece. If this feeling of universal discovery can be translated into sound, it would most likely be the music of House of Waters, the Brooklyn-founded trio making literal waves right now.
Before we go any further, I feel like a disclaimer is needed: this isn’t a trio. Yes, there are three bodies, each attacking their instrument with equal vigor. But these sounds (and the musicians who elicit them) each occupy such individual personalities that the end result is a parade of memories and emotions with no choice but to be manifested as notes in a song. When listening to House of Waters, influence is one of the first things that come to mind. Influence in technique, style, and even culture come out to create something that overcomes the specific qualifications that musical genres tend to build. “It’s not folk music. It’s not jazz. It’s not Senegalese. It’s not Indian. It’s not Argentinian, or Japanese. It’s something new,” said hammered dulcimerist Max ZT, named “The Jimi Hendrix of hammered dulcimer” by NPR.
Their music travels to every corner of the world, from the Japanese traditions of Moto Fukushima on six-string bass, to percussionist Ignacio Rivas Bixio’s Argentinian roots. Only to land in a place that transcends space altogether–begging the question: are they breaking musical traditions, or making their own? “My bandmates both bring serious knowledge of many different traditions – even those outside their native countries,” he said. “I think this is what makes House of Waters’ music so unique.” I’m pretty sure everything about Max and the trio is what makes them unique, especially when naming Ballake Cissoko, Kandinsky, Vonnegut, and Charlie Mingus among his nearly infinite list of influences.
‘Unique’ is an easily-used adjective when describing a band that features dulcimer on lead, NY Music Daily even called them “one of the most original bands on the planet”. Max explains that the best way to understand the foreign instrument is by visualizing a de-constructed piano and focusing on the hammers that strike the strings. The dulcimer is, in fact, the predecessor to the piano. Finding such an evolutionarily essential instrument in modern music is a treasure that makes House of Waters’ sounds all the more valuable to younger audiences. “I’m a Jewish kid from Chicago playing an ancient Persian instrument that is mostly used for American Folk Music and Irish Music in this country,” said ZT. Now that’s what we call overcoming stereotypes.
With the rising trends of music festivals and a growing emphasis (or need) on live touring, bands like House of Waters, who should really be experienced live for best sonic results, come out the victor. To support them, yes, but to better understand the depth at which these musicians effortlessly wield their craft. The dynamic convergence between the dulcimer, bass, and percussion yields a profound understanding of music that most listeners may not be accustomed to, especially when heard live. “Music is supposed to be a social experience,” Max said. “Each artist is supported by the community in which they perform. I think this will do wonders to the influence of art and music in people’s everyday life experience. It will take them outside of themselves and will force them to interact with different people and different cultures from around the world.”
From hitting the streets and busking in New York subways to performing around the world, House of Waters has harnessed inspiration in every cultural destination their lives have taken them. In life and in music, they’ve grown more confident in working together, becoming more collaborative both internally and with other artists along the way. “We’ve been playing together for eight years and are getting to a place of deep musical brotherhood,” said ZT. “The dulcimer is not an easy instrument to write for (we like to call it multi-diatonic), and the more and more we work together, the more beautiful his [Moto’s] compositions come out.”
But however much you practice, improvisation is a tool toward discovery and exploration. Many younger audiences may not see the importance in scratching at a new musical surface, or may not even notice it’s happening outside of a regularly planned solo. “Improvisation is everywhere. No one anywhere knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just guessing,” he said. Breaking the comfortable routine may seem difficult, but in order to attain a greater understanding of your craft, spontaneity is key. “Music is a practice of presentness. It’s very easy to fall back on the understood and easy choices. But how many solos will it take before 100% of the meaning in that moment is lost, and just becomes some boring repetitive thing that you do for your ego? I bet not that many times,” said ZT. In a Trainspotting-esque flare he declared: “Choose what you do. Mean it. And funnily enough, the choice that you choose actually doesn’t really even matter. Just choose your choices.”
“If you hit a wrong note, it’s the next note that you play that determines if it’s good or bad.” – Miles Davis
At their shows, they’ve had international instrumentalists, singers, and even tap dancers join them onstage and if next weekend’s GroundUp Music Festival will prove anything, it’s that collaboration is the key to every form of creative growth. House of Waters themselves are expecting some historical sit-ins with a “high-energy performance centered around music and sounds that you’ve very likely never heard before.” Keep your ears out for a new song of theirs dedicated to Max’s late, dear friend who empowered him to live in the moment, to keep perspective within every experience that you have: “All one can do is be here, and stay wide-eyed. Stay fascinated. I thank him deeply for this wisdom.”
From this show and beyond, the band is looking to make an impact on the people who encounter their music. Max noted: “I want House of Waters to continue to touch people’s hearts and minds all over the world. The world needs examples of joy.”
Come be wide-eyed and present with us. Grab your tickets for next weekend’s festival here.