Rootspring is excited to introduce The Cave Project, a double album of music, rhythms and lullabies by a unique combination of musicians: percussion duo Intone – Ronan Skillen and James van Minnen – and Indwe, a singer and Xhosa-bow player. The album was recorded over three days in a cave off the West Coast of South Africa.
This recording project is based on an intention to create music and sounds that soothe babies in utero and outside the womb, as well as pregnant women. Disc 1 is a series of interlocking rhythms by Intone while Disc 2 is a collection of mesmerising Xhosa songs composed by Indwe that centre on the theme of motherhood and femininity, and which Intone supports rhythmically.
“In combination, I believe it’s a profound piece of work that can be enjoyed by babies in the womb, pregnant women, couples hoping to conceive, those in the throes of parenthood, and indeed all human beings wherever we find ourselves in the lifecycle!” says James.
The project resonated with Rootspring because the company is essentially a “world music label”, says Jonny Blundell. “And it features musicians playing instruments that are generally traditional ethnic instruments. It also appealed to us because of the unusual combination of musicians and certainly because of the unusual location! Recording in a cave was a first for us.”
The idea was sparked by James who had come across material about the effects that the sound of frame drums have on the human brain – the drums emit a frequency range that causes the brain to slip more easily into a state of deeper relaxation and consciousness.
“Some time later, I played frame drum for a friend’s child who was in a lot of pain,” explains James. “We were all amazed by how the sound of the drum put the distressed child into a state of calm, then sleep – this was when the idea for the project began to form.”
It was also around this time that James began thinking about recording music in a natural environment with its own natural reverberation – a cave was the obvious choice.
“I wanted some layers and different tones, but I didn’t want to overdub or edit anything,” James says. “My first thought was to talk to my friend and musical colleague Ronan. Not only is he an excellent percussionist but also someone who I believed would understand the deeper vision of this project.”
Ronan and James started their first band about 17 years ago, and have since collaborated on various projects. “We’ve always had an inexplicable synergy, a way of finding space for each other in the rhythm. Needless to say, he was into the idea!”
Over months of working on the material, creating compositions and refining the intertwining rhythms, it shifted into a new dimension altogether and a new entity – Intone.
“We then approached Rootspring with the idea of creating a drum-based album for babies and to record it in a cave.” At the time, Rootspring happened to have been discussing starting a branch of the record label that incorporates more alternative, therapeutic content. “They responded positively, and suggested we combine our recording with Indwe, who they’d been discussing recording an album with.” Jonny put the idea to her that Ronan and James perform on her album and that it be recorded in a cave, which she jumped at.
“We earmarked a few caves but settled on Steenbokfontein cave as it had the best acoustic properties as well as an incredible history of Khoikhoi, San and Khoisan inhabitation,” James explains. Once he and Ronan began developing rhythmic pieces, the concept began to take on a life of its own, transforming again when they workshopped the traditional songs Indwe had written for the project. “It helped to have a clear vision to begin with,” says James, “but this vision essentially steered the process into something new that was the sum of everyone’s input.”
Jonny agreed to produce the project. “There’s something powerful about how Jonny produces, allowing space for the artist and the work to be what it needs to be, yet also supporting the process to get the best possible result.” Dave Langemann was the first choice as sound engineer “because of his sensitivity and attention to detail, and because he’d been researching hi-end field recording techniques”.
INSIDE THE CAVE
With the team assembled, it was time to lay down the tracks. But recording in an uncontrolled environment presented challenges. “We were running entirely off the grid and had to carry everything we needed in,” says James. “It also got very cold in the cave, and we had to protect the equipment from the elements. We also had to stop recording every time a distant train went by! And we had to work carefully because we were essentially in an archaeological dig site, and had to be respectful of the space.” Because they’d decided against overdubbing or undue alteration of sound, setting up also took time, especially mic placement.
“It was about being present, listening attentively to one another and trusting the music. I’ve never been challenged this much in a recording situation – nor have I felt this rewarded. As Intone, Ronan and I really gelled, and Jonny held the space so well for us during the recording. Working with Indwe was like entering yet another dimension – her music and creativity seem to come from a mysterious, unfathomable place.”
“My short-term vision for this project is to connect people to this music and hopefully get positive endorsements especially from mothers. Longer term, I hope to keep performing with the trio, and for Intone to continue composing and performing in South Africa and abroad. We’d also love to do live workshops, creating music for pregnant women and indeed anyone who would like to experience full immersion of this relaxing, trance-inducing music,” says James.
“Rootspring aims to bring positive value to people’s lives, and we hope this album will bring a sense of human connection to listeners,” says Jonny. “As Indwe says, ‘It’s our roots that connect us.’”
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