For the past 15 years, Jon Gillespie has been immersed in a project that could go on forever. A composer and ethnomusicologist by training, Gillespie is better known as a recording engineer. His work at the mixing board can be heard on scores of records made by local musicians. And while he continues to do that work to a certain degree, his main focus has turned to his own vision of what music is and can be. He calls the project Dream Rodeo, and his goal is to record vocalists singing in different languages.
There are around 6,500 distinct languages spoken in the world today. Gillespie would like to record them all.
But to even approach that goal would require several lifetimes and a global battalion of intrepid travelers armed with microphones. In Nigeria alone, for example, there are more than 500 distinct languages arising from a few basic language families. So rather than focus on the languages themselves, Gillespie has divided Dream Rodeo into geographical groups that align with the continents. And thanks to the internet, trotting the globe can be done with a mouse click.
Through serendipity and active searching, Gillespie has managed to record vocalists from roughly 25 different countries from Asia, North America, Europe and Africa. To date, he has nine finished albums, with a couple dozen more in various stages of completion.
Gillespie works as a sales engineer at Sweetwater where on any given day top-notch musicians from around the world drop in to record. That’s where Gillespie met the vocalist Amadhia Albee. Amadhia, as she is known, collaborated on an album called Catala: Songs of the Catalans. It is Dream Rodeo’s most recent release and a good example of the ambient, dream-like style of the project – and the mechanics of it as well.
“She lives in Arizona,” Gillespie said. “All of the vocals and the flute were done in her closet in Arizona, and she drop-boxed them to me. I’d send mixes of the arrangements back to her. She said ‘no’ to a jazz interpretation of one, and I had to start over.”
The songs tend to be long (seven or eight minutes is about average) and packed full of sounds. One piece on Catala has more than 80 separate tracks. If Gillespie can’t create the sounds he needs on his own, he hires local musicians and those he meets through work or online. He works with a drummer from Uganda on a regular basis, trading audio equipment for tracks. He got Bakiti Kumalo, who played bass on Paul Simon’s Graceland, and Spin Doctors drummer Aaron Comess to play on songs. Fort Wayne musicians Mimi Burns and Fernando Tarango both are featured on a Dream Rodeo albums, one of Celtic songs and one of Gregorian chants.
It all begins with the vocalists. The concept for the Dream Rodeo project came to him on a day in 2000 in the form of Jeff Britton. Britton and Gillespie have known each other for years and have worked together on numerous ventures in the past. This day, Britton dropped by Gillespie’s studio with his niece Lydia Brown, who is a cantor in her Greek Orthodox church. Britton wanted Gillespie to record her singing and then put music to it.
Brown sang three parts, two harmony and one melody, with only a metronome and drone note. Gillespie then had her sing each part two more times without hearing what she had already sung.
“They have some really cool chants,” Gillespie said. “After all the parts were triple-tracked, I spread them out in a nice stereo image and played it back, and it was amazing. The sound was just full and rich and gorgeous.”
Gillespie and Britton brought in keyboard player Eric Clancy to play some drum loops on a synthesizer; they threw in some other sounds, and Gillespie added some spoken lines and voila. They both thought it was pretty cool. They decided to do an album of Brown singing Greek Orthodox chants with Gillespie’s compositions added later. One recording session with Brown took seven hours.
“So it’s a pretty involved process,” Gillespie said. “But my method was developed that first day.” He tends to work spontaneously, using whatever sounds right at the time. As long he keeps things interesting, freaky even, he’s happy. Britton moved on to other things after that first album, but Gillespie was hooked.
Gillespie, who is 52, grew up in a musical family. His father played the violin, his mother, the piano. His grandfather was a traveling evangelist whose wife played the piano. His father had a large record collection, mostly classical and jazz. The only pop music Gillespie remembers hearing from that period was Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming , which he listened to and then discussed with his family. Later some friends came to live with his family and they brought Beatles records. “They weren’t horrible,” Gillespie recalled thinking of the Beatles at the time.
At Wheaton College in Illinois Gillespie studied composition and ethnomusicology, later earning a masters in recording. It’s also where he first began to appreciate rock n’ roll.
“At that time I really just didn’t pay attention to popular music, and then somebody played the Police for me,” he said. “Zenyatta Mondata. And it was like, bing! I had been studying the minimalists like Stephen Reich and Philip Glass, people like that, and here was a band that took the best of the minimalist movement and created these soundscapes in which there would be an ostinato guitar and it wouldn’t change, but the bass would change under it and shift the entire harmony, and the melody would create the other part of the harmony and it was brilliant, you know. I found it intellectually fascinating and from that point on that was like the gateway drug to rock n’ roll.”
From 1985 to 1992 Gillespie played keyboards in a Christian rock band called Juso, a nonsense word they made up. The band toured the country and nearly made it big, besting 42 other bands in a nationwide battle of the bands in St. Louis. But when the time came to make the jump to hyperspace, his bandmates got cold feet.
“We had record people talking to us, and man, once the possibility of the band becoming something big, that was it. I have never seen so many people scuttle the same ship.”
That’s when he decided to steer his own course. Dream Rodeo is his dream project, his life’s work. It allows him to use whatever he can get his hands on, whether it’s snippets of Bob Marley skanking from the master tapes or the sound of an early morning rainstorm. He pays for the rights for what he uses and does what he can to help collaborators when they need it. Recently through Facebook he met a 15-year-old Ukrainian girl who sings old Russian folk songs and plays a type of lute her father makes. It’s perfect for Gillespie.
“Here’s a bunch of these folk songs, and they’re being played by two or three people in the world, and when those folks stop playing them nobody will hear them ever again,” he said. “These songs need to be saved somehow. They’re not recorded. It’s an oral tradition. Nobody’s buying records of this stuff. So I said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ And she’s like ‘yeah, I’ll ask my dad.’ And her dad is like ‘how will we record this?’ And I said, ‘Well, let me help you.”
Through his connections Gillespie was able to get a professional vocal mic and interface to the girl and her father, even in war-torn Ukraine.
“I’ve gotten the files for one song so far. Got seven or eight more to go. I’m really pumped about this.”
Gillespie does not see an end to Dream Rodeo.
“I want to keep doing this till I keel over. So if there are other people out there who can sing in other languages, get in touch. There is just so much to do.”