Bola Sete, “Guitar Lamento,” recorded 1972, released 1975.
John Fahey on Bola Sete, Guitar Player, 1976:
In order to write anything about Bola Sete I must descend from this altitude, this thin air of obscurity, of indirectness, deceit, and hiddenness. I must free myself from what I once considered a great virture - the demonic stance of Inwardness (vide early Kierkegaard). My reactions to Bola Sete and his music are so intense and so subjective that I cannot talk about him and be honest without talking a lot about myself. Please forgive me, Bola. Few living people have had such an enormous influence on my life, my music, my soul, my religion - you name it - as has Bola Sete.
I first saw him playing - solo - in early 1972 at David Allen’s Boarding House in San Francisco. That night, I was high on drugs as I had been for several years, and - as also had been the case for years - I felt that I was one isolated example of an experimental species that God had forgotten about (I was wrong there). I felt I had been - and was still - walking and talking among shadows: “People” who had no depth, who were not related to themselves, did not know anything about themselves - endless, phony, shadow-people. And I was one of them. Only when I played the guitar did I, to some extent, make contact with the real John Fahey and with other people (as yet, I was unable to make contact verbally or emotively).
Bola played for about 45 minutes and grimaced and grunted through the whole set. Something was wrong. He couldn’t “get it out.” I knew how he felt, and I understood. Something was wrong. I was intrigued by his obvious frustration having felt that way myself almost all my life. The performance had been mediocre so far. However, the audience gave him a long ovation, and he reluctantly got up and started to play an encore, still looking frustrated, impotent, mad, seething. I knew that feeling well. But then suddenly he got hot. He got so cooking, he played song after song for another 45 minutes, forgetting (or not caring) that he was doing an encore, playing many of the same songs he had just played. But there was life in this set. I couldn’t sit still. I’d never heard anything like it since Charley Patton, and this was better. This was the turning point in my life, though I didn’t know it until much later. I was transformed, purged - I was not the same. (This was only an aesthetic experience, I think, but it was almost as if it had religious overtones.) I was so “in touch” with life and reality that I was terrified of Bola, myself, of the whole creation. I could hardly speak. What could I say?
Oh, reader, please forgive me, if much of this sounds testimonial. I hate testimonials myself. I have only been a groupie or sycophant once or twice in my whole life, and I got over it very quickly. Sycophancy is a terrible crime - a symbiotic crime implying guilt of more than one person - a crime on the part of the groupie because he makes someone into an idol (commits idolatry), i.e. makes the one he worships into something other than what he, in his existence, really is. It is an act of bad faith and self-deception. But it even gets me sometimes.
I tell you, I’ve heard so much music and so many musicians, I am quite thoroughly jaded. It is extremely difficult to blow my mind in any medium. And yet here I was idolizing someone and his music while knowing that I myself hate idolization - especially of me by others. I am embarrassed when I even “like” someone, much less when I find that I love someone. But I am really embarrased when I idealize someone - and I should be, for that is simply a very, very wrong thing to do to anyone - if you do it for more than a short period. Fortunately, sycophancy is usually a disease of only short duration and will give way to love and friendship (or even hatred, which is better than staying a groupie). If it is only temporary, and one is fully aware of it, it’s okay. It will go away. We are all human beings; but that, I grant you is sometimes hard to remember. Nevertheless, I got over my groupie feelings, and now Bola and I are friends and love each other very much. Thank God.
My first impression that night, as I told a friend at the time, was this: Here is a man who has lived through hell and somehow miraculously got out of it. I went back to the Boarding House several times that week. I found that Bola’s sets have an interesting “plot.” They all begin and end with songs whose emotional contour is pretty, happy, light, peaceful, or ecstatic. But after the first two or three songs, the terrain gets rougher and darker, heavier and weirder. By the middle of his set, Bola is giving you pictures of hell, memories of perdition, demonic music. But then Bola gradually lightens up the spectrum of feeling and leads you out of the cave and into the sunlight, and life is paradise. Only now, one is so changed that one is temporarily aware that life really is paradise after all, the world is an ocean, etc. It is like a breath from the 19th Century or before; a breeze from times when people had passion and significance and were not mere shadows. It is as though something has finally changed.
I talked to Bola’s wife (I was too shaken to speak to him at the time). “How does he keep from going crazy,” I asked her, “when he has so much energy and tension? You can hear it in his music - a lot of passion and tension. How did he get out of hell?” (“How can I get out of hell?” That’s what I really wanted to know.) She told me he “meditates” a lot and does a lot of yoga.
So the next day, I went out and started taking lessons from various meditation teachers and groups and swamis, and later (remembering what my dear friend, Rev. Charles Mitchell had told me about meditating) I began meditating on the name of the deity or person or thing I loved and respected the most. (I went through three or four deities in the next few years until quite mysteriously I finally knew which “deity” had chosen me, and also knew that I had always known it but would not face this fact.) As soon as I started meditating, I forgot to want my previously perpetual supply of drugs.
Shortly thereafter, I listened to a record I had cut while on various drugs and was astounded to find that, although I had thought while cutting this album that I was playing fast songs fast, I had in fact been playing them very, very slowly and boringly. (That album had received reviews which all referred to my special “inner sense of space and peace” - it was nothing but drugs.) This record now sounded to me as though it were moving through thick glue. I wanted to play fast songs fast like Bola did. So I asked my friend Jolly to back me at the Boarding House for a week. I wanted to see if I could play straight, and I did it, I played so well I amazed myself, and - judging from their applause - the audience, too. I was so proud of myself that I told the opening night crowd: “That was the first time I ever played straight in public in my life.” They applauded again. I believe they actually found some joy in my achievement (even though it was not me that did the achieving). I started imitating Bola’s rhythms and letting myself play enharmonic chords and tunes on stage that I had never played anywhere except in my living room when I was alone. I thought, “If Bola can be that free, maybe I can get away with it, too.” If they understood Bola, they might understand me. And they did. Suddenly, I noticed I was gradually becoming free.
Later that summer, with a brand new girl friend (Marilyn), a brand new cat, and an almost brand new car, I chased swamis and yoga instructors all over the U.S. and Canada trying to learn about them and about what techniques were best for musicians and for me. I was playing the “ashram circuit.” With that girl, I owned the world that summer, conquered it - and not through mere aesthetics. It was conquered through the power of love, and although this ecstasy (this feeling that life is paradise if one will only walk into the garden, this ability to love, to get along with Marilyn to the extent that I did) was given to me, I still associate it all - in a way I don’t understand - with Bola Sete and his music.
I still didn’t (and don’t) know very much about Bola Sete except that he is in touch with himself, and in touch with his roots, which are not in this effeminate age, this passionless, unspirited generation. Life is paradise despite this, or maybe because things are getting worse and worse. I don’t understand these things with my head. But I do understand that the entire creation will be resurrected; not just people: Animals, rocks, trees, mountains, germs, clams, snails, turtles, rattlesnakes, hippos, spiders. I hear that in Bola’s music - something most people have forgotten how to even want.
Bola Sete? He’s kind of crazy, like me. He made a lot of jazz records with other people. But, he tells me (now that I have gotten over being a sycophant and gotten to know him a little - he’s a very complex character) nobody would ever let him be himself and play what he wanted to play, i.e. his own songs, solo. He says he saw me a couple of times playing in the San Francisco Bay Area and that I did exactly what he wanted to do. “Nobody else is as crazy as I am except you and your company,” he said. “They [the other companies] won’t let me do my own thing, man. But you understand, because you are as crazy as me. Ha, ha, ha. You have to be yourself. You can’t do anything else. May God have mercy on you. I record for you. You call my lawyer. I love you. Ha, ha, ha. You are crazy!”
Although it doesn’t sound like it at first, Bola, it turns out, speaks English. He looks like a demon and makes a lot of conversational flubs, but his feelings are so overt that the mistakes don’t matter - there is so much life in him. He says he gets up at 4:00 AM to meditate. He listens only to Indian (Asian) music (he’s another orientophile), which he plays while he does his yoga asanas. He chews ginseng. He tells stories about himself which have an Iberian, picaresque flavor (funny as hell).
The majority of Bola’s songs are in E major, standard tuning, a few in A (major and minor). Sometimes he plays in the key of D, with the low E string dropped down to a D. He plays in the ionian, dorian, mixolydian, and phrygian modes (especially E phrygian), and also in the harmonic minor and whole tone scales a la Debussy and Ravel. He loves dissonance, but always lets it resolve itself just in time - a breathtaking, daredevil stunt. He is somewhat reclusive (like me), but likes the beach (like me). He usually refuses to play where booze is served, though he sometimes does play such joints. He gets bored (like me) if asked technical or objective, biographical questions. He wears funny, Haight Ashbury-vintage clothing which his wife makes for him. His music is so good it’s eerie - eerie because it comes from a different time, a different place, when men felt different things that we can no longer love or experience except as an echo or phantom in the best of art works. Sete, a complex character whose roots are in a bygone era that now seems bizarre, though actually the reverse is true. Things, now, are bizarre, and getting more and more crazy every day. Bola’s music comes from a time long gone, when people were closer to themselves, God, and each other.
It is an honor for me to have my favorite guitar player on my label. Most of the songs on Ocean [Takoma, C-1049] were outtakes which we bought from another company that couldn’t figure out what to do with them, and therefore wasn’t going to issue them. We were most fortunate to rescue them.
Most of Bola’s music is eclectic and nongeneric. Take a song like “Black Mommy.” Now, if you didn’t know anything about Bola (and we still don’t know much; as with Anton Bruckner, we probably will never get the whole story), what musical tradition, period, or era would you guess this song came from? Tasmania? Easter Island? Next door? It comes from everywhere and nowhere. The subconscious really is universal. Bola Sete’s music is the best reminder of this that I have ever heard. He is a man of great spirit and great depth.
Objectivity again: Bola plays percussively, vertically, with a very heavy and insistent thumb. His playing is very masculine (the word is an anachronism). He plays erratically and restlessly like Boll Weavil Jackson, Blind Lemon Jefferson, or Bill Monroe. But he also has inner peace and breadth (things I was once accused of having precisely when I did not). Rhythm and dynamics are constantly changing. Just before he has completed the elaboration of the first musical statement in a song, he is off into another tune fragment which is only suggested. Though not actually played, you hear it later in your head all the same.
Bola’s playing gives the impression (and like my playing it is a false impression) of being very improvisatory. His songs, on the other hand, tend to be very short and terse (unlike mine), without undue repetition. But like me, he tries to recreate each song each time he plays it, which is in effect to destroy it, as I have described elsewhere [see GP, Feb. ‘75]. The only elements of a song which change from one performance to the next are the number of repetitions of each idea. The order of the ideas stays pretty much the same. But the speed and intensity at which they are played may vary; if Bola doesn’t like the room he is playing in, or the people he is playing for, he tends to play lousy. I do the same. We both play the way we feel, but within a rigid structure. We play that way because we have to - we can’t do anything else. God help us.