TASHI DORJI ARTIST PROFILES:
“Tashi Dorji picked up a guitar for the first time in circumstances befitting any American teenager. He was playing basketball on an outdoor court close to his home when he noticed some kids hanging around nearby, idly playing tunes by The Doors and other usual rock 'n' roll suspects.
He stopped dribbling long enough for a guy to show him one chord. Though he loved listening to music, he'd previously only tinkered with hand drums. But now, he wanted to know about all of it.
That wasn't going to be as easy for Dorji as it might have been for an American teenager: Dorji lived in Thimphu, the capital city of Bhutan, the mountainous and sparsely populated country clasped like a pearl between India and China. With a population of around 100,000, Thimphu was the largest city Dorji had ever called home. His father, a government worker, had moved his family from one of the country's remote regions to another before finally settling in the capital. Even in Thimphu, there was no Internet and very little television, so Dorji would tune his shortwave radio to intercept signals from Eastern Europe and the BBC. Western culture—and, in particular, hot-blooded American music—offered the allure of pure exotica.
"You're yearning for something else. The idea was to grab hold of anything you could hear, in terms of music—pop, glam rock and metal, especially in the hills of the Himalayas," says Dorji, now 35. "If you grow up in such a remote place with a heavy culture, there's a lack of outside influence. So young people are constantly seeking other things. It's new.
Based in Asheville, where he works part-time at a food co-op, Dorji is quickly amassing a catalog of extemporaneous and highly inquisitive guitar pieces. Those recordings have earned praise in international magazines and caused another marquee musician, Six Organs of Admittance founder Ben Chasny, to start a record label for the express purpose of issuing Dorji's music. But no matter how people respond, now or in the future, the opportunity to make music at all compelled Dorji's 8,000-mile relocation.
"I play, and I'll keep playing," he says. "I have an insane amount of music that will just keep coming."
Thanks to his obsession with American bands in the late '90s, Dorji learned that, though most Bhutanese students traveled to India for further education after high school, some shipped off to the United States instead. In a college catalog, he stumbled upon an entry for Warren Wilson College, a small liberal arts school just outside of Asheville. He mailed them a hand-written, one-page letter, an earnest memo that simply explained how he loved playing music and wanted to come to college stateside. His expectations were limited, he admits, but his hope for adventure wasn't.
"Growing up, letter writing was my mode of communication. I used to write to radio in Russia and the BBC, joining writing competitions out of pure curiosity," Dorji says. So he waited. "It took four months, and after that, I got billions of letters from school. They gave me pretty much a full ride. After that, I was just here."
Asheville is only slightly smaller than the Bhutanese capital Dorji left in 2000. But new inspirations were ubiquitous. Dorji didn't even finish his education, largely because he found what he'd been looking for outside of the classroom. He lived with a few Asheville punk rock musicians, and they showed him how underground rock 'n' roll scenes could thrive in small cities. His musical world exploded: He learned of free jazz and, after purchasing his first laptop, downloaded entire discographies of artists that friends would mention. He consumed John Zorn's output several albums at a time.
Dorji had been in North Carolina for five years when he finally saw the performance that changed the way he perceived his own work forever. An acoustic guitarist and a saxophonist ripped through a series of improvisations in a small club. Dorji was in his mid-20s and still uncertain of what kind of music he should be making at all. But this is what he wanted to do.
"The thought that you could just sit there and play and improvise sounded really fun," Dorji says. "It was self-indulgent, and it sucked me really deep in. I was hearing things and playing off of them, just responding to what I was hearing."
During the past decade, a fresh wave of young acoustic instrumentalists has emerged internationally. These pickers often pull from the ragged blues and wayward experimentalism of John Fahey or the more elegant creations of his British counterparts. But Dorji's music works beyond those fashionable sounds, exploring more obviously alien terrain. As John Cage did with a piano, Dorji sometimes "prepares" his guitar, adding bits of chopsticks or foam around or beneath the strings to alter the way they vibrate and snap against the guitar's neck. And like British progenitor Derek Bailey, Dorji plays in starts and stops, hiccups and halts. His guitar doesn't sing so much as it stutters, breaking narrative flow into strands of hyperlinked thoughts.
During "Improvisation I," the stunning nine-minute opener from a 10-song cassette he issued on Asheville label Headway in 2012, Dorji climbs and descends a hidden staircase of sound with his guitar strings. He shifts from gently chiming harmonics to a frantic tussle of notes so immaculately played and placed that they seem computer-generated and digitally edited.
Like this one, his best pieces radiate the ecstasy of possibility: Every unexpected note becomes a discovery on the journey to some unknown end.
"I'm mesmerized by people in the world. I grew up imagining things, and I've never lost that kind of romantic nostalgia. It helps me create my music," he says. "This is my storytelling. I look forward to wherever it will take me." –– Grayson Haver Currin, Indyweek
“The tale of Tashi Dorji isn’t what you’d expect from an instrumental guitarist. He didn’t absorb a lifelong diet of blues, bluegrass and gospel records, and he didn’t emerge from some psychedelic rock band to become one of the great pickers of his time. John Fahey wasn’t his childhood idol.
No, Dorji grew up in the rather small South Asian country of Bhutan, moving between some of the country’s most isolated regions before arriving with his family as a teenager in the capital city. He discovered the guitar and the radio, rock ‘n’ roll and, ultimately, the prospect of attending college in America. At the age of 20, Dorji left Bhutan for Asheville, North Carolina, enrolling in the tiny liberal arts school Warren Wilson College. But in the thrall of the music scene he discovered, he soon dropped out. Still, the global move proved copacetic and educational, as Dorji became a musical piranha of sorts, devouring discographies he’d download to learn about free jazz and hardcore, American primitivism and the folk music indigenous to his new home. After two decades of seclusion, his tastes and consumption became acutely post-modern.
You’ll see some version of that backstory in most every review of Tashi Dorji, the 35-year-old guitarist’s long overdue step into the spotlight. Compelling as the tale is, it runs the risk of overrunning Dorji’s music.
Still, it matters because Dorji’s playing suggests an incredible openness — to technique, to style, to reception — that few possess, whether in music or in art or in life at large. An improviser on both the electric and acoustic guitar, Dorji has an envious amount of tools and touchstones at his disposal. During these 43 minutes, he moves between delicacy that reflects near-mechanical control and chaos that hints there must be a madman lurking behind the guitar’s wooden body. With his heavy strums and quick string pops, Dorji certainly trends toward the Derek Bailey and Eugene Chadbourne lineage of spontaneity. But there’s blues grit and classical grace here, with mirages of pop music and the mood of punk rock drifting in and out. Within the momentum of these wonderfully restless explorations of what can be wrangled from a few familiar strings, you can hear Dorji working through what he’s heard and learned.
This six-song set [Tashi Dorji, Hat Hut Records, 2014] isn’t Dorji’s debut; he’s released nearly 10 rather short titles in the last five years, though those were largely short-run CDs and cassettes on small labels. But this album marks the first release from Hermit Hut, the new label from Six Organs of Admittance anchor Ben Chasny. It’s an auspicious introduction, then, carrying the imprimatur of one of the best guitar stylists of the last decade.
Dorji revisits that past by lifting two pieces from his great 2012 tape, Guitar Improvisations. “Improvisation I” races through a section of tiny notes that might sound like rain on a tin roof. But the restraint Dorji possesses and the deliberate placement of every note feels less than aleatoric; it is like rain on a tin roof, but sampled and fastidiously arranged by Autechre. “Improvisation II” starts slow, escalates into a tumbling twist of melodic fragments and ends in reflective melancholy, notes hanging low as they drift toward a slow comedown.
The new material finds him digging into alternate instruments and ideas. During “Few Thousand Words Without Any,” for instance, his hiccups and harmonics along the neck of an electric guitar tangle into gnarled blues, stutters shifting suddenly into the kind of red-hot licks you would expect from a roadhouse’s open door. A section of “Still III” seems to borrow the slap bass thump of a virile funk track and clusters of notes so dense he seems to be sweeping them from a mandolin. Elsewhere, during the same six-minute span, he weaves beautiful strands of airy harmonics and turns bits he seems to yank from the strings into stubborn knots. He ends with a canter that’s essentially exuberant, the dance of the bright notes decaying through the rests.
At various points during the record, when the strings slink just enough into silence, you can hear Dorji’s breath or his hands move across the instrument. Sometimes, he adjusts his body position in front of the microphone. These are incidental moments, of course, nonmusical relics within an expertly rendered album. But they’re also instant reminders of the strange journey that Dorji took to arrive at one of the year’s most winning records — and how that journey and this destination are irrevocably linked. –– Wandering Sound