Davey Blackburn has been on hiatus from the Charlotte music scene for three long years. That might not seem like much, but it’s quite a span for one of the city’s most inventive, inquisitive and open-minded musicians. Now he has readied his return.
Through the harsh yet vulnerable hardcore of Autumn 80, the hard-hitting math rock of Calabi Yau, the experimental avant-noise of Moenda, and his current fascination with Afro-Brazilian rhythms that has manifested in Latin-flavored psychedelic pop rock outfits Patabamba and Chócala, drummer, percussionist and producer Blackburn has consistently pushed musical and rhythmic boundaries, and his presence in the Queen City’s creative life has been sorely missed.
Now Blackburn is back with his solo album, surprisingly a first for the wide-ranging artist. The debut, titled Curiosidades de Bombrile, is scheduled to drop on Feb. 11 on Bandcamp and the usual streaming platforms. The album offers 12 propulsive and hypnotic songs comprised of multi-tracked shape-shifting rhythms that snake, slalom and bubble under Blackburn’s layered and frequently repetitive vocals.
Despite the multi-tracking, Blackburn says everything on the album is played all the way through, with no overdubs dropped in to correct anything — what the music industry refers to as “punching in.”
“You can’t play a metronome with this stuff because it fluctuates,” Blackburn says of the album’s organic rhythms. “Everything is layered and played all the way through, each instrument. The only thing I did after the fact was vocals.”
Blackburn has been working on these tracks for more than 10 years, but he left them untouched for most of his three-year exile from music, a hiatus inspired by an ordeal that goes well beyond the average pandemic-induced stress we’ve all experienced. In October 2019, his son and only child, Cuauthy, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 10.
“I stopped thinking about music and everything because he was sick,” Blackburn says. During that time, Blackburn and his wife, Maria Elosia, concentrated on the care and treatment of their son, whose name is a tribute to Maria Elosia’s Mexican American heritage. It derives from the last Aztec ruler, Cuauhtémoc, and means “descending eagle.”
Cuauthy’s cancer is in remission now, and the prognosis is good, Blackburn says.
“He still has treatments, and he still has some rough days, but he’s back in school. We still have a long road ahead with this, but he’s on the other side of it.”
As Cuauthy’s health improved and the family’s three-year long ordeal gave way to a sense of normalcy, Blackburn started thinking about music again. He returned to the tracks he started recording in 2010 with renewed vigor and sharpened insight.
“I started listening to the songs again, and … remixing them on my lunch break in my truck, bouncing them back between the stereo in the truck and the headphones,” Blackburn says.
The truck-turned-studio was necessary, because Blackburn didn’t want the noise of the remixing process to disturb Cuauthy. Once the tracks were mixed to his satisfaction, Blackburn also recorded his vocals in the truck.
While it’s tempting to ascribe to these lyrics the heightened clarity that comes to many after enduring a life-or-death ordeal, the often simple and celebratory words possess the child-like ability to cut to the quick. With that interpretation in mind, the album is revealed as a compendium of the things that matter most to Blackburn: his family, plants and animals, and favorite people and places. As such, the album plays like an open diary of Blackburn’s life, dominated by observations of the natural world.
The polyrhythmic and enchanting music is influenced by another touchstone in Blackburn’s life: the Afro-Brazilian martial art form capoeira.
“I’ve heard a lot of people describing it as dance fighting,” Blackburn offers.
It is that and so much more, he maintains. In modern times, the practice has evolved into a supportive community that presents events that illustrate and explain the discipline and its traditions.
“The music is what really attracted me to it,” Blackburn says. “I like the physical aspect of [capoeira], but the music was so intriguing and interesting.”
The music that accompanies capoeira is distinctive, Blackburn explains, because of the unique sounds and rhythms made by the instruments involved: the berimbau, a bow-like instrument with an open gourd that acts as an amplifier; the atabaques, which are congas; and the pandeiros, which resemble tambourines.
As a drummer, Blackburn took a deep dive into the music, learning how to play the traditional rhythms. He befriended the Brazilian capoeira master Mestre Esquilo (Bruno Melo) and ultimately recorded, engineered and mixed the mestre’s 2013 album Toque o Tambor, for which Blackburn wrote the suitable funky track “Funkeira.”
In addition to informing the music of Blackburn’s album, capoeira also inspired the project’s name: Curiosidades de Bombrile.
“Bombrile is a nickname that was given to me as an unofficial apelido,” Blackburn says. An apelido is a capoeira nickname, which he earned due to his characteristic hair style, a shaggy but sturdy mop that bears resemblance to a Brazilian company’s Brillo-like soap pad, Bombrile.
On Curiosidades de Bombrile, the instrumental “Mestre forgot my apelido” rides oscillating metallic percussion that ping-pongs like a crazy cuckoo clock. The tune plays like the British post-punk band Wire had supped on psychedelic Peruvian cumbias and fractured disco. It serves as a musical remembrance of Blackburn’s apelido, and how it remains “unofficial.”
The album’s title encompasses Blackburn’s curiosity about different cultures and the music they create, and being inspired to learn more about them, Blackburn explains.
The Curiosidades de Bombrile are the things that interest, fascinate, inspire and animate Davey Blackburn.
A life in rhythm
Growing up in Iron Station, about 30 miles northwest of Charlotte in Lincoln County, Blackburn began to learn about music outside the rock and pop norms through dumpster diving with his dad. One day on a trip to the Queen City, Blackburn scored three albums by British-Nigerian R&B singer Sade in a bin behind a record store.
“There was something different about that,” Blackburn says. “There’s a lot of percussion in that band.”
In sixth grade, Blackburn got into skateboarding. The pastime became a gateway to punk rock when Blackburn found a mixtape featuring Fugazi, Dead Milkmen, Minute Men and Subhumans at a skate park.
“I still have that tape,” he says.
A teacher in his freshman year at East Lincoln High School kicked off Blackburn’s passion for horticulture, leading a class that cultivated his longtime affinity for plants and wildlife and inspired his later studies and career.
In 1993, Blackburn joined his first band, punk outfit Limousine, as the drummer. Then, with friends Craig Friday and Mark Boles, Blackburn formed Autumn 80. The trio, which Blackburn describes as melancholy post-punk, with screaming vocals, and harsh, fast drumming, marked a rite of passage when it played a gig at The Milestone Club in August 1995.
The band continued while Blackburn attended Haywood Community College in Clyde, NC, to study dendrology, silviculture and forestry. He recalls driving from his home in Maggie Valley to Greensboro to practice with the band and play gigs. While at college, Blackburn fell in love with Latin artists like Hector Lavoe and Willie Colón. He also devoured the fabled Fania Records catalog.
Unfortunately, Blackburn had to discontinue his studies at Haywood. He moved back home to become live-in caretaker for his Alzheimer’s-afflicted great-grandmother. Even though Blackburn had to leave college without a degree, his passion for horticulture and forestry paid off. He took jobs in the field and, as he accrued work experience, his career blossomed. He landed a position at Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens, then later moved on to become a horticulturalist at Cowan’s Ford Country Club on Lake Norman.
For the past 18 years, Davey Blackburn, who is now 45, has been working at a botanical garden on a private estate in the Charlotte area. In the process he has earned a Master Gardener Certification and a Master Naturalist Certification.
Blackburn’s love of animals and plants as well as his fascination with horticulture surface on Curiosidades de Bombrile. With ratcheting, slapping percussion and layered voices like a demonic obeah, “No Fins No Feathers” is Blackburn’s statement about the hypocritical ways humans use animal’s bodies as products.
“It’s [also] about animal mutilation with dogs, like how they clip the ears and they cut the tails just to create an esthetic that humans want to see,” Blackburn says. Riding a trancey, chugging stomp with wind-chime tintinnabulations, “Colugo a Go Go” is a light-hearted reminder that the arboreal flying colugo is mistakenly called a flying lemur, when it’s not a lemur at all. Similarly, the reverberating “Kyndaisapoh (Smooth Rolling Isopod),” is an appreciation of the simple roly poly or pill bug.
Suggesting Carnival in Rio punctuated with needle-sharp African highlife guitar-like hits, “Motion Matrix / Matriz de movimento” is about floral arrangement.
After a stint in the band Shortround, Blackburn moved to Charlotte, where he formed Calabi Yau with Bo White and Robin Doermann. The band played up and down the east coast and undertook a tour of the U.S. It was at a Calabi Yau show at Charlotte venue The Room that Blackburn met Maria Elosia. On Aug. 2, 2007, Blackburn proposed to Maria Elosia on a beach at Garden Key in the Dry Tortugas, 70 miles west of Key West, Florida. Exactly one year later, the two were married in Key West, on a beach where the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean meet.
Meanwhile, in Charlotte. Blackburn started experimenting with different rhythm patterns and unfamiliar instruments. In 2009, he launched Moenda with Ross Wilibanks, Robin Doermann, Steven Piker and Jeremy Fisher.
The way of capoeira
“In Moenda, I wanted to draw influences from other places,” Davey Blackburn says. This revived exploratory impulse coincided with his discovery of capoeira. Blackburn recalls attending a capoeira event in Charlotte featuring an instructor. Shortly thereafter, he joined a group of people interested in the practice, which began meeting in 2008. Blackburn also learned about the history of the practice.
According to tradition, capoeira, which contains elements of dance, acrobatics and music, began as fighting training for enslaved Africans in Brazil during the colonial period. Capoeira became a necessity for unarmed escaped slaves, equipping them with the survival tools necessary to evade capture by armed and mounted colonial agents. “The training was disguised as a dance so [the oppressors] wouldn’t know what they were doing,” Blackburn says.
In the meantime, Blackburn slowly moved into recording and producing. After getting a Fostex 4-track recorder from a friend, Blackburn acquired more gear and began recording capoeira music and events at Moenda’s practice space at Noda Studios. In 2010, he also started working on the tracks that would become Curiosidades de Bombrile more than a decade later.
In March 2011, capoeira master Mestre Esquilo came from Brazil to teach the class Davey Blackburn and his wife were attending. In 2012, Blackburn started working with the master on his Toque o Tambor album.
Riding a pinwheeling bristling knot of percussive instruments, “De lado a lado y de regresso” on Curiosidades de Bombrile is a remembrance of those sessions working with Mestre Esquilo, who eventually returned to Brazil.
“The title means side by side, how certain things run in parallels,” Blackburn says.
Though Blackburn carries complete respect for capoeira, he wanted to do something different with the new album.
“I wanted to borrow things from it in order to realize a sound that’s in my mind,” Blackburn says. “I thought capoeira was a really cool thing to incorporate [into] the music scene in Charlotte. Having a relationship with Mestre Esquilo like I did, it made me feel like I could borrow from different things and not appropriate them.”
The cross pollination between Brazilian culture and Queen City music became a springboard for events like Latin Night in Plaza Midwood, which held its inaugural concert on Jan. 9, 2016, plus annual capoeira Batizado events that often coincided with the yearly A Night in Rio celebration at Neighborhood Theatre in NoDa.
By this time, Davey Blackburn was involved with the International Capoeira School and North Carolina Brazilian Arts Project, as well as playing with Bo White y su Orquestra. As Moenda wound down, he launched Patabamba in 2015 with Patrick O’Boyle and siblings Claudio and Liza Ortiz. That same year, he helped start Don Telling’s Island Mysteries (DTIM) with White, Tyler Baum, New Brownlow, Scott Thompson and Brent Bagwell.
In 2017, Patabamba gave way to Chócala with Michael Anderson joining Blackburn, and Claudio and Liza Ortiz. Then in October 2019, things came to a halt. Blackburn had been busy with music prior to his son’s diagnosis, but with Cuauthy’s illness, he put all creative projects on hold.
“I tried not to think about it,” Blackburn says.
After a few years, as Cuauthy started feeling better, music slowly reentered Blackburn’s life.
On Curiosidades de Bombrile, amid a mass of ethereal voices, like fleeting spirits, the Blackburn family’s situation is perhaps unconsciously reflected on the song “Orange to orange to red rays.”
“That one is about a plant called Tithonia rotundifolia, which is a Mexican sunflower,” Blackburn says.
He remembers his wife getting seeds for the sunflowers from Mexico, then sowing those seeds in the Blackburns’ garden a year after Cuauthy was diagnosed. While the song simply describes the plant — how tall it gets and its color and florescence — the lyrics suggest hope with the coming blooms, from summer to midsummer: “Orange to orange to red rays an orange yellow disc blooms from midsummer to fall…”
Similarly, the ritualistic trance rhythms of “Marcescent” suggest renewal and hope. The title comes from a characteristic of plants, mainly deciduous trees. They hold onto the season’s previous leaves to protect new leaf buds that are developing underneath.
“Then, when the new ones push through in the spring, the old leaves finally fall off,” Blackburn says.
As Cuauthy started to feel better, Davey Blackburn returned to the songs he had set aside. For years he had been unsure what to do with them vocally. He started listening to them in a different way.
“It’s like they were all brand new to me,” he says. “After taking a break from music altogether — and then coming back to them, the vocals just came. I was able to put in what I think was going to be there all along.”