Deep into a conversation with Brandon Terzic, the question of identity comes up. Terzic has given it some thought.
"I could go and live in Jordon, learn Arabic, wear a djellaba, convert to Islam and change my name to Kareem, but in the end I'm not going to get away from who I am and all the experiences and music that shaped what I'm doing," says Terzic. "I am what I am."
What he is is an Akron, Ohio-born, Brooklyn resident with Irish, Croatian, and Hungarian roots. He also plays the ancient, 11-stringed, Arabic oud magnificently.
When he visits the Bop Shop Sunday, with kora (West African harp) player Kane Mathis, he'll also be playing a Malian ngoni.
Terzic traces his complex musical identity to the first time his father played him Jimi Hendrix. But at the age of 8, did he understand it?
"One of the downsides of being a musician is you get so saturated with the technical, mechanical side of how the sound is produced that you lose the connection to the miraculous in the sound itself," says Terzic. "When you're a kid, it's just the miracle of the tone. So in a lot of ways you can never really replace the first time you ingest music."
"The main thing I got from Jimi's music was this sense of freedom," Terzic says. "No matter how freaky you play, you can never be more of a freak than he was. It opened the door to me trying to digest heavy musical expression. From Hendrix I went to Coltrane and Beethoven."
By 17 Terzic was in a blues band covering Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Though he admits lacking the musicality, he could play the riffs. That is until, at 19, he went to a Buddy Guy concert.
"I came home and almost wanted to smash my Stratocaster," says Terzic. "It was like an identity crisis. But I had the wherewithal to know that to grow musically, you have to grow personally. I felt like I had exhausted my inspiration in my hometown, doing the music I was doing. I was insanely restless. I felt that I couldn't develop as a human being unless I got as far away as possible."
With some money he'd saved, he took off for London and stayed with his mother's friend, Chrissie Hynde, from the Pretenders. But, Terzic says, "after five days she kicked me out because the guitar player from the Clash was coming."
He took off for Amsterdam and got robbed at knifepoint, but that didn't dampen his wanderlust. Paris, Rome, Florence, Prague, Vienna, and Greece; Terzic covered the continent. But he did so without a guitar.
"I had some ambition to be a literary man," says Terzic. "I was reading Henry Miller. He had gone to Paris. All the ex-pat writers had gone to Paris. I had this idea to go over there and see what was up."
Terzic returned just in time for the late 1990's Internet boom. With no college education but a knack for computing, he landed a job at a New York cable-internet company.
"I could have been making six figures but I never had any ambition," says Terzic. "I could never identify myself as this guy working at this company. I had an intellectual superiority complex; I thought I was above all this shit."
Meanwhile, he began taking lessons from double-neck guitar wizard Dave "Fuze" Fiuczynski. "I tried to study jazz. I wanted to be a cutting-edge virtuoso guitar player, but it was like a shoe that I couldn't fit on my foot," says Terzic. "Fiuczynski became my hero. Ironically, I became one of his disciples. I had a double-neck guitar that was fretless. I was trying to apply a Middle Eastern, Indian ethnic slant to downtown jazz."
But it didn't work. So, there was only one thing to do. "I quit my job and I flew to the Middle East — Egypt and Israel," Terzic says.
He took up the cumbus, (a Turkish, fretless banjo-like instrument), and started busking in Jerusalem. It was a great way to meet people. They'd buy him coffee and food, even if they were surprised to find out that he was from Ohio. But there was still more to his quest.
"I had reached a saturation point as a musician and person," Terzic says. "I said, 'Fuck it,' and went to Morocco and to Senegal to study with a Griot family of oral historians. That was the most dramatic and dynamic experience." The family had a lineage of court musicians dating back to the 12th century, Terzic says.
"I had this romantic, exaggerated ideal of these stoic, virtuous musicians that are tranquil and angelic. The music is so beautiful. I get there and it's a total...I've traveled to India, I've traveled to Brazil, Egypt; I've never been to place that was such a culture shock," Terzic says.
"I was in a slum outside Dakar, sleeping on a rooftop, living in the harshest conditions I could ever imagine. No personal space, and to top it all off, the day I get there the patriarch of the family died," Terzic says. This sent the entire family into chaos and mourning.
"I didn't speak the language so I had no way of understanding what was going on. No one has a job. It's a communal society, everyone eats together. It was a lot of embracing paradoxes," he says.
Although he had gone to Senegal to learn the repertoire, Terzic hardly touched an instrument. "I just survived, lived with the people, walked with them, went to parties, a pilgrimage... And I listened to them because they were playing non-stop," Terzic says.
"When I came back, people were saying, 'You've changed, you're playing so much better.' So it was almost by osmoses, from being in the culture," he says. "It's like learning the meaning behind the gesture."
But ultimately, what does a Westerner bring to this ancient Middle Eastern/North African tradition?
"You're not bound by the tradition," says Terzic. "If you're from that area and you try to innovate, you're going to take a lot more heat. The beautiful thing about American culture is we're so young, we're not tied or bound to cultural ideas."