My Teacher's Teacher — Tales of Chief Dee

Taylor Ho Bynum

At first I did not like him.

It was my second year as an apprentice. The first year of study had been in my own village, with the teacher who raised me ; this was my first time away from home, other than traveling to festivals with my whole family. The other students were easily seduced by Rohi’s unorthodoxies : his casual dismissal of the most popular songs, his way of melting familiar rhythms and melodies until they became liquid and malleable, his insistence on meditation before and after we played. But I was slow to warm to him. Raised on technique, I was suspicious of anything that hinted of spiritualism. I craved speed and energy, while he talked about sound and silence. The songs I’d spent all summer blistering my fingers to play at furious speeds, he took as ballads, drawing out the spaces I wanted to burn through. 

I remember the day my feelings changed. The images are as clear as the sounds to me—perhaps they entwined to knot in my memory—so I know it was late fall. The trees were crisp with color, dark reds and brilliant oranges. We had started studying with Rohi after the summer festival, so I’d been there three or four moons, and I still didn’t believe he had anything to teach me. It was a free day, a glorious one, and I had left my friends leaping off the rock cliffs into the lake, shouting out in harmony while in the air, before gasping staccato yelps as they hit the cold water. I already loved most of my cohort, my fellow nascent Wanderers, but I also needed my time alone. I drifted from the group, following a vague path along a brook winding into the forest. 

Until that day I never really wondered what teachers did in their free time. I never thought that an elder might enjoy the weather as much as we did, and might want a moment of solitude from my chattering peers as much as I. So Rohi was the last person I expected to see—or first, hear—on my walk. He rarely sang in classes so I didn’t recognize his voice. That came to me first, not just carried by the wind but in tune with it, rough and transparent at the same time. It was a Chief Dee chant, but at half the tempo I was used to. Even from a distance, I knew to give it respect ; I slowed my pace and lightened my foot, so my approach was muted. As I got closer, the bass snuck in on my awareness, with the rattle of the gourd on the slaps. It was a different vamp, a five-beat pattern (really ten with the double time) we used for movement formations, but that I’d never heard used in song, and especially not against the slow four of the chant. But it wasn’t the math that impressed me (I already prided myself on my fractions and polyrhythms). Both strands of music were wholly recognizable, but wholly transformed. Each managed to float out of time yet in time at once. They didn’t resolve to the same tonic, they didn’t resolve to the same down, but the rub felt correct. Only when I stopped moving, when the path turned into a clearing and I saw Rohi sitting on the ground, did I hear the rest of it—how the breeze set the tempo, the leaves buzzing along with the rattle, how the stream complicated the rhythm as much as the strings, how the melody stretched into the sunlight like a cat pawing the air after a nap. 

The music ended—or it didn’t, because the wind kept blowing, the trees kept singing, the water kept dancing. Rohi’s eyes were closed, and as he opened them, he spoke in a low voice. “Ana. Thank you for listening.” (Or did he greet me before he saw me ?)

“Teacher, I am so sorry to have disturbed you, I did not mean to interrupt . . .”

“No formalities, no worries. It is a free day.”

I stood without speaking ; he continued to sit. My mind worked through confusion—the music had left me vulnerable, changed, curious. I may have managed a stumbling “May I ask . . .” when Rohi gestured I sit down. I could not yet talk about the spirit, so I started by asking about the details.

“That rhythm against the Chief Dee chant . . . I never heard them together before.”

“Dee actually wrote the rhythm, too—and that’s the way he usually played them, together like that. The elders split them after he died. They didn’t think the local singers or dancers could manage them at once. Most folks have forgotten.”

Chief Dee’s time seemed so impossibly long ago, maybe a hundred festivals in the past.

“Did you get to actually hear Chief Dee ?”

“I played with him for almost ten years. Near the end of his journey.”

I had met ancients who would drone on about Chief Dee at any mention of the name, detailing every time they had heard the original Wanderers, basking in memories of something we could only imagine. Yet Rohi hadn’t bothered to say anything about being part of the band for a decade ? To his own students ? Of course we had talked about the music, and traded tall tales about the
legend—but was that mostly amongst ourselves, the apprentices, on our own ? My surprise must have been evident. Rohi looked at me, chuckled, and began his story.

“You wonder why I didn’t tell you before. I’ve been teaching a long time, and like any old teacher I have my tricks, but I talk about Dee to very few students. But he taught me to trust my instincts and trust the coincidences of fate. There’s a reason you found me today. I like how you challenge me, have your own ideas. But sometimes you make up your mind too quickly ; that’s a danger of being smart. You forget to listen. So I’m going to ask you to listen now, indulge an old man as he tells you a story . . .

“There are so many myths, so many fables, people forget Dee was a man once, as I was a boy. By the time I was your age, he was an elder, but he was still strong. He was rather small, almost delicate in build, but seemed much larger just by the force of his presence, his conviction, his leadership. They say he was connected to the old magic. Well, I never saw any special powers—but he was a real scholar, he searched out forgotten knowledge, he listened and remembered more than most, he had deep intuition. He was one of the better musicians I ever met, and maybe the greatest improviser. We all learn that improvisation connects us to the present moment, but he would improvise with the past and with the future. He played the high strings and the harp and whatever else he could find, but his real instrument was the band, manipulating and inspiring and corralling a mess of individuals into one extraordinary, ever-changing sound. 

“The traditions weren’t set when I was young. The tribes were just forming ; my own parents could remember the times before. It’s not quite true that Dee’s were the first of any Wanderers. There were other bands that came out of the end of the Struggles, and they all crossed paths in those early years. They would sometimes swap musicians and share songs. At first, after so many years of pain and loss, the music was just needed for healing. But soon the Wanderers took on other roles, since musicians are often the bravest travelers. They carried messages from one village to another, they brought seeds and medicines, news of births and deaths, they brought hope and connection. As the tribes became more established, the Wanderers initiated the festivals to bring them together and celebrate the fact of our survival, something that seemed impossible just a few generations before. There wasn’t the kind of apprenticeship you have now. In those days, you learned to play in your village with your friends, and if you were good enough, the next band traveling through might sweep you up. They would be your only teachers, and the groups stayed on the road forever. They would have laughed at the idea of eight-year terms. 

“When I joined his Wanderers, Dee was old enough to be my grandfather, had been traveling since before my father was born. He was notorious, not revered like he is today ; warily respected for the quality of his music but considered a questionable influence because he broke so many taboos. He claimed to be a child of the Earth, born from no womb ; he said he brought messages not just from other tribes, but from our ancestors in the past and our descendants in the future. His musicians followed him over any clan or tribal bond ; they wore outrageous clothes and sang words that were undecipherable riddles. But among the musicians I grew up with, we heard him and believed. Not the words he used to pull in the crowd. We didn’t care about his stories ; we didn’t care about the costumes and the pageantry. The sound is what sucked us in—it was unlike anything we had yet experienced. It was free but it had rules. It was scary but it was beautiful. The rhythms seemed to emerge from the ground and compel us to dance. He was there for the whole festival, and we were at his feet every night. After the music intoxicated us, the words began making more sense, the sermons between the songs. Of course he came from Mother Earth, of course the symbols on their clothes vibrated with ancient knowledge, of course we had to build an ark of sound to float through the waters of time. 

“There was that indolent haze of festival time. Young people in twos and threes and more catching arms, stumbling and laughing to beds or mosses. The optimism for the new days among the younger generations, and the mourning of the past among the older. And feasts, such food—the crops had only recently recovered, cooks delighted in the variety after so many lean years. My friends and I played in the street for scraps and leftovers, in the daytime, when the village cleaned up the night before and prepared for the next. I was playing all the strings, especially the bass. We would see some of his Wanderers in the streets, sometimes even listening to us.

“One afternoon, we were trying one of Dee’s melodies—
picking it out, a half-remembered groove from the night before—when one of his musicians pulled out his shell and began playing along. Dee’s percussionist grabbed a frame drum and boosted the energy, adding his voice and stomping his feet to the rhythms. I swear, we levitated. As much as I’ve done since, even with Dee, I think that first time with Ori and Levi remains my happiest moment in sound. Though I loved the friends I learned with, I had never played with musicians like that before—without a word, they showed me what we had missed in our self-taught attempts ; the intervals and patterns locked into place, the puzzles started to solve. And people could hear it ! A crowd began to form, people started to dance, our neighbors tickled to see us young ones playing with real Wanderers. I couldn’t tell how long we played, time had loosened its hold. Long enough for sweat to burn my eyes, for my fingers to throb, but I felt no pain, could not stop, the chant would finish when it was done. Finally Ori introduced a slower melody as Levi expanded the beat and calmed the energy ; through their sonic guidance our extended eruption settled into silence, only broken by the whoops and compliments of the assembled audience.

“The listeners gave us more food than we’d ever seen—enough to ask Ori and Levi to join us. The Wanderers weren’t shy and sat down to eat and regale us with tales from the road. But while my friends were too thrilled by the excitement to notice, I had good enough ears to know how much I had not been able to do . . . the moments when I couldn’t keep up, how much I needed to improve to really play with my heroes. After the meal I pulled Levi aside to ask for help, and he smiled like I had passed some secret test. ‘The Chief told us you might be ready. He dreamt of two basses, a moon in the sky and one reflected in the water. Join us tonight. You won’t play much, you’re mostly there to learn, but when you hear what the music needs sound it with confidence.’

“That’s how it began. That might have been the clearest verbal instruction I received in ten years. Levi was Dee’s confidante and conductor my first years in the band, translating enigmatic instruction into disciplined action, but even he spoke more of reflected moons, of vibrational energies, of harmonizing the wind, than complex meters or song forms or keys. It was all in the music—
the codes and metaphors offered a way to talk about the sound without talking about the sound—technical analysis of Dee’s genius would have felt like sacrilege. Or at least so it felt at the time. Now I fear the wild stories are all that’s left, the music’s been stripped of the layers it carried. It’s now simplified and utilitarian and still beautiful, but not as thrilling and dangerous and gorgeous and weird. 

“I finished off the last nights of festival on stage, to the eternal envy of my village friends. I didn’t play much, but a couple times I heard a space that needed to be filled, or a pocket that needed to be strengthened, so I did my part. Dee barely spoke to me, I didn’t know if he even knew my name, but he seemed to accept my presence, and Levi had my back with nods and gestures and unspoken support. The other bassist, Karso, was gruff at first, but my clear respect (bordering on naked adulation) might have won him over. I kept to my place and absorbed how he played, and if Dee dreamt of two basses, who were we to disagree ? After the last night, Levi simply asked ‘You in ?’ The next morning I made my farewells to my family and friends, and became a Wanderer. The group just enveloped me, a flock of birds adding one more sparrow to its shifting, flying mass. 

“Dee worked us hard, hours of practice when we weren’t traveling, but the older musicians reminisced about week-long rehearsals in the distant past, necessary marathons to create the music for the first time (and perhaps find escape from the last spasms of the Struggles). We never saw him sleep a full night, he was the last to bed and the first up in the morning, but he would nod off in naps, even in rehearsals or in the middle of talking, though he claimed that’s when he was in conversation with invisible forces. While sometimes he seemed content to let others run the ship, other times he was engaged, demanding, fully inspired. He was also obtuse ; he never gave clear directions, instead going off on tangents that seemed barely related to what we had just played. He would say the Struggles were caused by humans misusing the old magic, losing touch with the Earth’s needs, and our job was to rebalance the world through sound and vibration, to reclaim, to reinvent, the rituals that were lost. I saw those in the group decades older than me nod along, ask the questions they already knew would never be answered, continue to be attentive disciples with this ephemeral gospel near memorized. Even as I began to recognize some of the lectures, the rants, and could almost sing along, he always mixed in new nuggets of ideas, new plays on words, new cracks of revelation. He knew his chants, but always improvised on them. He was funny ! People forget that now, the words have become rote, but those words were first spoken with a hint of a grin and wink of the eye. 

“He built his own instruments when he heard new sounds. By the time I joined, the band dragged a cart full of sonic mutants—horns with vibrating spokes hanging off the sides like tired limbs, two-headed gourds that melded lutes with drums, tiny rattles and shakers and massive tubes and gongs. Sometimes he would have us all play instruments we barely understood, raw sounds from untrained lips or clumsy fingers. He wanted us to strive towards mastery, but never forget what it felt like to be a beginner. It was a big band, ranging between twelve and twenty players over my years with them. Partly that was a holdover from the early days, when the roads were still dangerous and there was safety in numbers. But Dee would not have been satisfied by the small size of Wanderer groups today. His sound needed a cacophony of voices, to demonstrate the generative chaos of all at once, and the joyful discipline of all together. And I think the big groups hid his essential loneliness. As charismatic as he was, I’m not sure anyone could really get close to him, especially as his peers died or drifted away, and the Wanderers around him were a generation or more younger. We all wore masks for the performances, exaggerated and grotesque faces embodying the spirits and angels and demons we were trying to summon through the music. But even when he removed his mask, Dee was always in character, always protected ; he had masks beneath masks beneath masks, never truly vulnerable except in the music itself. 

“The group expanded with singers and dancers at some festivals. Naja, a woman with the Wind Tribe, often sang with us, and those were some of the best performances. She might have been Dee’s niece if he ever acknowledged a family, though he never wavered from his mythic birth story. But the core of the band was all men, and sometimes the imbalance was obvious. Dee was a gender separatist ; as crazy as that seems now, it wasn’t too unusual in the old days. He demanded celibacy and considered procreation a sin. He preached that the human species didn’t deserve a future unless it changed its ways, that sexual desire was a distraction, a crutch that prevented resolving the past with the present. If band members fell in love, with each other or with outsiders, Dee would exile them from the group. Though I heard whispers he might have abused his power in the past among his followers, in my time he exhibited no explicit hypocrisies to his teachings. But he still had favorites, and that bred hierarchies and competitiveness, petty jealousies and brooding sulks. Maybe we were uncomfortably close to the cult our detractors accused us of being. It wasn’t perfect, and it was always intense. It was a response to a more difficult time, but somehow it worked. It survived because in the end we all followed our leader.

“I still don’t know if I was, if I am, a true believer. I believe in the music and always will. That is part of my being—that magic still feeds me. Dee was a real leader, in a time that needed leaders, and made real music, in a time that needed art. He was an innovator and an improviser of the highest order. But for some in the band, he was more ; he was their prophet, their god, their Chief. Those were the ones who stuck with him the longest. They were not always rewarded for their devotion. Levi’s departure from the band is a story for another time, as Dee was often harshest to those who loved him most. I think he was just a man, a human like all the rest of us—that’s what’s important. A man who carried scars from the Struggles I could never imagine, who could be suspicious (sometimes with reason), who could be cruel (maybe as a defense), who could be wrong. But a man who made music that was as bright as the cosmos and deep as the ocean, music that conversed with the past and imagined the future. Who told stories that had meaning, transforming a terrible reality into a fantastical dream, because the injustices of reality are what seemed so wrong, so impossible, so limiting to him. Who was brave enough and foolish enough and mad enough to think that sound might save us.

“We’re in a better world now, and maybe that’s partly thanks to Dee, and maybe there’s not room for someone like him anymore. The worst of the battles are over, it’s a quieter time, we don’t need our fighters to be as scary, as strong, as strange. What was once radical has become accepted practice—and that is good for the most part. We teach you his chants in four years of apprenticeship, we have collective bands of Wanderers bring songs to the tribes in organized patterns, we schedule musicians in terms to keep them from losing their minds on the eternal road. We don’t have leaders. We have councils and elders and consensus. We teach the history through the songs and the stories. But in making a man into a myth something is lost along the way : the complexity, the contradiction, some of the power and purpose.

“I learned so much from Dee. How to play, how to listen, how to think, how to be, and how not to be, as well. Those lessons came at a cost. The band was my family, there was camaraderie and love and the joy of shared endeavor, but some of those years were very hard, maybe not as hard as the Struggles but not easy. Discord creates some rare harmonies. The music always made it worth it, until the very end when I knew it was time to leave.”

I had never heard Rohi speak at such length before ; even in class he used words sparingly. I wanted more of the story, but it seemed clear the last years of Chief Dee brought up more emotions, so I was respectful of his silence. I also now trusted this would not be the last time we would talk. After the music he had played, and the words he had spoken, I was ready to truly be his student. After a long pause, Rohi continued.

“And now I teach. How do I teach this music, in this different world ? Perhaps I was lucky to come to Dee when he was an old man, but how do I stay true to what I learned when so much was second hand, and when I want to save you from the harder parts of those lessons ? I can filter out some of it, the inheritances of a broken age, but that loses some of the truth. I still don’t know, after all these years, I still don’t know. Maybe that’s Dee’s point—ask the questions, always ask the questions, and listen hard for the answers, as many answers as you can get. But don’t be afraid to find your own solutions, and accept that some things must remain unknown. You’ll understand when you’re a teacher—and you’ll be a teacher someday, I see it in you. And you’ll tell this story your own way to your own students. So don’t stop challenging me, Ana. Don’t stop asking the questions, but take the time to really listen, even if the music sounds strange. Agreed ?”


It was a gorgeous free day, the leaves in full color, the stream in full flow, and we sat and listened to the world.

My Teacher's Teacher — Tales of Chief Dee