Octagonal Madness prompts cultural activism with music

Volume 68, Issue 28, Thursday, October 3, 2002
Arts & Entertainment

Octagonal Madness prompts cultural activism with music

By Chris Goodier
The Daily Cougar

Houston musicians have enough to complain about. Whether a lack of zoning, an apathetic listening public or the District Attorney shutting clubs down, support for any type of music scene weighs on the loyalty of a handful.

Getting genre-specific thins local devotees further. Familiar sounds draw more sympathetic ears, abandoning a filtered and unquenched lot of musical refugees.

Chris Sampson, who is working to nurture this malignancy into a self-reliant body, said, “I’ve seen things come and go. Great world music events and speakers of universal significance have been missed right near me that I never heard about in time. So in 1997, I called up Glen Velez to play a concert in my living room. All the culture is here, there just needs to be more communication.”

Recognition of this need spawned Octagonal Madness. Sampson’s brainchild invites names like bassist Michael Manring and percussionist Glen Velez abreast the political sentiments of Noam Chomsky and Robert Bly with the pull of an electromagnetic radio tower.

Sampson said he strives to do justice by sharing it with as many people as possible.

“(I want) to put a little history and context to the music. Pacifica is an educational group; it must edify people and not just entertain them. This is echoed by Octagonal Madness,” Sampson said.

OM’s fusion of enthusiasm with resourcefulness has provided Houston with a number of world-class events. Take the recent Glen Velez (frame drum), Howard Levy (harmonica, piano), Steve Gorn (clarinet, bansuri) show at the First Unity Unitarian Church for example. Last weekend’s concert corralled three consummate virtuosos in an improvisational trio for an hour and 45 minutes.

After nestling in their pews, world music pilgrims received the humble beginnings of an epic sermon. Gorn’s clarinet runs traded with those of Levy’s harmonica, painting a vaporous dawn that encouraged the uncoiling of serpents from their wicker trappings. Lurking in the nearby grass lay the patient aggressor; seemingly cool until a calculated “sizzle” rasped from Velez’s shoe laced maraca.

The blazoned attack became more furious with the torrent of activity Velez’s frame drum let loose. Here the pulpit spoke an embedded language of the last three thousand years, of the frame-drummed “tof” Miriam played after the Red Sea was vanquished.

Listeners in the sanctuary participated in a great exodus by the fourth piece. With Gorn’s mastery of the Bansuri’s weeping Hindustani scales amid an ethereal drone, patrons were taken by an East Indian raga to a state of cyclic repetition. The audible drone rose and fell with the gentle utterance of breath, while Velez effortlessly created a pattern from the seamless palpitations with his Irish Bodhran.

All this in time for Levy’s dual harmonica/piano work to plague the likes of Stevie Wonder with fits of inadequacy. Rounding out the set with Velez’s solo, “Tecolote” off his Rhythm Color Exotica album, polyrhythms stacked perpendicularly across the single membrane, fooling the congregation with a many-voiced bustle. Syllabic phrases chanting “Tee-Tee-Tah” devolved into audible hand drum feedback.

The message was clear following the musical communion; the existence of Octagonal Madness is committed to drawing quality global music to Houston. But the blessed had but to look around at their modest numbers and realize the mission work had only begun. Regardless of radio spots, flyers, word of mouth and noncompliant university drum instructors, only a privileged throng witnessed the message of revival.

“Supporting social and cultural invention, thatis OM’s motto,” Sampson said.

And the notion is wholly philanthropic, with the organizer footing the bill for venue rental and musician accommodations.

Pondering the idea of being called a “producer/director,” Sampson scoffs modestly.

“We’re non-profit and not for sale. I’m just trying to bring the music together.” Sampson said.

OM’s next promoted event will be a live Web cast of political dissident Noam Chomsky from UH, Oct. 18.

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