When guitarist Tashi Dorji hits the stage in Charlotte this weekend, he doesn’t know exactly what he’ll be playing. That’s usual for the musician, who lives in Asheville. All of his music is improvised.
It’s called free improvisation, because there are no rules to follow. He had an epiphany the first time he heard someone play a guitar this way.
"It was this beauty of acoustic guitar sound," says Dorji. "There was just so much space and it was this sense of the meditative, but at the same time it was dismantling the ideas of chords and melodies with all this harmonics and discordant sounds."
It’s music that’s unpredictable, which is kind of like Dorji’s life. He grew up in Bhutan surrounded by the Himalayas. Life could get boring at times with no TV or internet. But glimpses of Western culture got though by way of shortwave radio, bootleg cassettes, and VHS tapes.
"The sources were very varied from Boyz II Men to Guns 'n Roses to Slayer - whatever you could get hold of," says Dorji. "What struck me toward my formative years, I think, was Nirvana. I remember hearing Nirvana's Unplugged on this bootleg cassette from India."
And wanted to learn how to play it.
Getting a hold of a guitar in Bhutan was also difficult. You couldn’t go to the local guitar store. There were none. But Dorji was in luck. His neighbor had a guitar, left by an expat that lived at his house. It was a nylon string classical guitar.
"So I begged my mom to buy the guitar for me and she finally did."
He played it a lot. Like most teenagers, he was wondering what to do after school. Those bootlegged cassettes and VHS tapes had piqued his curiosity about America. Then, he randomly found an alumni magazine for Warren Wilson College near Asheville. It included pictures of people playing guitar.
"I don't know where this place is. It just seemed like people looked like they're having fun," remembers Dorji.
He wrote them a letter and they sent him a letter back, accepting him as a student. Dorji made the move to the North Carolina mountains in 2000 and quickly learned life wasn’t like what he’d seen in those music videos. He had this image of "rebelling young kids, hitch-hiking and playing cool, rock music."
That’s the life Dorji wanted. So he quit school and moved to downtown Asheville and began playing in punk rock bands. Eventually he stumbled on a record by guitarist Derek Bailey, who was considered a leading figure of free improvisation.
"It was punk in a way that was beautiful and sonically disruptive. It was something I really wanted to do. You know almost to emulate. Then, I started playing shows because I was like, I can only do this if I start playing live because there's no sense for me to practice."
When I was home recently I was at a monastery and I was thinking how some of this - sounds of five different trumpets and big horn - sounds like some free improv, free jazz sound from the 60s. Whenever I play I think their ideas or even just imagination even more than just like the sound coming out of what I play of my cultural upbringing could be there but I cannot say exactly how because I feel like my existence in this cultural context in present times is pretty much hybrid. It's completely in flux. My sound is part of a larger 'whatever' that I am constantly bombarded with.
Dorji has a small, but devoted audience. He’s released about 30 records since 2009. And he tours regularly around the country and overseas. Dorji plays the Visulite Theater on Sunday.