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For experimental guitarist Tashi Dorji, the song never remains the same

Tashi Dorji image (Mike Belleme).jpeg
Ricardo Adame
Growing up in Bhutan, Tashi Dorji learned contemporary Western music from bootlegged cassettes.

If you ever see Tashi Dorji perform, a song with the same title will sound completely different from one night to the next.

"It’s really volatile, this music, I feel,” he said. “It just kinda explodes and spreads and comes back and it disappears. That’s pretty much how I look at it.”

Dorji blanches at the notion of structure both with his music and how he makes it. He improvises his compositions and performances, whether alone or in collaborations, and his recordings defy categorization outside of experimental.

“Whenever I think about going into a studio and recording, I’ll go there for three hours and I’ll not have nothing because I’d rather not do it like that,” I’d rather go into my studio and play for 30 minutes and I’ll have 30 minutes of these impulses, these gestures. That’s how it works.”

Dorji has become somewhat of a known figure on the fringes of alternative music. He performs in a variety of festivals and opens shows and tours for artists coming from more structured foundations. A heavy performance schedule when we’re not in a pandemic has allowed Dorji to earn his living solely through music for about five years.

Dorji’s duo with drummer Thom Nguyen, called Manas, is the opening act on a U.S. tour with the groups Sumac and Big Brave. That tour brings Dorji back to Asheville Aug. 17 with a show at the Grey Eagle.

Dorji left his native Bhutan at age 21, when he enrolled at Warren Wilson College. Friends who worked at Izzy’s Coffee in West Asheville urged him to produce a cassette recording in 2009. From that, awareness of his guitar improvisations grew beyond intimate local audiences.

“That small cassette was heard by so many people and a few reviews happened and a magazine picked it up,” he said. “Then I had a record come out and it propelled me, like, it encouraged me to play more.”

Dorji’s mother’s family was steeped in Bhutanese folk traditions. His grandfather was a monk and lute player. Dorji’s education in contemporary Western music hinged on bootleg cassettes from China—a hodgepodge of artists such as Iron Maiden, Bon Jovi, Boyz II Men and Europe. Dorji points to “A Meeting By the River,” a recording by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, as shaping his grounding as a guitarist.

“Growing up in a traditional society with a lot of forms and some rules, the idea of breaking rules as a young musician, learning the instrument, was attractive,” he said.

There are more than 70 recordings on Dorji’s Bandcamp page, from individual song releases to full albums. Some are through Manas and his jazz-inflected trio KUZU. He first learned of the potential political power of music through punk and jazz. So even without lyrics that might clearly communicate it, Dorji said he sees his music today as countering white supremacy.

“It’s the music as a form that’s deconstructive and horizontal that has this anarchistic, this collective music-making process,” he said. “I see that as completely breaking down the hierarchy of heteronormal society.”

Dorji’s parents still live in Bhutan and have only heard his music through recordings. Dorji said he’s plotting how to change that by creating a festival in Bhutan featuring jazz and improvised music performers from the U.S. and Europe.

“Maybe that’s a better way for me to usher in that music and ideas and experiences than me just saying ‘Hey, I’m back, I’m going to do a show at this bar,’” he said, adding that he always wants his music to remain somewhat mysterious.

Matt Peiken was BPR’s first full-time arts journalist.