Of all the aggravations and outright horrors to befall the United States in the Trump administration’s first year, one of the worst is the president’s dangerous belief that American exceptionalism means cutting our country off from the rest of the world. The border wall, the travel ban, the tightening of relations with Cuba, potential cuts to programs offering cultural-exchange visas—the list goes on.
No one understands this better than percussionist Barrett Martin. Known among grunge aficionados as the former drummer of Screaming Trees and the Pearl Jam/Alice In Chains-associated dark blues group Mad Season, 50-year-old Martin has spent the better part of his adult life traveling the globe, studying the world’s cultures through music. His curiosity and adventurous spirit have taken him to the Peruvian Amazon, where he participated in an ayahuasca ceremony; to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; and, in 1999, to the streets of Cuba, where, as a musical ambassador for the Music Bridge program, he jammed with locals and shook hands with Fidel Castro.
“I’ve lived through a number of conservative right-wing administrations in my life,” says Martin from his home in the Seattle area. “All of them have been damaging to our relations with the world and cultural diplomacy. What they don’t understand is how music really does bridge cultures. Making music together, and talking and having dinner afterwards, there’s a deep bond that takes place that is human and organic. Politics just complicates that.”
Messages like this lie at the heart of Martin’s new book The Singing Earth. Published on his own imprint, Sunyata Books, it’s an impressively balanced work that mixes memoir and travelogue with musicology, cultural anthropology, and mythology from nations he’s visited. There’s even a bit of gentle chiding at modern society’s obsession with modern technology and instant gratification. But mostly, the book exudes a sense of wonder and joy at the world and the sounds that it makes.
According to Martin’s book, that capacity for wonder has been at his core from a young age. Growing up around Olympia, Washington, the young artist would sneak out at night just to listen to the sounds of the surrounding forest. “I could hear the frogs croaking... the occasional night bird, and the whirring of leaves when a warm breeze rustled through the trees,” he writes. “This was all before I knew I would become a musician, but... I realized that the forest was singing to me in its own way, with its own song.”
In 1987, an adult Martin ventured north to Seattle, where he performed first in a no-nonsense punk band before joining proto-grunge outfit Skin Yard, then playing on Screaming Trees’ last two albums. Between recording and touring, Martin would either study drum techniques and styles from artists in his hometown or hop a plane to another country to seek a musical education from the source.
“I kind of said yes to everything,” Martin says. “These opportunities would just present themselves—being invited to go to Cuba, or to work on a film project in Peru, or record something in Jerusalem. It was this intuitive and organic process.”
While he’s interpreted and adapted varied musical styles, and played with the hard jazz project Barrett Martin Group and everyone from Queens of the Stone Age to Mark Eitzel, Martin’s primary conduit of knowledge has been the classroom. Since 2011, he’s been an adjunct professor at the Seattle campus of Antioch College, where he teaches classes that explore world cultures through music and the role of music in the fight for labor and civil rights.
As excited as Martin is to add “author” to his already significant resume, he’s the first to admit that finally getting his book out has only increased his internal itch to get back behind the drum kit, which he’ll be doing throughout September and October.
“I just need to do it,” he says, laughing. “Writing is such a cerebral thing, I’ve got to get back in my body and play some music.”
The Singing Earth
by Barrett Martin