Mr. Natural

Tempe ambient musician Slim Golba goes back -- way back -- in search of good vibrations

Slim Golba cuts a unique figure even walking along freaky Mill Avenue, where his bouncing, loping gait and long graying hair, braided in classic cigar-store-Indian style and falling in front of his button-down shirt, create the image of a mellowed ancient soul much older than his 43 years.

On this early Wednesday afternoon, fresh from lunching on a vegetarian Claire Burro at Restaurant Mexico, Golba also wears a pink plastic hospital identification bracelet around his left wrist, suggesting he's just come from a hospital nursery.

In fact, Golba hasn't taken that bracelet off for four months. "Our baby was born three weeks early, because an ultrasound revealed she had a bowel obstruction, and the doctor had to take her into surgery right away to remove about 75 percent of her small intestine," he says in an even voice, with an oddly peaceful smile. "She's still in the hospital, so I wear this bracelet all the time, 'cause I go to see her every day. I used to have a little thin green one, which nobody noticed much. But this one's big and pink, so I do get asked more about it."

Slim Golba plays lullabies for his hospitalized baby girl on a specially tuned Russian harp.
Matt Garcia
Slim Golba plays lullabies for his hospitalized baby girl on a specially tuned Russian harp.

Indeed, as Golba walks -- cars are too extravagant -- just a couple blocks beyond the Sail Inn (where his band The Overtones frequently plays) to the guest house he shares with his girlfriend, Shuan, the Mill Avenue regular is stopped by several old friends and fans. Invariably, the first question each of them asks is, "How's the baby?" or, if they know him better, "How's Citrus?" Each time, Golba reaches into his shirt pocket and produces a Polaroid of a beatifically smiling Slim, Shuan and Citrus in the hospital room.

"She's happy in this one, isn't she?" he says, smiling broadly himself, just like in the picture. "Hopefully, she'll be out in time for the benefit."

To help with Citrus' mounting medical bills, Golba, who supplements his meager musician's earnings by teaching guitar, bass and piano lessons, has been gathering support from the local jam-band community to put together an all-day Mother's Day music festival, scheduled for Sunday, May 9, at the Sail Inn's outdoor stage. Already some of Tempe's biggest jam bands, including Maruma, Kindread, the Mojo Farmers, and Spacerig, have agreed to come on board.

"I've always felt every day should be an outdoor music festival," Golba says. "Just that vibe when people are outside, playing good-feeling music. That's what every day should feel like."

For a first-time parent with a newborn still battling for life, Golba displays a remarkable serenity -- even for a career musician in a genre famously popular with potheads. It's difficult to understand where it comes from -- that is, until you listen to the music he makes on his fretless bass in his home studio: a calming sea of ambient waves performed in a special tuning called "just intonation."

"I believe a lot of things about music being healing," he says. "Particularly when it's music that's played perfectly in tune. And just intonation is the sound of things in perfect tune. True harmony. It's the vibration of simple numbers, working together. And I think that's how the universe is built and how our bodies are built."

Golba first began picking up good vibrations in his teenage years, when he heard a friend's Jaco Pastorious records and was struck with the awesome beauty of the chordlike harmonics the renowned jazz-fusionist played on his bass. Pursuing harmonics further, Golba learned that all ancient music was based on building chords out of the barely audible overtones we hear whistling above each struck note, a natural harmonic scale known as just intonation.

The system was abandoned, Golba learned, as music became more complex and a new system was needed to build chords on all of the 12 notes in the scale. It's the do-re-mi system we've been hearing all our lives, Golba says, in every type of music we've ever listened to. But to Golba's ears -- as well as to the growing legion of music and math geeks spreading the gospel of just intonation in colleges and on the Web -- it's all annoyingly out of tune.

"I think this thing is way bigger than anyone realizes," says Golba, who's even written a book on the subject, sold in a few independent record shops and in chakra-friendly outlets like Tempe's Gentle Strength Co-op. In the (appropriately) slim pamphlet, Golba posits, "The universe was built on just intonation and our bodies run on it. All life in the universe recognizes the pure major chord as a symbol of perfect harmony."

Fact is, Golba says, few people alive today have ever actually heard a perfect chord, only triads of "tempered" thirds and fifths we've been fooled into recognizing as being in tune. Not knowing the real thing -- only birds and whales seem to get it -- is destructive to our natural sense of harmony, he says.

"I mean, everybody knows the feeling they get from hearing a major chord. It's that happy-sounding thing. But to think that we've never heard a real one, in true harmony. If music can be healing, then music played in perfect tune -- not only with other strings, but with our bodies and the universe -- well, that's big. Crazy big."

It's a heady view that Golba realizes doesn't fly too well outside of the hippie circles of the Tempe jam-band scene. "It's a big heavy thing, and I don't talk about it too much with people," he says shyly. "I don't talk about it from the stage."

Nevertheless, Golba feels an almost evangelical calling to spread the sound of the Big Happy Chord to the masses. On the Web site he's developing, justintonation.com, Golba says he's toying with the idea of mimicking Morpheus' invitation in The Matrix. "I'm thinking of something like, 'Click the red button to see how deep just intonation goes, and you will never hear music the same way again!'" On stage with his eight-piece band The Overtones, Golba and friends use specially constructed instruments to play reggae-fied pop tunes ranging from the Beatles' "I've Got a Feeling" to Paul Revere and the Raiders' "Indian Reservation" and even KC and the Sunshine Band's "(That's the Way) I Like It," all in perfect JI harmony.

"At first, I was kind of disappointed that no one at our shows was noticing the difference," Golba says. "I mean, you can see that the frets on the guitars are in different places.

"But then," he adds, with his customary air of acceptance, "I decided that's the way it should be. People shouldn't notice anything unusual about the music. They should just feel happy hearing it. Which they do: I'm always approached by people saying, 'I don't know what it is about your music, but it just feels good.'"

Golba smiles. "That's when I know they're getting it. That's it!"

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