Homecoming: Ursula K Le Guin & Todd Barton’s The Music And Poetry Of The Kesh

Strange and familiar folk songs, inspired by Ursula K Le Guin’s own 1985 book, reissued by Freedom To Spend

Listening to this album, after reading the book, I’ve been reminded of Alice Coltrane’s ‘Going Home’ (and Paul Robeson’s version) and Jerry Moore’s ‘Life Is A Constant Journey Home’, where he sings “Sometimes I think if I could be back where it started, I’d be where I’m going.” In these songs and stories, home is not a sofa and a telly and some curtains, and home is not death either (or not only death); home is somewhere beyond, right here, in the past and in the future. So I’ve been walking around listening to The Music & Poetry Of The Kesh and thinking about my grandmas and my mum and my five-year-old niece, like I’m in a totem pole or an infinity mirror; I think about all the beyonds, and the befores and the futures; I think about missed possibilities and future responsibilities and what we might feel proud of; how the life we live is defined by the lives we do not live. The world we have is defined by the worlds we do not have. Which all sounds very abstract and slippery, but if you were to write a huge great anthropological, archaeological, nitty-gritty book about it, it might start to feel more concrete, more powerful and more useful.

So, to rewind a bit. These are folk songs, field recordings and poetry from the Kesh, a people invented by Ursula K Le Guin and documented in her 1985 ethnography, Always Coming Home – 500 pages of stories, recipes, medicines, social systems, poems, songs, proverbs, a glossary, a bit of gossip. Le Guin is elegantly tricksy about when the book is set, although pretty specific about where it is. “The people in this book might be going to have lived a long, long time from now in Northern California,” she tells us on the first page, with past-imperfect-future-maybe-pluperfect tenses swinging back and forth, making a mockery of our attachment to linear chronology.

When she’d finished writing the book, Le Guin wanted to hear the people she’d imagined, so she asked her friend Todd Barton, a musician, composer and builders of synthesizers, to help her make an album of Kesh music and poetry. Barton didn’t just build synths, though, he also made and played the Kesh houmbúta (a seven-foot horn similar to a alpenhorn) and the wéosai medoud teyahi (a flute made of deer bone). He pitched Le Guin’s singing and recitals higher and lower so her voice became many voices across the album, and he learned some of the Kesh language so he could sing the album’s lullaby himself. He made field recordings in the Napa Valley which expand and enrich the immersive pleasures of this record.

Photo by Brian Attebery. L-R: Ursula K Le Guin, Todd Barton, Debra Barton, Anne Hodgkinson

The results are strange, but not exotic. This music feels alien, and also familiar. It’s illuminating to think about the differences between this album and, say, records from a couple of years earlier by Jon Hassell, Brian Eno and David Byrne. Dream Theory In Malaya and My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, for example, are inspired by snatches of ideas heard from a western anthropologist working in 1930s Malaya, use chunks of dialogue from a African-American preacher in New Orleans, borrow songs and phrases from a Lebanese singer, take a title from a Nigerian novelist of the 1950s. There isn’t anything wrong with doing any of that, necessarily, although I for one am pleased that they took ‘Qu’ran’ off the later pressings of …Bush Of Ghosts (David Byrne has talked about some of the other pros and cons here). But I think it’s safe to say that Ursula K Le Guin, extraordinary writer, thinker, activist, daughter of an anthropologist and imaginer of other worlds, was aware in her bones and deep in her heart as well as in her massive brilliant brain, of some of the nuances and many of the horrors of colonialism, inequality and ecological destruction. It’s safe to say that she was aware of many things that have not quite crossed the mind of me or you or even Brian Eno. She built a whole world for us, with her book and this album; she and Barton didn’t borrow from anyone. They created it all, and gave it away. Literally, in fact – this album was originally released as a cassette that came attached to the front cover of the book. (Think about Hassell’s definition of fourth world music – "a unified primitive/futuristic sound combining features of world ethnic styles with advanced electronic techniques" – and try to imagine Le Guin saying that.)

Le Guin and Barton create a whole other world and they are inside it rather than outside looking in. And they invite us in, not even needing to invite us really because they know this world they’ve made is ours as much as theirs. There’s no Other here, we are all It.

Can you hear this difference in the music? It’s not much of a stretch to think that you can – I think it is why this album is familiar, and joyful and relaxing and rich, rather than exotic. It creates rather than appropriates, and as a result the artist and the listeners are active, inside the world, familiar to it and responsible for it.

Of course there is no discrete other, reified and exotic, there never is. Every utopia and every dystopia is created from where we are, because of where we are. There’s always a thick slice of our real world in there, to show us that this invented world involves us and we might have some role to play there. Black Panther begins in 1992 Los Angeles, with rage over corruption, racism and social injustice brought to a head by the acquittal of Rodney King’s attackers; The Handmaid’s Tale didn’t spring from nowhere, it comes from a fear and a knowledge of what happens in the real world when you forget that women are people.

The Kesh, then, are not really in a utopia – as Le Guin tells us when she places them very definitely in Northern California, and very carefully in a time that is neither past nor future. There is nothing in the valley of the Kesh that we cannot do, play, access, create right now. The ideas are not new; they are practical, good, ancient-and-future ideas. There is certainly some misty-eyed optimism in this album, but it is not soft hippy-dippy bullshit. It is forged with an altogetherness – by which I literally mean it involves all of us together and, if you think about it in the actual nuts-and-bolts world, it also involves being generous and welcoming to other people. They’re not necessarily invited round to share your dinner every night, but you would give them a tenner towards getting their own (and maybe help to destroy capitalism). They can definitely come in and sing round the fire while you play the houmbúta, and you might go round to theirs next week or babysit their dog when their mum’s ill.

The Kesh exist to tell us (in the words of the late great Jim Bowen), “Here’s what you could have won” – but it’s an encouragement rather than a bitter solace. Part of what’s amazing about this album is just how deeply good it feels to listen to it. In the book, Le Guin writes that “All we ever have is here, now,” but in every note of the album we are reminded that (to quote various anarchists, although Jim Bowen would doubtless have agreed) another world is possible.

The Quietus Digest

Sign up for our free Friday email newsletter.

Support The Quietus

Our journalism is funded by our readers. Become a subscriber today to help champion our writing, plus enjoy bonus essays, podcasts, playlists and music downloads.

Support & Subscribe Today