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Round Mountain brings a world of sound to Claremont

You might think fitting the folk orchestra Round Mountain—a gypsy swirl of accordion, trumpet, guitar, bouzouki, kora, bagpipes and drums—on stage at the Claremont Folk Festival would be a logistical nightmare.

In fact, the group is just a duo, consisting of multi-instrumentalist brothers Char and Robby Rothschild. They will be stopping by the festival, set for Saturday, June 15 at the Rancho Santa Anta Botanic Garden, as part of a tour in support of their fourth album, The Goat.

As is the case with many good things, it all began with Willie Nelson.

When Char and Robby were growing up in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they still reside, they went on lots of road trips. To help the miles speed by, their parents would play music by the Redheaded Stranger or John Denver, and the whole family would sing along.

As they got older, they began to jam, with Char on guitar and Robby on drums, eventually forming a rock band called Lizard House. Their repertoire expanded along with their horizons when, after college, Char went away on a long trip to the Middle East and Robby set out for Ireland.

We’ve all seen the kitschy shirt sold in souvenir shops: “My parents went to [insert destination here] and all they bought me was this lousy T-shirt.”

As the Rothschilds traveled the world, they didn’t bring back much booty for waiting family, either. They returned, instead, with an array of musical instruments and traditions that fueled an increasingly eclectic sound. Robby recalls seeing Char when they met up in Ireland after months of divergent travel.

“When I had last seen him, he had a backpack and guitar over his shoulder. Now he appeared with this beautiful, smooth wooden Turkish saz, which is a stringed instrument with moveable frets,” he said. “It was sort of metaphorical, because he went into a new place and emerged with new ideas.”

The 2 musicians have woven countless ideas into their songs, a tapestry of Irish, West African, Appalachian, Afro Beat, Zimbabwean, Turkish, Roma and Balkan music. It is a mix the Rothschilds manage to make their own. It helps that they are able lyricists, as evinced in the harp-kissed “Hundreds of Ships”: “When you wake up in the night, I will hold your madness/Let the silver river light/ease you of your sadness.”

Just like their music, the Rothschilds’ lives are about navigating diverse territory. Char has a 9-year-old daughter and a day job as an elementary school teacher. Robby, who has 3 kids ranging from 8 years to 9 months, is a teacher too. He also composes, and is currently working on an opera about the melding of cultures in the Southwest, from Native American to Anglo.

“Sometimes I think musicians having families puts the breaks on their music-making,” Robby said. “But it’s sort of lit a fire under us, in a way. There are songs and stories inspired by our kids, and it’s like, ‘Oh, wow! These are gifts they’ve given us that we’re moved to try to share.’”

In fact, Char and Robby’s experiences as householders—who happen to spend their summers traveling the country—inspired the title of their latest album.

“The goat is one of the first animals who joined with humanity in some kind of partnership. And it represents our hybrid lives,” Char said. “It’s about being at home and working with our families, and then this other, almost nomadic, life we have.”

Goats also feature literally in their lives. Robby and his wife are proponents of “radical homemaking,” and tend goats on their suburban farm. Robby also plays a West African hand drum called the djembe, which is made of goatskin. Char plays the gaida, a Bulgarian bagpipe whose name literally translates to “the goat.”

When the COURIER caught up with Round Mountain, they were playing nomad again, driving through Utah on their way to another gig in a Tacoma full of instruments.

“It feels like a big bus full of people,” Char said of the cargo. “They have different needs, they thrive in different temperature zones. And sometimes they get rowdy.”

When the Tacoma reaches Claremont, it will feel like a bit of home for the Rothschilds. They know some people performing at the Claremont Folk Festival, including Moira Smiley, who Char and Robby met when they shared a bill with her at a Colorado wedding. They are also on familiar terms with Claremont’s Folk Music Center, where they’ve played a couple times. Entering the Folk Music Center, its walls hung with instruments from around the world, felt “like walking into our long-lost home,” Robby said.

The Rothschilds admire the concept of the one-man band, as epitomized by Dick Van Dyke’s musically-inclined character in the film Mary Poppins.

“That’s the best scene in that movie to me. I would aspire to be that character,” Char said. “Burt is one of my heroes, in his busking moment of glory.”

It’s important to remember, however, that Round Mountain’s multi-instrumentalism is not so much a gimmick as a conduit for expression. The brothers’ sample-and-borrow technique stems from a philosophy that any creative chef would understand.

“Imagine you had a recipe that you loved. But then you met someone who had this incredible other recipe for the same dish that had another flavor in it, and you’d never tasted anything like it,” Char said. “If you found that you could get the same flavor with an herb growing in your garden, you’d start to experiment with that.

“People have always been fascinated with incorporating new things with those that are familiar,” he continued. “There’s an element of world music that has always been part of that continuum.”

The Claremont Folk Festival runs from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Saturday, June 15. For tickets and information, visit www.folkmusiccenter.com/folk-festival.

—Sarah Torribio

storribio@claremont-courier.com

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