Before there was American Idol, The Voice, and X-Factor; before there were Mp3s, iPods and Spotify; before CDs, tapes, or even records, there was folk music. Traditional melodies passed on from generation to generation, played by non-professional musicians, often on self-made instruments. It was sometimes rough, even crude by today’s hi-tech flashy standard, but it was real and timeless, telling tales of rural life, daily struggles, legendary outlaws, and spiritual yearnings. It was music played by the whole family on the porch or around the fire. A time to bond for the sake of music, not for fame or money. This sense of dedicated musical community may be “old-fashioned” but it is far from dead, even in modern urban America. Multi-instrumentalist Rai Singh has recently been hosting Monday Night Porch Jams at his residence in the historic Coronado District with the expressed purpose of building community through music. He states: “Music is constantly around me, and the ability to share my space and my music with people who come and share their music with me is an honor. Coronado is a unique neighborhood where this event is starting to become a living breathing organism.” The Coronado District, also known as the ‘Nado by residents (or as “the square” as Rai likes to call it) is the area in central Phoenix between 7th and 16th streets and Thomas and McDowell. This hyper-local music scene has been bustling with activity lately and has provided a diverse sample of talent to Rai’s porch jams, including featured artists Adrian P. Fontes, Joey B, Michael Ferrari, Rick Sabral, and Francisco, as well as various recurring contributors and surprise guests.
Although it has been moved inside for the last few weeks due to the chilly weather, Rai’s “porch” music jams continue to provide a welcoming atmosphere for acoustic musicians and audience alike, with delicious home-made snacks and coffee/tea provided by the gracious hosts. Donations are appreciated to cover the costs of the refreshments, but Rai claims: “I’ve purposely made Porch Music Mondays free and non-paying for the featured musicians so there wouldn’t be dollar signs attached to it. Ever.” This attitude of integrity adds to the authenticity of the affair, and Rai Singh’s affinity for “old-timey” music comes from the heart. He declares: “I love the rural voice. Reminds me of listening to my grandparents. I love it when you can tell that the person singing is old and missing some teeth. It’s people playing music to play music, and not to sell tickets or records. It’s what people did. Everyone played music. You’d have a 10 piece band just in your family. And everyone sang because they learned to sing in church.” This joy and love of music also comes out in Rai’s performances, whether it be on acoustic guitar, bass guitar, banjo, or even didjeridu. His song choices include traditional tunes as well as classics by the likes of John Prine, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie, Doc Watson, and Grateful Dead. When picking his 5-string banjo, Rai always likes to differentiate between his preferred “clawhammer” style and the more modern bluegrass picking style: “Claw-hammer style banjo is a more traditional style of playing. The people working in the fields all day didn’t have the dexterity to do the fast rolls that were developed in bluegrass music, which is less than 100 years old. The nail of usually the middle finger is used for strumming, the thumb pulls on the short 5th string, and the other fingers are curled back in. The hand looks like a hammer. It’s based on a ‘bum ditty’ rhythm. It can be used as a solo instrument or as accompaniment with other instruments/voice.” This is music for the people, and building a musical community may include asking you to participate even if you are not prepared, if you don’t play any instruments you may be called upon to sing or at least clap.
The laid-back and loose open-mic (without the microphone) format is always unpredictable but enjoyable. Before the weekly featured artist performs, people take turns playing music, talking, eating and drinking, telling stories, building a neighborhood musical community. This is a free, recurring event and is open to the public at Rai’s house near the corner of 12th Street and Palm Lane (1838 N. 12th St. Phoenix, AZ 85006) every Monday night from 6-10 PM. Come on down Rai would love to have you join the community. He explains: “I love taking the time to talk to the people about traditional music. The art of oral tradition was how news, culture, social norms, etc. were passed on. Keeping traditional music alive keeps the act of relating to people, without screens, alive in a way.”