Ancient Future: Global music without limits

Ancient Future, the collective led by guitarist Matthew Montfort, plays music that draws on the traditional music of the world, combining contemporary jazz and rock with the rhythms of Africa, Bali, India and the Middle East, the rich harmonies of European classical music and the beautiful melodies of Asia. A concert can take many forms, from solo excursions by Montfort, to ensembles of three, five or 10 members, drawn from the 28 master musicians who rotate in and out of performances. The music features many traditional acoustic instruments, often producing a calm, mind-altering sound that’s difficult to describe. Montfort usually takes center stage, stating the melodies on his scalloped fretboard guitar, which he began playing before the first Ancient Future concert in 1978.

“I wanted an instrument that would give me the range to play Indian music on guitar,” Montfort said. “An East Bay luthier, Ervin Somogyi, scalloped my first guitar by hollowing out the wood between the frets on the instrument’s neck. That way, you can grab the strings like a veena player would. [The veena is a South Indian stringed instrument, similar to the sitar.] It allows you to bend notes on an acoustic guitar farther than what a blues guitarist can do. I spent a summer studying South Indian music with a veena master, and got inspired.”

Montfort has been interested in styles from around the globe for as long as he can remember. He envisioned world fusion music while he was in high school in Boulder. “I was already a proficient guitarist, practicing five or 10 hours a day. I always wanted to play guitar, but the trumpet was forced on me in 4th grade,” he said. “I got out of it by playing badly. I told my parents I wanted a guitar. They said, ‘You have to play piano first.’ I got out of those lessons by telling them I had too much homework to do. Once I got a guitar, I practiced like crazy. In my last year of high school, I only had two or three classes a day. The rest of the time I practiced.

“This was in the time when music fusions started happening—jazz rock, classical rock. I wondered what the music of the future would sound like. Then I thought, ‘Why not include the whole world in my vision? Why just Western music?’ One of my high school guitar students progressed so quickly that we started playing together. We became interested in flamenco, listening to records, doing everything we could to learn it. He went to Spain to study. When he came back, he told me everything we thought we knew was wrong. He became my flamenco teacher.

“When I listened to Indian music, with my fusion project in mind, I wasn’t attracted to it. It didn’t have any chords, and I’m a guitar player. Then, my friend Benjy Wertheimer began studying tabla. A friend of his played me records by the Diga Rhythm Band and Ravi Shankar’s Festival from India. I was hooked. We came out to California to study at the Ali Akbar College of Music.”

While studying at the Ali Akbar College, Montfort met Zakir Hussain and members of the Diga Rhythm Band, and began performing with them. Ancient Future grew out of the scene surrounding the Ali Akbar College. Ancient Future slowly expanded into a network of master musicians from every corner of the globe. This year marks the ensemble’s 42nd year of performing and recording.

Without any way to play music together, the pandemic has been a trying time for Montfort and his ensemble—but, on June 12, an Ancient Future trio consisting of Montfort on scalloped guitar, Aditya Kalyanpur on tabla and Frank Martin on keyboards performed a live streaming concert.

“It’s the first time we played live, without masks, since September 2019,” Montfort said. “Aditya runs a music school and has recorded on albums by countless A-list artists, including the Rolling Stones. Frank has played with Sting, Santana and Springsteen, to mention a few. 

“The set list was half my compositions and half Frank’s. We have scores for all of them, but they’re like jazz charts. We all had places to stretch out and improvise. There were a few technical glitches to get the streaming started but, all in all, it went as planned. We have most of the concert on video. In the next couple of months, I’ll be sharing some of the songs on the Ancient Future YouTube channel [youtube.com/ancientfuture]. The first one, ‘Lustful Elephants Trumpet Spring,’ will be up by July 7th.

“I want to get back to the way things were, but we’re not playing live indoors anytime soon. With the variants going around, it seems a bit crazy, opening up before we know how it’s going to work. We have outdoor shows coming up in October, but many places that opened up and were well vaxxed had to shut down again, so there’s no guarantee those shows will happen.”

Montfort paused, then added, “World fusion isn’t a big market. We can’t often afford to travel the world, ’cause it’s a big deal to put a tour together. Streaming concerts allow us to reach more folks. I need the best musicians to play this music, and I need to pay them, but that’s not always feasible. For example, we have a lot of fans in Myanmar, but it’s not currently possible for us to perform there.”

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