David Bragger’s Old-Time Tiki Parlour is a passionate labor of love to the music he has devoted his life to playing, documenting and celebrating. That would be the rural American folk, gospel, country and blues performed at home or at social gatherings, which emerged from the Appalachians and the Mississippi delta, with roots in Scots-Irish Celtic and old African rhythms. Played mostly on acoustic instruments, including fiddle, banjo and mandolin, old-time music’s golden period lasted until the mid-‘30s, before giving way to more commercial forms like bluegrass and, later, rock ‘n’ roll itself.
A performer on both fiddle and banjo – as well as a teacher who holds a class at the ethnomusicology department at UCLA in old-time string band music – the San Fernando Valley native moonlights as a member of his own Sausage Grinder ensemble and as half of what he describes as “the first old-time music double-fiddle album ever recorded” with Susan Platz, the latest release for his Tiki Parlour Recordings label.
Old-time music is what Bob Dylan famously dubbed “that old, weird underground Americana,” what Harry Smith collected on his groundbreaking Anthology of American Folk Music album, released by Folkways in 1952, or what the likes of Alan Lomax documented in his field recordings.
“My interest is in the music’s original purpose, not for entertainment as much as it was for establishing society’s communal rituals and traditions,” notes Bragger, who launched Old-Time Tiki Parlour just two years ago, releasing a set by legendary banjo/fiddle player Dan Gellert, documenting the sessions on film.
Bragger’s interest in music goes back to his initial attempts to play guitar – which he quickly abandoned in frustration – only to become fascinated with the sitar and Northern Indian music. While pursuing a degree in religious studies at University of California at Santa Barbara, his prowess as a filmmaker led him to direct several avant garde short films and a handful of music videos for Bad Religion. Soon after, Bragger headed to India where he intended to study music, but ended up joining an itinerant band of street magicians. He traveled in their “sinister” medicine show, fleecing villagers with a “cups-and-balls” three-card monte act, swallowing thorns and lighting monkey skulls on fire with magical blood.
Returning to the U.S., Bragger set about teaching himself to play both banjo and fiddle, instruments he picked up from an aunt and great uncle, respectively, putting to use the lessons he learned in India about mesmerizing an audience and sending them into a trance-like state. Attending the famed Clifftop Appalachian music festival in West Virginia was one such epiphany which eventually led him to start the Old-Time Tiki Parlour as a way of both recording and filming old-time musicians for posterity.
“My love is learning, teaching and documenting these musicians,” says Bragger, whose latest endeavor included tracking down and bringing attention to the music of Alonzo Janes, an ex-slave fiddle player who is cited as an influence on several musicians, including Mel Durham, one of Bragger’s own mentors.
The 10 releases on Bragger’s Old-Time Tiki Parlour label – which he runs with partner (and fiddle student) Rick Hocutt — include titles by famed old-time music pioneer Bruce Molsky (Molsky’s Mountain Drifters), Gellert and his most recent title, a groundbreaking double-fiddle release with Susan Platz. All of the CDs and CD/DVD packages include extensive liner notes with artwork and packaging created by the old-time musicians themselves and associated folk artists. “I’m trying to support the music and not go broke in the process,” says Bragger, who pays for all the productions and gives each artist a number of finished albums to take on the road to sell.
Aside from his normal teaching load – as he attempts to pass the old-time music tradition to a new generation – Bragger remains busy within the community. First hired last year, he will once again serve as artistic director for the upcoming 46th annual edition of the Santa Barbara Old-Time Fiddler’s Convention & Festival, on October 8, and is also an organizer/co-producer of the Los Angeles Old-Time Social Festival. He produces a number of old-time music concerts in the L.A. area, bringing in performers from all over the country. Last year, he performed in the U.K. and Ireland, and earlier this year, contributed acoustic mandolin, banjo, guitar and fiddle to Bad Religion founder Greg Graffin’s solo album, Millport.
Still, it is old-time music that remains Bragger’s true passion, and if you want a definition, you need look no further than fellow old-time fan R. Crumb’s collection of playing cards, “Heroes of the Blues,” including Son House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Charlie Patton and Mississippi John Hurt. Unlike bluegrass, which places its emphasis on the backbeat, like ska or reggae, old-time music is clearly on, like James Brown’s one, the downbeat, with roots in African-American rhythms.
“Old-time music is a very specific thing,” says Bragger, whose other tastes run to “mid-century tiki culture, which is really bizarre, fascinating, repulsive and beautiful” and the tattoos that cover most of his body. However, with old-time music, “there’s a drone-like quality to the music, a trance-endant quality, and it’s deeply rooted in the sounds of the American ancients. Being a traditional musical form, it requires serious study and mentorship.”
As proprietor of the Old-Time Tiki Parlour, David Bragger is in perfect position to deliver on that mission.