We started playing Rock Band a couple of years ago. My kids and I arrived late one night at my brother’s. We were aiming for eight but landed at eleven. We caught a second wind and Casey asked if we wanted to try Rock Band. Video games make me grumpy for all the stereotypical geezer reasons, but it was late and my defenses were down. Plus, we’d never played the game before. I figured after a song or two we’d run out of gas, but we had a blast. We stayed up past one stumbling through various classic and alt rock songs.
Sean’s favorite was the Beastie Boys “What’cha Want.” He played it well—he played everything well—and his ten-year-old cousin went bonkers rapping for the first time. Maggie preferred singing, especially “Rebel Girl” by Bikini Kill. “Rebel Girl” was made for Maggie. “She thinks she’s the queen of the neighborhood/Guess what? She is!” I’d played punk songs for her before. She’d said they were “too yelly.” But that night Bikini Kill was just right. Video games as family bonding. Video games 1, Geezer 0.
Yasmin Williams is seated on stage playing a short-neck, 12-string acoustic guitar. She strums on the neck, makes it sound like a harpsichord, pleasantly mellow, a heavenly waterfall. She sits next to a table covered with gear, including a kalimba and a laptop on which she will periodically play backing tracks. She also has numerous guitars within arm’s reach. It’s like we’ve been invited into her Batcave. On paper, some of these elements might suggest she’s aiming for a new age/candle shop sound, but there are equal parts mad scientist and talk show host in her performance. Prior to the show, I’d have described her as an acoustic guitar player, yet she’ll play everything but a conventional acoustic guitar tonight.
A few months after my Rock Band crash course, my class was studying American history of the early-to-mid 1800s, including the Trail of Tears. We noticed Native Americans were often referred to in our books and online resources but rarely described in depth, pushed to the periphery. One student said, “Mr. Faloon, I know you don’t like video games, but Native Americans are like NPCs.” He explained non-playing characters, depicted but denied agency, part of the scenery but not actively involved. His spot-on analogy spoke volumes to his classmates as much as me. Plus, they loved the implicit bonus of video games being helpful. Video games as a source of insightful metaphors. Video games 2, Geezer 0.
“The vibration will move your mind
It’s new to you, sounds true to you
Sacred music before its time”
-“Kalimba Story” – Earth, Wind & Fire
For her second guitar of the show, Williams works a six-string acoustic, seemingly standard until you notice the two vertical sound holes. “The sound surrounds me,” she says. The bulk of the guitar’s vibrations flow up rather than out. Then she lays the guitar on her lap with the strings pointed toward the ceiling. It’s an impressive instrument, designed and built by a guy two tables over whom Williams thanks from the stage. The thing must have cost a fortune.
She reaches for a kalimba, metal tines arranged on a wooden soundboard. She explains she was inspired to play one by watching Maurice White of Earth, Wind & Fire. As she describes the video of White’s solo, she tapes the kalimba to the handmade guitar. She wields this amazing handmade artifact of a guitar, and she sticks things to it. Of course, the guitar builder takes it in stride, but I wonder if any part of him wanted to reclaim the instrument rather than see it subjected to such use. The guitar and kalimba make for a lovely combination, but then she moves on. She’s not prone to lingering. Next stop: the harp guitar, a double neck instrument with harp on top and guitar on the bottom. She plucks the top strings with her right hand and explains that “people told me this was wrong.” Later she’s back on a single neck guitar using a bow. “I was supposed to learn cello in college, but I did not. The class was very difficult, but I kept the bow.”
As it turns out, Yasmin Williams was inspired to play guitar by playing video games. As a teenager she beat Guitar Hero 2 on expert. “I had to tap as fast as possible, and I really liked doing that.” She found that her gaming skills translated to making music. Video games as a source of musical inspiration. Video games for the hat trick, 3-0.
It’s impressive watching Williams rotate guitars and demonstrate her virtuosity. Fortunately, there’s more than gear and chops here—she’s no mere stunt guitarist. Her songs are soothing on the surface with varying undercurrents of joy and melancholy. At times they’re buoyant, playful. There are also the “super sad, homesick songs” written when she was in college. Other times she dips into politics and social justice. She steers into this even more directly in the liner notes to her latest album, Urban Driftwood. The title song “refers to how the culture of Black America is often imitated in popular culture, but the people behind the culture aren’t as respected as they should be.”
Williams’ songs are all instrumentals. It’s ironic that she doesn’t sing because she is eager to banter, to share more than her superheroic musicianship. Her persona is ever present, and she’s quite charming. She prefaces songs with stories. She talks about her process and equipment. She encourages the audience to call out questions. (Audience member: “Do you sing?” Williams: “Yes, in the shower. My guitar sings for me.”) She even solicits suggestions for covers.
Sometimes I bring Maggie and Sean to MCEs, Meaningful Cultural Experiences. It’s a phrase I swiped from Victoria Jamieson’s Roller Girl. The mom is always taking the main character, Astrid, to art museums and poetry readings. The mom considers these “good for you” events. Astrid dreads them. Some of that holds true with my kids, but our MCEs were getting better just before the COVID shutdown. We saw pianist Matthew Shipp in early March 2020. They enjoyed his performance. Even more they enjoyed the pre-show dinner we were able to tag along to. Shipp was very funny, and they relished how he laced his anti-Trump perspectives with well-placed f-bombs, didn’t pull any punches because there were kids at the table.
I should have brought Maggie and Sean to see Williams perform. They would have loved her, and not just because she covered Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower.” I can picture our mutual looks of disbelief in the wake of her marvelous musicianship and the “I told you so” glances when she talked about Guitar Hero. Yasmin Williams has a way of bridging gaps.