Music: Telling it like it is

Cheval Sombre performs at the Barby Club in Tel Aviv.

Cheval Sombre (photo credit: PR)
Cheval Sombre
(photo credit: PR)
The Barby Club will host one of the leading indie acts on the New York scene on Wednesday when Cheval Sombre takes the stage. The group is essentially a one-person band with New York based poet and musician Christopher Porpora.
The band, it must be said, has an intriguing name, which means “dark horse” in French.
"The name was given to me, and I am very grateful, at a crucial moment,” he recalls. “I think most of the first album was finished, and there was some pressure building about what to call it.”
Porpora seems to have a keen sense of laissez-faire and let things just pan out the way they are supposed to.
“What inspired the name I think was that it all seemed to come unexpectedly, out of nowhere, so to speak,” he notes, adding that he prefers to work from behind a sobriquet front. “I enjoyed the anonymity of the name because I wanted the music to be for anyone who would like to engage with it – therefore, it was less about a person but a human experience. It does set a certain mood, now that I think about it.”
Although a product of a later generation, Porpora’s output seems to feed off 1960s-’70s sensibilities and, in particular, has a psychedelic undercurrent to it. The New Yorker places the “blame” at his dad’s doorstep.
“My father’s record collection had a profound impact on me, absolutely. If I try to remember a few just now, it was Donovan, The Mamas and the Papas, Andres Segovia, Roxy Music, even [British acoustic new age and folk music label] Windham Hill stuff,” he says.
There was more familial pushing in the right direction to hand. “My aunt also showed me some things on the guitar, which helped immensely. I think I was rather open about appreciating all of it as a teenager,” he says.
At the end of the day, however, Porpora was a product of his own generation and connected with more contemporary vibes.
“I also explored other avenues. On a few occasions, I saw the Grateful Dead play, which was very special. At the same time, I was also into [acid house number] ‘Voodoo Ray,’ The Smiths, [1980s English experimental video art and music group] Psychic TV, and [New Zealand-based music/art trio] The Dead C,” he recounts.
It wasn’t long before Porpora started putting his emerging ideas into practice. “I was in a group called The Holy Trinity for a while, which incorporated everything we loved about punk and beauty. We would show up to gigs, turn everything all the way up, and improvise for hours. Very loud – mind-splittingly so,” he says.
He also got offered a lunchtime radio DJ slot – which meant he had to skip school – which allowed him free rein on sharing his favorite sounds. “I unimaginatively called it The Lunchtime Show. I played everything from [New Zealand indie musician] Alastair Galbraith to Sonic Boom’s ‘Octaves and Tremolos’ at the time. All kinds of things,” he says.
Porpora is a poet as well as a musician, and that shines through clearly in all his work. Sometimes the songs he produces appear to be the product of a tussle between the lyrics and the instrumentation.
“When it comes to songs, I have noticed that often the music leads the way initially. What a luxury it is when music is the guide. The words often fall into place when the music starts without much thought,” he says.
Even so, the Cheval Sombre leader feels the need to make sure everything is just where it ought to be, even though it is ultimately all about addressing the nucleus.
“I cannot help but subject everything to a kind of loving scrutiny,” he admits, “so there are edits which happen, but not many. A word here gone, a pause. Simplify, simplify. Get to the spirit of it.”
That spirit generally boils down to a cozy pareddown sound. Porpora says he is drawn inward and that we could all do with toning things down a mite.
“The music which has delivered solace to me I felt invited me in, held me close. Always an honesty in those songs, an authenticity. I’d like to do the same for others, to continue in that way. Intimacy is rare – folks are very much afraid of it. Look at all the isolation people now experience. I suspect that the devastating loneliness which seems prevalent these days is a result of too much noise with nothing behind it but desperation and noise, empty noise.
But it must be said, too, that noise can indeed have heart – Barbed Wire Kisses for example,” he says. The latter refers to a 1980s compilation of highenergy singles, B-sides and rare tracks by Scottish alternative rock band The Jesus and Mary Chain.
Porpora feeds off a wide swathe of influences on various spheres. Among his literary sources of inspiration, he cites a cross-generational lineup that takes in novelist Anais Nin, English poet and painter William Blake, Leonard Cohen, Yeats, Matthew Lyndon Wells, Henry Miller and Rainer Maria Rilke.
Porpora also gets his literary kicks from more mundane items. “I’ll receive the odd handwritten letter in the mail, which always brings a certain joy,” he declares.
Cheval Sombre’s output includes a singular rendition of “Once I Had a Sweetheart,” which was also recorded by British folk-jazz group Pentangle, and there are plenty of other signs that Porpora digs folk sounds. In fact, he first got into the number courtesy of Joan Baez’s reading.
“But yes, I do like [Pentangle member] John Renbourn,” he notes. “When it comes to folk music, I have an expansive feeling about it. Music in the street of any country – I like an accordion in the street or a guitar or a flute.”
Porpora’s inspiration spectrum is eclectic in the extreme. It encompasses American finger style guitarist John Fahey; Canadian folkie Willie Dunn; Jerusalem-based nonagenarian Ethiopian nun and composer Tsegue-Maryam Guebrou; French singer Lucienne Boyer; and highly influential American folk musician Jackson C. Frank, to mention but a few.
“Shane MacGowan [leader of Celtic punk band Pogues] can’t hurt on a Sunday morning, either,” adds Porpora.
However, like all good poets, Porpora’s main muse comes from daily goings on around him. “Wake up, have a coffee and go out into it,” he states. “A story is always waiting to be told.”
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