Breaking free from western temperament

Belinda Underwood’s voice crawls up and down your nerves, leaving goose bumps on the skin and inspiration on the mind.

Belinda Underwood’s voice crawls up and down your nerves, leaving goose bumps on the skin and inspiration on the mind. She has been internationally recognized for her jazzy skills, not only for her vocals, which is a relatively new skill for her, but also for her ukulele and upright-bass musicianship.

She traveled with the UC Berkeley Wednesday Band, attended the Jazzschool there and has recorded and released songs with Nancy King, Phil Baker and Martin Zarzar of Pink Martini. What makes Underwood stand out most significantly from her contemporaries, though, is her desire to reach out beyond her western training and into the depths of eastern musicology.

“It all started with a belly dance camp I attended in California,” Underwood said. “It was a Middle Eastern music and dance camp and I found myself most enthralled by the live music. There were musicians from Lebanon and Turkey and Greece, and I was floored because I thought they were all playing out of tune, but I realized they were doing it intentionally…when I started hearing the music as in tune, without judgment, it blew my mind!”

She is an advocate for “natural scales,” which are the scales found in nature, the scales human ears naturally prefer. Because the western style of music, especially classical music, is based around the piano, the scales we are familiar with were standardized in order to make the piano work function. In nature, each note of the scale is not perfectly spaced out, but rather varies in the distance between each tone.

Many of us have been raised in the western world, and so these natural tones may initially sound imperfect or unsettling. When Underwood’s ears adjusted to the change, when she deconstructed years of classical training, she realized just how broad the possibilities of music truly are.

“I realized the whole musical scale is a spectrum—like when you see a rainbow, you never really see definitive colors so much as you see a blend of colors,” Underwood said. “I was taught that there were only 12 tones, but there are really notes between those notes, called quarter tones, and they create a whole new array of musical tensions.”

This discovery has made all the difference for her. Though she remains true to her jazz and blues roots, she is definitely trying to “Americanize and modernize” this Middle Eastern influence. She explains how these new tensions create whole new moods that we all can feel and relate to when stimulated, but are otherwise untouched and unidentifiable because of our limited exposure to non-western music.

For the past five years, Belinda has been traveling to and from Cairo, Egypt to meet and play with music professor Dr. Alfred Gamil at the Arab Music Institute, “eating, sleeping and breathing music.” She lovingly describes the musicianship in Cairo, how musicians from all over the world come together to play ethnic music deep into the night, respecting and joking with each other through improvisation, “very much like a bunch of old jazz musicians.”

She and her sister Melissa recently finished a tour as Beliss, playing folksy originals full of sisterly love as well as covers by artists like Bjork, Nick Drake, Malvina Reynolds and Calexico. Underwood is now working on her very own self-released album.

Professional producers did all her previous releases, such as her debut album Underwood Uncurling in 2005 and Greenspace in 2008, in professional studios. She is proud to announce that this soon-to-be released album will be recorded in her own home, with all of the tracks recorded and produced herself, along with all the album artwork.

If that’s not filling up her time enough, she also helps run her family business, Underwood Pickups, with was started by her father over 30 years ago, and has her own independent record label called Cosmik Music Records. Her mission is to support artists working to bring about positive changes to the world. To say the least, Underwood is one hell of a woman.

Tonight she will be playing with local accordion player, Justin Franzino, with whom she has recorded various tracks from classic French music to oldies and originals.