I remember where I was when I first heard Frank Zappa. It was 1980 and I was at C.F.B. Borden; Joe’s Garage Act I was blasting out of a buddy’s tent. I drew near, sat down and listened right to the end.
Nobody told me it was a rock opera (just as well). All I knew was that it was a musical story told masterfully.
That weekend, I purchased Sheik Yerbouti. By the end of the summer, further exploration left me frustrated because my young ear could not keep up. The music of Frank Zappa was certainly not “easy listening.”
Roy Estrada first met the self-taught musical genius when Zappa auditioned for the Soul Giants. Their drummer, Ray Collins, arranged it and each of the members saw his skill. Each agreed to let him join.
“He had a background in doo-wop,” says Estrada over the phone from his Texas home. “We were glad he joined the group. He was perfect.”
In time, Zappa convinced the members to play his music, and later it became his band. They called themselves The Mothers and, when the double meaning became a problem, it was changed to The Mothers of Invention.
Estrada is a journeyman bass guitar player who had his own band before Zappa, and he was successful after Zappa. But today he is happy to be a member of The Grande Mothers, revisiting the music of Frank Zappa’s many seasons.
Along with him are members from the many combinations of musicians that played with Zappa.
That is to say, musicians well schooled in jazz, electronic, orchestral and electro-acoustic.
Estrada, besides being the mother of The Mothers of Invention and the only musician not to be fired by Frank Zappa at one time or another, says The Grande Mothers is not a tribute band.
“We were members of the group,” he says. “We play the music we helped create. We were part of the music.”
Just as Zappa would write differently as new members joined, to make the most of their abilities, The Grande Mothers sound differently.
“We play it our way – how we feel,” says Estrada.
Even today, it is cutting edge stuff as The Grande Mothers returns to its roots as a performance band. With the decline of the record industry, unwilling to produce and promote expensive projects, Estrada says they are carrying their own instruments again and making every show an experience … not a promotion.
Frank Zappa pushed a lot of boundaries during his 30-year musical career. And it is not just matters of morality that many accused him of. Indeed, he never used drugs. “We couldn’t indulge in any of that stuff, either, or else we couldn’t play Frank’s stuff,” says Estrada.
Besides pushing the limits of music with his “sound that was raw, but arrangements that were sophisticated”, he pushed copyright issues.
Being among the first to “sample” music, with one of the precursors to the computer called a Moog – “If Frank were alive today, with all of these computers, he’d be in heaven” – Zappa was eventually challenged by a drummer who wanted to be paid every time he used his work in a later performance.
Then there were fights with record companies that tried to hold on to his music, which they felt was too heavy to release.
And he proposed digital downloads … back in 1989.
I tell Roy Estrada my little story about hearing Zappa, for the first time, and he understands. He says he has heard the same story many times.
“Young people are discovering it again. When they go back to study the masters, they find Frank Zappa.
“They learn that music is universal communication, age-wise and language-wise.
“Music doesn’t grow old, just the times are different.
“Most of our audiences are old fans and their children. Frank is not there, but the vibe is there. Some people cry; it is touching for them, but they have a good time.”
The Grande Mothers appear at the Yukon Arts Centre Friday, March 5, at 8 p.m. Tickets are available at the YAC Box Office, Arts Underground and www.yukontickets.com.