Grow-your-own musical tradition Quintet specializes in plucking performances from a crop of handmade instruments

The Richmond Indigenous Gourd Orchestra - RIGO for short - bills itself as the group that "put the cult back into culture and the culture back into agriculture."
In more down-to-earth terms, that means a band that plays literally homegrown instruments, made from gourds raised in Arthur Stephens' back yard in South Side Richmond, and plays to fans of alternative music.
Performing tomorrow night at Ashland Coffee and Tea, the quintet inhabits a hip, artsy corner of pop culture where new rock and experimental jazz meet world music and the kind of low-budget, high-irony humor fondly recalled from "Mystery Science Theater 3000."
Like The Ululating Mummies, Richmond's revered otherworldly music band, RIGO "descends from a creative and somewhat amorphous musical community here in Richmond that dates back to the mid-'70s," said Barry Bless, a veteran of that scene who joins Stephens, Pippin Barnett, John Ramsey and Christopher Hibben in RIGO's current incarnation.
The gourd, a cousin of the squash and pumpkin, was one of
the first plants to be cultivated, not for food (it's inedible) but for the many ways its shell could be used. "It's ancient Tupperware," Stephens observed. "You can use it as a drinking cup or a vessel for storing things. You can use the bottom as a plate and the top as a spoon. You'll find dippers made from gourds in many parts of rural Virginia."
Gourds also were made into musical instruments in many parts of the world and still are used in the traditional music of Africa, Asia and some American Indian cultures.
Stephens first heard such instruments about 15 years ago when he visited the Ohio Gourd Festival and met Minnie Black, the "grande dame of gourds," who had organized a band playing gourd instruments. Stephens came home determined to explore the musical possibilities of gourds and soon enlisted Bless, Barnett and others to join him.
While they tried to make traditional gourd instruments and absorb some of the traditions associated with them, "we inevitably gravitated toward what we were comfortable with," Bless said. "So soon it was no longer a question of 'You're playing this wrong' but a question of 'What kind of sounds can we make that work together?'"
In its shows and a string of recordings, RIGO has seesawed between world music and styles closer to home, such as the blues (which Bless believes is the group's strongest subliminal influence).
"We all listen to all kinds of music, and we're pretty impressionable," Bless said.
Stephens agreed. "That, and our experiences and the sounds of our instruments are what we're about."
On a tour of RIGO's rehearsal room and instrument collection, Bless pointed out the variety of wind, plucked string and percussion instruments that can be fashioned from gourds. (The group will play about two dozen in tomorrow's Ashland show.)
"Some of our instruments can be very sophisticated," Stephens said as he plucked a finger piano. "This is not one of them," Bless said after emitting a gooselike HONK from a gourd horn.
"One of the joys of playing in this group is that you're working with instruments that have limitations," Stephens said. "Getting music out of them is part of the creative process.
"With more sophisticated instruments, so many formulas and techniques have built up around playing them that the musician's choices become circumscribed and the music becomes uninteresting."
RIGO's current crop of instruments was created last year while the five musicians "gourdshedded" in Barnett's woodworking shop. "From time to time," Bless said, "we find it's good to spend six months or so making new instruments instead of rehearsing. "It's getting to be about time to do that again."