Raven Recording | Behind The Music

“The Mirrors reflected Gabrielle.”

Despite what the name suggests, Gabrielle Roth was not a musician, per se. Instead, she played the role of elastic muse – a “guide and catalyst” who would tear up scores, evoke atmospheres, and invite musicians to read notation in the movement of her body. 

To that end, The Mirrors were not really a band either. Rooted in the drum patterns of Gabrielle’s husband Robert Ansell, they were a shape-shifting entity, an energy source refracted through Roth’s ecstatic dance practice, 5Rhythms. In unison, they made music that was meant to be felt rather than listened to; music to induce altered states of consciousness.

As Roth once quipped, “You didn’t think this was about dancing, did you?”

For a spiritual polyglot like Gabrielle Roth, movement was a means through which to channel a wide spectrum of teachings, from experimental and transpersonal psychology to psychedelic counter-culture and Zen Buddhism.

A passionate dancer whose professional career was cut short by injury, it was at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California that Roth found her calling. Immersed in the world of Timothy Leary and Alan Watts, she became fascinated by Abraham Maslow’s theories of “self-actualization”, and was influenced by Fritz Perls’ Gestalt Therapy, for whom she led movement classes. She taught free dance to schizophrenics, and propagated its remedial benefits: “If you put people in motion, they’ll heal themselves,” she wrote in her 1989 book, Maps To Ecstasy.

In New York, she met and worked with Óscar Ichazo, the founder of the Arica School, whose maps of consciousness provided a theoretical framework for her own thinking. “Movement is my medicine, my meditation, my metaphor and my method,” she famously said. Learning was fuel for the fire.

Drawn to Native American shamanic traditions - a Sioux pony drum named Bertha followed her everywhere – Roth began inviting live drummers to her workshops, laying the foundations for the holistic practice of 5Rhythms that would become her life’s work. A secular, percussion-led ecstasy with precedence in the religious rituals of Afro-Brazilian Candomblé and the “reasoning sessions” of a Rastafarian Nyabinghi. 

Focussed intently on the self, Roth devised 5Rhythms as a movement meditation for human potential, underpinned by the idea that all life is energy, and moves in waves, patterns and rhythms: Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness. She was “a cartographer of the spirit,” and music was just another tool to help with navigation. 

Perhaps nothing speaks more of Roth’s mystic power than the transformation of her future husband Robert Ansell from successful criminal defence lawyer to lead drummer and percussive ethnomusicologist. 

By his own admission not much of a singer, dancer or actor, Robert threw himself whole-heartedly into the group’s workshops: “Gabrielle guided us in the exploration of our egos, the structure and patterns of our psyches we place between our vulnerable essence and the world “out there”,” he writes in 2014 book, Gabrielle.  It must have come as some surprise to the suited Robert Ansell of early 1977 that his truth lay not at the bar but behind a tom-tom drum.

Based in New Jersey, Roth and Ansell existed adjacent to the downtown scene embracing the potential of multi-disciplinary expression. So it was then that The Mirrors began life as a theatre company, described by Gabrielle as “a lab - a place to research my obsession with what it really means to be a human being, a whole one. We turned our lives into art, into dances, into songs, into poems, into theater — and this was the healing.” 

With Robert at the helm, these songs first made it to record in 1982. A self-styled rock ‘n’ roll outfit, Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors’ debut album, Dancing Toward The One / Sacred Rock, set out to map the 5Rhythms structure directly onto the music. “Gabrielle wanted an uninterrupted wave through the 5 rhythms, 5 minutes of each,” recalls Robert. “We were going live - 24 recording tracks, 25 minutes, 6 musicians and 3 vocalists. This was a prodigious undertaking. We all worked on this for a week or two prior to the recording session, and developed and rehearsed charts to pull this off. Five minutes before we started to record, Gabrielle walked into the studio, tore up the charts and told us she would dance while we recorded. “Play me,” she said. We did.”

The result sounds much like you might expect - a slightly disjointed prog rock odyssey that flipped through the five modes of movement all too literally. On their second LP, Pray Body, the hints of Lizzy Mercier Descloux and ‘80s NYC post-punk in jaunty opener, ‘Hiroshima / Nagasaki’, are undermined by a series of spoken word nursery rhymes. Derivative lyrics like “I say rock ‘n’ roll prayers to a dancing god” blight much of the album, which confirmed that traditional song-writing was not necessarily their strong suit. Something about Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors as a rock band didn’t sit right. Too much ego, too didactic. They needed to take a little bit of Roth’s own teaching to heart in order to fulfil their true potential. 

In order to understand Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors as they are presented here, you need to go back to the drum.

In 1960, Nigerian master percussionist Babatunde Olatunji released Drums of Passion – a collection of Yoruba rhythms which struck the USA right between the eyes. In the years that followed, Olatunji became a pivotal figure, playing on numerous defining jazz albums. As a Civil Rights’ activist, he toured the South with Martin Luther King Jr., and with the help of John Coltrane he founded the Olatunji Center for African Culture in Harlem. Teaching thousands of drum workshops along the way, Olatunji’s sound provided a fresh context for African music in the Unites States, so maligned and misrepresented by white America. For those ready to listen, it was nothing short of a revelation. 

As the ‘world music’ phenomenon unfolded around him, Olatunji passed into Roth’s sphere, teaching at both Esalen and the Omega Institute in New York City. Through his protégés Gordy Ryan and Sanga Of The Valley, who both toured in his band, and who would both go on to join Robert as the sole fixed points of The Mirrors, Olatunji’s pulse would be felt in The Mirrors’ music for the next thirty years.

In a fascinating parallel, it was a combination of traditional Jamaican Kumina drumming and the recordings of Babatunde Olatunji that are also said to have inspired Count Ossie’s foundational Nyabinghi rhythms. 

Brian Eno and Jon Hassell’s Fourth World, Vol. 1: Possible Musics was already five years old by the time Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors released their third album. Focussed on capturing the ambient instrumental explorations of the 5Rhythms workshops, there is little to suggest it registered. For Robert, the task was right in front of him.

“My job was to create the foundation of an energy that Gabrielle needed in the moment to help the dancers get to where she wanted to help them go,” he explains.

As such, the recordings made from 1985 onwards - from which the tracks on this compilation are taken - proposed a different way of making music, one which felt much closer to the essence of Roth’s ideas. 

“In my experience, a beautiful aspect of recording with Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors was that the music originated in the dance,” recalls Gordy Ryan. “We’d work it up, then go to the studio and play the groove with Gabrielle dancing, going into the infinite moment where the dance and the music are one. This was our method for creating the rhythm grooves that were at the heart of the compositions that would evolve during the recording process.”

Describing himself as the ‘bottom’ drummer, “the lowest in the musical food chain”, Robert would set the foundational beat from a wide range of instruments: Native American pony or taos drums, Yoruba and Igbo batá, East African kihembe, concerts toms, or, on occasion, a Japanese kabuki drum. “Gabrielle and I built the songs from these butt-moving bottoms up, deciding what bass player to add to the drums, what vocalist, or violinist,” he explains. They were joined first by stalwart percussionists Gordy Ryan and then Sanga Of The Valley. Finally, each iteration of The Mirrors was then assembled from a rotating cast of friends and professional musicians whose individual sounds and influences shaped the recordings.

“The secret of everything we’ve done is that we never told anybody what to play,” Robert shares. “Gabrielle would occasionally talk to musicians in metaphor. Like, [imagine you are] “standing on top of the mountain and wind is blowing.” Every artist was free to take themselves to the limit and make their contribution.”

You had established jazz musicians like bassist Alex Blake, whose credits included Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders and The Last Poets, providing wiry virtuosity on ‘Eliana’. There are synth parts from Gil Evans collaborator Delmar Brown, that lend a Cluster-like cosmic feel to ‘Seducing Hades’. At times, the dotara of Jai Uttal would set the tone, at others it was the dumbek of Hearn Gadbois. The melancholy ‘Stefania’s Song’ even features the unlikely union of Eurovision alumnus Sara Carlson and session drummer Joe Bonadio, who once recorded with Avril Lavigne. A broad church indeed. There are almost forty musicians and just as many instruments on this compilation alone.

“Instead of our albums being a musical vision of one person like me or Gabrielle, they were the musical vision of whole bunch of people”, Robert describes. The effect was one of a hall of mirrors, a kaleidoscope of influences, sounds and musical lives that collided in Roth’s orbit to stir the body and free the mind.

In practice, the task of synthesising these different elements fell to Scott Ansell, Robert’s son – then a budding sound engineer who already had an apprenticeship at NYC’s Skyline Studios and a job in the live booth at CBGB’s under his belt. Scott’s credits now read like a who’s who of ‘80s glam (Nile Rogers, Duran Duran, Grace Jones), but at the time he was learning on the job. 

The integral third point of Gabrielle and Robert’s unlikely production triangle, Scott’s role went beyond that of studio engineer. Embodying Robert’s adage that “the space you leave is just as important as space you take,” he experimented with mic placement to capture the dynamic energy of each drum, carving depth between instruments to translate and enhance the emotion behind the music onto record. Already attractive to gigging musicians for the freedom they were afforded, The Mirrors’ sessions became known for their production values – a masterclass of “space music”, in the purest sense of the word. With access to the best studios in New York, The Mirrors sparkled.

And yet, when it came to releasing the music, The Mirrors’ hypnotic, drum-driven sound found no kinship in the ‘80s New Age market, where synth swells, pipes and gongs held sway. Like so many independent ventures, Raven Recordings, the label on which their music was subsequently released, made a virtue of necessity. A cursory glance at the artwork should leave no doubt that these albums were never designed to cross-over. 

When compiler Pol Valls heard Gabrielle & The Mirrors’ “psychedelic, trippy, floaty” opus ‘Endless Wave’ (released in full by Time Capsule on TIME008) through a muffled phone speaker on an empty dancefloor in 2019, he couldn’t help but take notice. It wasn’t long before the extent of their output was revealed. Sixteen albums over thirty years, all conceived to spur ecstasy in the dance. 

With repetition and meditation in mind, the full albums come with their own internal logic, “each rooted in one or all of the 5Rhythms”. That they may transcend their audience for the first time is a testament to the work Pol has put in to curating this compilation. Cut from an initial shortlist of sixty-six tracks, he describes the selection as “a variety of genres, styles, and vibes within their catalogue, whether it is emotional, esoteric, spiritual, melancholic, hypnotic, dark, or at times a combination of these elements together.” Music for immersive and intimate environments, Raven’s recordings were born from the dance. In the hands of the right DJ, at the right time, in the right place, they might just return there. 

In an interview with Mirrors musician Arthur Hull, who now runs his own community of drum circles, Babatunde Olatunji articulates a paradox that is at the essence of his sound: “the spirit of the drum is something that you feel, but you cannot put your hands on.”

The spirit of The Mirrors is the same. This is music to be felt, ineffable sound, sound which - much like Brian Eno would profess on Ambient 1 – should not be the object of your attention, but the means to a state of being. It should have no sharp edges, no dissonance. It should be gestalt, a unified whole, greater than the sum of its parts. It should be at one with the dance, so that, to the ears of those in the room, it ceases to exist at all. It is a mirror, reflecting just that which enters its field.

“There is emotion in the music,” Pol muses, “but what it makes you feel, might be something different. I can say, “this is so beautiful,” but you might say, “this is actually very sad.” I think it depends on the person and how they perceive it.”

To paraphrase Gabrielle, and end where we began, You didn’t really think this was about music, did you?”

  • Thank you to Pol Valls and Kay Suzuki, whose research and knowledge has underpinned much of the information shared in these liner notes.