BALANCING MUSIC AND ANTHROPOLOGY

BY BILL THOMPSON | PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD BROOKS

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Like a certain raider of lost arks, singer-songwriter Hector Qirko balances a career in academe with a rowdier, adventurous spirit “in the field,” which is to say on stage. He brings a quest mentality to both.

The College of Charleston anthropology professor, who earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Tennessee, approaches music with a similar penchant for study and careful composition.

His father’s family were ethnic Greeks who settled in Albania. His mother is from Cuba. His parents were immigrants to New York, but also lived in Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, Peru, and Mexico. As a result, Qirko has deep immersion in varied cultures and musical forms. But it was in the United States that the musician came into his own.

Qirko left Northwestern University after two years to play with Lonnie Brooks in Chicago, and in 1985 while a student at Tennessee, formed the HQ Band, a blues group that released five recordings and won numerous honors over the course of 25 years. He moved to Charleston in 2010.

His latest solo recording, Field Notes, brings all these experiences to bear.

How has your background informed your work as scientist and musician?

Well, I don’t think I could have helped being interested in culture. After all, I saw lots of different culturally shaped ways to live and think everywhere I went (including in my own home).

And it certainly introduced me to many different ways to make music. Thanks to my mother, music of all kinds was very important in our family life.

The blues is a major component of your sound on vocals and electric and acoustic guitar, but so are rock, bluegrass, country, folk and Western swing.

What I’ve been doing lately falls under the very loose categories of “roots” and “Americana” music, which incorporate most of those styles. But I like and play all kinds of popular music.

I’m always looking for music that will move me, and a lot of it gets added to the pile of influences that, mostly unconsciously, shape how I write and play.

What, and who, have been your most compelling musical influences?

When I was a kid it was the Beatles, first and foremost, and everything they opened the door to. My pretty eclectic view of music stems directly from that band and that period. Lots of people have influenced me with more specific ideas at one time or another. Over the last few years Clifton Chenier, Bill Frisell and Radiohead have been particularly inspiring.

You were a full-time musician from 1973 to 1986. But as your academic career grew, you went part time as a local and touring performer, studio musician, composer, arranger and producer. Now?

I’ve seen myself as a musician since I was around 10 years old, long before I ever played a gig. Even after I was doing other things while also playing music that didn’t change. I thought I might have some identity issues when I came here to work at the College of Charleston, but I still see myself in the same way even though I am, and very happily, a full-time academic. Turns out you can add identities rather than have to replace them.

Knoxville has played a central role in your music, you having played with many fine area bands while also working on 450 episodes of TNN’s I-40 Paradise and Pickin’ at the Paradise music TV series.

The TV shows were an opportunity to back literally hundreds of country and other artists in quick-study, high-pressure situations, and so it was a very valuable experience.

As for the bands, I feel extremely lucky to have stumbled into Knoxville and spent so many years as a part of such a consistently original music scene, in fact, one of the best in the country.

Apart from Tennessee-based vocalists Steve Horton and Sarah Pirkle, what Charlestonarea musicians worked with you on Field Notes?

Kevin Crothers, who played his good bass on some of the tracks, also helped me meet and coordinate with other players and studios. Roger Bellow, who plays fiddle and mandolin on the record, has also played with me and Kevin on several gigs. Through him I met the wonderful Johnny Spell, and I was lucky to get him to play lap steel.

And I’m grateful that two really good and well-known area drummers, Jack Burg and Ron Wiltrout, helped me out as well.

Tell us about this radio show you’re doing for the Charleston County Public Library’s new station WYLA 97.5 FM.

Crothers is the station manager and he asked me if I’d be interested in doing a show called Image-Free Radio, basically what I think is good music from anytime, anywhere. It’s fun for me, of course, but I hope interesting as well. It airs on Wednesdays at 8 p.m.

Are you interested in exploring music, popular culture and identity in anthropological terms?

I’ve been interested in how we define music genres to serve as identity markers. A lot of music categorization is driven by those trying to sell it, but it’s fascinating and more than a little scary to see how little of music classification has to do with the music itself, and instead with social dynamics, involving notions of race, ethnicity and gender.

Are academe and music complementary or strange bedfellows?

For many years I wouldn’t allow them to be bedfellows at all. The last thing I wanted was to look at music analytically, as I thought it might interfere with my ability, such as it is, to be unselfconsciously creative. But lately I’ve found some ways to tie the two interests without running into any of those kinds of problems.

Bill Thompson is the author of Art and Craft: 30 Years on the Literary Beat.