Symbolic Cymbalom

by D. Patrick Miller 
East Bay Express 
Feb 17, 1995 

You must have seen this guy -- either on the Telegraph Avenue sidewalk near the UC campus, or near the downtown Berkeley BART station, or by the Cannery in San Francisco. He's the street musician with long red hippie hair, a hammer dulcimer on stilts, and fingers a little like Edward Scissorhands'. He usually draws a small crowd with the mesmerizing sound of his instrument -- something like bells and shadows, a veritable Turkish steambath of overtones, a sound that first gets your attention from about a half a block away. A self-described "community icon," Michael Masley was carted off to the Berkeley slammer in the spring of 1993 for failing to procure a business license to sell cassettes out of an open case during his performances. As reported by the Oakland Tribune, Masley's defense to the two cops and two city finance officials who arrested him was characteristic of his cosmic outlook: "Go to Fremont or Hayward," he admonished the suits and uniforms. "This is Berkeley.....this place is spiritual, and a business license is not a spiritual option."


Masley's abduction by the authorities drew protests from a number of Telegraph vendors and bystanders, including noted "plop artist" Richard List -- the genius who installed the erstwhile toilet gallery in the empty lot at Haste and Telegraph. "It's like arresting Beethoven," List said. Masley spent only one night in the pen, and though his status as a vending minstrel was never ironed out, he says he hasn't been significantly hassled since.


The prestigious Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians (8th edition) credits Masley with inventing the "ten-fingered 'finger-hammer' technique" of playing the cymbalom, a chromatic concert version of the traditional hammer dulcimer. Masley's wheeled cymbalom was built by an expert back in Michigan, Masley's native state from whence he moved out West in 1982. Masley describes what he does as "earth-folk," which he recently further defined as "a contemporary Afro-Celtic variation of Free World and Country Eastern music."


A couple of years ago, the plashing, shamanic soundwaves issuing from Masley's instrument were arresting enough to catch the ear of Ry Cooder when he was fishing around in his box of unsolicited tapes for just the right mystical resonance to round out the soundtrack for the feature film Geronimo. Playing cymbalom, Lakota flute, and water pipes for a couple of movie minutes, Masley made some reasonable bucks. Masley's musical contribution was excerpted for use on CBS's broadcast of the Winter Olympics, on NBC's Entertainment Tonight, and in an HBO special. Masley's prospects were beginning to look limitless.


When Sony issued the Geronimo soundtrack, however, everyone received their due credits for composition except Masley. "I doubt Ry Cooder had anything to do with this," Masley wrote recently in Musician magazine, in an article entitled "Credit is Not Negotiable." After lengthy legal wrangling, Sony coughed up a "decent" out-of-court settlement and issued what Masley calls "the letter": a full admission of Masley's contributions to Geronimo, duly signed by Robert E. Holmes, executive VP of Sony Pictures Music Group.


If Masley is worried about never doing lunch in big-time music town again, he doesn't show it. "I'd love to do more soundtracks, and I probably will," he coolly predicts. "You see, I have a timbral monopoly. Nobody else can do my sound."


In the meantime, you can pick up Masley's brand-new CD -- Mystery Repeats Itself, a greatest-hits collection culled from six of his tapes -- at the Musical Offering in Berkeley, or order directly from the artist (P.O. Box 5232, Berkeley, CA 94705). Since Masley long ago blew his Sony winnings on expensive audio gadgetry (much of it from Sony, of course), quantities of his disc are limited. But you can still catch him out on the street.