In the mid ’90s, while I was still volunteer manager for the Fast Folk Cafe in Manhattan’s Tribeca, Salamander Crossing played there a couple of times, as I recall, maybe more. The lead singer and fiddler was Rani Arbo, a strikingly lovely brunette with a rich alto and a sizzling fiddle style. Combining the best of folk and bluegrass, the band was always a treat. After almost 10 years, the group split over differences in career goals and priorities. Rani, along with Salamander Crossing’s bassist, Andrew Kinsey, founded Daisy Mayhem in 2000. I’d included them in our listings many times but, for obscure reasons, I failed to jump at writing a feature profile until now. During an eagerly awaited phone interview with Rani, I managed to flesh out more pieces of her already extensive online history.


Rani Arbo was born and raised in Manhattan. Her family lived on 112th Street, just down the block from the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. As a child, she craved music. Rani can’t recall just how it started, but remembers, as a preschooler, building blanket-and-chair forts around her parents’ cabinet-style record player. “I was a serious little kid and I had a really long attention span for a small child. I would go in there for hours and my mother would feed me sandwiches,” she told me. She’d listen to her parents’ music collection — Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Scott Joplin, Flatt & Scruggs, Peter Paul & Mary, some opera, Flamenco guitar and others. “There was a reel-to-reel tape machine that my dad had, so I was mostly listening to tapes. My father spliced together five or six Peter Paul & Mary albums — I’d listen to the whole thing. I remember there was an orange light on the tape machine and I’d stare at it until everything else went black.”

Her parents were from the Midwest, so, she said, “I had a very wholesome, Midwestern-style upbringing in the city.” There was a tight-knit community that shared baby-sitting, had block parties and roof gardens and flooded an empty lot  in winter so the kids could go ice skating. It felt like they were living in a small Midwestern town, but they were a Columbia family. Her dad studied nuclear physics at Columbia University and her mom was an administrator in the physics department. Her dad could play guitar and played for Rani and her brother (3 years younger) when they were little.

Liftoff at 8 Years Old

Rani said she “bounced around” a few elementary schools before attending the school at St. John the Divine when, formerly an all-boys school, it was integrated to be coed in 1974. She was in second grade. There were six girls in her class all the way through the eighth grade. At 8, Rani began singing as a chorister there. The director was resistant to the girls’ presence in the choir, but was replaced after one year by Paul Halley, who was also the pianist and organist for the renowned Paul Winter Consort. His taste was wide-ranging and, along with the cathedral school’s liberal bent, Rani felt very fortunate to have found a place there, at that time. The choristers practiced and sang more than 15 hours per week, which included five weekly services at the cathedral, as well as special events like performances with the Paul Winter Consort and even a guest appearance at Carnegie Hall singing Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. Additionally, at 8 years old, Rani began to study cello. She then attended Horace Mann High School, where she played cello in the orchestra and sang in the school choir.

Enter the Fiddle

After high school, Rani attended Amherst College in Amherst, Mass., majoring in geology. Feeling the need for a break, she stopped cello study and did not sing in any chorus. However, she did take voice lessons and also played guitar, learned songs and sang.

In 1988, at 19, Rani saw the touring show, “Masters of the Folk Violin,” which featured Alison Krauss, Claude Williams (Duke Ellington orchestra), Kenny Baker (Bill Monroe band), Michael Doucet (Cajun fiddle maven) and the six winners of the Scottish and Irish fiddle competitions that year. She was mesmerized. She fell in love with the double-stop (two strings played at once — sometimes more) internal harmony that the folk fiddlers exemplified. She especially enjoyed the more nimble, modal quality the fiddle delivered. Rather than apply some of the folkie aspects to cello, Rani began to learn the fiddle. She borrowed a violin from the college and, despite the secretary’s admonition to be careful with it, took it with her on a field trip to British Columbia that involved helicoptering into a geology field site. It was stored in a tent for two weeks — in bear country! The wife of the helicopter pilot was a fiddler from Calgary, Alberta. She accompanied her husband on a re-stocking trip and returned, fiddle in hand. She and Rani then played together in the middle of a wilderness. We assume that the violin was returned intact.

She pursued her study of the fiddle with the fervor of a religious zealot. Without much money, Rani took a couple of lessons from some of the excellent area fiddlers. She then was given a box of live lesson tapes from a friend’s special study sessions with those same area fiddlers. She used books and became involved with old-time fiddling through friends. Rani also attended the Mount Airy Fiddlers Convention (in North Carolina) for two consecutive years and attended the Old-Time Fiddlers’ Reunion at Augusta Heritage Center (in West Virginia).

Salamander Crossing

During this time, Rani had been active in a weekly jam session in the back of the Fretted Instrument Workshop in Amherst. The core group of musicians was noticed and after a year began getting requests to play. A house concert here and a dental office opening there, and they were off and running — Salamander Crossing was born. Local area festival appearances followed. Although Rani asserted that none of them were great bluegrass players, they were all good singers and their harmonies were first-rate. At one festival, the co-founder of Signature Sounds records, Jim Olsen, heard the band, loved its sound and signed the group to the label. Early in the Salamander Crossing period, feedback at a bluegrass festival questioned the band’s commitment to either folk or bluegrass. For band members that question indicated that they’d achieved their goal — a blend of both. At the time, Alison Krauss was paving the way in folk-bluegrass fusion, and Salamander Crossing was riding the initial crest of that wave.

Morphing into Mayhem

After nine years on the road with dozens of festivals, coast-to-coast touring and three CDs on Signature Sounds, Salamander Crossing began to fracture over divergent musical and professional goals. The fun was seeping out of playing, and the band split up. While Andrew Kinsey remained on bass and added his ukulele and old-time banjo to the mix, Scott Kessel, now Rani’s husband, became the band’s percussionist, employing a melange of odd equipment, such as cardboard and wooden boxes, cat food tins, a Danish butter cookie tin and a vinyl suitcase. Anand Nayak became the guitarist for the band. His styles range through folk, blues, jazz and rock, and he brought in the electric guitar — a sound that bounced the band away from bluegrass.

Rani has remained with Signature Sounds, throughout Salamander Crossing and into Daisy Mayhem. After the split, Daisy Mayhem continued with a blend of bluegrass, swing, folk, pop, Cajun and jam band influences. The first Daisy Mayhem album, Cocktail Swing (2001), was the “divorce” record. It was deliberately goofy and had a wide variety of genres, including jazz and and comic songs, like “Singing in the Bathtub” from R. Crumb and the Cheap Suit Serenaders. Gambling Eden (2003), their second album, combined old-timey with Cajun and some original songs. Their third release, Big Old Life (2007), was released after Rani had recovered from a bout with breast cancer. It tackled love, death, fear and joy. Ranky Tanky (2010), their children’s album, has deceptively simple songs with an underpinning of a variety of exquisite melodies and instrumental styles. It appeals to children and parents alike and has won top awards from parents’ and other organizations. Daisy Mayhem has performed a number of concerts for the Carnegie Kids program and remains a strong draw for their children’s shows in the New York City area. Some Bright Morning (2012) is the band’s “agnostic gospel” album. The band excels in this genre. They celebrate the human spirit without adhering to any particular doctrine. Their latest release, Violets Are Blue (2015), is an album of love songs from the perspective of mid-life. “Walk Around the Wheel” was particularly moving for me.

The longevity of Daisy Mayhem speaks to their synchronicity with each other and their ability to move an audience. While, instrumentally, they may not possess dazzling speed, they can, in a heartbeat, transmit the feeling of what it means to be alive. Together.

Next local appearances:

Jul 1   6:15pm Middletown, CT, Middletown Fireworks Festival

21    7pm CHIRP Concerts, Ballard Park, Ridgefield, CT