Back in the nineties I created a lot of essays all loosely joined by A being about music B memoir related and C pertaining to how place affects creating music and how one listens. A mixed memoir called "Music Matters". Much of it I would heartily disown now , but not all - and who am I to judge now that the work is done, anyway? So I am resolved to dripping out the essays over the next few months, often without comment, sometimes with.
B Tribe: Suave (1995)☍
- 2020-07-09 22:45:47+02:00
I awake to the melody of gulls circling the beaches that overlook the Southern sea, swathed in the warm wind that gusts at the olive green and spiked vegetation. The wind is chording, harmonising it’s own tunes, or so I believe for a moment, but then I realise other work is coming through, that of people, their stringed instrument sounds lazily meld with the surf and cricket-loud sand; following a rasgueado strum. Shimmering in the heat the gypsy girl is the first to walk over the dunes, in jewelled sandals picking her way carefully, and she sings as she does so. She passes close, so close that I can see the moisture on her midriff and observe the texture in the embroidery of her blouse, and moved from within I extend my hand, but she passes on, through me, or I through her, I am not sure which it is. As she passes I join the chorus of her song, and it seems as if she hears this, for a frown pauses momentarily on her face, and her voice cracks, with a muttered aside. Then, from my vantage point above the waves I see the the gypsy guitarists; now I understand that rasgueado, sensual they sing too, over slowed beats ‘celli glower, and shakers held in brown hands glisten with wet sand. I would stir to join the throng, sing even, but cannot, logged with feeling I can only be still and watch, listen. At one point the harmony lifts me involuntarily to a sitting position, but even that returns to its point of origin; and I with it, fade to the ground, helpless once more. So it is, the song and the sand, until the dancers come, and at last I too can move, turning at first slow, almost like tableaux vivant, minor to major mode and back again, but then they move off in procession, and I stumble behind, following on their last footprints. I travel, as does everything else under that spell, up through the ancient and parched country to an Arabic citadel, and through the portcullised arch of the city wall to the courtyards within. Sun baked and basking, in this city something of the quiet of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan still resides, although the Ummah has long ago left. Now a male voice rises, claims all griefs to be his own, shouldering the year that has passed, and the girl dances in the dusty streets with him. As the truncated and austere beats continue, the singers fall silent, a dub breakdown in hiatus of another beginning.
At last, the rasgueado salute, at the start of another journey and the multitude of the town pour from their houses to play to the parched plains and, look! now the fields bear flowers; the gypsy song has rung in the season, as the guitarists circling cast sound to every horizon, like seed....
The light of the soul is the light of life and that light is love....
...so she says, suddenly standing in front of me.
I feel you,
who so calmly sneak behind?
She is insouciant, and skips ahead ,
I feel you,
and laughs, and works, all in one gesture as she sings the land free.
Once the southern sun descends, fire extinguished by the far off horizon she returns to town, her task done for the day. In the window boxes of the street are new flowers from the fecund fields, around the corners and alleyways the gypsies play on, but she is silent now, listening to their ancient melody; she dances away, smiling, and disappears into her house,
Through the ornate grill work on the window frame I can see her, she hums softly to a small child cradled in her arms, but this is for me too, I who perch and rest on a stone bank, who would cry if I could, because here in this village I have seen reason to hope, because here people live for each other it seems, just a little...
as night falls she takes a small bird in her hand, and hears the drummers marching away down the street the gypsies play guitar by a campfire
when they converge the bird
will fly again... she holds her hands up, and the moonlight glistens on her suddenly revealed bracelets as the sleeves fall back and the bird rises, the flutter of wings and the whirl of guitar strum all coursing on the wind beneath the stars
you’ll be back next year, she tells me, and the village recedes away, the moon looms larger and the clouds scud over the bright ocean. I wheel back towards the mountain horizon where I must be as she sings again her blessing, and her spell, and I know I will return....
Jenny Takes Me Down☍
- 2020-07-03 22:43:50+02:00
Jenny takes me down, first the Tube then the streaked and dirty streets, back to her house stopping only to pull in at the all night garage to buy milk, and survey the ragga youth hanging by the boom box, and the cars swirling in and out, the furry-dice bobbing in the windows. The ‘lads’ are buying the petrol and the ‘birds’ are dolling up in the mirror, in a haze of back-seat bass they speed away, down the High street, towards the South Circular, and the road to the rave.
I shudder, I really don’t like being here, in this part of town, not at this time, but she just shrugs it off. ‘Saturday night innit,’ she prompts, and taking my hand leads me up the silent hedge-rowed side streets, skipping in and out of the rain speckled parked cars, picking flowers from one well tended garden, pausing only to pull close as we pass under the railway bridge, to push a sudden and ferocious kiss on my mouth. Walking on, silent and solemn, signing a conspiratorial ‘ssssh’ with one elegant finger, she inserts a key in the lock of her front door and we climb, shoeless, to the back bedroom.
And then, in the solace of her bed, amidst the sounds of her records, I realise that part of me will never leave South London. I too can disappear into this anonymity; the endless roads and terraces, the slew of late buses and canceled trains, and the furtive, slimy, back street public house crime. I am home, because, spinning in her arms, translucent, swapping stories of here and there and everywhere we’ve been and are going, I look up, and brown eyes meet mine and I know she knows, because we’ve thrilled to the same and raged at the same, felt the same slow ivy crawling awareness, that there could be more. Growing in separate beds, in separate genders and colours, we’ve sprouted the same wings. Only now she is comfortable, she says, anywhere and everywhere, whereas I, in my obscure discomfort, am utterly opposite, and consequently, one morning, some morning, she brings me to the airport, and we speak of time passing and phone calls and letters, and hug, and smell on each other the sex of that morning, and then I am gone--another loss? another betrayal?
But when I return --perhaps ready to embrace her-- she tells me that she too has found that to stop is to sink; to sink too deep into the sticky clay of London’s foundation. She too would fly..
How I Got Started ☍
- 2020-06-25 00:26:41+02:00
How I Got Started in (Contemporary) Dance Accompaniment
There I was, a young guitarist wannabe feeling a bit miserable and moribund in South London having tried a few different paths and none fit. I'd heard about dance and movement though and brought me one evening to Goldsmiths Laban Centre and took a class, that turned out to be intermediate Cunningham which of course I could do none of, though I did meet Merce years later and he said my lack of balance would have made me a good dancer always on the edge, though we were being jocular as I escorted him through his studio out of class.
At the side though, in this class, at the grand piano, dark eyes grinning at my dance ineptitude, sat a musician improvising as the class went along….
I could do that!
Somehow, after a phone call, a visit, some boasting I too was sat in that chair, clutching my guitar and crackling treble laden amplifier, and found myself…..
listening to counts that I now know were bar measures and phrase lengths in a Graham class, the very scaffold I needed to adorn with music….
that then served only to heighten my tension and invert my flow.
I lasted a while, days, weeks even, but deduced I was not to be asked back. Because of the sound of my instrument mind, quoth they, not what I was playing. Hmmm. Dejected that last day I rode the Southern Region train home again, dragging the offending guitar and amp with me.
During this period I had inherited a piano and had let the information drop that I had done so, and could even play it for the good souls at Laban if ever asked. A lie, or at least huge exaggeration, and a bluff I was sure would never be called.
Weeks, months perhaps, passed, and I laboured on at life, with a great wonderment about the future, not getting very far or prosperous. I was feeling pretty desperate, as I really didn't - don't - cope so well with much 'normal', activity.
At a stretch then, I called the Laban again, to see if they would give me any work. Well, yes, was the retort, but we don't want you to bring that instrument back. We want you to play the piano, as you say you can.
Start in September.
It was July.
I looked at my piano and it sat unresponsive in front of me, like the barely touched book of jazz piano technique sitting on the music stand. There was however, some understanding of how harmony works in my head, such as guitars players have.
How do you get the lead guitarist to turn down? Put a chart in front of him/her!
I set to work to try and transfer some of that vocabulary (from both my head and the jazz piano book) into music on the keyboard.
I decided that I needed some distinctive motifs or chord progressions in various keys, and indeed modes. Surely in ten weeks I could pull enough together.
A few weeks later, as I was beginning to feel that I might have enough to survive one day in the far future playing there, the phone rang again.
“Can you come in earlier?” queried the voice at the other end. We have audition classes and no player. Yes, this week…..
I did not want to risk losing the opportunity and had no idea how to say no at that point.
Good then, you will play piano this week. Studio One, at ten.
Amazingly I had just enough vocabulary to bang out an "improvisation" for each exercise… here my vaguely celtic sounding thing in Mixolydian F, there my C minor bluesy thing, something in E minor maybe a bit Phrygian or Spanish sounding, and so forth. I struggled through, amazed at my survival, perhaps feeling a smidgen of slow growing confidence until the teacher called a Hemiola. There was no way I could convincingly bash out that, and make harmonic sense. She carried on unaware of any of my sweaty disturbance in the corner and counted off. In a panicy moment of inspiration I started slapping my legs. The rhythm I knew. The fingers just could not imagine interpreting it into notes, let alone music.The teacher turned, startled, but then turned back to the students leaping their way across the floor, cajoling as well as counting herself, in tandem with - me.
There was a break. We spoke a little, teacher and I. That was quite good, and novel to use your legs as a drum. That worked!
Do you know if they have any congas here?
Well yes, we do.
Oh good, 'cos I can play them……
So that was how I got started playing piano and percussion for dance. A few years later, in New York, my piano work got a massive boost. The then artistic director of the Graham Company sent round an edict that we accompanists should only play piano. I'd seen him poke his head in a few days earlier, and had accordingly upped the energy and banged a little harder and floridly in an effort to impress. The "kids", had loved it, but clearly I'd ruffled something (it was me, I was the only percussionist there at that time). At first I was miffed, my creative rights being trod down by the man etc, but then I realised. This was another fabulous opportunity to learn to play or at least improve my piano skills and get paid at the same time…..
- 2020-06-20 00:26:23+02:00
Notes From Africa
I first saw Hamid squatting in a doorway near Broadway in New York. I knew from his long frame and bloodshot eyes, and the dust and stoicism that rested on his back, that he was from the Sahara. I caught his eye, and greeted him in Arabic, ’Salaam Alaleikum’. I had a djembe on my back, which was probably why we connected in the first place, but I was on my way to something, and mistrusted his appearance, despite the welcome in his eyes... his shirt stained, his shoes grey and battered. So I didn’t stop to talk. Later he told me that this was the spot to which he came whenever New York was too uncomfortable, the longing for the desert too strong. Surrounded by a mass of people, that swirled like dust, he could be alone and meditate, commune with the images within, and imagine the Harmattan wind tugging at his clothes.
I next spoke with him at the flower-market, where he was selling djembes and wooden amulets. He was with his American wife and small son. He’d not long ago arrived via Air France, to join the white woman he had met when she holidayed in Dakar. I asked him in French if he was Fula, and he smiled and said yes. We looked at each other, and then I confessed my bad French and he his bad English, and then we talked about music. He then told me he’d recently arrived from the Northern desert, following the rains, and that he’d pitched his tent a block over, and I was welcome to join him for tea.
I followed him along one of the East Village’s less well known blocks, and then I saw it, pitched in a battered garden that had originally been the foundation of a tenement building, a Fula herdsmen’s tent. Opposite which was a wooden hut painted with a Puerto Rican flag, surrounded by tall shrubs and a group of Spanish speaking men playing dominoes and drinking weak beer. I could hear hens clucking. There was a child’s tricycle hanging from the back fence, and a selection of toy cars scattered on the dry earth. The men nodded at Hamid as we passed. We sat on rugs under the front flap, that was pinned back to allow air to circulate the rooms within, and Hamid slowly and carefully brewed up over an open flame. I could hear a faraway jeep revving angrily over the dried-out river bed.
It was I who had recognised him first, at the market, he’d almost forgotten me. Hamid does dress in traditional robes sometimes, and this was one of those times, and his mien was very different, but I still knew him--he has a unique presence. When you first meet him he seems to be nothing special, a little slow, obtuse even. Then you realise, this guy is bright, he speaks eight languages for example: Pular, Manding, Wolof, Berber, Bambara, French, English, German (after some time in Paris he crossed the border and lived in Cologne, driving taxis, selling ice-cream). He grew up in the North, but has lived in Dakar, 'like most people' he says, he can play guitar and sing a bit.
He’s got some stuff to say though, philosophical, and spiritual, if you let him. If you want him to say what’s really on his mind that is. For example, at first sight, you don’t think of him as religious, but then you hear the ‘insallahs’ and ‘hamdillahs’ scattered in his speech, and feel the patience... the sad, slow, patience of the desert, of a man who has walked miles in dry, destructive heat, not knowing if there is water in the miles ahead, and with the understanding that if the well is dry then death has been his faithful companion. Because although there used to be an oasis there, around that fold in the sand and stone, times change. Patience and acceptance are intrinsic to Hamid’s nature, but he was restless enough to get on the plane to Paris, and then return again (he took soccer balls and shirts as gifts for everyone), and once again turn and travel, this time to New York. He’s always searching for the means to feed the people left behind, a small group of herding families, who, even as we speak in the brilliant sunlight of Manhattan, are making evening prayer, a thanks for the deliverance of the day’s end, that is the near miracle of God’s love for His people.
However, Hamid decided that given the ever encroaching desert and shrinking rainy season, there was a limit to the number of miracles he could reasonably expect, so he began his journeys. Another nomad loose in the African Diaspora.
He talked to me about music, speaking very seriously in our new found medium of broken French, English and German, plus a few Arabic interjections and expansive gestures. ‘African musical fantasies made in America or Europe just aren’t confident, like the music we play in Africa’, he said at one point, as we swapped names and CD titles. Confident? Musical fantasies? What was he on about? I think it had something to do with how he felt, so many miles from home, so many miles from a way of life that he might never be able to return to, that would probably not be there when he returned. How could he be the confident one? Yet, for example, dub, he reckoned, ‘...feels so sad. It’s great to swim in, but it doesn’t move. It’s like, you’re marooned, in Jamaica or wherever, not traveling. But I love to listen to it.’
He had tapes from the Blood and Fire catalogue of re-releases, typical ‘seventies reggae like Keith Hudson’s, ‘Pick a Dub’, or ‘The Development of Dub in King Tubby’s’. His wife missed hearing the Senegalese stuff that had brought them together in the first place. But he liked Soul music too, because ‘When you listen to old Stevie Wonder or Soul ll Soul, you hear it going somewhere. It’s like it’s sure it belongs where it is, in Britain, in America or France, in the here and now, so it can go somewhere. It’s a modern sound. Like our stuff, it really moves.’
Hamid is really puffed up now, pleased with his point, and I am not sure if it’s confidence or arrogance that drives him. It’s a familiar attitude, this cocksure bearing and didactic tone. I seen it before. In Jamaicans at school, in Salif Keita when he speaks, in Latino Conga drummers, in Jah Wobble’s music. I appreciate it. It’s alright, seems ok, has a place. Sometimes though, it’s not unlike the smug attitude that upper-class Englishmen or Dutch exhibit--‘knowing’ that their cultural values are coveted by the whole world. So I am not sure, with Hamid, where it comes from, or whether I fully believe it, or his words. He is trying to make his way in the world after all, one Senegalese migrant amongst many. He just grins, and drinks tea, suddenly inscrutable.
‘ Thing is my brother, music and dance being associated with sin these days, black people are associated with sin in the white world. You push on us all your sins as well as our own! Not only do you remember the way you discovered we existed, and brought us into your world, which is an endless guilt for you, but now, as well as that, your perception of black music is that it’s nothing but a party party sound. You don’t take us serious. Add to that, too many of you completely lost touch with your own dance and music. So you take our music instead, as a kind of soundtrack to drug and drink to, as you sneak around to get a' (he pauses) 'travesty of dance and music and community up....’
Hamid laughs, and slips my question with a statement. ‘With us, we’re so down that we can only go up, economically speaking. So we always have hope.’
After a long pause and a refill of cups he relented.
‘It’s just that when you dance here, in the West it’s for pleasure--and pleasure only. Not that dancing shouldn’t be pleasurable, it is, but in fact it’s so often you who say that pleasure shouldn’t be pleasurable, that pleasure is somehow wrong. So you never dance without feeling illicit in some way. So you turn to something black, something other, to answer that part of yourself, because you lost touch with how to do it yourselves, because you repress it so long. But when we dance, we don’t just do it for pleasure. We dance for life. Because for us all this performance means a lot more. So if you like our pleasure is directly harnessed to the cohesion of our community....’
‘You mean like in Jamaica when news would travel faster via a DJ record than any other method?’ I asked. ‘The disc would be voiced ‘there’s a polio epidemic go and get a vaccine’ or something, and off it would go around the dances all over the island...’
‘That’s a dimension of it, yes. But there’s another level beyond that when we sing and dance. We know we’re alive then. We sing the praises of everything around us, or it sings us.’ he replied, and closed his eyes.
‘But, Hamid, confident?’
‘Yeah, man, identity. We, Africans, we are free about that. We got no problem with identity. We’re not confused. Thing is, because you’re confused you try to take confidence from us as well. So now I have to come here to take something back.’
The First Day at Ailey☍
- 2020-06-14 23:33:46+02:00
What a weird welcome. I'd got the piano into the corner downstage (parallel with the teacher facing upstage but not in her space), my copy of the Face (style magazine bought every month in NYC as a method of staying connected with London's madness while living New York's) spread on the music stand.
Cocky wasn't I, but I'd long argued (rationalised!?) getting my mind out the way was key to good improvising. I'd also eyed up some wonderful women already and, well, things were proceeding as normal. I was playing well, appreciated and glad of that – suddenly the door next to me crashed open and a gruff voice hurled by a swarthy mustachioed man ordered ,
“You're gonna put that piano back after you've used it”.
“You're gonna put that piano back after you've used it”.
“What? I'm playing man. Leave me alone.”
“You're gonna put it back after you've used it”.
And the door crashed back. I looked towards my colleague but she was busy with her job to have noticed, of course, and bemused I got back to mine.
Next gap though, confusion and curiosity won out and I snuck out and confronted the orderer, sat on a bench across the communal hall between studios with a mate. What was all that?
He repeated himself. Who are you to ask, I demanded. He told me. Another musician I gathered. I dug in, to the effect of you've got no authority then over this or that as far as I'm concerned and the piano stays there after I finish.
His top lip was trembling.
His mate chimed in.
“You're fucking gonna put that piano back after you've used it.”
Who are you? He told me, name, threatening look, saying ,“And I'm telling you....”.
I thought about if for a second, pissed off, riled, nervous, aware I had to get back in the studio and work, and as always, wanting a quiet life.
“You look pretty emotional here.” I said, suddenly inspired, steadying my own voice just enough.
“What are you going to do about this?“
The second guy copped me a look, flexed his biceps.
I pushed on.
“All I can tell you guys is this – I am not moving this fucking piano back after I play it. So... why don't you do whatever it is you want to do about it now, because nothing else is going to change? Come on.”
We all stilled.
“Come on,” I repeated. “Do it!”
Maybe my colleague appeared at that point, or I just sensed the moment with all its greater ramifications – the music, the job now, my body, my future – anyway, I went back in and returned to playing.
At some point she asked what was going on. I explained a little .
“Oh, territorial.” she observed. “They may have wanted your gig themselves.”
Later that day I passed them of course. I certainly stayed long enough to observe them jamming, the mate on congas, my orderer on piano, piano moved back to the position he favoured. They sounded good. We all got along quite well in the years after.
- 2020-06-11 17:33:00+02:00
The format here is music review interspersed with fiction and memoir. Also note: Back in the Nineties.
In 1979, shaken and tired, I managed to arrange a weekend away, near Chichester, in the heart of the Wessex of Alfred and Hardy, the inheritance of the chalk uplands of Britain. I stayed with friends, and we walked days, and nights were spent talking around a fire. Here I first heard the shimmering harp and Celtic rock fusion of Alan Stivell. A sound strangely familiar, as if heard long ago in a dream, a beauty that seemed to say. ‘here I am, this is how music should sound’ cascaded around me, soothing and exulting, and utterly right.
London was grey and I felt lost when I returned, so in an effort to preserve the peace I had felt while away, sleeping in the house of my friends and walking out on the chalk downs, I took a cassette player to work, and when I could, listened to Stivell. Instead of hanging out in the yard, I took it upon myself to start clearing out one of the abandoned cottages, saying we needed expanded storage space. Nobody believed me, but in general I was left alone to my task, which meant I could listen to music relatively undisturbed.
The songs circle the empty house where I work, the old toys and posters are mute, but the music loud, beckons, then enters my pores this way and that and dances out again, taking me up and down in time as well as place. My feet are still rooted, but my heart doesn’t know where to go, except where the sound wills it--this song of the past, of the longing ancestors who crowd, ghost-like at the side of Europe’s modern highways, wondering as their descendants speed by. They stare at a sky that looks like yellowed paper on which dirty water has been thrown and left to dry. It too is listening. To songs of the coast. Dark water, wind swept dunes, the moon climbs into the cold cloudless sky. Song of the aching Celtic heart, the tears of trees in lost green lands. Pipers on hilltops in the Mendips look out over forts and dolmen and invisible leylines and play them, and they play the fecund earth back into life, they play crop into fruition, they flush the boar from his forest, and they sing enemies back to the land from whence they came. They sing of the hunt, and warriors, and the Black Dog that walks the far side of the mountain, who shows himself only to those who will join him forever that day.
Lyrical jigs: the soft toned pluck of the small harp, finger and nail against the strings....
I am dizzy with beauty.
Some sun leaks down through the shaft between the house and the works wall, to the cracked and dirty window panes, to glance off a discarded doll, that lies where a child must have dropped it, on her last exit. I imagine the scene: on the last day her parents call from the bottom of the stairs, hurrying her out of the door, the car is waiting. Carelessly she skips out, she has no understanding of ‘for the last time,’ the door is open, her toys left where they will be found as they always have been, on her return. We’ll buy new ones anyway, her parents say, extravagant in the wealth of newness, all homes and hopes to be refreshed. Let’s start again they plead to themselves... .
..and she, she who in the moment felt able to leave her treasures, how does she feel now? Does she look from the window of a shiny new council flat at the grey and communal pathway outside and worry about her loss? Or has she grown too old for all that?
Now this music plays, and I am thinking of her, but also my spirit starts to fly into very distant places, back, to the South Downs of a few weeks ago, and back, into secret recesses in my being. I’m totally into this, and nothing else matters, just spirit and song, dance, feeling, for I too am a member of the ‘no future’ generation, and have no handle on the present, but fearful of the self-destruction in Punk I immerse myself in an evocation of the distant past. I’ll have to switch the machine off before Bob, the foreman, finds me here...
Alan Stivell was born with an old soul, or at least with an understanding of being at the end of a long time line of ancestors--and how to listen with them. He hunches over the mixing console at the end of the session and it’s as if they are all there with him, crowding each other to get a touch, make an adjustment, lower a drum here, raise a flute there.
Stivell plays bad Rock, but good Song. Sometimes it seems as if the players have been selected for their Celtic zeal, rather than their musical ‘feel,’ and sometimes the proceedings get a little contrived, artificial even. This marriage of music from the earliest times in Europe with the hybrid creation of centuries later has its problems, but why carp? It’s an astonishing achievement, this seeking to define and refine a new Celtic vocabulary. This music transcends the toe-tapping rootsiness that infects so much of the (traditional music) scene and instead, like Yeats, formulates a more direct contact with an ancestral mystic tradition. It’s very beautiful to hear. Full of feeling, and texture, the expectation is that we will immerse, (sub)merge, and washed along by eddies and streams, take a journey.
Someday I will take a harp, a tape recorder, my guitars, dub bass, percussion and a rock band, and I will form, meld, and weld a new music, I shall have time, boundless time, extravagant thought, and endless vistas of opportunity to finish. Until then, I remember Stivell.
A few thousand years ago by our reckoning, but a couple of day-dreaming days in the life of the planet, a people gathered to ensure a memory. Energies were bent to push the years aside, wills marshalled, and a song was made available to the dreamers of future times. A song of air and spirit, a song of earth, of copses full of sacred trees. The song was placed in the land, and now it choruses through the fields, whispers through the bracken and saline-sanded marsh, cries in the cave mouths and eroded towers of the moor, cools the well-tended gardens of the city public park. For the most part walkers shudder and pass on. The affairs of the day offer enough without asking about those of long ago.
A child walks with a different zest however, and the old people knew that, and this their spirits watched for, as they sought for one to keep their soul alive. When the boy walked in the fields of post-war Europe, it was known that at a certain moment he could walk at one and the same time on the young hills of pre-history, during the fading days of a people. Then they would live again, in all the years between, sung by a bard.
The boy walks alone, grassy-pastures full of standing water, rain trembling down. On the one side people have gathered for the last time. On the other a park slopes away towards a dark city street gutted by the bombs of a few years ago. Life is about to change, and a culture to dissipate. For a moment time is suspended. This gathering is not just about the future. It’s in the middle of the field of history: it will draw on the past to set the future. Sound is the mediator.
On the other side, the boy is arrested by a sudden feeling, prescience, a shiver in his inner ear. A moment when his soul is open to the will of the world, and a path is shown.
When the song comes to him, through him, he shudders but does not quicken pace. Instead he stops to listen, courageous, but also self serving, as with the sound comes the knowledge that this is his path to being, that anything else will be dreams Seeing the moment of arrest, the men and women on the hill of long ago, smiled at each other, and slaughtered animals. Vats were broken open, fires raised. Children of the past ran out to the field where the child of the future was, they ran over and through him, but he didn’t flinch, Instead he smiled and trembled a little, silly laughter on his face, lost in sound and feeling. His embrace slipped around them, and they danced a circle to the sounds of bag-pipes and gut strung harps, melismatic voices throbbing as dusk came. Still he knelt and felt, even as the children faltered and returned to their fires and parents, the evening meal and sleep.
The evening darkened as he waited, under a grey cliff laced with moss and small ferns, blackberry thorns at the bottom. He ate a little of the fruit, and waited for the dew.
The sun sank behind the mountains and the thorns and bracken became a tram-stop, and the cliff wall, sooted apartment-buildings, socketed with a hundred electric-lamp lit windows. The sounds of cooking and homecomings rang out, over the hiss of tires on wet road surfaces, and the clang of tram bells. He stirred himself to board a number 96, and began the journey home along the sinuous alleys of the city. Draped over him was the glow of song, the feeling of song, and he resolved to discover that sound again.
Allan Stivell was born during the watershed years that followed the second-world war, the same time period that spawned American rock and roll. European son, his early work was a spill of emotion through re-hewn Celtic tradition, full of a furious beauty at one and the same time both lyrical and strident. After a decade of this however, the sound softened into abstracted, introspective and meandering journeys, albums like Celtic Symphony and Legend. These releases are often found the New Age bin, as well as the Folk, International, or World categories.
Then in the nineties came a new and robust maturity that syncretes diverse sensibilities together, passionate, lyrical and energetic:
The Mists of Avalon (1991): Via interwoven hand-drums of indeterminate metre and pulse, I rediscover the Celtic tales of the Welsh Mabinogion. This wash of voice, these gently meandering textures of harp that flow under bridges of note bending whistles constitute a music steeped in the traditions of years, and the experience of the player and composer. There is a pure, almost naive, intensity that reminds me of my childhood discovery of myth. My experience of this music is steeped in the memory and the meaning of memory, my first experience of these stories...
When I was very young, say, seven years, I was very interested in myth, particularly the stories of the Northern countries, and history too. Already at that time I was conscious that what I wanted to ‘ be’ was a ‘bard’, that is a musician and a poet: in some senses a documenter of humanity, past and present. I was taken with the quest of the Holy Grail, in the Arthur legend, and in particular with the Percival character. Now this Percival, (or Peredur as he is known in The Mabinogion) when he is an adolescent has a kind of ‘vision‘ experience of what his future should be, which I equate with my feelings at six or seven about becoming a bard.
Later, as I entered puberty I discovered pop music, as a ‘magic’, that thrilled me, but felt it far removed from anything I could aspire to. I could not imagine myself as a performer. I drifted on until, having learnt bass at school, I taught myself the basics of guitar. Something of a second epiphany, as it were, because at this point I took on board the idea that I didn’t always need a teacher for this, for music, as music was in fact an inner teacher. Or that music should be an expression of that inner self, the truth within. A truth I wished to pursue, whether for profit or loss in a material sense, until the end of my days. I happily, in fact avidly, studied painting and stained glass, literature, history and geography but music I felt, belonged to me.
In the legend Percival has to endure many trials and much suffering before he can return to this interior place, this vision. His innocence and ingenue like character gets him into a lot of trouble, but also delivers him from evil. Late in life, Percival achieves his goals, and is at peace. I too, hope to remain on good terms with the realities (exigencies?) of life, and yet maintain the creative flow that is music.
Brian Boru (1995): these songs (for the most part old Celtic standards) flow, and speak for themselves, they need no performance pyrotechnics, just a mature reading by a mature singer. There are reasons why these tunes have been sung for years, have become the repository of a culture: they are solid, well-constructed artifacts. And, the message here in this recording is, if you can visit with yourself deep enough, and drag it all up into the light then you visit with everyone, all cultures.
A dancer friend choreographed to the track ‘Mairie's Wedding’. This traditional reel from the Scottish Hebrides is a supplication from a fishing/farming community for which the vagaries of weather and nature have real impact, as well as a celebration of the nuptials of one couple. The prayer, couched in joyful sound, is for an abundant supply of basic vittles (peat, herring, meal) for both, the newly weds and the community as a whole.
She lounges opposite me in the back garden of a New York cafe, and her hair, artificially red, glistens in the spring sunshine. As she speaks, her eyes, with a dusting of glitter on the lids, articulate the whirlwind of moods and images that possessed her when she danced. For a moment, this city-girl, carefully dressed and adorned for city-life at the millennium’s end, is at one with her exploration of the force in her ancestral roots. I am sorry to have missed the gig itself, but hearing her talk now, I realise I could be catching one of the best moments.
Away in the far North
the mist has kissed the dew on the moor
where the fleeting days of summer are lived
to the full before the winds blow from the storm-crowed ocean dance people, dance...
Butterflies flutter through the watery sun.
Even at this time of year there is a tinge of damp that creeps up as far as the slate damp-course in the stone wall of a crofter’s cottage. The air refracts the light that shines from the ocean, and the stark hill-sides.
At night, stars elope behind speeding Atlantic clouds. Sex ignites the village.
Brian Boru is an authentic Stivell identity, but it’s also the performance of a cohesive band, in that it’s full of great musicians playing tunes together. Moreover, there’s a consistency of production value throughout, which is what lifts the CD as a consistent whole above The Mists of Avalon. The bottom end is smooth, the drums crisp, the vocal sits in the middle just right, the ambient sounds are pertinent. The producer is Martin Meissonier, who also worked on King Sunny Ade’s Ju Ju Music, a major release of 1982. Perhaps this relationship with someone who had an influence on the profile of African music in the West helped Allan Stivell towards his next, and very different project, although one is left to speculate as to why Meissionier was not involved for a second time.
1 douare/one earth,(1998) is a melange of culture, with sounds from the Maghreb, the Sahel, Amorica/Brittany, Ireland, London, all putting in appearances. Here, in New York, on a first listen it seemed as if the whole effect was dissipated by the slew of producers, players and guest stars but now I listen in happy abandonment. Stivell pulls off an almost complete and coherent World music. His presence is strong enough to come through the ‘little bit of this little bit of that’ approach. Over a funky beat. From flutter to sonorous incantation to explosion, pipes implore, voices declaim, there’s a solemn serious joy emanating from this project that’s full of power, and two fisted. You are hooked by the age-old sensibility of the harp and voice with the one hand, then stung by the articulate electronica of the other.
...and here comes Jim Kerr revelling in his Scottish identity, and the passing of his teen-throb days, him so beloved of so many in 1981. Well I remember his album covers and photos scattered next to Bryan Ferry’s in the bedroom of Scottish Sara, back in Laban days.
She was born in the Scottish Hebrides, where her retired British army colonel father owned a fish-farm, and when she had come to South London it was with an apparent lightness that I found stunning. I was happy to gain the use of her bed as a crash-pad when I didn’t feel like struggling home, snuggling next to her warm body and exchanging a kiss or two, before drifting into chaste slumber. While we were both at Laban I had dedicated some music to her, an ambient piece recorded with Finn. It placed a fantasy Sara firmly in a soundscape of an even more fantasy North African sea port city, replete with cooing doves, Morrocan bongos and reverb drenched trilling guitars. This was an effort to polarise the predominance of Bryan Ferry and the aforesaid Simple Minds records in her collection.
Although the both of you, the boy-star on the album jacket and the languorous girl in the bed, have long ago evolved onwards and upwards, away from all that, the old image (girl gazing at adored and fetishised poster boy icon), still resonates. Simply put: Jim, you were an idol. ‘Oh, the voice of that guy in Simple Minds, now there’s a singer,’ she exclaimed over breakfast in the noisy brown lounge by the refectory one afternoon, and I concurred, and hid my jealousy, as I knew she liked to play the game of invoking her bedroom heroes to haunt the four tracked efforts I could display.
Conversely, Jenny, who had no time for the abstraction of far away idols, but a lot of enthusiasm for the struggles of those around her, would steer me by the arm towards the bank of tape recorders in the University ‘audio-visual’ room. ‘Come on, give us a listen’, she’d grin, and then, tethered by the headphone cord to the whining motor, jiggle and moan as the sound coursed through her. “This one got a bit reggae innit,’ she’d laugh, with a shudder in her hips, then kiss me, and scamper back to the stream of students in the corridors, leaving me alone to rewind and stow the mute record of hours of passion. But I am past all that now, and so is Jim it seems, as this strange little glimmer of almost atonal dissonance and martial misty eyed chant, called ‘Scots are right’, unfolds...
‘Kenavo Glenmor,’ is a ‘praise song’ for a Celtic Bard, similar in mood to something like “Seydou’ or ‘Folon’ (from Salif Keita’s album Folon). It has the same combination of elegy and ecstasy, that feeling of happiness and sadness in one. Like life.
Aet On (into the universes breath) has a string part that remind me of a long plangent melody that uncurls through syncopated pizzicato over seductive ostinato in a song released sometime during the early eighties in Paris by the Algerian/Parisian/Berber sisters, DjurDjura. It was played incessantly by John Schaeffer on his ‘New Sounds’ radio program in New York, and finally collected in the Voice Of Silence Afropea compilation on the Luaka Bop label. I remember listening, in the top room: the roof tops opposite bathed in moon light, looking down on open skylight windows, watching people play and work, me with the radio on, my incessant exploration of sound.
But the most complex and matchless composition is perhaps the Celtic Symphony. On which also DjurDjura perform.
- 2020-06-07 01:19:28+02:00
In the spring I was up on the King's Road, to meet with Sam Alder at EG records, who was in my life as a kind of avuncular figure, proffering advice and guidance. He believed that I had talent worth nurturing, I of course believed that he should have signed me yesterday, and was resentful that he hadn’t. I had abandoned major-seven jazz-chord inflected styling and was instead exploring the world of ‘art’ material. This meant recording with a battery of borrowed percussion, my bass and guitar, and a tiny Casio keyboard. The ‘studio’ such as it was, consisted of two Revox half-track recorders on which I would ‘ping-pong’ material backwards and forwards, through a small stage mixer. I had found myself increasingly interested in non-vocal music, and the recordings reflected that, confining themselves primarily to groove and texture. Sam suggested that I needed to work on a ‘concept’ or ‘rationale’ for an album’s worth of material. The thing to remember, he said, was that you could put ‘anything over a funky beat’. He talked of Brian Eno and Robert Fripp and how they were ‘really serious’ about music, as a ‘spiritual path’ even, certainly as a vehicle for work on the self, as well as an earner of ‘daily bread’. In fact, to allude to a statement of the philosopher John Godolphin Bennett, the origin of the phrase ‘daily bread’ in The Lords Prayer was rooted in the idea of ‘spiritual sustenance’; and had nothing to do with the provision of food. He advised that if one was truly ‘natural’ for ‘this kind of music’ then it wasn’t worth compromising; it was an inner state of being that shouldn’t be messed with. Confusingly though, he then talked of reality in the music business, giving the example of Jon Hassell as someone who when forced to ‘compromise’, by accepting Brian Eno as equal partner and collaborator, had found this a bitter but beneficial pill to swallow. He suggested that my sound should go to New York, to the ‘Downtown Loft scene’. Sam was in the habit of taking the Concorde at regular intervals to New York for business meetings at that point, unfortunately I, who had never even flown, found the idea of that city distant and untenable. I left his office buoyant though,and strode off down the Kings Road, visions of future successes rolling through my eyes. Just before I left, he gave me an album.
Jon Hassell: Dream Theory in Malaya (1981), Possible Musics (1980): The white noise loaded breath was obtuse, but strangely attractive. Perspective fiddled with and distorted. This wasn’t the first time that I had heard ‘experimental’ music. In the years preceding Punk, John Peel would often play such sounds (Faust, Amon Dül 3, The Third Ear Band, The Soft Machine), but this had a single minded focus I hadn’t come across before. A very particular vision of sound, and of course the Northern Indian song inflected trumpet is otherworldly; wherever that is allowed to run free, good things follow. I was surprised at the lack of a funky beat.
The combination of baby-like moans and shakes placed directly in the ear, balanced with far off sounds with names like ‘Burundi cloud’ and ‘Distant Drum’, makes for disconcerting and hallucinatory experience.
caressed sound caressing the ear the voice human and utterly alien, caressed alien and utterly human voice circular and vibrating shimmers underlay all that water
Possible Worlds(1980): ‘Chemistry’: harmonics bounce and pop, watery drums lurch, slow unfolding layers, a bass ‘solo’... ‘Delta Rain Dream’ floods full band-width energetic trance inducing curling sound, over walls, and bending around this a dark breathy trumpet voice. Immersion. ‘Ba-Benzele’: a herald calls the coming good? That first call, then the answer from beyond the city walls, then the second, then the second response, until finally the rain is called and the people can raise parched tongues to the sky. As I listen to those thunder sounds, the temperature tangibly drops. ‘Rising Thermal 14’ 16’’ N; 32’ 28’’ E’: In the Sudan, birds are borne high, they survey the land below, waiting to swoop low again. The pilgrim, alone, stops to watch. ‘Charm (over Burundi Cloud)’: In the Sudan, in the middle of the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, East of the White Nile, the full moon, light lacerating the stone hard pathways of the heights that rise above the camp. Hooded followers of the faith sit and pour tea, talking in soft voices. Ululating song pours from the throat of a man who sits cradling an oud. Above the heights, a mirage: a celestial city, busy with flyovers and trestle bridges, cars hurtling, businesses open and restaurants doing a brisk trade. Parallel fourths are winding and wending across hills, as in a recording studio the musicians sit and imbibe everything, playing both the desert and the town onto the tape....
- 2020-06-06 00:07:18+02:00
1981 I went up to Newcastle, driving a battered Ford Transit van through the heaviest snow in decades, the heater inoperable, busting to piss every fifty miles, because of the amount of coffee consumed in the effort to stay warm and awake. Steve at the wheel, Gareth, a Geordie Tabla player tapping out intricate mixed metre rhythms on the dashboard next to me. The journey took twelve hours instead of the more normal five. The next day I walked the snow-crusted streets for the first time. I stood out on the bridge approach staring down at the rooftops and quay side market, the faded but elegant old-town spread underneath. Looking behind, the cathedral spires and shopping centres of Newcastle beckoned; pie shops caressing the air with steam. Ahead was Gateshead, brooding in dowdy satellite oblivion, cars streaming towards the motorway, the moors, the South. The Tyne was green and muddy, no boat stirred her to life save a solitary Navy schooner at berth on the South side. I photographed silent and surreptitious. The swing bridge island midstream was kissed with snow. The cottages on the South side glowed pink and soft in the Northern sunlight. Light careened and skidded around the snow covered rooftops and hillside, scrambled down to the lower banks and reentered Newcastle proper via the lower bridges that gaze at the Goliath towers of the higher crossway. Riots have come and gone in the rest of the country, but in Newcastle I’m told, with a smile, ‘no nothing happened here mate, just the usual Saturday night’. Newcastle still acts out the raids of a thousand years ago every weekend. In the small hours I tumble down the stairwell of the metro station into a crazy and comedic scene of fighting and verbal sparring. Boys on the down escalator call to the girls on the up: ‘show us yer tits!’. The girls reply ‘show us yer pricks,’ and this being Newcastle the boys oblige, laying their flaccid members out on the rubber bannister. Down on the platforms a cheerfully violent brawl breaks out, and spills onto the railway tracks, bodies running this way and that in a chaotic melee. Sunday morning I take the metro out to the coast, where waves pound the orange sand at Tynemouth Priory, and imagine the prows of long-ships breaking the head waters at the river mouth. I look across to the other bank, towards the mining communities of Durham, and the root of my paternal Grandparents’ emigration. They had ‘walked out,’ as ‘dating’ was called in the vernacular of the region, since the age of twelve. After marriage they traveled south to renew a lease on life that had ran out in the North during the depression of the ‘twenties. On the metro, traveling back into the centre of the town a sullen skinhead sits and cleans his boots with an old rag, which he then discards on the floor. At this point my mind first opens to the possibility of leaving England. This survey of the long road from the North down which my grandparents came has opened in me a remorseless desire, an onus even, to continue on, to search out further possibilities.
Back in the Nineties...☍
- 2020-06-04 21:26:43+02:00
Back in the nineties I created a lot of essays all loosely joined by A being about music B memoir related and C pertaining to how place affects creating music and how one listens. A mixed memoir called "Music Matters". Much of it I would heartily disown now , but not all - and who am I to judge now that the work is done, anyway? So I am resolved to dripping out the essays over the next few months, often without comment, sometimes with.