- 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.