Ketama, Toumani Diabate and Danny Thompson – Songhai (1988)

In 2012 I went to watch Flamenco in a tiny little club in Madrid. I had pre-booked and took the supper option. This was very Spanish, including, for one course, a plate of cheese and marmalade.

Ok… big deal. Man Goes To Flamenco Show would not be a headline that would sell a lot of papers. But for me it WAS a trip into another world. The good thing about music is that there’s so much of it, so many countries or continents or, if you prefer, postal codes. And there’s always surprises and new to you countries or continents or postal codes. Earlier on that holiday we’d seen Martin Simpson in Hampshire and Spiers and Boden in Hampshire – much more up one of my more well walked musical streets.

I suppose I had an idea of something fairly formal, very well played and featuring just a couple of guitars. I had no idea. Things got interesting over supper, in fact. The club had a screen set up and were playing videos. Of “Flamenco”, but not quite what I’d expected. I recognised Paco de Lucia, but hadn’t expected to see him playing in a trio with double bass and accordion. There were fiddles in another video – playing lines that I vaguely recognised and categorised as being in Gypsy territory. It was all rather interesting – Flamenco was a bigger postal code than I’d imagined.

Then the music started. There were two sets. Each about 40 minutes, each, as far as I could see (and as I later confirmed) completely improvised with the sole guitarist following the dancers. There was singing as well. The dancers added percussion – mostly hand claps (very fast, very precise) but occasionally hitting other items. The whole thing had a wild, uninhibited edge to it that I’d not expected.

The venue did not amplify music – a factor in my chosing to go to that club – and there was a sign at the entrance asking all patrons to please keep quiet during the show (in Spanish, of course).

Fat chance! In the second set those performers cranked up the excitement until the audience could no longer contain themselves and lifted themselves and the roof.

Musicians can surprise, even if you are expecting to enjoy what you expected to hear. And Flamenco is a far wider genre than I’d imagined.

You may add as many “duhs” as you like, but I am still delighted to find my musical world expanding and full of surprises.

This 1988 album helped to expand my horizons.

Ketama are a “new Flamenco” group who were very active in the 80s. They ended up seeking a jam with Malian Kora player Toumani Diabate. Having accomplished this goal they started planning a recording session. Joe Boyd wanted the project for his Hannibal label, agreed to co-produce and brought on board the remarkable – and remarkably versatile – double bass player Danny Thompson.

The big thrill for me here was to finally get around to listening to Diabate. He’s remarkable. He repeatedly plays rapid-fire, complex parts with great attack and unflagging accuracy.

Indeed the levels of musicianship are high throughout. This album offers no reason for me to modify my judgement that Danny Thompson, despite what HE says (and what does he know?) is one of the finest players on any instrument anywhere.

Ketama are right up there too with a ferocious attack, great rhythm and great rhythm playing with the very fast right hands that all good flamenco players have.

So we’ve a spanish gypsy quartet playing with an English bassist and a Malian kora player. Describe it like that and it sounds like it has considerable potential to be a mess – but it isn’t.

There’s a musicological theory that much Western music is rooted in styles introduced during the Moorish occupation of the Iberian peninsular. It’s easy to imagine another branch sprouting from the same roots in West Africa. So there’s some common musical language between the Malian and the Spaniards involved in this album (which maybe why Ketama sought out Diabate) and with the inventive and versatile Thomopson on bass everything comes together in a pleasing and natural way. Diabate’s parts are striking but also don’t sound out of place or like they’re superimposed over the Spanish compositions. Or vice versa when it’s a Diabate composition – Ketama don’t sound out of place, the partnerships never sound forced.

Throughout there’s a real sense of joy throughout: The joy of coming together and making exultant music at a high level. This is always attractive, and generally a sign that the players involved are of a high calibre.

So this was a way for me to stake out some new musical territory. One of the joys for music lovers in this day and age when so much music is so easily available is that you can extend your borders in many directions – including some that you may not have known about, or that you had hoped for and are happy to have confirmed.

Tom Robinson – Only The Now (2015)

Robinson’s been quiet for a long time in terms of touring and record releases. His last album of new material was back in 1996. Since then he’s played infrequent gigs, been an award winning radio presenter and raised a family. Now, in the year in which he qualifies for a bus pass, he has released a very good record and will hit the road again.

Robinson’s always had a political edge to his art, and the “single” (if we can still call it that) from this album is a stirring, angry and very up to date protest song “The Mighty Sword of Justice” inspired by a cut in legal aid. In interviews Robinson has said that it costs a hundred and fifty pounds to plead guilty, nearly five times that to plead innocent. The point is not new – “There’s one law for the rich, and another one for the poor” – but the details in the lyrics (and all the references are British) bring it bang up to date. Robinson is joined by Billy Bragg, who writes and sings one verse, another outspoken performer. The performance is terriffic. It’s an old-fashioned protest song, easy to sing, feels good to sing, and it’ll stick in the mind far better than a pamphlet.

There’s also a rant about a banker who got a life line from the government without extending any leniency to his clients, and a portrayal of a suicide bomber. Strong stuff, very current yet also par for the course for Robinson.

But the dominant mood on this album is poignant remembrance, a thread which leads to a superb, dreamy cover of John Lennon’s “In My Life” with a guest vocal and marvellous guitar arrangement by Martin Carthy, another senior figure of British music. This pairing may seem incongruous given their histories – punk and pop for Robinson whilst Carthy is a giant of English folk song – but the two have worked together previously and in the seventies the often vocally political folk movement found much common ground with the politically vocal punk and two-tone movements. So Carthy and Robinson is not as unlikely a pairing as may be thought, and a very effective one.

Rounding off an assembly of elder statsmen, not to mention the plain elderly, is actor Ian McKellan who can’t sing and doesn’t try to. He provides the voice of God on “Holy Smoke” (about using pages from the Bible to roll a joint) but adds rather less to “One Way Street” though, as he gets to recite, “the fact that someone’s older doesn’t always make them wrong.”

“Don’t Jump, Don’t Fall” could be biographical or auto-biographical, deals with the joint problems of depression and suicide (Robinson is a long time activist in these fields), and has a gorgeously heart-breaking chorus.

Robinson closes the album with the fond, hopeful title track which seems directed towards his wife and children yet also has a more universal appeal.

Gerry Diver’s production makes the most of the songs without overwhelming them, and juxtaposes contemporary touches with a retro – but not contrived – sound. Robinson’s voice audibly has some miles on it, but it only aids the sincerity of his delivery. The song writing is strong – even the minor tracks offer interest.

List all these attributes and it’s clear that this is a fine album, with many genuinely moving movements and near perfect pop thrills on “Mighty Sword of Justice” and “Cry Out”.

What’s not to like here? Even if you have no great history with Robinson (I don’t) this is an appealing, high quality record and one of the best new things you will hear this year – even if you’re not on the wrong side of forty.

Fred Morrison – Outlands (2009)

Ugh! I’m out of my depth again. What do I know about pipe playing or any of the styles of pipe music? But I fall back on the rules I spouted earlier – that if you pay considered attention to something for long enough, even if it’s a thing you can’t do, you start to learn things about it and start to have a basis for considered opinions.

Morrison is a highly regarded player of various types of pipes and whistles. I first came across him on the excellent Transatlantic Sessions series (and isn’t about time we had another round of that?) and one of the things that was hard to miss about him was the grin seemingly permanently glued to his face.

And the music that he makes here is joyous stuff indeed. Not in the lyrics (there aren’t any) but just in the performing. The act of playing music seems to be it’s own happy end.

Morrison appeared on series 3 of Transatlantic Sessions, and that aired in 2007. One of the best performances in that series was Morrison in duet with Bruce Molsky on “Kansas City Hornpipe”. Just the two of them – pipes and banjo (sorry! Should have warned you that sort of stuff was coming), and maybe that’s where Morrison got the inspiration for this album, because the idea here is to take Scottish pipe music to Nashville. Quite literally, because the supporting cast here are mostly top notch bluegrass players – notably multi-instrumentalist Tim O’Brien and ace banjo player Ron Block – and they lend skilled but mostly low key support, seldom taking a turn in the spot light. (this seems to be a not uncommon approach with bluegrass players – they often don’t play more than they have to, even though they could deliver a lot more).

Despite this approach the playing is never less than top notch. Morrison most obviously with great fluidity on the various types of pipes he plays and the low whistle. The supporting guitar work especially complements the movement in the music marvelously. Only on the title track do they step out, but listen to them on the breakneck closing track “The Hard Drive” and you’ll hear how demanding this supporting role can be and how well they execute it. Just because this is “folk” doesn’t mean that these guys can’t play.

It’s interesting to read that piping, like bluegrass, has a competitive aspect to it (Morrison made his name in piping competitions before striking out as a performer and composer). This is a bit un-rock ‘n roll, reducing music to a muscle-flexing competition and all that, but what it does do is elevate the standards and skills. Bluegrass players are always excellent, and Morrison does not lack for proficiency. Everybody here is a fine player. If you thought that playing the bodhran was just beating a vellum with a funny little stick wait until you hear Martin O’Neill who plays on this disc.

The production is nothing flashy, nor does it need to be. With high caliber players such as these you need to just have a good recorded sound and they will do the rest. And the sound here is rich and accurate. Listen to the version of “Kansas City Hornpipe” that is on this disc and you will hear every note of Block’s banjo ringing clearly whilst Morrison plays the melody over the top. Listen too to their marvelous syncopations. When the guitar joins in it’s low down in the mix but still realistic and rich (and played with deceptive skill).

So what we have here is a top notch piper (no! I don’t know a lot about piping, but Morrison’s skill level and musicality are quite obvious) not just having fun with some fine players from the other side of the pond – a sort of mini Transatlantic Sessions – but positively exulting. And I think it’s infectious – that the listener (and that could be you!) will find a little of that joy transferring to them and putting a smile on their face and, who knows, a twinkle in their step.

Skill and joy. A fine combination.

Music For Pleasure (long and rambling)

Wasn’t that the name of a record label or some series of records back in the eighties? Still. It’s a good reason for listening to music. And I don’t mean just pop music. There was a time when I was listening to the soundtrack of the Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved with some regularity, and that’s not just an intellectual exercise You can look at that music through a technical lens. Well… maybe you can, but I’m not equipped to do that. I’m not a classical music buff (the only other classical CD I own is Mozart For Dummies) and I don’t know enough about the make up of classical music to wax academic about it, nor have I listened to enough to be able to dig through a large accumulated volume and mine the nuggets as I fancy I can do with some other genres.

But there’s incredible emotion in Beethoven’s music, and at times a deceptive aspect that seems fairly simple but might not be (probably it’s just not obviously ornate). “The Moonlight Sonata” as performed on that CD – just a piano, no strings – is a masterpiece of what I understand as elegance: entirely sufficient, yet nothing extraneous. But more than that there is a massive, transporting emotional payload to the piece. “The Emperor” is very, very nearly as good.

The recording might sound quiet to listeners who are used to rock records, but that’s because of the way it’s recorded (which is probably not unusual for a classical record) with a very wide dynamic range so that when the orchestra steps on it you get the swell in volume and the impact that confers. When Murray Perhia is playing the “Moonlight Sonata” then he can similarly deploy the range that gave the Piano Forte it’s name.

These things are all part of the pleasure, though the melodies (Beethoven has fabulous melodies) and the emotion are the real joys that the instruments and the recording and the conductor’s presentation serve to maximise those.

There was a time when I didn’t have many records, nor the availability of listening opportunities that I now have. Music was bought on vinyl discs. Long players (albums) were 12 inches in diameter (singles were 7 inches) and the equipment you needed to listen was bigger than that. I couldn’t imagine the situation I now have – over a hundred old long players on a device that I can fit into a shirt pocket. Listening to music required the time and the place and the equipment.

Back then music seemed more precious. There! I have confessed. I don’t think this was so much a function of the technology as a function of my limited means and library. When I got to listen to Joan Armatrading’s eponymous third album or Neil Young’s Decade I did so with intent, with intensity. And I did so often because let alone a device that would hold a hundred long players I didn’t own anywhere near that number. Those were the days when I learned to love music. Quickly I learned that not all of it was magical. Some records, some musicians just didn’t pack the same punch. The more I listened, the fussier I got and the more the scope for disappointment grew.

And the more I started treasuring the real satisfaction that the good stuff could bring. And although I could try to justify my choices out loud somehow the real magic was …. magical. You couldn’t really prove it or explain it in words (well… I couldn’t) but I knew it when I heard it. And I didn’t think too much about it or analyse it.

For a while I listened to prog rock acts such as Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer. I felt that should have been somehow superior, but it became apparent that technique by itself was not enough. Then, on my own personal timeline (anachronistic to say the least) I “discovered” the blues and then just as I started figuring that out punk happened. The blues informed me about feel, Punk drove home the need for energy and passion.

Then I started working in the music business, writing for the only proper music newspaper in South Africa and working with the remarkable Bob Anderson who in a time when the local white music scene was reducing in scope and packed with show bands (some of them very good, but still show bands) playing disco covers ran a club in Hillbrow, the Boogie Barn, that provided a stage for rock bands that played their own material rather than covers. That club was an oasis, but soon it wasn’t the only one (thank goodness) as imitators opened up and the dark tea time of live music didn’t last too long. But I started getting academic about music: I had column inches to fill and gigs to market.

Bob’s club alarmed the management at the Chelsea Hotel. He rented their basement space, and the club was busy and the bar did well for the owners (we took the door, and only the door). But the mix of hippies and punks alarmed them and they wanted us gone. They wanted cabaret instead, proper music for sophisticated people. In particular they wanted Taubie Kushlick putting on shows of Jacques Brel’s music. But there was a lease and as long as Bob played the rent on time (and he was fastidious about payments) they couldn’t just get rid of him. But they could make life inconvenient and the club got turned over to Taubie Kushlick during the days for rehearsals, and we’d come to open up and find everything rearranged and a piano in the middle of the dance floor.

Bob and I went there early one day to ask La Kushlick if she could put everything away before leaving. It seemed only proper. She said that well she did, I said that I was forever manhandling the piano out of the way and that suggested that, in fact, she wasn’t taking care of these courtesies. She turned to her piano player and said “Philip! Punch that boy in the nose!” Philip walked up to me, looked me in the eye and said “I’m going to punch you in the nose.” I asked him to put the piano away first. They spluttered and scowled and grumbled, but the piano was put away and they started leaving the place in better order. And Philip never punched me in the nose.

To cut an out of control story short, last weekend I got tired of listening to things that were new to me with a view to understanding and then explaining them. I decided to just relax a bit and listen for pleasure. Maureen was going to be out at a farewell party for a friend, so I could be self-indulgent about things.

First up was Martin Simpson’s Prodigal Son. This was my introduction to Simpson, and I remember being struck actually by facets of his technique – which is formidable. The clarity of his playing, and the sustain he could get even when playing acoustic guitar. The way that every note would ring clear, with no blurs or buzzes in his hammering on and pulling off. And all of THAT allowed him to put a lot of detail into his arrangements and the listener to hear it all. The effect is quite remarkable, and although he mostly stays away from superficial flash it seems to me that few players are in his league. And above all of that is the story telling in his music. He writes his own pieces, but he plays a lot of covers too – always well chosen and with a good story. Simpson sells you the story in the song and decorates it with his guitar playing.

On this album he saves the best for last. “Andrew Lammie” marries a gorgeous melody to a shocking story of an honour killing. Simpson’s delivery is measured – never histrionic but always conveying the emotion in the tale. Masterful. Great technique, but not for it’s own sake.

On the Thursday night I’d heard Jonathan Taylor (better known as a TV actor) perform a set of Paul Simon songs at TJ’s club. He opened with “The Boy In The Bubble” and did it well, but without the lop-sided drive of the original or the calculatedly awkward, stumbling rhythm that Simon gives those awkward lyrics and especially in the last verse.

I hadn’t listened to Graceland for some years, but Taylor’s performance had left me with a hunger for it. Simon has a lot of great songs, but the two-disc “best of” set that I have suggests that he may not have a lot of great albums. Amongst all those great, well crafted, clever hits there is a fair bit of filler – even on a compilation. So you get “Fifty Ways To Leave Your Love” and “Loves Me Like A Rock” but also lesser pieces like “St Judy’s Comet” and “Duncan” (both of which recycle hooks and gimmicks he’d used on better songs). But Graceland has quality in spades with several of his best songs and no real clunkers. It’s unlike anything that he’d produced before, and despite the political furore around the making of the record (Simon recorded most of the base tracks in Johannesburg, and then flew South African players to London and New York to play on other tracks) it was a massive hit and revived his career after a flop album (Hearts and Bones, which deserved better) and opened up new avenues for him.

The album owes as much to technology as its township jive roots, with Simon and his engineer of choice Roy Halee slicing up and reassembling the original tracks to work them into songs that probably didn’t sound like that much like what was originally recorded. But the building blocks are loaded with energy and unusual grooves (well… for Simon and western pop audiences) and the results retain the original drive.

Johnny Clegg’s manager Hilton Rosenthal invited many of the players (Simon not being well acquainted with the South African township music scene) and his choices are inspired, particularly Bakhiti Khumalo on bass who gives several tracks a sense of movement as well as a solid underpinning (the aforementioned odd groove on the opening track, the throbbing drone of the title track and elements of both on the hit single “You Can Call Me Al”).

It’s an intriguing album, somehow with the whole greater than the sum of the parts. The juxtaposition of raw but not unsophisticated township sounds with synthesizers and processed drums is easily apparent, but Simon’s instincts are unerring and he makes it work repeatedly. I have no idea what he’s singing about much of the time, and apparently neither does he. He abandoned his usual song writing methods for this album (he’d hit a dry patch so they weren’t working for him anyway) and descriptions he gave in subsequent interviews reveal an unquestioning stream of conciousness approach that sounds like some kind of channelling. Maybe it’s this mix of calculation and “let’s see what happens” that provides the magic, but magic there is. Again sound is important – Halee and Simon craft a beguiling sonic setting for the songs that serves to draw the listener in.

Last up was World Party’s resolutely retro Goodbye Jumbo that sounds like every sixties and seventies record you can think of mixed together, yet has a heart all of it’s own.

Albums are more than just a bunch of songs recorded more or less at the same time and more or less in the same aesthetic ball park. The best albums have a flow, build to a conclusion with care taken to the sequencing of the songs, and this album is a fine example. The concluding sequence is hugely satisfying: “Take Me To The Top” is all rhythm and groove with proto-rap vocals; “Love Street” is near psychedelia with a lyric that is pure sixties without falling intro pastiche or cliché. “Sweet Soul Dream” is rich with mystery and mysticism and longing for something transcendent and has a rich but simple melody. The arrangement builds to a great climax with fiddle and whistle restating the melody. Finally there is the loud, electric, “Thank You World” that summarises the ecological and pantheistic themes that run through the record and builds to a loud climax before dropping down to a single voice and guitar which closes the album perfectly.

And wouldn’t you know it: When you try to describe and explain the magic somehow it gets less magical, more mundane.

It’s fun writing and reading and talking about music, but sometimes you just need to shut up and listen to it and feel it. And just enjoy it without reason.

Some videos

Hi Y’all,
Some YouTube clips from some of the albums I’ve mentioned here. I’ve prioritised sound over eye candy

Be nice to your fellow commuters.

The law is in action on the Gautrain this morning, telling people listening to music to keep the volume down.

It is a shared space, and some consideration and some rules go a long way. So I don’t have a problem with the rule or it’s enforcement.

I’m not sure that the problem in most case IS lack of consideration. No. It’s equipment. All the people I saw being asked to turn it down had ear buds plugged into their phones. It’s not like they’re carrying a ghetto blaster on to the train. But ear buds are not all equal. Some of them don’t seal that well, and the sound you’re trying to keep to yourself leaks out. And if it can leak out then other noise is going to leak in. So you crank that sucker up a bit louder. And more sound leaks out.

The buds that came with your phone almost certainly don’t sound that great and have a leakage problem. An upgrade will get you better sound (more detail,  less distortion) and bother your fellow commuters (and the Gautrain police) less.

Understand that ear buds don’t HAVE to leak (yours truly did not have his commute time listening interuppted by the long arm of the law, and not just because I was listening to Mike Heron), nor do over-ear headphones, and that on-ear ‘phones almost certainly will.

Then read some reviews. Good reviews will deal not only with things like bass and balance but also with leakage – in both directions.

When I knew I was going to be using public transport I did some window shopping at Sandton City, wrote down the model numbers and prices, then did some googling (having first eliminated all models with holes drilled in the casings, because duh!). Quickly I zoned in on the Sennheisers I was wearing this morning. Doing it this way meant that I was checking out the data for kit I could actually buy. And I could look at insulation as well as sound quality, the eventual upshot of which seems to be that I can listen to a Mike Heron album that has The Who guesting on it and not bother the security person who sat down next to me.

Hint: many earbuds come with several sets of rubber end pieces. Don’t just accept the factory default – try them out to see which offer the best insulation.