Future Strings

harp + kora

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita

Crotchety Man has been bingeing on prog rock recently so I thought it was time for something rather different. As luck would have it my Release Radar this week included an enchanting track called Listen to the Grass Grow by Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita. Now, I used a photo of Catrin Finch in an earlier post so I already knew she plays the Celtic harp. The tune on the Radar sounded like a harp duet but, after a little googling, I found that the second instrument is actually a kora.

What’s a kora? Wikipedia tells me that a kora is a 21-string lute-bridge-harp and goes on to explain that it doesn’t fit into any one category of musical instruments. Not being much wiser Crotchety Man went in search of photos. The instrument, he found, looks like a large lute with many strings. But it was still hard to see how it is played. What was needed was a video.

YouTube couldn’t oblige with a video for Listen to the Grass Grow but it does have a mesmerising clip of the Finch/Keita duo playing Future Strings live in 2013. If you want to know what a kora is, watch this video.

I’m not going to try to describe the music other than to point out that I’ve tagged it ‘classical’ and ‘world’. Just watch and listen. If you are open to that kind of music you will not be disappointed, I promise.

Further research turned up another excellent video and the news that Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita are currently touring the UK. Crotchety Man has booked to see them at the Derby Guildhall Theatre on Friday. It’s not often you get the chance to see a Senegalese musician playing a traditional African instrument here in the UK, although it probably helps that this particular artist now lives in a city quite close to Crotchety Mansions.

Catrin Finch and Seckou Keita fuse Welsh and Senegalese traditional music, adding African rhythms to Celtic melodies, in what just might become a new sub-genre of ‘world’ music. Perhaps we should call it ‘future strings’.

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Girdik

union chapel, empty


We entered the draughty hall in silence. “What do you think ‘Diz?”, I said to my companion. He looked up at the vaulted ceiling and gazed for a moment at the stained glass windows. He paced down the aisle and stepped up onto the stage. He clapped his hands, twice; the sound bounced back at us like gunshots echoing in an Arizona canyon. A smile spread slowly across his face and he nodded slowly. “It will do”, he said, in English. That was his understated translation of ‘съвършен’, the word for ‘perfect’ in his native Bulgarian language.


Ediz Hafizoğlu

Ediz Hafizoğlu is a jazz drummer now living in Turkey. His band’s latest album, “Nazdrave” 13, was released a couple of weeks ago and the opening track came up in my Spotify listening this week. It’s called Girdik, which is Turkish for “we entered”. I couldn’t find Girdik on YouTube but there are studio and live versions of Cereyanlı (“draughty”) from an earlier album called just Nazdrave (“cheers” in Bulgarian). If, like me, you have never heard of mister Hafizoğlu before try one of these as a taster (studio or live, it’s your choice).

‘Draughty’: could there be a more appropriate name for a tune built around a relaxed horn section? But the Hafizoğlu band doesn’t just do breezy instrumentals. There’s a song called Mila on the earlier Nazdrave album that takes us into World music territory with a female vocal ensemble. Then there’s Eye of a Hurricane, a sweet lounge song with a solo singer, this time in English. And Girdik itself has some rocking guitar licks that remind me of David Gilmour.

It would have been unfair on Ediz Hafizoğlu to give you just one sample track; he is more versatile than that. So here’s a playlist by way of introduction.


It was draughty the first time we came here but now, packed with eager listeners, the old chapel is cosy and welcoming. Yes, it will do very well for a concert. In fact, it feels съвършен, my friend.


union chapel

A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows

rainbow stars

Before we get into the new year in earnest here’s a belated Album of the Month post originally scheduled for December 2017. The album in question is called A Kaleidoscope of Rainbows and it was one of my first forays into the hinterlands of jazz.

I must have bought this record in the late seventies before CDs were invented and long before the Internet became available to the ordinary citizen. It was a time when good new music was hard to find and Crotchety Man had to resort to speculative purchases to satisfy his cravings. The Kaleidoscope was just such a leap in the dark. Although ‘dark’ is a rather peculiar word to use for an album whose title describes shifting multi-coloured shapes reflected in a mirrored tube held up to the light.

It was the record cover that compelled the plunge into the unknown. On the front there was a shimmering rainbow galaxy viewed through a mysterious wisp of smoke. It is still one of my favourite pieces of album artwork. Although, looking at it again today, I wonder what the dark foreground shape might be: the silhouette of a human body, a near-Earth asteroid or just a potato waiting for the chipper and the deep fat fryer?

In contrast, the back cover was almost entirely monochrome, consisting mainly of black text on white paper listing the tracks and musicians, carrying the copyright notices and giving a little information about Neil Ardley, the composer, and the compositions on the disc. Intriguingly the inspiration for the album came from a form of Balinese gamelan music, which uses a five note scale. The seven main tracks on the album emerged from Ardley’s exploration of this scale. (There was probably also something about rainbows but I no longer have the vinyl and haven’t been able to check.)

Among the musicians the names of Barbara Thompson and Ian Carr stood out. They were both well respected jazz instrumentalists and their contributions served to reassure Crotchety Man that this record would not disappoint. So, on the strength of the artwork, the blurb and the personnel, the Kaleidoscope was added to my small collection of LPs. And it sparkled like bright sunbeams reflected in falling drops of rain.

dots

The Kaleidoscope of Rainbows is an album that begs to be played all the way through, from Prologue, through the seven Rainbows to the Epilogue. Like a box of tasty chocolates one bite is never enough and it’s impossible to play one track without drooling over the others. Some tunes are soft and soothing, others have a certain funky piquancy. None are bitter. All are food for the soul.

Unlike chocolates this album has no ‘best before’ date; it sounds as good today as it did 40 years ago. And, fortunately, you can’t overdose on rainbows.

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Purinjiti

artwork

Today Crotchety Man is venturing off the beaten tracks, out into the trackless wastes of the Australian desert. He is the dark-skinned messenger carrying news of a recent performance of an atmospheric piece by the British composer David Warin Solomons. The message is both verbal and symbolic. As he walks barefoot over the sun-baked earth this antipodean Hermes recites the words he must deliver, using the carved and decorated stick in his hands like a rosary to put the words in order and commit them to memory.

In the language of his tribe the message stick is called a purinjiti; it serves as both the mailman’s badge of office and the letter he is to deliver. On this one there are marks and notches for musical instruments: flute, euphonium, didgeridoo, clap sticks and bowed string instruments. There is also a crude map indicating the place in central Europe where the work was performed and an approximate date of two moon-cycles ago. In this medium it is impossible to spell out ‘Budapest’, the city in which the music was recorded, or the name of the conductor, Zoltán Pad.

The message is simple enough. Our tribal chief was so amused by the choice of instruments and pleased by the mellifluous tones he heard that he wants to share it on all the social media platforms available to him. And in these parts the purinjiti has a far greater reach than Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp. I will, of course, transmit his message faithfully, conveying our head man’s excitement as accurately as I am able but, to be honest, I found those clap sticks rather irritating. See what you think of this world-spanning music. And, if you like it, spread the word.

Hot Footnote

I met David W. Solomons briefly when he popped his head around the door of one of our music group rehearsals about three months ago. He introduced himself, gave me his business card and was gone. You can find his website here. Note, however, that he comes from a classical and choral background and his work is not likely to appeal to Crotchety Man’s regular followers.

Zamzama

cannon

Kim’s Gun – outside Lahore Museum

The third track on my Release Radar playlist this week was called Zamzama, which is obviously a made-up word and gives no clue to its musical style. It’s by Avi Avital, Omer Avital, Yonathan Avishai and Itamar Doari, names which suggest foreign influences but which throw no further light on what might be in store for the curious listener. The album title doesn’t help either: Avital Meets Avital seems deliberately designed to mystify rather than inform.

What does it sound like? Surprisingly, I can give a very accurate description. It sounds very much like an instrumental cover of Pink Floyd‘s Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun performed by a Jewish popular folk band. There are just four instruments: mandolin, piano, double bass and hand drums. The piano carries the tune and adds some faintly jazzy chords. The bass tumbles along echoing the gentle jazzy feel. The drums inject the rhythm of a joyous dance. And a light smattering of mandolin notes flash like the white hem of a wedding dress as the bride dances with her new husband.

Here’s a live version with some wonderful improvised solos:

Curiosity prompted the Crotchety fingers to search for further information. First stop, the album, which offers various blends of klezmer, jazz and classical styles, including slow ballads and up-tempo dance tunes. One track, Ana Maghrebi, sounded too much like a piece for a bar mitzvah ritual to tingle the Crotchety senses much but everything else has plenty to offer, not least some very impressive musicianship from all the players. Listening to the album convinced me that Zamzama was worthy of a Track of the Week slot.

But there was an obvious problem. This blog puts an appropriate image at the top of every post, a picture that illustrates the subject and helps this old man (and, hopefully, my readers) remember the music and my response to it. How could I choose a picture for a nonsense word? The task seemed impossible, so I decided to pick another track from the Avital Meets Avital album instead. Perhaps I should choose one of the ballads – Lonely Girl or The Source and the Sea would be worthy of a mention – and pictures for those shouldn’t be hard to find. Or should I choose something more representative of the album as a whole? Avi’s Song, Maroc and Hijazain would fit the bill but an appropriate image for those would be just as hard to find.

Avi & Omer

Avi Avital (mandolin) and Omer Avital (double bass)

And then the Crotchety brain cells sparked into life and commanded my flesh and bone digits to consult with the virtually infinite store of electronic digits that is Google. To my complete surprise the cyberspace oracle informed me that Zamzama is not a nonsense word at all. It is, in fact, the name of a very large cannon. Also known as Kim’s Gun, it was cast in 1762 in Lahore and is now on show outside the Lahore Museum. That, of course, made the choice of headline image a no-brainer.

Apparently, Zamzama is also the name of a shopping mall in Karachi and seems to have some connection with a film star famous in at least some parts of the Indian subcontinent (judging by the images Google serves up). More pertinently, though, zamzama is a Persian word meaning “murmur, whisper or pealing thunder”.

So here we have a British blogger listening through a Swedish streaming service to Israeli musicians playing a track with a Persian title used to name a gun made and fired in what was then India but is now Pakistan. Come, let’s murmur its name among our friends, whisper it to strangers and send it like pealing thunder across the rest of the globe. Let’s make it earn the tag of ‘world’ music.

Additional Note

  • There’s a rather lovely video here of Avi Avital and Bridget Kibbey playing a Bach piece arranged for mandolin and harp.

Peace of Mind

Let’s start 2017 with a sweet, gentle instrumental – something to soothe away the excesses of the New Year’s Eve party and ease the conflict and bitterness that was the hallmark of the year just gone. This is a track called Peace of Mind from the Natural Elements album by Shakti.

Shakti was an east-west fusion band that combined John McLaughlin’s jazz-influenced guitar with elements of Indian music supplied by Lakshminarayana Shankar (viola, violin, vocals), Zakir Hussain (bongos, dholak, percussion, tabla, timbales, triangle, vocals), Vikku Vinayakram (ghatam, kanjeera, percussion, vocals) and Ramnad Raghavan (mridangam). If, like me, you’ve never heard of many of those instruments there’s a glossary at the end of this post. For now, though, you can just lump the ones you don’t know under the general heading of ‘percussion’.

Peace of Mind sounds very familiar to those of us brought up on western classical and popular music. There is none of the wailing sitar, quarter tones or chanting voices that characterise the traditional music of the Indian sub-continent. Instead we have a contemplative acoustic guitar reminiscent of John Williams and a violin that slips and slides through a simple, haunting melody. Nothing I know says “peace be with you” as eloquently as this and nothing reaches across cultural divides more successfully.

yoga

If 2017 is going to be better than the anno horibilis of the last 12 months we will need something like Peace of Mind in our lives to provide an antidote to the selfish isolationism that is taking Britain out of the EU and has elected Donald Trump as the next president of the United States. We will need peace and forgiveness to stop the wars caused by religious fundamentalism and to heal the physical and psychological wounds they will leave behind. We will need men (and women) of peace, men who reach out to others across the globe, spiritual men like Mahavishnu John McLaughlin.

I’ve been on this Earth too long to believe the world’s ills can be solved in a single year but there is always the hope that things will get better. Here’s to a more rational, more peaceful, more humane society in 2017.

Glossary

  • dholak – a two-headed hand drum
  • ghatam – a large, narrow-mouthed earthenware water pot used as a percussion instrument
  • kanjeera – an Indian version of the tambourine
  • mridangam – another two-headed drum
  • tabla – a pair of small hand drums
  • timbales – shallow single-headed drums with a metal casing played with sticks

Sledgehammer

Sledgehammer - scrat

Now, where did I put that sledgehammer?

There are at least three well-known songs called Sledgehammer. Top of the Spotify list is one by Fifth Harmony, a five-piece all-female vocal group that came together when the girls entered the X Factor competition individually in 2012. As Fifth Harmony they came third and third is where Crotchety Man places their fairly ordinary pop/dance Sledgehammer. If you have seen Star Trek Beyond you will have heard a bigger and better Sledgehammer. That one is an epic ballad sung by Rihanna and she does a rather good job of it. But the best Sledgehammer, in my opinion, is the one by Peter Gabriel.

The Gabriel Sledgehammer is a pop/dance track the way old man Crotchety likes it. It’s one of those funky soulful songs that makes you want to stomp your feet to the beat, but unlike a lot of modern pop music it also has a catchy tune, some intriguing synthesised sounds and a great production. It’s an irresistible combination that took it to the number one slot in Canada and the U.S. and number 4 in the U.K. in 1986.

The single release was accompanied by a brilliant video featuring animation by Aardman Animations (Nick Park’s outfit that created the Wallace and Gromit animated films). It won  no less than nine of the MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, more than any other video, and may still be the most viewed MTV video of all time. Here’s the obligatory YouTube link:

There’s an even sharper, crisper version of this video on Peter Gabriel’s website here.

They say you shouldn’t use a sledgehammer to crack a nut but Scrat, the sabre-toothed squirrel, has tried everything else. Perhaps Peter Gabriel will take pity on the poor unfortunate creature and lend him his nut cracker extraordinaire.