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.

Archipelago

Archipelago - rocks

In my last post I gave you a glimpse of ten islands strung out like opalescent pearls across a monochrome ocean, the Archipelago album by Hidden Orchestra. It was a deliberately tantalising glimpse and, before we go off to explore the rocks in that necklace, I’d like to take a moment to examine what made a simple listing of track titles and personnel so intriguing.

First, there’s a certain mystery in the titles themselves – just one or two words suggestive of a mood or taken from a strange language. ‘Vainamoinen’ sounds as if it might be Scandinavian; ‘Vorka’ could be Orcish, Klingon or Vogon. But we also have the quite conventional ‘Hushed’ and the downright prosaic ‘Overture’. There is oddness here, but not everything is weird in this new land.

The name of the band presents another puzzle. Why is the orchestra hidden? What hides it from our view? Perhaps it doesn’t really exist. After all, there are only four musicians listed; that’s surely not enough for an orchestra. And yet those four individuals play a bewildering array of instruments – everything from the traditional (violin, piano) through the unlikely (ukulele, zither) to the barminess of the didgeridoo and the obscurity of the kantele (described in the album notes as a zither-harp). Nor must we forget the ‘field recordings’ credited to Joe Acheson. Does that mean we will be treated to bird song or the wind in the willows? Or are we, perhaps, going to hear the grass grow?

If we let our eyes drift over to the list of guest artists on the starboard side we find the album contains “performances and improvisations” by a further ten musicians. This suggests we may be sailing far too close to the treacherous waters of the avant-garde classical composers like John Cage or at least encroaching on some of the freer outposts of jazz. The first entry in that column does nothing to alleviate our nervousness. It says, simply, “Su-a Lee, cello and saw”. We can but hope that that refers to the sound of a large handsaw singing under the caress of the cellist’s bow rather than the grating rasp of sharp metal teeth on the naked wooden body of her fragile instrument. It’s an unsettling item.

Fortunately, next on the guest list is the Scottish harpist and folk singer Mary MacMaster who was already known to Crotchety Man. That she is listed as playing the clarsach and electro-harp is no great surprise as they are simply regional and modern forms of the traditional harp. Then come several ordinary-sounding instrumentalists bringing brass and woodwind into the mix: trumpet, saxophones, clarinet and French horn. One player has a kaval to his name, which turns out to be a type of flute common in Turkey and the Balkans, but flutes are not uncommon in an orchestra. It seems we haven’t ventured too far from familiar waters.

Finally, at the bottom of the “also featuring” list we find George Gillespie who “tap dances on Reminder”. That short note opens our eyes like a slap across the face with a wet fish and sends a shiver of electric fear slithering down our spines. We are all at sea and there seems to be a madman in our midst. Heaven only knows what kind of music this crew creates.

archipelago-collage

It is the questions that the sleeve notes raise that tickle and tease. But, like a dissonant chord, a teaser is only good when it is resolved. Here, then, are some answers to those perplexing questions.

The hiddenorchestra.com website provides the following definition:

Hidden Orchestra is an imagined orchestra created by composer/producer Joe Acheson.

The releases feature a wide variety of guest musicians from different musical backgrounds, recorded separately, and combined by Joe in his studio to create an ‘imaginary orchestra’ that doesn’t really exist.

Dark orchestral textures, with field recordings, bass, and layers of drums and percussion.

And that sums up the project nicely. But it still doesn’t tell us much about the waters we are in. If we were to climb into the crow’s nest and look around would we see the smooth white beaches of classical symphonies, the foaming surf of modern jazz or thunderous waves breaking on heavy rocks? Does our tillerman have a steady hand or does our captain have a wild and beefy heart?

The answer to all those questions is “No”. Archipelago is an album of 5-minute portions of orchestral sound liberally seasoned with fresh sea-salt beats. Sometimes it carries soft flecks of jazzy foam or the cry of seagulls but we are miles from Davis and the Charlie bird flies over a different sea. Our ship rolls a little on the waves and heaves with the swell but there are no sharp rocky outcrops to imperil the passengers or crew. Our course changes frequently but never abruptly as the helmsman guides us deftly round beautiful headlands of melody and into quiet bays of harmony.

I would classify Archipelago as 21st century classical music but Joe Acheson’s compositions make no concessions to common popular music styles whatsoever. In an attempt to define their genre Wikipedia calls it IDM, world music, Electronica, Reggae, Dub, Post-Rock, hip-hop, DnB and jazz. Crotchety Man would remove the reggae, dub and hip-hop from that list, downplay the DnB and add classical at the front. I’m even tempted to coin a new term for it: orchestral beats.

The Hidden Orchestra has all the variety of texture and timbre of a traditional large orchestra – it has strings, woodwind, brass and percussion – but the composer uses them sparingly. There are no massed strings, no ranks of woodwind, no tiers of brass. Each individual instrument has a unique and separate voice. There are also a few sprinklings of electronic effects and natural sounds. There’s no need for extensive use of synthesisers if you can call on someone who plays the saw.

Archipelago - flight

I can’t recommend Archipelago highly enough. It is utterly exquisite and I make no apology for the teaser trick. If I should die tomorrow I would like something from Archipelago to be played at my funeral. Flight would be appropriate, I think. Celestial harp and plaintive cello combine with the round hollow sound of a clarinet and the profound notes of a double bass to create a sense of calm contemplation while a light tune both remembers the sunny days  of the past and looks forward to a still brighter hereafter.

And, if that doesn’t float your boat, try this mesmerising live version of Seven Hunters.

Into the Night

Life is mostly mundane. We all have our daily routines: the school run, walking the dog, watching the latest episode of our favourite soap opera. Of course, every day is different in small ways, too: a new crossing lady today, the Labrador with the dark chocolate eyes has lost his ball, the TV soap has been postponed to make way for a special programme on some scandal or tragedy. Ripples of difference decorate the pools of our lives never disturbing the deeper waters that flow through our emotional veins.

Every once in a while, though, something far from ordinary happens. Into the Night is an account of one of those extraordinary, life-changing moments. The song was written by Chad Kroeger for Carlos Santana. It appears on the Ultimate Santana compilation album and was released as a single in 2007. The single was accompanied by a video and the song has inspired Crotchety Man to write a prose piece about it. Here, then, are three perspectives on Into the Night.

Into the Night - angst

The Prose-Writer’s Perspective

It’s cool up here on the roof. From here I can see the city stretching out beyond the air-conditioning units, a forest of Mediterranean slates and gables jostling in the fading light of the setting sun. Down below relaxed holiday-makers are eating on restaurant terraces, strolling through the streets, enjoying themselves. I should be with them. We could be drinking together, teasing each other, having fun. But my father is dying and my heart is too heavy for laughter.

My dad was my hero. As a child, when I fell and hurt myself, it was always Dad who picked me up, checked me over and told me that I wasn’t badly hurt. Only then would Mum bathe my grazed knee or put a plaster on a cut. When I was old enough to drink too much it was Dad who fixed my aching head with a cheery “serves you right” and a raw egg hangover cure. And it was Dad who understood how I felt when I was dumped by the only angel in a world of plastic mannequin women. Nothing was said, but he shared my pain.

And now I am feeling his pain. He doesn’t have an unspeakable disease; he is just getting old. He struggles to see, to hear, to walk. The never-ending ache of arthritis wracks his joints. It is too much for him to bear. His spirit is fading away and watching his decline is agony for me. The Dylan Thomas poem, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, keeps going around in my head. I want my father to fight on, to be my superhero again, to defeat the creeping juggernaut of death.

Rage, rage, against the dying of the light.

But it is no good. My father’s life is coming to an end. If he doesn’t have the strength to carry on, how can I? Peering over the parapet, looking out over the rooftops, there is just one thought in my head. Jump. It would be so easy. So quick. A few seconds and my anguish would be over. It was the Devil’s voice and I could not disobey.

. . .

As I looked down a woman in a traditional Spanish dress came out of a doorway. She had long black hair and she moved with the grace of a swan. As I watched she waved at her friends in the bar opposite. A warm smile lit up her face and the essential spark of life itself shone in her eyes. My Spanish señorita walked lightly across the square and into a café where a chalkboard advertised traditional Spanish dancing. The Devil challenged my reverie. “She is not your señorita, my friend. And your father is still slowly dying.”

I wavered there for a time but the Devil’s grip had been loosened and another voice floated up from among the hubbub below. I don’t know if it was the voice of God or just the voice of Reason but it did not cower when the Devil spoke. “Look”, it said, “there is another way out. A better way.”

. . .

I found the café where the señorita had gone and ordered a beer. It wasn’t long before she appeared and began to dance. At first she performed traditional dances, swirling her skirts, stamping her feet and clacking castanets. Then the mood changed and she moved on to a more modern, more sensual style. Pretending to flirt with the men in the audience she picked out one or two to join her on the dance floor.

I was about to order another beer when she beckoned to me. Time stopped. All conscious thought evaporated. Propelled onto the dance floor by invisible hands I joined her and we danced. I was a puppet controlled by her voice, her eyes, her hands. Together we stepped and spun, twisted and swung, instinct choreographing our movements.

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The Songwriter’s Standpoint

Into the Night marries the grandeur of the Canadian Rockies to the fire of Latin American rhythms. It rattles along like a steam train on a record run, huffing and puffing through a mountain pass. On the footplate the stokers are heaving great shovelfuls of coal into the firebox, sweating with heat and exertion. As we watch the engine sweep by, a blues-influenced rock guitar line sings of an anguish quelled by a vision of beauty and gracefulness, an evil defeated by love.

Like a gift from the heavens, it was easy to tell
It was love from above, that could save me from hell.
She had fire in her soul, it was easy to see
How the devil himself could be pulled out of me.
There were drums in the air as she started to dance
Every soul in the room keeping time with their hands.

Like a piece to the puzzle that falls into place
You could tell how we felt from the look on our faces.
She was spinning in circles with the moon in her eyes,
No room left to move in between you and I.
We forgot where we were, and we lost track of time
And we sang to the wind as we danced through the night.

And we danced on into the night…

The Video-Maker’s Viewpoint

There’s a lovely example of unintentional humour on the Wikipedia page for Into the Night. It describes the video in these words:

The music video features a man … about to jump off a roof when he sees a girl … dancing. He falls for her immediately …

Of course he doesn’t literally fall; he just admires the dancer’s beauty and graceful movements and in doing so his inner demons are tamed and vanquished.

The video uses shots of Carlos Santana and Chad Kroeger performing the song interleaved with scenes on the roof and in the café/bar. The clips of the dancing beauty and her troubled partner are annoyingly brief, as if semi-subliminal adverts have been inserted into a short film of the Santana guitarists. I know it’s a music video but wouldn’t it be better to feature the lovely woman at the centre of the story more prominently than the musicians? It is a visual medium after all. Or am I seeing with a Crotchety Old Man’s eyes?

The video is on YouTube. You can find it here.