Saturday, May 23, 2020

20 albums in 20 days Sextet / Six Marimbas by Steve Reich

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. But I've been a little distracted lately. So I've failed the deadline. However, this seems a suitable distraction. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. No explanations or commentary is expected. However, this blog seems a suitable place to make a few comments and explanations on the album.

We went to hear Sextet at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London. The concert was part of a tour celebrating Steve Reich's 60th birthday. I think I had bought the album but didn't know the music very well. We sat really close to the stage. There were about eight or ten musicians from the LSO performing that evening.
I think the concert closed with this piece of music. It was an electrifying experience. Perhaps one of the most powerful live musical experiences I've had. Six musicians played a combination of grand pianos, marimbas and vibraphones, these were bowed and struck. The six sections of the piece gradually built up to an overwhelming climax. I leapt out of my seat and screamed as the last notes ended and the applause began. It was astounding.
What struck me was the controlled and seemingly detached musicians absolutely focused on playing the music. This was contrasted with the intense emotional vortex we were all thrown into by this hypnotic music.
In the middle of the applause, the musicians bowed and then signalled to the back of the hall where Steve Reich himself got out of his seat and took a bow at the front.  

Click here for a link to a live performance of Sextet on YouTube.

and Click here for a link to a performance of Six Marimbas on YouTube.

Monday, May 18, 2020

20 albums in 20 days Miserere by Allegri and Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli performed by The Tallis Schollars

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. But I've been a little distracted lately. So I've failed the deadline. However, this seems a suitable distraction. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. No explanations or commentary is expected. However, this blog seems a suitable place to make a few comments and explanations on the album.

Allegri's Miserere

The first time I heard this piece of music I was driving over Kingston bridge. I had the radio on. The programme was Desert Island Discs. It was chosen by one of the guests. When I heard that boy soprano climbing to the high C I lost concentration and almost veered off the bridge. 
I'd never heard anything like that before. The voice climbs to a plateau. Or like a bow pulling back a bowstring, holding an arrow - ready to release.  And then the sudden release. Every time I play it, it takes my breath away.

Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli

The first time I heard this piece of music was at a party my mother threw in 1974 or 1975. Click here for a post that makes a passing reference to it.

In 1976 I became seriously ill with a rare autoimmune disease. Eventually, I was admitted to hospital for six weeks. There I was diagnosed, treated and returned home. Over the following few years, I experienced ever diminishing waves of the disease. Sometimes this required hospitalisation, sometimes I was sick at home - often for long periods of time. This meant I had to start and re-start college courses I was trying to complete. These years were unsettling and at times very stressful. One significant feature of this time was intermittent bouts of insomnia. It was pretty awful and I tried different ways to get off to sleep. None of them worked. Then one day I started listening to music all through the night. I was trying some way to distract my attention and release me into sleep. Eventually, one night, I played Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli. I must have bought it after hearing it at the party I've referred to earlier. And I fell asleep while it was playing. I slept most of that night. 
The playing of the record when I went to bed became a regular habit, a routine, even a ritual. It worked every time I needed it. It was wonderful. But after awhile its power over me diminished. 
I stopped playing Missa Papae Marcelli. Its hypnotic choral polyphony became too elaborate and the multitude of voices began to stimulate me rather than lull me off to sleep. 
I didn't hear the name of Palestrina again until I went to Hatfield Polytechnique. That first year I shared a kitchen with Keith. And quickly we got on to talking about music. Click here for a link to a post where he's mentioned again.

Over the years I've realised I used music as a form of self-hypnosis. I've suffered from various bouts of insomnia and have found various pieces of music to help me and Katy to sleep. Click here for a post about my Sleep Music.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Simon Armitage on Desert Island Discs

So as I put the finishing touches to my last post, I hear this episode of Desert Island Discs. I have to post a link to it. Click here for the link.

20 albums in 20 days plus - Dave Stanley

So I've posted about a cousin - my own age - who introduced me to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. She also helped me get to know a little more about David Bowie. Click here for a link to that post. 
I've also told you about another cousin, six years older than me. He introduced me to Planxty and folk music, John Dowland and Early Music. He also played me Vaughan Williams, an introduction to classical and devotional music. Click here for a link to that post. 

But now I have to tell you about Dave Stanley. 

I remember the first time we met. It was at the Coffee Bar in 1974. 

The Coffee Bar was a youth club. 

My mother worked full time for Kilburn's Child Guidance Centre. She was a secretary to the team of Educational Psychologists that worked at the centre. At some point in the early 70s, she decided to change her career. I don't know if she wanted to earn more money or she felt dissatisfied by her work as a secretary. With her three children growing up I think she craved a more stimulating life. At first, she became a youth worker. I think this work was voluntary at first. Then she did an evening course run by the local authority. Suddenly she was a student again, surrounded by a bunch of people, young, engaged and interested in the world. They were people that had an interest in young people. They were all going into youth work.

Studying with these people must have felt like a breath of fresh air in the dull and static life she had been living up to this point. Her move into youth work would eventually completely change her career trajectory and her life.

At the end of the course, she threw a party or a gathering at our little house in Wealdstone. They all came. There must have been about ten of them. She must have asked them to bring music to play. Someone bought a guitar. Someone else bought Palestrina. Though that sounds really weird. Why would anyone bring Palestrina to a party? Click here for a post that expands on that short musical encounter.

We were quite an isolated family. We didn't have many friends. Our family life was mostly dull and uneventful. Then suddenly there was this party. Mum had mentioned she wanted music and I, of course, volunteered to play the music I had. I dread to think what I must have played them. The Pink Floyd would have been okay. Even cool.  But I cringe now at the thought of playing the Black Sabbath or the Hawkwind. Someone came to rescue the music. But suddenly I found myself briefly invited into the room. I wasn't a host or a guest. But I felt I belonged. I didn't stay too long.
Soon after the party mum told us she was going to work a couple of evenings a week at a youth club just opening up nearby. In fact, it opened just opposite my sister's school in Wealdstone. Whitefriars. The school was considered a real dump back then but it still exists and seems to be thriving. It's in Whitefriars Avenue in Harrow. There a couple of factories close by - Windsor and Newton and Hamilton Brushes. Apparently, most pupils ended up working at one or the other after they left school, aged 15 or 16. 

So mum went to work at the youth club on Wednesday evenings.

When she started there she invited the three of us to come down to the youth club.  Let's say I was 15, my sister's were 13 and 11. I think my sisters were quite young to be going there. Although I was the right age I was incredibly nieve. We had lived a sheltered and very protected life. We weren't really prepared for what we discovered there at the coffee bar. 

I imagine the youth club was set up to cater to the local secondary school children in the area. But the club was dominated by bikers. The majority of them were of working age. There were a lot of them. They wore black leather jackets and drove motorbikes. Thinking about them now I reckon they were skilled or semi-skilled workers. I imagine some of them were car or bike mechanics, some of them in retail, some factory workers. 
I think some still lived with their parents, some were lodgers, renting rooms in family homes or sharing flats.

One really important aspect of the coffee bar was the music. Rock 'n' Roll reigned supreme. The music was totally linked to 1950s-1960s, American Rock 'n' Roll. The music system in the coffee bar continually played music from that era. Everything from Bill Hayley to Elvis Presley to British Rock 'n' Rollers including, John Leyton who sang, "Johnny Remember Me" and the Tornados" Telstar." When the film, "That'll Be the Day" was released in 1973, that must have been a huge boost to some of the older bikers at the club. Perhaps the film and its fantastic soundtrack maybe inspired some of the younger ones to follow the lifestyle it chronicled. But 1962 was about as recent as the music went, "Shakin Stevens," "Alvin Stardust" - despite his earlier career as Shane Fenton - and "Showaddywaddy" were totally off the playlists. 

I suppose if there was one song that summed up that place for me it must have been The Shangri-Las, singing, "Leader of the Pack."

Dave Stanley

So we started going to the coffee bar. My sister was quite excited by the place. She seemed to fit in very quickly. She made friends with some of the bikers and a girl about my age, two years older than her. The girl went to the sister school to mine. It was right next door. 
I use to go down to the coffee bar at lunchtime. It was a bit of a walk but I was an outsider at the school. I didn't have any friends there. To be honest, I didn't have any friends at all. Although I didn't fit into the coffee bar like my sister, at least I wasn't being bullied there and perhaps here was an opportunity to start fresh and begin to make friends.
So on this particular lunch-time, I was sitting up at the counter and was eating a burger or a hot dog. The girl, my sister's friend, was standing next to me, with her boyfriend who had his arm around her waist. She had her back to me. But he must have been facing me. He said, "Can I have a bite of your burger?" and of course I said, "Yes." And that was it. We were friends. 

It all happened very quickly. He took me to my first pub. It was either the Railway Hotel or The Queens Head. He bought me my first pint. It was a pint of lager. I couldn't drink it. It must have been a Saturday afternoon. There was a whole group. They kept buying the drinks. There were 4 or 5 pints all stacked up on the table. They were all mine. 

I can't be sure how old he was. But we think he may have been five years older than me. I met him when I was either 14 or 15 years old. So he was probably 19 or 20. Thinking back to that time I think he was pretty messed up emotionally or psychologically. I don't think he had any friends his own age. He was an outsider. Like me.
He said he was an ex Hell's Angel. I wanted to believe him then. I don't believe it now. He didn't have a motorbike. Later, I remember, he drove a car. He had a black leather jacket. His hair was short. 
I can't remember much about what we did or where we went but music played an important part in our time together. 
He introduced me to The Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. Click here to read about that experience. And click here to hear the album

Then sometimes we'd go back to his home. He lived in Stanmore with his mother and older brother. For some reason, I think she had re-married. I never met her husband, Dave's father or stepfather, but I met, once or twice, Dave's older brother or stepbrother. Dave played me his brother's music. He was older. A serious adult. He played "In the Court of the Crimson King" by King Crimson. I adored that album.

One night he played, Rick Wakeman's "Journey to the Centre of the Earth." I absolutely loved that record.  

Click here for a link to a YouTube to hear the whole album. 

I was like a sponge. I just soaked up everything he played me. I bought a few albums by Hawkwind. In Search of Space was the first one. I played it a lot. My interest in them - long gone. Thinking about it now Hawkwind seemed to embody the same values I had. But at some point, I realised, the music and the scene they represented wasn't for me. 

I also bought a few Black Sabbath albums. I played them a lot. It took some time to realise this music wasn't for me. The music seemed dangerous. Some of the lyrics seemed to feed my growing interest in the occult. This was Dave's music and I didn't feel the same about it as he did.

He became my best friend. We did everything together. He often came round to the house. Our friendship was intense. He became a family friend. 

But it was short-lived. Perhaps at the end of 1975 or the beginning of 1976, he became a Christian. We'd drifted apart a bit. He went away for a while. I think it was Scotland and when he came back he was a Christian. He was different. Whenever we met he went on about Jesus being my saviour. He kept telling me to invite Jesus into my life. He said Jesus would make everything alright. I had absolutely no idea what he was on about. It felt completely alien to me.

One day he invited my sister and me to a big Christian meeting at the Royal Albert Hall. I think it was a Pentecostal gathering. It felt alien and unfamiliar. The place was absolutely packed. There was a lot of dancing and waving of hands. The music was loud and repetitive. There was a lot of audience participation. People were praising God and shouting "hallelujahs!"

Then one night after this meeting I knelt down by my bed and prayed to Jesus. I asked him to come into my life. There it was done. I told Dave what I'd done. That shut him up. That was in early 1975. Nothing changed. But 10 years later in 1985 I did become a Christian. 

For a time Dave was my only friend. But things were beginning to change. In my last year of secondary school, I began to make friends. There were one or two lads in my class I began to talk to. And again music became the currency of our friendship. I remember we met up once in the record shop. They wanted me to hear this album. 

In the final year, the girl's school next door to our boy's school merged. We became Mountview High school. I began to make friends with one or two of the girl's. My loneliness was beginning to end. Slowly. 
The school doesn't exist now. They knocked down the 1930's buildings and the breeze block temporary huts, probably built during World War II and were still serving as classrooms in the 1970s.

In April 1976 we moved from Wealdstone to Kenton. I started work in Bond Street London. We'd stopped going to the coffee bar sometime before we moved. And Dave Stanley just seemed to fade away into adolescence. The past. 

20 albums in 20 days Blue by Joni Mitchell edited and updated

This is an updated and edited post originally published to this blog on 1 April. I've not been able to update the original post.

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. But I've been a little distracted lately. So I've failed the deadline. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. No explanations or commentaries are expected on Facebook. However, in these difficult times, it seems writing about these albums is a suitable distraction. I thought this blog seemed a suitable place to write a comment or two about the albums.

A long, long time ago we visited a cousin of my mother's. It was 1973. I was 14 years old. I had bought Starman and John I'm Only Dancing. So I was a committed fan of Bowie. But I think this story took place before Aladdin Sane was released. They had two daughters. One was a couple of years older than me. One about my own age.
I reckon her sister - maybe two years older - shared her music with her younger sister. 
I have an even older memory of visiting this family. We visited their house. I think in Kent. I remember hearing Down Town by Petula Clarke on the radio. And someone played - I assumed the older sister played Revolution Number 9 by The Beatles. That earlier memory might have taken place late 1968 but most probably 1969 when I was 9 or 10. 
Anyway, back to my later memory in 1973. At some point, we must have escaped the parents. And somehow lost my two younger sisters. Just the two of us, my cousin and me and a record player, a radio and a cassette recorder between us. This was probably the first genuine conversation I ever had with her. Quickly we found music to talk about. It's possible I'd brought with me my radio - a present from this very family for my Barmitzvah - a cassette recorder and a lead that let me connect cassette and radio. I remember setting it up to record the top 20 on Radio 1. That's possibly how we got talking about music. I remember recording, Roberta Flack singing, Killing Me Softly. After the programme, we carried on talking. She mentioned three names to me. Firstly, she said David Bowie. She told me about Ziggy Stardust. I expect she played some of the album to me. I recognized the song Ziggy Stardust. It was the B side to Starman. 

Then she mentioned Neil Young. Perhaps she played a bit of After the Gold Rush. Did I know the song before she played it?  And almost in the same breath, she mentioned Crosby, Stills Nash and Young and their album Deja Vu. Then finally, she said the name Joni Mitchel and I'm pretty sure she played me a bit of Blue.
A little time after that visit I bought, After the Gold Rush and possibly Deja Vu. But for some reason, I didn't buy Blue. I bought instead, For the Roses. Perhaps I'd forgotten the name. Perhaps it wasn't in the record shop - definitely Discoveries in Harrow. I played it a bit. I wasn't hooked then. It gradually collected dust in my collection. 
To be honest I can't remember when or why I bought Blue. Perhaps I went back to Discoveries when I had a little money. Or maybe I found it after they'd restocked it. Maybe I couldn't get the songs out of my head and just had to buy it. 
It feels like it's been with me forever. I love it.

So, I feel a little awkward about admitting this but I owe a significant proportion of my musical history to a cousin I've met less than half a dozen times. It's awkward because it was so random. The seeds of part of my musical history are rooted in someone I barely know. I haven't been in contact with her probably since 1978 or 1979. I don't think she really liked me. I think my mother's cousin looked down on my mum. Maybe they thought they were better than us. They certainly had more money. That can create a lot of tension within families. 
The older cousins - my mother and her cousin - lost touch with each other years ago. And so did the younger ones - me and my cousin. I think she carried a box of fruit to my hospital bed once. That might have been in 1981. That's the last time I saw her. There's something so insignificant and banal about our dead relationship. But there is this music that stays with me. It reminds me of her now.

I think Joni Mitchell is a musical genius. I love For the Roses now. She has that extraordinary voice, it wanders around fast and slow, high and higher. It often seems to follow its own course. You can hear in throughout Blue, The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. And sometimes she has playing with her Wayne Shorter and Jaco Pastorius. Musicians from Weather Report and Miles Davis.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

20 albums in 20 days After the Gold Rush by Neil Young

I was nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to FaceBook. I've been a little distracted. The album covers should be posted without explanation or comment. The album covers should have had a significant impact on my life. Although the FaceBook challenge excluded explanations or comments, that's actually not the case for my blog. This seems a really suitable place to make a comment or two.

I have already posted on this blog how I first heard about this album. Click here to read about that experience. But here's a memory I have about listening to Neil Young.

In 2004 I was in hospital for about 9 months. It was a really traumatic and difficult time. Healing and recovery was slow. After 4 months of treatment that eventually ended with life-changing surgery, I was moved into a large empty 8 bed bay on another ward. The acute phase of my stay had ended. I was now on that long, slow road to recovery and healing. 
I enjoyed being alone in that bay, but missed terribly my working life at college, my church fellowship and my home life with my wife, Katy, and my two 10-year-old children,  Iona and Arran. Family and friends from various strands of my life came to visit often. This was an incredibly positive, stimulating and comforting time.
One time my sister Debra came to visit. She bought with her a CD of music she thought I'd like. This was old music I hadn't heard in decades. One CD was Harvest by Neil Young. Click here for a link to YouTube to hear the full album.
I remember sitting up in the hospital bed. I was engaged and animated. I was really pleased to see her and happy to play the CD she'd bought with her. She didn't tell me what it was. She knew I'd know it.
Then she pressed the play button and I heard the first heartbeat drum strikes and guitar plucks. 
I felt I'd been punched. Those first notes of 'Out on the Weekend' hit me like pain that melted into a feeling of loss. It spread out through me. I hadn't played that album in 25 years. It was such a familiar sound pattern. Maybe I'd been dreaming that record in my sleep. The music was in me. It was part of me. It hit me like a punch. It passed through my head. The waves of sound overwhelmed me. I fell back against the pillow, my eyes blinded with tears. I covered them. I wanted to be alone at this moment. To savour the closed graves of memory suddenly springing open wide. 

My bedroom in Walton Drive. The box room at the front of the house looking out at the road and straight down to the two Kodak chimneys at the bottom of Harrow View. A narrow single bed that fitted half the width of the room and filled the whole length of the room to the window.
Opposite the bed, a wardrobe, its doors open up into the space between wardrobe and bed. Next to the wardrobe, when we first moved in in 1969, there was a short chest of draws. 

I have an early memory of bonfire nights. I think mum and dad bought a box of fireworks every year. They weren't particularly great boxes. There was at least one rocket, a Catherine wheel and a Roman Candle. A few sparklers. Lighting the fireworks never lasted very long. So I'd retreat to my room and look out the window. From there I watched the neighbourhood fireworks. Sometimes just rockets and other times more spectacular displays. Because our house was on the slope of a hill, we were a little raised up. We really did have a view of Harrow, especially from my bedroom. 
But after a few years, I got rid of the chest of draws and we replaced it with a wooden table. Maybe three feet long. I put all my records under that table. On the tabletop, I eventually moved the family record player. It became mine.
When I came back from school, after dinner in the evenings, for long stretches of the weekends and long summer holidays, this room was mine and music dominated a lot of the time I spent in that room.

I remember going to a Rick Wakeman concert probably in 1975. Click here for a post about how I first heard the album, 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth.'

The concert launched Wakeman's new album, 'The Myths and Legends of King Arther and the Knights of the Round Table.' That was not a good album in my opinion. But I think he also played, 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth,' - now that was a good album. I took a close friend. She stayed the night. We lay awkwardly on that single bed for hours listening to The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Wakeman for most of the night. 

Or did I buy tickets for us to see Mike Oldfield play, Tubular Bells? I did see both at Wembley Arena. 

I remember a bunch of people - friends? - all cramming into that box room. There were two or three couples sprawled out on that bed. I climbed onto the wardrobe and played 'The Dark Side of the Moon and Echoes from the album Meddle. They stayed till really late. That happened a few times. We drank beer,- or was it just coke - smoked Players Number 6 and ate crisps. 
Those people seemed older than me. I don't know why they came. I lived miles away from where they lived. Perhaps they wanted to be out of the rain. Perhaps it was only a box room but it was mine, it was private. We welcomed people into our house. Or maybe it was the dope they'd bought. Or was it mine?

I remember bringing my close friend - the one I'd gone to see Rick Wakeman with - into that bedroom. She bought a friend of hers. They were disco queens. I think their school, Salvatorian College used to run weekly or termly discos. And I imagined they reigned over those nights. They were beautiful, sexy, heavily made up and full of glitter. They were totally out of my league. They sat on the bed. I played them Echoes. The friend kicked the table. The album scratched.

I remember....

Cassini Approaches Saturn

Here are three short films from the Cassini space mission that ended in September 2017. I believe the films are made from actual photographs. No CGI or 3 D modelling was used in the making of the films. I'm just overwhelmed by the quality of the films and of course the subject of the Cassini space mission. I'd been following the mission soon after Cassini - Huygens went into orbit around Saturn in 2004.

Here is an explanation of what can be seen on the video from the APOD website. What would it look like to approach Saturn in a spaceship? One doesn't have to just imagine -- the Cassini spacecraft did just this in 2004, recording thousands of images along the way, and hundreds of thousands more since entering orbit. Some of Cassini's early images have been digitally tweaked, cropped, and compiled into the featured inspiring video which is part of a larger developing IMAX movie project named In Saturn's Rings. In the concluding sequence, Saturn looms increasingly large on approach as cloudy Titan swoops below. With Saturn whirling around in the background, Cassini is next depicted flying over Mimas, with large Herschel Crater clearly visible. Saturn's majestic rings then take over the show as Cassini crosses Saturn's thin ring plane. Dark shadows of the ring appear on Saturn itself. Finally, the enigmatic ice-geyser moon Enceladus appears in the distance and then is approached just as the video clip ends. After more than a decade of exploration and discovery, the Cassini spacecraft ran low on fuel in 2017 was directed to enter Saturn's atmosphere, where it surely melted.

Click here for a link to the APOD website post

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Psalm 53 in Aramaic

A friend posted this on Facebook. I thought I'd share it around.

Tuesday, April 07, 2020

20 albums in 20 days Meeting by the River by Ry Cooder and Vishwa Mohan Bhatt

I was nominated by a friend to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. The album covers should be of albums that have had an impact on my life. No comments or explanations were expected on Facebook. However, this blog does seem a suitable place to post explanations and comments on those albums.
The problem is, this album did not appear on that list. On reflection, I think it probably does qualify for a place on that list of 20 albums. Though I'd find it hard to remove one of the 20 I've already posted. So I include this album cover as a plus one.

Sometimes music comes out of the blue. The radio was on in the dining room at Cowden Rectory in Kent. It was Easter 1993. I was just walking past when I heard one of the pieces from this album. Whatever my destination was it suddenly changed. I went into the room and closed the door and just stood there and listened. When it finished I listened out for the name of the album and the artist. I had the CD in my hands within the week.
It is an extraordinary collaboration. Cooder and Bhatt had met just half an hour before the recording. It was totally unplanned and unrehearsed. Completely improvised. 
I don't know really what grabbed my attention. Perhaps it was a sound so completely at odds in that setting. That fusion of East and West was so different from the traditional Church of England songs played at Easter. . Cooder's slide guitar plucking out the blues and Bhatt's homemade instrument flooded the Rectory dining room with reminiscent to classical Indian raga. I fell into this music and played the CD over and over. 
Click here to hear Ganges Delta Blues, probably my favourite track.

About a year later - Stephen - a colleague and friend - and actually the guy who nominated me to post the 20 album covers in 20 days; told me about Ry Cooder's collaboration with Ali Farka Toure. I've written about that a bit, here.

One thing I found so fascinating about the album Talking Timbuktu is my growing interest in the Blues. I didn't really know anything much about the blues. I still don't really. But when I hear it something inside me seems to melt. It seems to fit into a rhythm that suits something inside of me. I can't really explain it. Here's a performance of Amandrai, from the album. Click here for the performance.

I loved all of this music and was intrigued by the Malian traditional instruments and its rhythms. It connected with something I'd realised about modern western music. The roots of our music can be traced back to Malian and West African traditional music. 
In fact, I remember hearing on the radio or reading somewhere that jazz is a fusion of West African traditional music - brought to the US through the slave trade and Eastern European music, brought to the US by Jewish refugees. Klezmer

Then in 1997, I heard about another collaboration. The Buena Vista Social Club. I bought it the moment I heard about it. I played it so much. My father would have loved this music. And I loved the albums that came out of this one, especially those by the singer, Ibrahim Ferrer and pianist, Reuben Gonzalez.

Monday, April 06, 2020

20 albums in 20 Days Kaira by Toumani Diabate

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. But I've been a little distracted lately. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. No explanations or commentaries are expected on Facebook. However, in these difficult times, writing something about these albums seems a fun thing to do. A suitable distraction. And this blog seems a suitable place to write a comment or two about them.

If you hover your cursor over the artists named here, you'll find links to the songs on YouTube.

Friends came to visit me when I was a patient at Northwick Park Hospital. It was a long time ago. They bought this record with them. I loved Kaira from the start. I've been playing it since then. Probably 1979 or 80. This album was my introduction to what became, World Music. There was something so hypnotic in this music. At first, it carried me away, out of that hospital bed to another land. But later at home, the album became part of my summer music. I remember playing it driving through Richmond Park in glorious sunlight. I remember the sun shining through trees. Branches, blown by soft and warm southerly breezes. I remember driving south through France, on a family holiday, our car windows open, and the heat and the music flooding in. 

Years later I enjoyed the collaboration between Toumani Diabate and Ali Farka Toure in the album In the Heart of the Moon. It's a fantastic album.

I'd first heard the music of Ali Farka Toure through listening to Ali Farka Toure's collaboration with Ry Cooder in the album Talking Timbuktu. Click here for a link to a post that refers to that discovery.  

The whole album Talking Timbuktu is fabulous but scroll down to 21:45 to hear an amazing blues duel between Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate. 

Here's a link to a performance of Savane, the title song from the album of the same name. Ali Farka Toure plays live with a band. There's so much pleasure and joy in this performance.

Quite separately from this album, but now interested in the music of Mali, I'd begun to buy compilation CDs as a way of discovering other music from Mali. Somehow I stumbled across the World Music Network and their Rough Guides of World Music series. I bought an album. African Blues and discovered two names that still captivate me. 

Firstly there's Oumou Sangare. I listened to the album again and again. And her song and her voice, right at the end of the CD just knocked me out. The song Saa Magni comes in layers. At first, a fiddle then hard plucked guitar strings or is it a Cora? It introduces a melody and sets up the rhythm. And then a chorus of women's voices. All of this lays there waiting for that extraordinary moment when her voice breaks through and seems to change the world. Forever. Here are two recordings. Click here for the recording I heard on that CD. Heard it for years before I took proper notice of her and bought an album of hers. Click here to watch Oumou Sangare perform the song live. It comes in at 8:30. But really the two songs are stunning.

Secondly, Boubacar Traore. His voice on this song is completely mesmerizing. Click here to hear this extraordinary voice. A voice of the desert. Gouged from sun and sand. Lost to the wind. Bursts into the air with no one listening. Yet hangs there. Waiting. Hope. It captivated me for years before I decided to track it down and discovered him and bought a couple albums. 

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

This review contains spoilers.

Mostly set inside the corrupt, brutal dictatorship of Gilead we read the testimonies of three characters. Aunt Lydia - the one narrator that links us to the earlier novel, The Handmaid's Tale. She is probably the most powerful woman in Gilead. She has the ear of one of the founding Commanders of this oppressive state. She also is the head of Ardua Hall, the training centre, archive and home for the Aunts of Gilead. She is the source. Highly placed in Gilead, she is waiting patiently for her moment to expose the corruption and injustice of the regime and bring it down. Destroy it.

She waits for Baby Nicole to return to Gilead. She will pass on to her the files, evidence of the appalling crimes committed in the State.

The second narrator is the daughter of a highly placed Commander and his wife. Her name is Agnus. However,  - her mother - Tabatha is dead and the Commander wants another child. His new wife - Paula - wants Agnus - out of the way. Out. Married off. But she's terrified of marriage - especially to this founding Commander Judd. He's presented as a sexually depraved. She pleads with the Aunts to enrol her as an Aunt in Ardua Hall. This seems to be the only legitimate channel for women who don't want to be married in Gilead. 
The third narrator is Baby Nicole. She is smuggled out of Gilead by her natural mother - a handmaid - before she could be taken to become the child of a Commander and wife. I think it's possible that Baby Nicole's handmaid mother is Offred the narrator of The Handmaid's Tale. Baby Nicole has lived the first 15 or so years of her life as Jade in Canada. She's cared for by her adopted parents - members of a terrorist organization - Mayday, committed to the destruction of Gilead.
Gilead wants Baby Nicole back. She's become a symbol of Gilead. They send spies into Canada - Pearl Girls to try and find her. Gilead gets close. They kill Jade's adopted parents. 
Jade's told by other members of May Day that she has an important mission. She must return to Gilead - undercover - to meet the source. The source will give her files to smuggle back to Canada and there publicise and expose Gilead's crimes to the world.

And this is what she does.

So it's been 35 years since The Handmaid's Tale was published. I think what worked well for me in that novel was the simplicity of the narrative and the plot - and very little of that. What worked was the restricted nature of Offred's world view. The wider world is hinted at and inferred by Offred's narrative and rarely made explicit. Gilead and its corrupt and rigid power structure based on gender and class is presented in all its unsettling and disturbing reality.
In The Testaments Atwood broadens out our vision of Gilead. She pulls back the curtain a little further. So we get a clearer and more closely focused picture of Gilead. This is both satisfying and also frustrating. Satisfying, because we want to know more about the workings of this oppressive regime. And the novel delivers this for us. Frustrating, because we want our imaginations to wander through this dangerous and threatening world. Atwood treads a difficult path between these two poles. I think on the whole she's got it right. But only just.
Like The Handmaid's Tale, the prequel is similar in that the plot is slow developing. It's the presentation of Gilead and the development of character and relationships that dominates the novel. But then in the last fifth of the novel, the plot suddenly takes off, with Jade travelling back into Gilead, meeting Agnus and the source at Ardua Hall. She discovers that Agnus and Jade are sisters, and then finally returning to Canada with the evidence that will destroy Gilead.  

Friday, March 27, 2020

20 albums in 20 days The Planxty Collection by Planxty

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. But I've been a little distracted lately. So I've failed the deadline. It seemed a suitable distraction. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. No explanations or commentary is expected. However, I thought this blog seemed a suitable place to write a comment or two about the albums.

A couple of times in the mid-70s my cousin used to invite me to stay with him for a weekend. Click here for a post that goes into a little more detail about those visits. On one of those visits, Jeff played me this album. I don't know why but it left an incredible impression on me. Jeff is six years older than me. Back then in 1974 when he was 21 I was an awkward and uncomfortable 14 year old.  He was the coolest guy I knew. But that album hit me hard. I bought it very soon after my visit when I got home. I played it once and never played it again until 1977.

I'm often like that with music. If it doesn't hit me immediately then it's gone. Usually forever.  But in 1977 I was seriously ill. I was recovering from a disease and still suffering from it. District nurses used to come between once and three times a week to dress the wounds on my legs. One District nurse was Irish. She came from Dublin. She was great and we got on well.

So one day I fished through my growing collection of albums and found this one collecting dust. I suppose I wanted to thank her for all her help. She was quite a character. So whenever she came I played it. I played it often. Again and again over weeks or months. It really got into me. By the time she'd finished coming, I was hooked. It was in my blood. Suddenly the world of Irish Traditional Folk music opened to me. It was years before the invention of 'World Music.' This music was real, visceral and absolutely compelling.

Click here for a performance of Planxty playing one of the songs from the album.  It's an incredible performance of The Blacksmith, I think.

Amazing to see Christy Moore - playing the harmonium. He's barely visible for the first half of the performance, dominated by Andy Irving and Donnal Lunny on mandolines. Then the camera switches from stage left to stage right. Its focus is Christy Moore's hands playing the harmonium. Then pans back to the brilliant Liam O'Flynn. His uilleann pipes lie across his lap. He's sitting patiently for his moment. He could be waiting for a bus. But then his moment comes. He's just off-screen. Then we see the band from centre stage. My eyes are on Christy Moore and the Bodhran balanced on the back of the chairs no one is using. Suddenly he picks it up with the beater. We are now somewhere else. A heart beating full of desire, urgently pounding out this rhythm. 

Here is a band at the very peak of there short-lived but brilliant career. I'm still completely blown away by the freshness and energy of their performance.  

In fact, why not Click here for another performance. This one's probably recorded in 1973, a year after the first one.  I love how Liam O'Flynn's uilleann pipes now take centre stage. He takes charge of the instrumental that follows the song.  

But for me, it's hearing Christy Moore's voice, that really lifts this song onto another plane. He's still unaware of its quality. He's belting out these lyrics unselfconsciously, seemingly unaware of the treasure he holds in his throat and vocal cords. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

20 albums in 20 days A Kind of Blue Miles Davis

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook. But I've been a little distracted lately. So I've failed the deadline. It seemed a suitable distraction. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. No explanations or commentary is expected on Facebook. However, on this blog, I can make a few comments about these albums.

I don't have much to write about my encounter with this album. But if you pass the cursor over most of the names that are mentioned you can see they are links to performances on YouTube.

I'd heard about jazz and there was something about it - the concept - that fascinated me. But no one I knew in those years was listening to Jazz. So it meant very little to me. I didn't know where to begin. My dad loved the voice of Ella Fitzgerald - that's Joe Paz playing the guitar backing Ella - and Nat King Cole. He also liked musicals like Showboat and Oklahoma. He liked Danny Kaye and Frank Sinatra. But this was his music. I liked it but it wasn't mine. 

I saw Stan Tracey in concert back in 1977. Hearing his adaptation of Under Milk Wood was a by-product of my mother's love of the play for voices. So that doesn't really count. Does it? I heard Jazz on the radio but never felt at all connected to it. This went on for years. I remember hearing and then buying an Oscar Peterson LP. That's Ray Brown playing bass on the YouTube link. And of course Louis Armstrong.

I remember walking into a record shop - possibly Discoveries in Harrow - and asked the guy over the counter for a jazz record. Another customer came over and suggested I listen to Joe Sample. Wow! I really enjoyed the 2 albums I bought of his. One of them called Carmel I think. Or did that customer recommend the L. A. 4. I'm a bit confused. But I've fallen completely in love with this unbelievable adaptation of the slow movement of Rodrigo's Guitar Concerto - the piece linked here is probably one of my Desert Island Discs. Oh, and that's Ray Brown playing bass.

But I was still an outsider.

In 1978 I was studying A-Levels at a Further Education college in North West London. A friend got me listening to Weather Report. A jazz fusion group. Oh my goodness. This group were amazing. I saw them live in Hammersmith. It must have been in the early 1980s. There on stage before me was Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter and I think, Jaco Pastorius.

Then in the mid-80s, a friend suggested we go to a jazz festival. I think it was a one day festival in Knebworth Park. Capital Radio sponsored it. They brought together big names from the States and the UK, as well as up and coming bands. We may have gone to the festival over a couple of years.

Here's a list of the musicians I remember seeing there:
Chuck Berry
Dave Brubeck
Benny Goodman
Dizzy Gillespie 
Spiro Gyra
Wynton Marsalis
Muddy Walters

But still, I wasn't really following any jazz.

Years later, someone must have mentioned A Kind of Blue and its significance and influence on modern jazz. So I bought it, played it and loved it. I still do. 

Click here for my favourite track from the album. This piece is one of my Desert Island Discs.

Monday, March 23, 2020

20 albums in 20 days Ten New Songs by Leonard Cohen

I've been nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook by my friend Stephen Winfield. No explanations or commentary is expected on Facebook posts. The 20 album covers represent music that has had a significant impact on my life. 
But I've been a little distracted lately. So I've failed the deadline. 20 days has turned into about 6 weeks. 
However, it seems a suitable distraction while self-isolating to write an explanation or comment on the album covers I've posted. My blog seems a suitable place for these. We do live in extraordinary times. I realise that many of the pieces here 

When I was at school a friend came by holding the album Songs of Love and Hate by Leonard Cohen. It must have been in 1975. He thought I'd really like Leonard Cohen. We played it. I didn't like it much and never heard it again. However, at some point in the 1970s, I must have heard other Cohen songs because in 1981 I remember seeing The Best of Leonard Cohen in the record collection in my bedroom at Hatfield Polytechnique. I have absolutely no recollection of buying it or even playing it. Maybe I played it in my sleep because some of the songs from that LP were really familiar to me.

In 2001 I watched the film Shrek with my family. I remember hearing the song Hallelujah - I think they use John Cale to sing it. I remember thinking the song was familiar. A vague memory that I'd heard the song long ago. But I hadn't heard it on The Best of Leonard Cohen. Hallelujah wasn't released till 1984. 

Also in 2001, a friend came round for the evening. He bought with him the cellophane-wrapped new album by Leonard Cohen. He said he thought I'd really like Leonard Cohen's music and wanted to share it with me. We sat opposite each other in our sitting room as I watched him unwrap the CD. I can still hear the cellophane crackling up in his fist.

I fell in love with it immediately. I loved the electronic backing music against Cohen's extraordinary cracked, deep and rich voice. It never occurred to me to buy the CD. But in the months that followed the songs kept slipping into my memory. I couldn't get them out of my mind. Until eventually - maybe a couple of years later, I bought the CD. I think the album is magnificent. I've loved every album Cohen released since then. My friend and I met up on the day of each release. We unwrapped each CD and then just listened.  Old Ideas, Popular Problems, You Want it Darker and Thanks for the Dance. I've been listening to his other albums over the years. Some I love. Others?? I'm not so sure about.

Click here for a recording of one of my favourite songs from 10 New Songs.

20 albums in 20 days Faure's Requiem

I was nominated to post 20 album covers in 20 days to Facebook by a friend. The albums posted have had a big impact on my life. No explanations or commentaries are expected. However, it did seem appropriate to make a comment or two on the albums on this blog.

So, I think my memory is a little hazy on this one. I think in 1985 a friend came to visit me in Colchester. He brought with him this album. He wanted me to hear it. He put it on and I was immediately transfixed by it. I've been playing it ever since.
I've heard a few recordings of this requiem over the years. But it is the one my friend bought that I've found so captivating. Maybe it's the overall softness or fullness of the sounds, Willcocks imbeds the organ within a full orchestral and choral setting. It never feels too loud or too quiet. 
After I married we used to play music to help us get off to sleep. I used to suffer from bouts of insomnia. This was one of the albums we played to help. We had it on a cassette recorder and each night we'd rewind and press the play button. For ages, we'd hear the whole requiem but gradually over a period of weeks, we'd fall asleep, at In Paradisum, then gradually the Pie Jesus and later still the Sanctus. At one point we'd be asleep just after hearing the opening chord of the Introit et Kyrie. And then we began to fall asleep just hearing the tape rewinding.
I began to realise that this became a form of self-hypnosis. For some time - years - it was very effective.

Click here to hear and watch a performance of the exquisite  Pie Jesus from the requiem.