Influences: Out of African Music

“Temptation” African Instrumental

If you’re listening to the above clip you could be forgiven for thinking it was an excerpt from some African band rather than the Lavender Hill album but it’s not far off. First, this is something new and un-heralded so if you were expecting a vlog or a podcast, apologies. Last week I was interviewed by Alex Horwood the photographer and videographer we work with. I thought it would be a quick 15 minutes but he turned up with 2 cameras, a still photographer, lights, and a sound recorder. After he finished he told me he wouldn’t finish editing for at least a week, so we had to make some changes to our scheduling for this week’s Adventures in Music. Luckily I had this one in reserve, so let’s talk about one of my influences. African Music.

Music didn’t take me there but within minutes of leaving Lome airport in West Africa, I couldn’t escape it. You heard it on flimsy antique Japanese transistor radios from the roadside, blaring out of bars, from markets where rip-off copies of Western soul, pop and rock sat next to the work of Congolese, Senegalese, Malian and Cameroonian musicians. I’ll be honest, I didn’t understand it until one day I heard Mory Kante’s “Yeke Yeke” and it all came together. All music is visceral. You hear it, you like it or you don’t like it. It was the exuberance, the inexorable rhythms…the sheer energy I loved.

Describing African music as an entity on its own is a little disparaging. It’s like lumping soul, jazz, pop, rock and folk together. One person who has done more to educate the UK public about this huge sprawl of rhythms, killer percussion and brilliant vocals, it’s Andy Kershaw. When I returned to Europe, listening to him actually broadened my knowledge, he is so well-versed in this music. There are so many strands in West Africa where I spent a few years and we haven’t even talked about Southern Africa. Then you think about the crossovers, from Fela Kuti, the African reggae of Alpha Blondy from Cote d’Ivoire and the individual brilliance of Youssou N’Dour who has pulled influences from everywhere to create a music all his own. On my iPlayer I even have a few songs by the Afro-Celt project, a fusion of Irish and Kenyan music. All the different countries have their own brand and it’s generally an evolution of traditional music paired with Cuban and Latin rhythms. In Senegal it’s M’balax; in Cameroon it’s Makossa and I’ll be talking about that later in the blog. And I can’t help mentioning the Ghanaian band Osibisa who brought the sounds of their continent to Europe in the 1970s with a storm and one of the best album covers I’ve ever seen! And just to namedrop, I spent one unforgettable evening in Accra jamming with their keyboard player Kiki Gyan.

Osibisa

I played in a few bands with fellow Europeans in the early years, churning out covers for ex-pats through West Africa and although I knew a few I really didn’t collaborate with local musicians until I went to live in Cameroon.

In the coastal city of Douala there was a vibrant music community, led at the time by the fantastic sax player Manu Dibango. I’d only been there a few weeks when a friend pushed me onstage with a group of African musicians. We started to do weekly slots in the city’s clubs and our band, called Tempting Fate, was in demand. There weren’t too many European/African combinations. And through the guys I met Tom Yom’s.

Tom

Tom’s brand was makossa. It’s a blend of traditional music, soul with strong bass lines and heavy brass, but we started a collaboration that stopped only when I left Africa. It crossed all the boundaries and if today I break the rules of music, or push its boundaries he persuaded me it was OK to do it. He was a really accomplished, serious musician and although self-taught in both music and production he was adventurous and not afraid to try new techniques, one of which was sampling. He would record traditional African instruments then re-create their sound on his synth. I started work on a solo album with him but it wasn’t finished for reasons of time – he had to go to France to work. It was pretty ironic that African musicians earned more in Europe than in their own country and if the chance arose, off they went. One gig in Paris or London could earn them enough to live in Africa for a year. But from that half-finished project came two of the songs you can hear on the Lavender Hill album: “Apocalypse” and “Temptation”. The clip from ‘Temptation” above was my best effort at reproducing a couple of percussion instruments Tom put on the original recording, sadly lost in the depths of time. But we worked on another song he included on one of his albums, “Sunny Days”. We did the demo at his studio in Douala, then I met him in Paris to record the vocals. Although it’s not very African, you can hear his fantastic voice. He’s the second one you hear. That’s me the other half of the duet.

Moving Pictures

Tom died in 2007. Manu Dibango sadly died of Covid last March at the age of 83 after a distinguished career. Unfortunately he’s only known in the the English-speaking world for “Soul Makossa” and being sampled by Michael Jackson but he and Tom were huge in Africa. Somewhere there’s a picture of Tom, Manu and I. Wish I could put it on this blog but having moved around so much it was lost. Kiki Gyan isn’t around any more, a victim of his success more than anything. But when I think of everything they, and the dozens of African musicians I played with over the years I lived there, taught me; and remember the joy and pleasure they took from their music I can only feel immensely grateful; and you can bet echoes of those rhythms and beats will be there in future songs on every album we make.

Words and Meaning. Part 1

With the album due for release in just two weeks I’m devoting the next couple of blogs to an explanation of the songs; how, why and what we recorded. First because, although you may be able to find lyrics in the metadata of some downloads and streams, in others you won’t. Similarly, when we produced the CD we wanted to make it simple. In future pressings we might go for a more sophisticated case. Until then, here are all the lyrics, and sorry if it goes on longer than the usual post. I had a conversation with an old friend who had listened to her pre-release copy of the album and she had some very insightful thoughts about the meaning of the songs as they related to me, my life, my experiences. Some of them were spot on, others I hadn’t even considered until she said it. But you can attribute meaning to any song as it relates to you. Metallica says ‘Nothing Else Matters’ is about their fans. I always thought it was about vampires! A song has different meaning to everybody so I’m going to be a little vague. Our songs can be about whatever you want them to be!

Dancing in Silence

I’ve told this story a few times over the past six months since we released this song as a single. During the first lockdown I was out one Thursday evening clapping the NHS, and listening to all the neighbours applauding, banging pans and cheering. A phrase came into my mind: “You are not alone”. I went indoors and wrote the song. We decided to release it as a single with all proceeds to NHS Charities, but the logistics of recording, then filming a video when you were supposed to stay indoors and socially distanced was a challenge. It entailed a lot of exchanges through DropBox, WeShare, external hard disks being dropped into the producer, Tom Hughes’ post box, but somehow it worked. However, the original song came out too long for a single so we cut the Bridge. When you listen to the album version, it’s restored.

Meanwhile, we had a video to make. We asked all our friends, relatives and neighbours to make a smartphone clip of them saying, “You are not alone…..We are not alone.” Then director Alex Horwood and I spent hours going through news footage and relevant open-source film. The band was shot in the course of a day. Me, appropriately in Silverlea Woods near our home in Horley, Razz in a field outside East Grinstead. You would never know he was 100 yards from a busy road. Then Rob in his back garden. The weather was fantastic and Alex got all the footage he needed. For the next three days we worked on putting it all together. If you check out the video on YouTube at https://youtu.be/li7Qlw81juE you’ll agree Alex did an outstanding job. The whole project took less than three weeks from the time I wrote the song because we wanted it to be released while it was still topical. Ironically it is as relevant today as it was last June.

DANCING IN SILENCE
There’s a cloud across the nation
As we live in isolation
Feels like we’re floating
In a sea of not knowing
We stand far apart
With our frozen hearts
Connected by our phone
Yet living all alone

We search for salvation
In this fog of desolation
Like we’re treading water
This sickness makes us falter
No-one hears our cry
No voiceless reply
Just echoes in the sky
Where only angels fly

CHORUS
Alone in the darkness
I hear the music swell
I’m dancing in silence
I do it so well
The sound fills my senses
Tears down my defences
Music like bright colours
Fills my lonely soul
While I’m dancing in silence
I am not alone

We feel a dislocation
Yet hear a faint vibration
Under the empty floor
Behind the sealed door
Nothing we can hear
But there is something near
Songs of hope in the air
Reaching in from somewhere

BRIDGE
While we live in solitude
The desert of our days
We can find the reasons
In many different ways
The persistent drumbeat
In our memory stays
We will dance in silence
Till the music remains

APOCALYPSE

I wrote this song in 1991 when I was working with the late Cameroonian musician Tom Yom’s, for an album that was never released. It still retains the soaring synth line on the chorus we originally thought of such a long time ago. It’s about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse from the Book of Revelations and horror fiction ever since. The Four Horsemen are the bringers of Conquest, War, Famine and Death. When I first read of them as a relatively devout 14-year old schoolboy, it was in a book called ‘The Devil Rides Out’ by Dennis Wheatley and it scared the hell out of me. I don’t think I slept for months! Fast forward to the 1990s and a question came into my mind. Who were the horsemen? What was their story? Why did they come to be fulfilling this horrible role? It’s not like they would be lining up at the JobCentre, is it? And I just imagined one of the riders doing it to get revenge on the guy who ruined his sister’s life. I absolutely understand anyone who says, why didn’t he just go round to the love rat’s house, or even set the tabloids on him, but you’ll need to give me some literary headroom.

Musically, for me it’s all about the bass line. I had always wanted it to be strong but Rob really takes it to another level. You can’t dance to many of our songs but this one definitely has a beat to get you on your feet. As long as you don’t think about the lyrics!

APOCALYPSE
Face of an angel
Smile of a saint
As pure as light
A vision in white

Choirboy face
Cupid’s lips
Evil heart
Soul of the damned

Fateful night
Lust at first sight
No resistance
She fell in your arms

Passion spent
Threw her away
A smashed up heart
Broken life

Well wait til you see me coming
Riding on a pale horse
Coming after you
Riding (riding, riding)
That’s when you’ll know your future
When you’re standing at the abyss
Looking in horror at your apocalypse

Thousand foot cliff
She stands alone
A final tear
A silent fall

A fresh-dug grave
Mother’s tears
A family torn
Vengeance sworn

Stormy night
A blasted heath
A bargain made
A lightning flash

One of four
Endless ride
Famine and War
Damnation calls

Wait til you see me coming
Riding on a pale horse
Coming after you
Riding (riding, riding)
That’s when you’ll know your future
When you’re standing at the abyss
Looking in horror of your apocalypse

THE FIRE

No messing about with this one, it’s dedicated to my Long Suffering Partner (LSP) and the love of my life. It’s out now as a single. Feel free to listen to it here https://ditto.fm/the-fire-lavender-hill on your preferred streaming/download platform. And as Jan is my muse, my support, a backing vocalist and contributed a lot of the photography to our CD cover it’s appropriate this should be about her. I wrote the song in 2018, sitting on the terrace of our home in south-western France, as the sun was setting on the Pyrenees. The lyrics were probably the easiest I have ever written and there is nothing allegorical, complicated, no hidden meanings. They just came out, and what you read below is unchanged from that evening. After I’d finished the lyrics I went inside to get my guitar and worked out a melody as the stars started to come out.

THE FIRE*
Standing beside you after all this time
So close so strong it feels so fine
This is the way it’s meant to be
Two of us with one heartbeat
Every minute I ‘m thinking of you
Of words you say and things you do
These are the days of us together
Two of us linked now and forever

Gazing in your eyes as we lie in bed
As your look of love fills my head
This is how I could spend my days
Two of us bound in so many ways
Finding your face in a crowded place
When I see your smile I’m still dazed
This is how I always saw our life
Couldn’t cut our bond with a knife

CHORUS

We jumped into the fire
Passion hot as the sun
The very second I saw you again
I knew you were the one
Two parts of a single soul
A dream finally come true
The fire of love that feeds us
The unbreakable me and you

Every moment we spend apart
There’s a black emptiness in my heart
Then I look forward to see you again
And straight away my heartbeats gain
There will be no end to this our love
Till a day when the bright stars fall above
Knowing we are bound forever as one
I feel as if my life work’s done

ELECTRA

This one, the last we’ll do in this post, has a couple of levels. On one it’s about the figure from mythology, Electra and her father Agamemnon, the general of the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The actual story is a little complicated but the important part is his pride in his daughter, and her love for him in spite of his many flaws and faults. On that other level this is dedicated to my daughter Allie, an avid reader of history and mythology, who I’m very proud of.

The stand out feature of this song is the flawless vocals of Chantelle Bartlett. She only sings a single word, ‘Electra’ but she does it with passion, feeling and su much strength it still gives me goose-bumps when I listen to it.

ELECTRA
We may be in different worlds
A million miles apart
But still I feel you close to me
You are in my heart
When all about is deep despair
Your voice seems so near
Your words are all so clear
They give me comfort
They’re all I need to hear

Remembering another time
When our days entwined
It was you who turned to me
And the fault was mine
But you never let the fire go out
And the memories remain
Kept on a golden chain
Recalled all the time
Keeps you close again

CHORUS
Electra
You are the brightest star
Shining in the darkest night
A beacon seen from far
Electra
You show the clearest road
Standing tall and seen by all
Sure in what you know
Electra
Electra

Now I’ve moved beyond this life
I watch from another place
I see you take this world by storm
You win this mortal race
My pride in you is always strong
I will always belong
To the one who gave me reason
To always carry on
Beyond that fatal dawn

IN THE STUDIO

…It was good inspiration for what is basically an old-fashioned 5-chord rock and roll number. We’d been playing it live and in rehearsals so I knew it pretty well, but putting down bass, lead and rhythm guitar along with a ‘chugging’ track, vocals and keyboards took me some time…

 

IMG_0011So I left you in the studio.  There I am.  Me re-learning how to play bass.  Andrew Baird who has something like 30 stringed instruments from banjos to upright double basses lent me a five-string.  I hadn’t picked up a bass in anger since I was about 17 so it was a steep learning curve.  I knew this wasn’t going to be a John Entwistle, walking bass line.  I just needed to underpin the drums Razz had laid down.  Actually, listening to the four tracks, I was pleasantly surprised.

Recording wasn’t a straightforward enterprise.  First of all, we live busy lives and aside from this obsession with making music we have jobs to do.  Second, Rob, our engineer, had other projects.  So it was down to me preparing as well as I could, then when a call came I would go up to the studio and try to put down a track.  Usually we would only get one down in a 4-hour session.  I know there are professional musicians who could probably lay down 6 or 7, usually in one or two takes.  I’ve seen it.  But not me.  Before Rob, Razz or I were satisfied with a bass or rhythm track it would take a lot of painstaking work, and countless overdubs.  It really stretched Rob’s patience, and I thank him from the bottom of my heart for leading me through the process.  The only part that ran smoothly was the vocals.  When recording you usually put down something called scratch vocals as a guide.   Then, when all instruments are in the can you do the finished version.  But fortunately we used the scratch vocals, no auto-tune, and just a few effects.

‘Tucson to LA’ was the first one.  This was a photo we took when we were in Arizona on Interstate 10 which illustrates the line ‘Moon big and low in the desert night…”IMG_1750It was good inspiration for what is basically an old-fashioned 5-chord rock and roll number.  We’d been playing it live and in rehearsals so I knew it pretty well, but putting down bass, lead and rhythm guitar along with a ‘chugging’ track, vocals and keyboards took me some time.   What, those of you who aren’t guitarists, is ‘chugging’?  Glad you asked.  What you’re doing is playing chords with your pick hand up on the bridge that gives you something between melody and scratching.  It sits behind the rhythm guitar and fills out a track really well.

The other three tracks came together slowly.  One that meant a lot to me was ‘Somewhere In The Desert’.  Andrew had put down an acoustic guitar picking track but we had to fill it out and nothing seemed to work.  I was voted down when I wanted to put an electric guitar solo in.  Eventually, the last thing we did in the studio was to try a nylon string classical guitar, and that’s what we kept.

The process stretched on.  I’d hoped we’d be finished by July when I went off to France but Bob and Razz were still mixing.  It was still painstaking, using a lot of tracks to overdub and get a clean take.  The guys sent me updated tracks.  Finally only ‘Somewhere In The Desert” was left and we went back in the studio on my return.  Then, with the final mix in the can, off they went to Metropolis Studios in Chiswick to be mastered.

Ten years ago, we’d have only two options of getting our music released.  First, send the tracks to a record company and pray that one of them would pick it up.  Over the summer I read a lot of books about rock and roll and the music business – Keith Richards’ autobiography and a biography, one about Led Zeppelin and another about Freddie Mercury.  I had thought it was easy to get a contract in those days and I was amazed to read about the tribulations Queen and Zep had to go through.  The other way was to pay for a record to be released and then try to sell it.  Neither were good options.  Today, thanks to digital music and the web, everybody can get access.  I love Tunecore.  They are an aggregator.  Basically, you can only release directly on iTunes and the other download/streaming platforms if you have 40 tracks.  There we were with 4.  With Tunecore, no problem.  Sign up, download the songs to them and there is our music out there.

Then Razz and I had to sign up to the Performing Rights Society so we can be paid royalties for writing as well as performing.  And when I look back at those days before Christmas last year I guess I should have taken the time to enjoy those milestones.  Now, writing about it, I feel a real sense of achievement.  It was a big step on our journey.

We learned a lot from our experience, and when we record a full-length album at the end of this year we can apply those lessons.  We need to be much better prepared, which is why I’m investing in recording software to lay down demo tracks we can take to the band and rehearse them fully before we go into the studio.  I know bands like the Stones write and record in the studio but that’s because they can afford unlimited time.  In common with most bands we need to spend as little time as possible in one.  It also will allow us to road test them live.

Next time I’ll tell you about our winter of discontent!