Justine arrived to drive us up to Yorkshire for a long weekend of drums. Never one to travel light, I managed to outdo even her extensive wardrobe, and had to discard some of my extraneous outfits. Eventually we managed to get all the drums crammed into her spacious estate car and set off for Hebden Bridge. Our calling was the Rhythm and Grooves weekend of workshops and performances. The organisers Ben and Steph had nobly offered us lodgings for the night before to allow us to begin the Friday fresh from a standing start, so after driving up a crazy road from Todmorden to Stones Lane, we found their cosy farmhouse atop the hills. They welcomed us strangers into their home with truly African hospitality, and we played mbiras and sang with joy around the fire :-)
On waking, I took advantage of the glorious weather to walk down the lane to Dobroyd Castle before breakfast. I photographed two standing stones and the beautiful misty valleys, revelling in the soul-nourishing scenery. After breakfast we drove to Hebden Hey in Hardcastle Crags to help set up for Rhythm and Grooves. The venue was a scout centre down a miles-long drive in a steep secluded valley, with enchanting river and stepping stones. There are two main buildings, each with dormitories, kitchens and larger spaces.
We were introduced to a merry bunch of folk, and then had a crew meeting to designate jobs. We got the jolly task of decking the hall with festive fairy lights and backdrops, something in which I am experienced. Once set up we had dinner and prepared for the evening's performances, as people arrived from as far afield as Cornwall and Aberdeen.
As usual I had my trusty DAT recorders here to capture as much sound as possible throughout the weekend (I managed to catch about 9 hours of performances and 4 hours of workshops!). My mics were to be blessed with some fantastic music of the many performers there. [I do plan to eventually make available CDs of the event (with performers' permissions) once I get my music computer finished... could be a long wait though...] Besides recording, I was given the job of sound engineer for any acts that needed to use the P.A. system.
> > > You can check out the photo gallery (I've embedded some relevant pics in this text as links).
The first night began with a facilitated drum circle led by Paul from RhythmBridge, to break the ice and introduce everyone. The performances were then introduced by mbira master Chartwell Dutiro from Zimbabwe, who welcomed everyone to the place and launched straight into a passionate song. This man has such presence and charisma that instantly lights up a room, and his voice is deeply affecting. He also has the good sense not to bother employing a choir, instead inspiring the audience to accompany him :-) His mbira is acoustically amplified inside a huge hemispherical gourd with shells around the edge which buzz along with the sound. Then he was joined by his enchanting group of mbira friends and Pete on Hang, who mesmerised us with massed voices and rippling melodic patterns.
Pete then gave a stunning Hang solo, before inviting Justine and her guitar up onto the stage for a duet of Sandy Denny's "Crazy Man Michael". Justine proceeded to enchant us with three more delightful songs: "Song To The Siren" by Tim Buckley, one of her own called "Eternity", then she called for a shaker to assist in the last song, "Hiring Fair" by Ralph McTell, so I gladly obliged.
Then Chartwell led the audience joyfully into another song as the stage was set up for the next group. People started dancing around me as I sat on the floor in the centre holding the mic, until I was lost in a sea of swirling singing people dancing above me :-)
Next came Ben Lawrence's balafon ensemble. Then RhythmGroove performed a cool collection of Ghanaian and Senegambian drum music, a very impressive set for their maiden voyage; it was lovely to see and hear not just the usual djembe but kpanlogo and goumbe drums being used to full effect, giving a rich sound palette of diverse rhythms. Somewhere along the way Justine persuaded me to join Estelle on dun duns to accompany Alec and Steve and herself on djembes, with just a few minutes' "rehearsal", which was an exhilerating ride and a half, as dancers poured into the ring and drove the audience wild. Finally Mockoulo gave a spirited solo performance on three bougarabou drums and voice aided by hilarious audience participation.
According to my horoscope, today would be a serious event for me, as my ruling planet Mars came round from its retrograde cycle. This was an understatement: I have been reborn on so many levels.
Saturday morning started with Baba Kone's advanced djembe and dun dun class (I'd first been blown away by Baba's incredible playing at Winterdrum). Justine was most pleased that her dormitory was off the main hall such that she could literally fall out of her bunk bed into the drum circle :-) Baba spent the entire day teaching a long solo for Djole, along with some more breaks and a nice song. I spent the day playing dun duns harder! faster! longer! than ever before; I need to build arm muscles like Baba's...
We had lunch but missed breakfast and dinner, instead choosing to listen back over our recordings to prepare for our evening's performance. Tragically, I still managed to completely forget how the breaks went :-(
The evening performances began with Ben's balafon workshop group and Chartwell's 10-piece mbira ensemble, which were a sheer joy to behold. Next came drumming from Mockoulo's and Baba's groups. Justine once again roped me into playing dun duns, this time for Saliou's dancers, with just two minutes' rehearsal, a nice baptism for me which proved quite a workout on the arms :-) Mohammed added a Middle-Eastern flavour with some darabuka/doumbek and dancers. Then Manding Kaira processed onto the stage in full ceremonial dress, and blew the place apart with some fabulous playing.
Some supercool rasta dancers were freaking right out, suddenly running into the dancefloor and flailing their long limbs with such merry abandon. Despite not generally being known as a dancer, this and Baba's djembe fire (and my new-found enthusiasm to try and push myself into new directions) inspired me to give it a go. Little did I know what was about to happen... I moved into the circle and my limbs took off into frenzy. My eyes were locked onto Baba's as his djembe sent my body flying. I was hyperventilating and lost consciousness momentarily, nearly collapsing into the crowd around me. On realising where I was, I came back to myself and managed to stay on my feet and bowed out of the circle. Afterwards, I wandered around in a daze for an hour or so, not knowing quite what to do; I was physically weak, but hunger eluded me. I resigned myself to stay on the case, and found myself dancing again, albeit sedately. I mustered enough energy to play dun duns in the open jam session but was making embarassing mistakes everywhere due to brain-melt. So, back to my roots, I fetched my trusty djembe, and launched the circle into David's Afrocubanites with gusto and solos galore, which got the house rocking :-)
Later on, the drumming wound down as many people went to bed in the small hours. The few that remained were treated to an awesome late-night spiritual jam with Baba on balafon, Justine on guitar, Pete on Hang and me on shakers and claves. Then I accompanied Justine's sublime songs with perfectly coincidentally-tuned tingshaw ;-)
At 5am five of us ventured outside to the firepit, where Pete had set a raging inferno. This was the hottest place on site and proved a good move. Despite having met these folk only yesterday, we were already firm friends. As Paul said: "There are no strangers in The North." I accompanied Pete's mesmeric tongue drum with shakers. Lots of general merriment and singing of traditional folk songs ensued, before I eventually made my way to bed (the last one up in the building) at 6am (just as the Buncefield oil depot exploded over Hemel Hempstead!).
I awakened after three hours to *blue skies* (in December! :-) so quickly showered and then rushed out with my camera to do yoga in the enchanting valley. I photographed the beautiful river and stepping stones, delighting in this fairy heaven, although sadly the valley was rather dark and the pictures don't do it justice so are not included here.
Moctar "Mockoulo" Sawane is great fun. In his class we learned a rhythm called Ngrin, and I was honoured to accompany the shining Dun Dun Goddesses of Manding Kaira. They taught me how to swivel sticks in your hand and also their cool dance steps, and soon we were all rocking in rhythm, playing a groovy pattern for four dun dun players :-) All I need now is to figure out how to sing at the same time as well, and nirvana shall be achieved.
[UPDATE: We caught up with Mockoulo again at African Drum Village.]
I spent the lunch hour copying Friday night's RhythmGroove recording onto Ian's laptop, before the Closing Ceremony facilitated drum circle led once again by Paul. During a long static phase when he'd nipped outside, I seized the opportunity to jump into the circle and directed some alternating "this side, that side" changes, cueing a great energy rise! YES! I can do this! ;-)
Afterwards, serious fatigue, headrushes, giddiness, nausea prevented me from packing up, even standing up, so I broke my fast of 24 hours with rice and lentils. Once strength returned, I finished packing up and said some heartfelt goodbyes to these amazing people, who by now I seemed to have known for weeks if not months. I was particularly enthralled to finally get to meet some of the people from Drummed Up who had taught some of our group the Rhythm for a Gambian Song at The Big Green Gathering back in 2003; these are satisfying links to forge :-)
Not wishing to go straight home, Duncan kindly invited us to stay over at his house for the night. We followed him o'er Ilkley moor (bar t'at), to his cosy cottage near Otley and Swinsty reservoir. I cooked rice and a minimal meal from just olive oil, 3 onions, 6 courgettes and brazil nuts, the latter being Justine's inspired idea which has corrected my false notion that nuts go with muesli but not vegetables. An awesome feast resulted - it's amazing that food this simple can taste so good (with lashings of tamari), but on this planet you earn the right to enjoy food after working/playing hard :-) Relaxing at last, we listened back to some of the weekend's recordings and heard a fine Seckou Keita CD including a full-speed rendition of Yankadi/Makru that we both play. Then Justine suggested we go to Senegal in January!!! I read a bit more of The African Way - the journey begins - before finally getting to sleep in Duncan's wonderfully equipped music room with piano, guitar, Bauer congas, bongos, djembes, dun duns, brekete, ...
As an end to this epic weekend, Duncan, Justine and I went back to that special place!
Awakening to *blue skies* again, I once again thanked the Angels for their unceasing assistance on this mission. After lunch we drove out in convoy on a re-return trip to Malham, in disbelief at this perfect weather in December; there was hardly anybody there.
After making our way up Gordale Scar, we wandered ecstatically across the limestone paved moors as dusk fell, the nearly-full moon higher in the sky than the sun. After sunset, Venus appeared as a radiant jewel in the West, and later the Moon was joined by Mars in a wondrous cosmic dance above our heads. We ran like children down the steep road, the gradient providing sufficient power to sustain our running without getting tired. Venturing to Malham Cove in darkness, the landscape became lunar and was bathed in a glow of moonlight as clear as day, casting strong shadows. We walked back down into the valley, and were so captivated by the beauty of the scene, that without prompting or any discussion, we all just fell silent and stood gazing at the river rushing over rocks with the moon reflected in it, for many minutes. And oh, the silence of this place is exquisite.
It was such a difficult decision to leave this magical realm, but finally we walked back to the village, and bid farewell to Duncan with a hug large enough to contribute signficantly to The National Grid. It was getting a bit late to bring out the instruments and play music up in the Dry Valley, and so we decided to wait for a future occasion to really organise things properly. Justine and I drove back down a surprisingly quiet M1, and I remarked on passing Watford Gap that we were now returning to the land of chain stores and traffic jams; little did we know that it was also the land of The Big Smoke, as we'd been out of contact with all news sources. Our journey was a great discussion of music and songwriting and future dreams to be realised. I have turned so many corners in the past five days that the view is truly astounding. Roll on 2006, 2007, 2008,.... :-)
Some time ago, I wrote in my 21st Century Survival Guide that we in the affluent West must prepare ourselves to face the music about the grossly unfair distribution of wealth on this planet. A growing critical mass of enlightened individuals have realised this and are making amends to keep the channel open, but in general the populace are still quite sound asleep, kept sweetened in their comfort of ignorance and "spiritual barrenness" by the same old capitalist crutches that thrive on suffering and perpetuate the inequality. We need to shatter those illusions and start some ripples with positive solutions.
In January I shall be visiting Africa on a drumming mission, which, believe it or not, is my first significant travel abroad (except for a few school trips years ago). I'm sure the culture shock will be massive, and am preparing myself for further changes in my outlook. Already since my drumming epiphany at Hebden Bridge, I've shaken off some of my bad habits and am locked on to a new awareness of what is Necessary and what superfluous. Instead of spending two grand on two bits of (nice, but non-essential) equipment, I'm using half of that money to go and learn unique skills which I shall bring back and imbue into as many people as I can reach.
So apologies to those of you who've sent me a Christmas card or present and received nothing in return. I am giving up on Christmas from now on as it holds no meaning other than being an excuse to overeat and overindulge generally in lavish spending on stuff we don't need in the wanton hope of feeling better about ourselves. In the past I've enjoyed making Christmas cards, but our culture has lost the point; it's now just a mindless custom that wastes cardboard, and I cringe to think of how much extra rubbish will be generated (and mostly not even recycled) by the Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging in which we wrap our 'gifts'. This real gift to our future generations, vast dumps of tinsel and rotting Brussel sprouts, not to mention lethal stockpiles of nuclear waste used to power your ugly Christmas lights, belies an appalling lack of self-respect. Much better to give something useful instead. And why must we save our good will for just one time of the year? I prefer to try and spread good feeling all year round, and shall be giving gifts, both spiritual and physical, as and when I discover them... (hint: Senegal :-)
(Sorry if I sound like some kind of leftist curmudgeon who's forgotten how to have a good time :-)
HAPPY CHRISTMAS - PARA PSYCH SMITH
© copyleft Malcolm Smith 2005-12-13 - last updated 2007-08-27