The Smith's Journal - March 2006

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Heaven Just Got Funnier

Sad news coming in thick and fast from all directions: first we lost the legendary Irish storyteller Dave Allen a year ago and Ronnie Barker last October, and then this week we hear of the tragically early death of Linda Smith, followed only a few days afterwards by the passing of Ivor Cutler. Wow. This makes Heaven a real place to look forward to, as it's going to be one huge barrel of laughs up there now.


The Naked Truth perform at Free Tibet benefit gig

The Naked Truth played at a Free Tibet Benefit Gig at Molly Malone's bar in Hitchin. Ruth and I set up in the corner of this homely Irish pub and played a set of her songs to a full house. Sadly my Tibetan bowls were pretty much lost to all but the closest audience under the general hubbub of voices and merriment, proving impossible to mic up sufficiently, but our djembe duet poured forth enough fire to wake everyone up even at the back of the house. A few other singers also performed and people from the Free Tibet campaign issued leaflets and got folk to sign a petition.


Start your day with Perfect Pitch

You know it's a good day when, on awakening, despite being roused by someone circular-sawing over the road, you just can't shake that Parliament song out of your funky mind... Reaching for the CD player to drown out the concrete cutter, the track dives into your ears from outside to join itself on the inside, in the correct key :-) My perfect pitch machine is temperamental but when it works it doesn't half bring a smile: I must practise it more. I guess some things are just innate, and The Funk is one of them. Yeah, Pussycat!


Vitae Drum Circle perform at The Wycombe Swan

Vitae Drum Circle gave a rousing performance as part of the Chiltern Arts Forum Variety Show at The Wycombe Swan, the main theatre in High Wycombe. I'd never played:

I've done large concerts at free events, but this audience was paying for the privilege, so we knew we had to move to the next level. Luckily our group put in considerable rehearsals, so that in the end we knew the music inside out and would instantly launch into one of the songs at the slightest signal from our great leader.

Arriving at the venue to set up and soundcheck, I was most impressed by the scale of the place: like a tree whose roots extend below ground as far as its branches above, there were as many rooms and corridors backstage as there was space out front. Indeed, we even had our own runner who was dedicated to our group to guide us around the maze of staircases and passages. It was nice to be part of such a professionally organised event, along with many other large groups of dancers, singers and children's choirs. After the soundcheck, the audience gathered out in the foyer and bar areas. I went out there to try and find my friends, only to be amazed by the vast sea of people amassed there. I swam through it and met up with Tina and Bizia for a chat, before we took our seats for the first half. This began with Urban Strides, a youth dance group with attitude and real style, very well executed routines to a hip hop soundtrack. As a pleasant surprise, I felt a connection with the Youf Of Today on hearing their use of rap classics such as Afrika Bambaataa's "Looking For The Perfect Beat" and Young MC's "Know How", top tunes in my DJ collection, to which I duly rapped along :-)

I missed most of the other groups as I went down to the sound engineer's control room to set up a DAT recorder to capture both our set and Justine's performance with Crooked Sixpence. Sadly the latter was marred by radio-mic interference which was tragic, as she held the 1000-strong crowd in the palm of her hand with soft acapella singing, and Chris's flute was a joy to behold. Apparently someone was secretly videoing the performance from the wings, and the camera was interfering with the radio transmitters, causing an erratic white noise, which Justine thought was some weird effect of her breathing on the mic. The chief engineer had his head in his hands as he frantically radioed his colleagues on stage to try and resolve the matter, but they were all powerless to act, short of stopping the song and killing the magic moment totally. It really pains me to see wonderful music being bedevilled by technical problems after months of rehearsal, and just goes to show that even in a venue as large as they come, with a 48-channel mixing console and teams of stage hands, you can never have enough redundancy. In future I'm going to insist on using two mics for each lead performer, one as a hot spare that can be switched in seamlessly if necessary, and only ever use radio mics where the performer needs complete mobility. The best solution is ultimately to perform acoustic music acoustically, as the vibe (and sound quality) is always better. If the audience can't hear you, they should either listen more carefully, come closer, or you should all move to a natural amphitheatre or suitably reverberant church... [*Climbs down from acoustic soapbox...* :-]

Vitae opened the second half, and so we gathered on stage during the interval. Anthony and I played dun duns accompanied by 25(!) djembe players who stretched right across the vast stage in a huge arc. Indeed, they were so far away on the other side, that we could barely hear each other, not to mention the time delay, so we were pushing the physical limits of group size; this is why orchestras sit in rows!

We began with Justine and I humming a song Angas taught us in Senegal, a very quiet start before everyone else joined in with hums and aahs, then minimal percussion and harmonies entered. A sudden call heralded moving uptempo into Kuku, complete with extensive breaks, a song and dancers dashing onto the stage to add another dimension. The next call led us into the 6/8 rhythm of Yankadi, with a lovely dun dun pattern and some hilarious massed waving going on in the break. This transitioned into the frantic 4/4 of Makru, before we finally stopped and gave the audience the chance to acknowledge their applause. Next, Justine got up and taught them the words for the next song, Djole, which Anthony and I launched into with aplomb. My bell hand's muscles had already gone on alert in only the second song, so I was glad I managed to sustain my playing for the entire set; of course, being on stage had of course escalated the tempo to new heights, and the dancers made full use of this :-) It was great to see eight dancers spread out across the stage surrounded by djembes; I wish we'd got some photos.

[ Vitae drummers after The Swan gig ]Afterwards we retired to our dressing room for champagne (darlings!) before packing up our gear. The entire show ended with a curtain call for all of the hundreds of performers all gathered on stage to sing a song with the children, which was quite hilarious. To round off the evening, some of us went to a Chinese restaurant to feast and unwind.


Never a frown...

A big up to Robert Elms today for playing The Stranglers' classic song "Golden Brown" to mark Budget Day, Robert chiming in with the immortal words:

Never a frown
With Gordon Brown...

Love it! Stuff like this and Danny Baker's increasingly insane humour keeps me sane while out at work. Gordon's Budget was elsewhere described as 'green on the outside'; while we commend the idea of only taxing heavy road users, it's really only a drop in the ocean compared to what he should be doing. Wake up mate!

For starters, tripling or quadrupling the tax on fuel might help alleviate this country's awful transport problem once the price goes above £2 and then £3 per litre. We as consumers need to be more aware that oil is running out, and our tiny island does not need us all driving up and down its length and breadth. Frequent road-users should be highly taxed with the proceeds going to revitalise the crippled railways. Businesses need to be more accountable and if they cannot adapt, then they shall not survive. We need to start reclaiming our cities from the motor car and design new ones to be car-free. Air travel should be taxed at even higher rates to compensate for the loss of UK income from tourism abroad.


Elemental Joe

Went to see Justine playing percussion with cosmic groovers Elemental Joe in a rather raunchy play at the Court Theatre in Pendley near Tring. It was a production of "The Blue Room" by David Hare, he of The Permanent Way fame. Luckily Jed was there to shield my eyes from the scenes of nudity :-) The band were great, used as an integral part of the production, playing during scene changes and action sequences. Justine even got to sing a song at a pivotal moment of the story, with the lead actress held entranced by her words.

Afterwards, there was a little after-show party to mark the last night, and the band got to play all over again as the stage set was taken apart. I really missed a chance to dash outside and grab my camera to capture them playing with proper lighting. I was half hoping to get to jam along with them, but it's probably for the best that I didn't, as I already have enough on my plate as it is...



Drove with Justine to South London to practise with Fankanta for the first time at St. Hilda's Church in Forest Hill. This is a nice little group of African drummers led by our Senegalese teacher Malo Sonko (now in England for a while) and his wife Laurie, together with members of Vitae Drum Circle: Justine on djembe, and Anthony and I on dun duns. Jan and Laye will also be joining us for our forthcoming performance at the JJB Stadium in Wigan (hehe, we won't be playing to a capacity crowd in the actual stadium, but a charity event in aid of Senegalese schools) on Saturday 2006-04-08. As if that weren't enough, we just heard that Wigan Athletic striker Henri Camara will be playing djembe with us!

So now I'm finding myself increasingly busy, currently actively rehearsing with five groups:

...not to mention my own solo projects. No wonder I'm having trouble keeping up with my 60-hour/week day job and all your lovely emails (sorry!).

UPDATE: Alas, I fell ill and never made this gig :-(


My deer friends

A truly magical moment happened yesterday, as I set off for work at dawn over the hills and switched on the radio to be greeted by one of the finest choral pieces in the repertoire, Gustav Holst's exquisite "Choral Hymns From The Rig Veda". Sinking sublimely into this joyous sound world, only a few seconds later reality sharpened with a new lucidity as the road in front of me was suddenly swarming with creatures: a herd of deer leaping across the road and hedges. These were not the little muntjacs, but large roe deer, tall and elegant. A stunning start to a Monday morning!

Today I went out walking, and once again met my deer friends out in the fields not far away from their last appearance. They were out jogging again, moving so gracefully across the field, a herd of twelve apostles dressed in lovely shades of brown and grey. I waved and went over to the woods to climb onto a fallen tree and sit and ponder my To Do list. Then a pair of large hares came strolling past, quite oblivious to my presence despite being only 5m away, probably because I was wearing green and sitting motionless not touching the ground. They were obviously off to the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, it being March and all, so I left them to wander off into the woods.

Coming home over the fields, the new-born lambs were doing that funky sideways jumping again :-) Spring! And I couldn't help but laugh when two ducks took off from the pond and were instantly blown away way off course at about 50mph by the gale :-)

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike v3.0 Licence © The right to copy is left with the user copyleft Malcolm Smith 2006-03-10 - last updated 2011-10-08