The Smith's Journal - May 2007

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Crooked Sixpence perform at Hughenden Church House

A year and a day since last time, I went to see Crooked Sixpence performing at Hughenden Church House near High Wycombe, for another delightful evening of folk music olde and new in this lovely building. Justine and Chris had recently been on tour to The Kartong Festival in The Gambia, performing traditional British music to the Africans and collaborating with a kora player, whom they hope to bring to the UK this summer. Inevitably, Chris has now added a kora to his vast collection of instruments :-)

[ Chris playing kora | Chris and Justine smiling at Hughenden Church House | Crooked Sixpence performing at Hughenden Church House | Chris on flute and Justine on guitar | Chris on flute and Justine on drum | Chris playing celtic harp and Justine singing | Chris plays pipes and Justine plays shekere ]

Afterwards, one of the staff me asked if I've made any CDs yet of the recording I'd made of last year's gig? I promise to have them ready for next year...!


Vitae summer holiday

Our drum circle had the fine idea of going away on holiday for the weekend, so we hired a farmhouse in Dorset to get some serious playing time together. A four hour journey with Ant was a great chance to exchange musics and we arrived highly charged to find a paradise of friends and drums.

> > > See Mike Jackson's photos...

The place had a number of bedrooms and bathrooms around a large main room with a kitchen area, off which was a conservatory which doubled as dining room and drumming arena. We set up Ant's drumkit and the dun duns, then explored the other areas. The buildings were actually made of strawbales rendered in (lime?) plaster, which we discovered because one room had a framed 'window' pane of glass showing the straw beneath. I slept in another building across the courtyard, opposite a third building which housed a meditation room and indoor swimming pool (which was subsequently put to good musical use).

Making the most of a break in the heavy rain, we went for a walk to Charmouth beach, along a footpath beside the river, all getting soaked in the long wet grass but enjoying the hilarity of being lost in a lovely place. Lin and I paddled in the sea, before we staggered back home by road, by now quite tired, but luckily Jed had arrived and cooked a lovely daal and curry awaiting our return. It didn't take long after that for the rhythms to begin, and we played joyously until midnight.


Richard's drum workshop

Amazingly, there was to be a drumming workshop held in the village we were staying in, unfortunately the following weekend :-/ But we were lucky to have already booked Richard to come and teach us. I'd first met him last year at Julie's party, where I was impressed by his tone and soloing skills. As well as knowing a vast repertoire of rhythms, he makes djembes so good that the African masters come to him for their instruments!

His class was a turning point for me and our group in general. After we all played through a well-known piece, he showed us some basic soloing techniques, and, most importantly, gave us the permission to go ahead and play what we felt like, to add little fills and solos where artistically appropriate. (Of course, the word 'artistic' is open to discussion, but in general, good taste prevails.) This instantly dissolved our English reticence to outwardly showy behaviour, and our fear that we were being unauthentic to the musical tradition. My biggest problem with improvising is not being too frightened of making mistakes or looking silly in public (just try and stop me!), but fear that if I start diverging then the rhythm will either fall apart or my peers will scorn me for showing off. Having someone of Richard's level tell us that soloing is A Good Thing just unlocked a door I never really wanted in my mind anyway :-) I've always maintained that drum music (indeed probably any music) just isn't quite complete without both compositional structure and improvised seat-of-the-pants daring invention, and needs both elements to bring the music to life in the moment; even notated classical music has scope for widely differing interpretations.

Then he showed us how to play a slap sound correctly, which was remarkably simple. I'd even decided beforehand to ask him how to do this, but he was so on the ball as to not need asking ;-)

My amazement only increased when he proceeded to demonstrate this slap technique by playing a rhythm he called Lamba, which was almost identical to one taught to me by David Oladunni, that we had renamed Afrocubanites, and Richard even played a cross-rhythm over the top that we designate as that rhythm's part two!

"I love it when a plan comes together." - Hannibal Smith, The A-Team

During the day, we learned two great new rhythms: Djansa and Kakilembe. After a fine evening meal, the drumming continued and Richard taught us more, determined that we come away knowing this inside out. His dedication was way beyond spec, and I feel guilty we didn't pay him more for what was in effect a ten-hour day plus two two-hour journeys plus quite severe beatings on both hands(!).

Cosmic Sound Chamber

[ Bowls beside the pool at Bonhayes Farm, photo by Mike Jackson ]Once it got too late to play drums, I invited people into the swimming pool at midnight, where I had set up my Tibetan singing bowls as an installation piece called the Cosmic Sound Chamber (this title is attributed to my old friend Rob Davis ;-) to exploit the surreal and spacey acoustic therein.

It was very hot and humid in there, but I just couldn't shake off my English classical concert decorum which dictates that the performer wear evening dress, and not just strip off to his shorts like the temperature demanded. Nevertheless, I gave a fifteen minute performance of improvised music for bowls and solo voice, accompanied by friends on tingshaw and swimmers floating about in the pool, with waves lapping gently. Then we all sang a second piece with clouds of voices rising and falling over the subtle landscape of bowls.

Mike Jackson took lots of great photos (the following day when the sunlight was back on). Hopefully I'll get my pictures posted here soon too, and also audio will eventually make it onto disc...

[UPDATE: I should have got involved in the Wet Sounds Festival - sounds right up my street!]


Broken djembe

Sunday morning began with a swim and another Tai Chi session led by Lin, this time accompanied by recordings I made in Africa of cicadas and the dawn chorus.

After a breakfast of fruits, we played some high energy music to welcome the day. No longer inhibited thanks to Richard's workshop, I played a vigorous djembe solo: something I've been wanting to do for some time but have never been in the right situation (I'm usually playing dun duns). Unfortunately, in my enthusiasm I went on for too long and the spirits decided to teach me a little lesson about energy levels and in knowing when to start and stop... A flurry of bass notes ended abruptly with a premature finish to my solo - I looked down to see that I had put my hand through the skin of my favourite soloist's djembe that I'd hand-picked in Senegal! Ooops. This disaster was probably caused by the torrential rain we'd had making the conservatory where we were playing quite damp, and so going ballistic first thing in the morning before the drums warmed up was unwise. In my shock I looked around in disbelief and laughter, but of course, a true pro would simply pick up another djembe, finish the solo, and then worry about such minor details later ;-)

On reflection, this is not such a bad thing, because between us we now have a few wounded drums in need of attention; this latest tragedy will just ensure a visit to Seneke to get them re-skinned happens sooner rather than later.

[UPDATE: Seneke once again did a marvellous job of skin-transplant surgery on our wounded, and has taught me how to tighten a djembe to keep the pitch high :-]

Charmouth cliffs

After dinner we listened back to some of the recordings I've made of previous Vitae drumming gigs and looked through our photo albums.

Then the rains stopped so we took the opportunity to return to the beach from where we all walked up the coastal path on the steep cliffs above Charmouth, with stunning views of the town and valley below.

That evening, after rehearsing again I cooked a feast for everyone to enjoy before reluctantly leaving this lovely place (only to be drawn back soon afterwards).


On the floor

Today was a rollercoaster of emotions. It began well with a package of CDs arriving from Ultima Thule, including some great albums:

But I was feeling very weak, both physically and spiritually, and sliding downwards. I spent some time working on this website to escape mowing the lawns, but eventually fatigue took me out and all I could do was lie on the floor of my studio hearing the new CDs, many of which ended up on my Recommended Records page. Immigres had me in tears as usual, and H to He was a revelation. Hearing the haunting melodies of Underwater Sunlight again for the first time in 20 years was too much and I was reduced to a hopeless wreck of weeping and wondering why I'd come so far in that time, but all I could do now was lie here and sob that my Forth Bridge studio project was still not complete. The current status is that I need to finish designing and building a custom desk to house my audio workstation, which currently lay on the floor next to me, and hence nothing is even plugged in, let alone operational. The saddest thing is that it was two years ago that I got Ardour working on my music computer, only to then never again switch it on (?!?) - this is an inexplicable error that psychologists and Angels are still puzzled over. This two years of inactivity has finally taken me to the end of my tether.

After some time immersed in this anguish, probably coinciding with the uplifting piano solo in Part Two, a surge of positivity picked me up and started plugging wires in like a man possessed. I was determined to at least have mains power going to devices, even if only in a temporary setup - the desk could wait. So now stuff is nearly all plugged in - next I have to find the time and energy to turn it on and get cracking and learning.... . .  .  .   .    .     .


| Push to test (click) |
| Release to detonate. |

Such was the joy that this simple achievement brought, that things turned around, and listening for the first time to Magma's album "Merci" was a monumental event that soon had me dancing again :-)


Towel Day

Since today was Towel Day, I wore my towel around my neck all day in homage to the great master. I was quite surprised that not one person asked me why I was so adorned, neither in Tesco, nor in Comet, nor in two petrol stations. Not even the three members of the public whom I bought things from on eBay questioned why they were inviting such a fellow into their homes, despite it getting in the way while trying to carry big boxes. I hardly look the type to have just jogged out of the gym/boxing ring. At one high point, it nearly blew off a cliff, and me with it, but I kept my grip firm. Sadly I saw not one single other person with a towel :-/ ALONE IN THE GALAXY!

Jukit-enabled BBC micro

My intergalactic hitchhiking today took me on a long mission back down to Dorset again in search of rare old technologies. Traffic caused a diversion into my long distant childhood through the New Forest to Lymington, where we had once stayed. From there I reached Poole, to collect a BBC Microcomputer complete with Cub monitor and Cumana disk drives, all for £16! This brings my Beeb total to five (!!!), but this one is special, since as well as extra memory, it has a ROM chip fitted called Jukit which enables special control of my Juki 6100 printers such as printing ASCII-art graphics using the standard typewriter character set. I'd been searching the planet for such a chip for two years; if anyone has any information about it, please get in touch.

Hohner Organetta 3

From another place nearby I bought a cute little electric keyboard from the 1960s called a Hohner Organetta 3, which sounds like an accordion or harmonium. Since it's so compact and has a built-in speaker, it's easily portable and so will be useful for taking to jam sessions. Previously I'd often felt a bit left out having only non-melodic instruments to play, so this will let me inject some harmony into the grooves.

Lulworth Cove

Next I raced across the military firing range and safely reached Lulworth, a charming village tucked away beside some of the most amazing cliffs in England. My head is still dizzy with the primeval views of the Jurassic Dorset coastline; I'm still there when I shut my eyes - a very HIGH PLACE. (*vertigo*)

Lulworth Cove is what drew me there, an almost perfectly circular bay which on a map looks man-made. Another remarkable sight is the Stair Hole, a small bay with rock arches and fabulous collapsing cliffs. After wandering around the Cove, I headed west up a seemingly endless path, about 1:4 steep for about a kilometre, like a stairway to heaven. This led to stunning vistas of Man o'War Beach although I didn't find Durdle Door just a bit further on. Sadly the weather was cloudy, but I still got some very atmospheric shots of this mythical place at sunset. It was tempting to try using my towel as a hang glider, but thankfully not too tempting.

[ Lulworth Cove | View east from high above Lulworth | Portland Bill on the horizon, and the winding path to Man 'o' War Beach ]

As dusk fell, my final mission was to collect another Juki 6100 printer from Weymouth, before hitching back in time with a Roman centurion over the hills from Dorchester to Salisbury on the wonderfully straight A354 and A30 to Andover, having covered 400 miles (4 miles on foot), including 4 pickups in 11 hours!

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 2007-05-04 - last updated 2010-02-05