The Smith's Journal - August 2007

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African Drum Village Day 2: Major Trough

Today was only the second day of African Drum Village, but I was already very fatigued and by now quite unwell with a cold. I got up late and missed breakfast before Famoudou's first class, where I played sangban |: G.x.x.x. :| for two hours :-/ If it had been anyone else, I would have (and probably should have) stayed in my sick bed, but since we'd travelled 750km to see this man, I propped myself up against the dun duns and somehow kept playing.

At midday I ate fruits and slept all afternoon in my tent, feeling terrible with awful constipation which is the last thing you need when drumming. I'm not sure if it was because of my cold or the change in climate from English 'summer' to Scottish 'summer', but I ended up missing the rest of the day's workshops, incapacitated by a horizontal Trough of Fatigue.

View from the hill

The campsite from above, with the Village Hall visible on the right ] Glenisla, just the middle photo of a panorama I took | The campsite is just above the boulder, amidst wilderness | Overlooking Glen Isla | [ Enticing footpath disappears upwards into endless purple heather |Later I managed to get up and walk over the bridge and up The Cateran Trail to the cairn at the first summit, from where I photographed the camp nestled in the depths of Glen Isla and the surrounding hills. There are a few more panoramic shots not scanned yet that show just quite how wild this place is, which I might one day get round to stitching together.

Jam with Justine and Hangman Pete

In the evening I found Justine and she brought her guitar to play music with Pete the Hangman beside his van. I accompanied her voice and his Hang with percussion, and Steve Bretel came to join us with cahon and guitar.


African Drum Village Day 3: Chill Out day

Thankfully Thursday was a day of rest and other non-drumming activities, so I could take things easy and felt a bit better.

Yurt Music

Amanda invited us into her lovely yurt to play music. I recorded a few of Justine's songs with Pete and myself accompanying together with Amanda's enchanting bowed psaltery weaving hypnotic melodies. Ah, if only we didn't live in different countries - this would make a brilliant band!

The Cateran Trail

The River Isla |Lost in time with no clock nor cares, I decided to take a break from the festivities to explore the local area. I walked out of the tiny Kirkton of Glenisla (just a church, hotel, shop, and a handful of houses) eastwards along The Cateran Trail towards the Spittal of Glenshee, which was the next place signposted in this wilderness - 13 miles away! Wandering alone in the hills, I wondered if I had the strength to carry on, and whether anyone would find me here with no phone, money or identification. But such things are not needed here: the mountains reinvigorated me and led me onwards and upwards.

Loch Shandra, a remote fishing lake ] [ Loch Shandra north of Glen Isla |In the next valley I photographed a lake and forest, with a house perched high above at the end of a long track. I contemplated the idea of living somewhere so remote - maybe one day...


Back at the camp, that evening warmed things up with a Ceilidh. (While away in the hills, I'd missed some Highland Games, including Famoudou tossing the caber :-) Pipers and local singers had arrived to give us the real thing. The star of the show was again undoubtedly Famoudou, who, along with most of the African teachers, was presented with a traditional Scottish outfit: hat, kilt, sporran, etc. This he donned and proceeded to dance a merry jig, even calling for the pipers to return. I wish I'd got a photo of this, but many folk did, so I might find one. While dancing, I realised that people didn't just do this for fun, but as necessity for survival in a cold climate. I danced the circulation back into my bones ready to venture out into the night...


The phoenix on its nest in the river ] [ Wading into the river to lay the phoenix on its nest |On the campsite, there were strict directions for NO FIRES (apart from the main fireplace), which made sense in a crowded campsite full of tents. But one pyrophiliac had decided to not be thwarted by this, and had built an island of rocks in the River Isla(!). On the island, a nest of twigs was set, and then a large 1m-high bird sculpture came to sit on it! This had been lovingly created with a detailed head and beak, and even had birds' feathers as a tail. It had been laid on the nest that afternoon, and now darkness had fallen, we all processed outside in the darkness to see the ceremonial burning of the bird.

[ Massive flames! | Fire on water | The fire eventually died down, leaving the bird still within ]Folk gathered on the bridge and on both sides of the river to watch this fire ritual. As its creator waded into the freezing waters to set the phoenix alight, I did my best to photograph this magical fire-on-water using long exposures with tripod. As the flames leapt high, we stood in hushed respect, and Amanda's psaltery danced a merry tune despite frozen fingers, which I accompanied with (bird) egg shakers; the crowd then joined in, singing call and response hilariously across from one river bank to the other :-)

After witnessing this Steve and I were gazing at the majesty of the night just as one of the first Perseid meteors shot across the sky (my wish is for a working studio!). With this thought I went to sleep early and missed fine performances by Tanante from Manchester, among others.


African Drum Village Day 4: More drumming

[ The bird still clearly seen amidst charred remains ]On Friday we had more study: Nansady's Advanced Djembe class playing Balakulajan, and then more big grooves with Famoudou. Afterwards we were supposed to perform what we had learned, but I'd missed some classes and had so little confidence in my abilities and mental/physical state that I didn't take part. Instead I photographed the charred phoenix remains on the river and tried to figure out where I was at...

More trauma

A fatal error. Since one Trough often leads to another, I was soon lost again in multiple Troughs of Logic, Fatigue, and Solitude. I was again plagued by constipation and I sank downwards into despair and paranoia, with a dash of crowd-phobia thrown in for good measure. This only confused me further, since I thought I'd managed to overcome such negative states long ago, yet suddenly they had all returned at once in a unified assault to which I was foolishly defenceless. I felt rotten and didn't want to infect people with my cold, but needed the human contact and warmth of the communal hall to keep my spirits up. Paranoia was rising exponentially, and I was starting to avoid contact with people (not ideal at a festival!). Perhaps after living alone in my remote house without neighbours, this event was a bit of a culture shock of proximity, having people living just feet away. Maybe since my job ended, I have enjoyed a little too much freedom from the world outside. Whatever, it all came crashing down now, with me wondering what on earth I was doing here anyway, followed by the usual rash decisions to give up drumming altogether, an often-played card which I later recognise as a false cul-de-sac and reverse out of :-)

Forgetting I was ill, I beat myself about the head with such dilemmas as: "If I can't even thrive as a drummer here at this event where everyone is so friendly and open, how on earth will I make it on my own in the big wide world?" But realistically, one needs such fears to kick against to ensure success, just like a swimmer gets a much better start by pushing off from the poolside. I know that my Aries nature will not stand being beaten down for too long and look forward to Mars' close proximity to Earth in December for a major energy boost, coinciding with our next robotic exploration mission there.

The worst quandary was that I felt that I was not attaining my potential: I'd not recorded anything with my pro DAT gear (which was never even used all week), I wasn't able to play well, and seeing other groups performing was interesting, but made me blue that we'd not rehearsed something to perform. Maybe next year...

Songs by the campfire

I was finally driven out of my tent by a midge attack (the only time they bothered me throughout the week). I wandered over towards the hall, to see Justine and Pete playing music by the fire. Ignoring my confusion I sat and joined them with percussion. Famoudou then came and sat down next to Justine to listen, so I made doubly sure my playing was in time! :-) After a few lovely songs, rain stopped play, so we went into the hall for the evening performances.

Zawose Family performance

Hot from their UK tour with Peter Gabriel came the Zawose Family from Tanzania (sons and daughters of the late Hukwe Zawose) - WOWOWOWOWOWOWOW!!!! They performed completely acoustically without mics, which was ideal in this hall; we were the perfect audience of dedicated African music lovers. They began with their wonderful thumb piano melodies and songs, aided by novel shakers made from two sheets of metal (like baking trays) stuck together filled with seeds. Their costumes were astounding, featuring birds' feather wings attached to their arms which flapped as they danced their remarkable shoulder-shaking. They never stopped moving - dance is incorporated completely into the music. They also played balafon and a few drums with sticks, as well as a one-string fiddle which followed the vocal line impeccably. The vocals included throat singing and some bizarre animal-like high shrieks from the girls.

But it was what happened next that really tore the place apart: the girls came dancing back in with drums between their legs, running about while the boys kept time on the other big drums. This music was at a totally different pace than most other African drumming, built over a quicker pulse that sets the heart racing. The solo drummers then fired in offbeats and accents in unison, creating a complex web of rhythmic inventions. This amazing drumming had me and many others in tears and showed that there is more to African drumming than just West African styles: these girls dance and drum at the same time! Their hourglass-shaped drums are made of a very light wood (like balsa wood) and they fit between the legs allowing the dancer to move around and have both hands free to play. The audience reaction was an instant standing ovation with screaming not unlike a Beatles concert.

Afterwards I bought a signed Zawose Family CD and Zawose kalimba, trying to tell the musicians quite what a stir they had caused here :-)


African Drum Village Day 5

Saturday was the last day of the festival, giving us faraway folk chance to travel home on Sunday.

Iya's intermediate djembe class

Iya Sako's djembe class in one of the smaller tents |For some reason I got confused and went to all the wrong groups today. I started at Iya Sako's Intermediate Djembe class, playing Kassa (in 12/8). Like Famoudou, this was Iya's first time in the UK, and he only spoke French. The solo part he was teaching was rather advanced, and the odd 12/8 dun dun parts had us all wrongfooted from the start which didn't help. Nevertheless, we persevered, led on by Iya's humility and astonishingly accurate tone.

[UPDATE: I've since studied with Iya many other times including African Beats Camp and his visits to High Wycombe that Justine organised, and I can testify to his cheerful character and noble playing. After many years in the UK, his English is now very good and his inspirational teaching is highly recommended.]

Mockoulo's advanced djembe class

Mockoulo started his Advanced Djembe class announcing that we weren't going to play African music, but instead, New York hip hop ;-) The rhythm he led us into was called Soboninkun, a funky mixture of 4/4 and 12/8, which could be mixed with a hip hop groove by a skilful DJ, although it does in fact originate from Guinea.

The dun dun patterns were lovely but not easy to play with the correct feel; sadly one player kept flattening the pattern back to 4/4, and I was itching to offer to swap (since I couldn't play the djembe solo too well) but didn't want to offend his dignity.

Famoudou sings Gidamba

Famoudou Konate taught us a rhythm+song called Gidamba for which I played djembe. Again, we were supposed to perform this outdoors later, but I'd mistakenly joined the wrong class and didn't know anything well enough. So I decided to take a shower instead while they weren't busy. Afterwards I kicked myself when I realised I'd had the chance to perform with the world's greatest djembefola, and turned it down! I should at least have got some photos since the sun had briefly come out. I consoled myself by composing a nice tune inspired by Jally's kora soundcheck for the evening concert. I also recorded Pete and I playing a duet with our new Zawose kalimba (thumb pianos) in his van.

Guinean Grooves

That night we watched Jally play delicious kora music accompanied by saba and tama. Next up, Famoudou performed Guinean music with Nansady and Iya on djembe, plus dun dun Goddesses Magi, Geraldine and Steph - quite a band! The djembe players represented each of the generations: young Nansady, older Iya and the elderly master Famoudou. The solos were astonishing and I wished I'd recorded it, as many people were. But if I was going to record, I'd want to do it properly with professional mics and permission from the players, and it would then be yet another recording awaiting mastering in my queue of tapes. So instead I just watched and enjoyed, spellbound. I was too blown away to even think of taking pictures. When Famoudou played his solo, he would quieten the band down to a whisper, to allow his tones to really speak through, before bringing them all to a dizzying climax..

Senegambian concert

[ Senegambian concert rounding off African Drum Village | Ali Bangoura singing with Mockoulo on djembe | Ali Bangoura with Jally playing kora | Quite a lineup: Babacarr, Ali, Mockoulo and Jally ]The grand finale was an awesome Senegambian supergroup of about ten master musicians filling the stage with all manner of drums, bass mbira and kora. They gave us heartfelt renditions of traditional Senegalese songs, and Ali Bangoura became Mick Jagger, singing into the mic like a stadium rock god ;-) I ran back to my tent to get my camera to take these photos, and was again mentioned in song :-)

After two hours, the show sadly had to end, but everyone hung around exchanging contact details. Mockoulo then started everyone singing along with his balafon, and the tama master joined in on all kinds of drums with a hilarious glint in his eye ;-) I danced in formation for a bit but eventually went to bed knowing we had a long way to travel tomorrow, leaving Mockoulo leading the revelry all night long.

[There are lots more pictures on the ADV website, including some crackers of Famoudou who I sadly didn't get a decent picture of.]

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 2007-08-01 - last updated 2007-08-19