The Smith's Journal - March 2008

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Tags: Drumming

Winterdrum is the drumming event to keep you warm! This year's event surpassed expectations yet again, offering a wealth of talent for the lucky folk of High Wycombe. Drummers came from all over the country to study with some of the finest teachers of African music and dance in Europe.

Seckou Keita advanced djembe workshop

Tags: Drumming

I was honoured to be asked to accompany Seckou Keita's advanced djembe class on dun duns. In the morning we learned Kalah which is a very fast rhythm with manic bells sounding like a fire alarm. We three dun dun players stood behind the master, keeping the groove going as he taught the djembe parts and solo. The back of his T-shirt said "MORE FIRE", which was a continual impetus to go harder, faster, louder. I played the pounding dununba part vertically with two sticks and no bell; this was the first time I'd used this technique, but for such rhythms as this I am now converted: the power and speed is essential to drive the djembes into the required level of frenzy.

After lunch we learned a rhythm called Su, which was new to me. This time I played the simple but fast kenkeni part, enjoying the counterpoint with the other dun duns.

Winterdrum evening performances

Tags: Music, Drumming

I met some nice people during the day, and saw lots of old friends from the UK djembe scene. The evening performances were extensive, forming three sets with two intervals, all in the vast hall of Wycombe's Royal Grammar School. After some gentle balafon music, Justine and Yvette gave a lovely acapella duet singing "White Hare". Her singing class sang next, including an amazing Baka song in the form of a 16-part round, before Sonja Toure's ecstatic dance class rippled around the hall with joy. Other performances included a local steel band, and the wonderfully theatrical Tamashii Taiko drum group. Ansoumana Vieux Bakayoko and Nansady Keita led their groups with some incredible solo playing. Every time I hear Nansady's amazing slap tones, it at first makes me want to give up playing, and then, shortly afterwards, to practise for days on end; his instrument and technique is the finest I've ever heard, on record or in life. His slaps are actual harmonics of the bass tone, playing singable melodies like a balafon. He is a truly remarkable artist, especially considering his young age.

Then Seckou's groups took the stage to play what we had learned during the day. For once I was actually very nervous that I'd make errors in front of all the best players in the land, since my dundunba part was highly prominent and key to the structure of the song, and I'd only learned the first song a few hours ago. Despite having no clue what we were even about to play as Seckou launched into the first signal (!), my blank mind somehow managed to remember and made it through without incident. Kalah was thoroughly enjoyable to play, after an initial panic on losing my second drumstick led me to have to use my two heavy spare sticks; but this turned out just fine since this huge hall and my huge drum required big power. MORE FIRE! Seckou's ridiculously fast rolls were a joy to behold, and I was determined to keep the beat throughout his dangerous solos, which I supported with bass rolls. As Ani said afterwards, I managed to "put the fun back in duns" :-)

Finally a very fine African drum+dance group called Hamana featuring Vieux and our dance teacher Emma gave a spirited performance beginning with dancers balancing kenkenis on their heads and incorporating playing them into the routine. Seckou then played an emotional solo kora piece dedicated to a great musician friend who had tragically died in a car accident.

It wasn't over yet though. All of the teachers were called back to the stage for a farewell jam. But they took some time coming, so I went to fetch my big dununba and joined the throngs of dancers and shakers beside the stage as the beats deepened once more.

You can see some of these things on Steve Clark's website but sadly David Stone's pictures are no longer online.


Vitae Drummers perform at The Eden Centre

Tags: Drumming

Vitae Drummers at EdenVitae Drummers were invited to perform to inaugurate the new Eden Centre in High Wycombe as part of their African Caribbean Day.

The requirements for this mission stipulated that we must move from one end of the shopping centre to the other during our two 30-minute performances, stopping briefly at key locations. This is not easy with large drums, but we rose to the challenge and developed our straps and technique such that we could play dun duns and sing while processing from place to place, where the dancers and djembes could then join in. We were very glad that our colourful new costumes had arrived from Thailand just in time for us to look our best ever. Photographer Sam Gill took some cracking pictures, and I later found some more online.

We began out at the main entrance and quickly drew a crowd. Only two minutes in, I realised that my drum was strapped up way too high and my badly-angled arm was going into spasm already - however would I be able to go on playing continuously for half an hour? Well, the show must go on, and so I remembered some wise words and continued.

Malc doing a bit of shoppingAfter rousing smiles with Djole we moved out into the crowds, luckily with security personnel clearing a path for us. Basically the whole town had turned out for this event, since it was the first Saturday that the massive new complex had been open. I led the way since my large drum and insistent bell was quite an audible warning for people to move out of the way :-)

When we reached the next stop, a large open space at the end of a very high covered walkway, we formed an arc around the edge and changed into Kuku. Oh my! The acoustics here were cavernous! The huge sound reverberated around this mostly concrete, glass and metal cathedral of commerce, lighting up everyone's faces in amazement.

Vitae Drummers ascending to heavenNext we moved on down further into the depths of retail palaces, past windows laden with gold and opulence all around. This long march eventually ended up near Tesco where the girls danced Soko. Then we sang Sorsonet while meandering through low tunnels until we reached our stairway to heaven which would lead us up onto the gallery for our finale. Soli was danced and played with high spirits as thousands of people came into the centre beneath us.

We returned to the centre's hospitality suite to rest for lunch, only to find two amazing African groups also in there, also preparing to peform! Ghanaian master drummers Kakatsitsi were having a full-on jam session which was a real treat for us to behold. I'd first encountered them in about 1997 at the Edinburgh Festival where they'd given a stunning workshop, and only recently had met someone who knew their manager, so I hoped to one day forge links with them. When I realised who they were I was speechless. Even funnier was that they were wearing identical costumes to us, that they had apparently bought in Africa (although sourced from Thailand)! We made jokes about them joining our band :-)

Also present were The !Gubi Family who had arrived from Namibia, looking like they had just walked off the plane in their traditional native dress. After lunch they gave a short performance of dance and song outside Eden Place, which we heartily applauded, but it looked like they were very cold and not liking our biting English weather.

Vitae Drummers at EdenOur second set consisted of just two locations for fifteen minutes at each. We began on the bridge between the cinema and bowling alley, set against a shocking pink background which looked very cool with our vibrant wardrobe. Then we trooped back down to play a highly-charged set inside the centre, ending with a joyous dance in which members of the audience joined in.

> > > Lots more photos

Fela For President [POSTPONED]

Tags: Music, Drumming, Politics

This party has had to be postponed - if you're interested in coming, get in touch and we'll arrange a new date, most likely a Friday before May since all Saturdays are now booked up. It was going to be another party at mine: Fela For President - non-stop Afrobeat with DJ Spock - bring drums and get down!


Malc's first birthday party: "House music all night long"

Tags: Music, Drumming

I'm no longer a toddler - no, this is the first of a handful of consecutive parties which continue over the next few weekends too if you couldn't make this one.

Guest DJs Lawrence and The Soultan of Funk (aka Neil) lined up their favourite tunes alongside DJ Spock, playing "House music all night long" - Proper Records with groove: funky techno, deep house and classic electro.

I'd set up my studio monitors wired into different rooms to provide a house-wide thumping soundtrack of funk, and revellers brought drums to groove along. The Soultan of Funk played some funky trance records, and then Lawrence mixed soundfiles on his laptop, which was very smooth, but I still prefer the tactile tightrope-walking danger of spinning plates in real time.

The clocks went back an hour for British Silly Time, and people left soon after midnight, so we didn't quite play "All Night Long", and I sadly didn't get time to play some of the experimental beat classics I love. My goal was to show people how diverse and creative proper house music can be, demonstrating with examples its roots in African drumming by distilling it to its essence of syncopated polyrhythms, simple melodic phrases and uplifting vocals. So this will have to wait for another opportunity; it may well end up being a lecture! All percussionists(/musicians) should hear this: quintuplets against grooved hihats rock! [Watch this space]


Microsoft OOXML vote plagued with 'irregularities'

Tags: Politics, Computers

Please take the time to read this if you use Microsoft products, just so you're aware of what's going on.

Microsoft has concocted a new office file format that it desperately wants to lock everyone into, in order to try and save its sinking ship. It is called Office Open eXtensible Markup Language (OOXML), but that is ridiculous because it is not 'open' at all, and creates an ambiguous minefield for lawyers to play with. Why they would want to go to all this trouble at all seems illogical, when a perfectly good standard for office files already exists in the Open Document Format, as used in LibreOffice (the new improved version of OpenOffice). But a properly open standard does not fit in with the Microsoft business model, nor allow them to keep taxing their customers with expensive forced upgrades, so they refused to support it in their Office software, and instead tried to come up with their own scheme.

Since actual products and original ideas are their main weakness, Microsoft's idea of a standard has met with outrage throughout the industry. It's way too complicated to ever be workable (6,000 pages!), and is full of flaws; even a vast company with their massive resources will be unable to ever implement it correctly (this is how to remove your competition). Yet Microsoft really needed this to be accepted, because many governments and key contracts are nowadays calling for officially recognised standards, and so the software monopoly desperately want to make sure that 'standard' can only be read with their products.

So they persuaded the ISO to cut lots of corners and rushed it through the standards acceptance process, which is against ISO guidelines. Hundreds of comments on the spec were ignored, not to mention other games and smear campaigns. In the end, just like a U.S. Presidential election: hey presto, who wins? Despite at the Norwegian vote 19 people being against, and 5 in favour... it still passed, with the provision that it'll be fixed later, at a price. Of course. I'm embarrassed to say that the United Kingdom and Ireland switched from "disapprove" to "approve". It's kind of obvious how they changed their minds. Some people of higher moral fibre resigned rather than pretend they could review a 6,000+ page document within the ridiculously insufficient time that the process was being hurried through. Previous ISO standards have taken years to ratify, and with good reason, but in the end, they work. By ratifying OOXML, the ISO has sold its credibility: their standards are no longer worth the paper they are printed on.

Have MS done anything illegal? Possibly not, but so long as they work within a hair's breadth of the edge of the law, albeit with ethics that Satan could learn from, then they are immune from actual prosecution. There are certainly many irregularities being looked into. All this comes from a company whose CEO is, allegedly, quite unbalanced.

As users, we should be aware of these dirty tricks and make informed choices - there are better alternatives. If anyone sends you an attachment with a filename ending in .docx, .xlsx or .pptx, please politely send it back and ask for it to be sent a proper standard like ODF, PDF or at least an older MS Office XP format that is generally readable on any machine, just to ensure that you'll still be able to read it in years to come. (It is possible to just reject any OOXML attachments, but I feel that the senders should be alerted to the fact that many people can't read them.) Why should everyone have to pay Microsoft every few years just to use their broken 'standards' when superior solutions exist?

"The trick is to stay away from Microsoft if you don't want trouble with the law, with licences or with vendor lockin."

UPDATE: Here's a good summary of the whole messy affair, in which I just read that Microsoft tried to pay someone to rewrite the Wikipedia page for OpenDocument format, in a desperate bid to protect their $10bn MS Office monopoly.

I'll be giving a talk at HertsLUG tonight about how people can best expose such despicable behaviour and awaken the general public to using proper open standards such as CertifiedOpen. We can begin by suggesting people adopt ODF as a future-proof standard, and install LibreOffice or updates to MS Office 2007 to let them access ODF files. The latter are available from the well-respected SourceForge website under the ODF-converter project (although they could do with a new fool-proof web page for users). Also, as mentioned above, if people send you .docx attachments, send them back with a polite response outlining the issues.

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 2008-01-01 - last updated 2008-04-09