Posts Tagged ‘music’

Alternative music – in Kabul

October 4, 2012 2 comments

Just a quick thing to throw up here, following my previous post on music: this, from the BBC. A rock and alternative music festival in Kabul, which given the range of problems and the level of conflict to be found in Afghanistan is about the least likely place you might expect to find one. But then, maybe such a festival is kind of important for precisely those reasons? Most of the bands playing are from the Kabul area, and it’s equally impressive that in that context there are people who have the resources – instruments, rehearsal space, time – to even pull bands together and play their music. Marvellous.

And it’s the second festival of alternative music that’s been held there.

Bringing the music back

October 1, 2012 Leave a comment

If you don’t live in the UK, you probably won’t appreciate what a major step this is: the BBC have just reported that the red tape around the licensing of live music has been lifted from small venues (capacity up to 200). This means some 13,000 pubs and clubs no longer need to go through difficult bureaucratic hurdles and pay substantial licence fees in order to have live music.

It’s a big deal for small bands, people trying to get known in the music business and so forth, because when the current regime was introduced it resulted in many thousands of smaller venues closing their doors to live music. It also, of course, made it more difficult for more ‘experimental’ artists to get going – because who was ever going to take a chance on putting them on stage in a large venue that needed to recoup substantial licence costs? And by ‘experimental’ in this context I don’t just mean weird electronic and suchlike, but a range of styles and a range of performers who are trying to do something a little bit unusual and distinctive with their music, and trying to see if there’s an audience out there for them.

So now  a lot of musicians, aspiring bands and so on can return to the traditional route of building up a loyal following in their home town, and then around the country, going on the road to build their ‘tribe’ of followers a little at a time. And there will be, I hope, a lot more live music in a lot more styles and genres somewhere near you.

So, for once, I can report some good news and a sensible government policy!

Art and tyranny?

August 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Are tyrants good for art? It’s an interesting if counter-intuitive question and one that’s recently been discussed on the BBC.

The essential argument is that culture – art and literature and music, for example – thrive in conditions where there is social conflict, though also require some level of freedom for artists. In the past that’s come about because authoritarian regimes haven’t necessarily tried that hard to control art, and when they did, the fact that art or books or music were labelled ‘subversive’ in itself created an underground demand for them.

It’s a complicated argument because the extent and type of control wielded by tyrants doesn’t just come from punitive measures. They often control resources that make them major patrons of at least some arts, with the ability to direct the works they commission. And it’s further shaded by distinctions between regimes that are merely authoritarian, those that are totalitarian, and those where some of the impetus for control comes from neoliberal politics and commercial interests.

So there’s a lot to take into account in trying to make any general arguments, including the treatment of deliberately provocative and protest-based art (yes, I’m thinking about Pussy Riot here). I guess the main point is that a lot of interesting and worthwhile cultural products are subversive in some way, and gain their significance because of the friction they create.

Found sounds

March 31, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve recently been looking in some detail at community radio, this being related to a speculative project I’m planning to do a little later in the year. I’ve become a regular visitor to the coffee bar at my own local community radio, Hermitage FM but thought I’d share this one I’ve just discovered: Resonance FM.  They’re based in London and the community they transmit to is essentially a creative one: their ‘About’ statement indicates it was established in 2002 by the London Musicians Collective, as a ‘radical alternative to the universal formulae of mainstream broadcasting. Resonance 104.4 fm features programmes made by musicians, artists and critics who represent the diversity of London’s arts scenes, with regular weekly contributions from nearly two hundred musicians, artists, thinkers, critics, activists and instigators.’

And it really is music you won’t hear on any commercial station; cutting edge, innovative, experimental, and hugely varied. It gives exposure to bands, individuals, loose collaborations, and plays the kind of stuff that’s only ever ‘published’ as pressings of a hundred or so white-label vinyl records. I’ve yet to hear anything on there I didn’t find stimulating, provocative or inspirational.

Your own milage, or course, will vary – just bear in mind I grew up listening to everything from punk, goth and rave to Stockhausen and Subotnik, and the first and only musical ‘instrument’ I learned how to play was a VCS3 analog synthesizer!

Community radio, by the terms of UK licensing rules, only transmits at 25 watts with a typical range of 5 kilometres from the transmitter, and they’re based in central London. The good thing about the internet, though, is you can get a live feed to your PC and a lot of their stuff is also available as podcasts.

Makes a change from working at home

Because I work from home, I rarely get into the city centre. However I had a few in-town jobs to do, went for a coffee at Darkside and then, by the clock tower, came across this guy busking there, who turns out to be someone called Oded Kafri.

Whatever you think of the various Youtube segments embedded on his site I can assure you he’s many times more impressive live. As best I can tell he has a regular kit, plus some eccentric items like a large water bottle upturned on a stand, and an electronic kit that allows him to trigger a selection of bass, flute and other riffs and some special effects.

Hearing ten minutes of really cool drumming just made my day. I may be easily pleased but I thought it was worth sharing.

Feelgood music for hard times?

April 4, 2011 2 comments

I do, albeit fitfully, try to Keep Up With Things. I get tired of doing the y6dsl;ltgg ting thing (i.e. beating my head against the keyboard in the hope that words will flow from it painlessly). I make a coffee, watch a snippet of TV or radio, or see what’s new on Youtube. And what’s new suddenly seems to be the lambada. All over again.

The lambada, for those who haven’t come across it, is a dance. It seems to have originated in the north of Brazil, and Wikipedia describes it as ‘generally danced with arched legs, with the steps being from side to side or turning, and in its original form never front to back, with a pronounced movement of the hips. At the time when the dance became popular, short skirts for women were in fashion and men wore long trousers, and the dance has become associated with such clothing, especially for women wearing short skirts that swirl up when the woman spins around.’

It became very popular internationally in 1989 when a French musical producer encountered it, returned to France, created a band (Kaoma) and put out a lambada style single sung in the original Portuguese – the video for which included some very suggestive dancing. If that isn’t a good enough example of globalisation, it then turned out the song he’d chosen was an unauthorised use of the translation of a 1981 song by a Bolivian band. Law suits followed and money changed hands. The actual song involved, in Portuguese, was ‘Chorando se foi’ (‘Crying, he/she went away’). Whether that was apt given the legal battles is of course a whole other question… but is seems Kaoma are still around, judging by recent Youtube video of them performing in various cities in Europe.

Anyway. The thing is, this was a song from the 1980s that suddenly seems to have been recovered, plundered, and given a new lease of life. In the last week or so I’ve been hearing techno and trance versions, quotes from it as four and eight bar breaks in the middle of other sings, and Youtube seems to have recent lambada-derived music from all over the place – including among other things a Russian version.

It is a known feature of global, postmodern culture that artefacts are taken and transplanted from one context to another, and the past is ransacked for ideas that can be recycled. I have no particular issues with the lambada being recycled. It was a catchy summer tune and while it’s not quite my style, it does have a certain something. I do have an issue with my brain putting on constant loop as an internal soundtrack but that’s not the lambada’s fault.

I do wonder, though, what drives the seemingly random processes of creative people selecting this or that tune for recycling, and what drives the fact that it’s suddenly taken off again. The best I can do is suggest that it was feelgood music in an era of economic hardship; now we’re back in austere times, feelgood music is suddenly important again and maybe the tunes from previous periods of economic downturn are the places people are looking for it.

Thoughts welcome…

Dubplate culture?

January 13, 2011 Leave a comment

I was scooting around the internet earlier today and came across something I hadn’t known about before – dubplates. In the headlong move towards digital technology, there’s a retro thing going on – in fact it’s probably been going on, quietly and in the background, for a long while.

While most of us are capturing our old film, video and vinyl records onto fully digital media, there are people busy recording music digitally and then transferring it onto vinyl.  This is something you see in the DJ world, and most often in reggae and drum&bass, because they tend to prefer the acoustic response of vinyl (or so I gather, I’ve been having a conversation with HOCSoundSystem about it). There’s apparently a division of opinion in the DJ world about the respective merits of vinyl vs digital media.

Investigating further, I see from Wikipedia that dubplates – one-off vinyl records – have a long and distinguished history in reggae because it’s easy to press a single disk with an existing music track and custom-made lyrics, for example for a particular sound system. But they’re increasingly common in other music genres as well now.

The equipment isn’t exactly cheap but the price of has decreased substantially over time to the point that some people literally have the kit in their living room.there are apparently increasing sales of dubplate cutters – the gadget you need to do this work – and booming business for the specialist dubplate ‘cottage industry’.

When intrigued me was the very retro-ness of this industry, the fact that the ‘old way of doing things’ is still valued, and has a large and increasing following.

It made me wonder how a similar retro-style might look in other industries. For example, if you look on Ebay these days you’ll find quite a few suppliers of handmade paper and notebooks, etc. Some while ago I came across someone who hand-prints books on handmade paper, binds them himself and offers them as limited editions – though in that case, what he’s offering in this form is, if I remember tightly, copies of mediaeval magical grimoires and treatises that are very probably available on the internet – but there appears to me a market for what would be in effect freely available text in this specialist form.

Even the ‘Hearing Voices’ poetry people I blogged about a few days ago have put work out, not as a web page or e-publication, but an actual magazine – it’s not limited circulation per se, but I can’t image there were huge numbers printed and those who have copies will possess a physical thing that connects them to a particular place, time, event and vision of what’s possible in poetry.

And in the art world, of course, numbered limited-issue prints are a known and accepted part of the market and have been for decades.

This is, really, about exclusivity – having a one-off, customised vinyl record to play to a club audience, one of a number of specially-made ‘luxury edition’ books, or an item that has some personal significance of ‘I was there’. Different takes on the idea of exclusivity, but all quite understandable.

Meanwhile, going back to my trusty 1907 Army and Navy Catalogue, which dates from a time when the Army and Navy Stores in London sold everything the gentleman officer would need for his posting abroad, I see that many popular books of that time were available, not just as ‘paperback’ and ‘hardback’, but in half a dozen different bindings and paper qualities from six shillings and fivepence up to forty shillings.

So this all makes me wonder whether there might still be a market for, say, limited edition fiction, handprinted, sold almost as an artisan craft piece. And I’m not talking about reprints of top ten novels, but new original fiction. A deliberate turning back of the clock to older methods, styles and values. Under what conditions might such a thing be viable as a product?

I don’t know the answer but I’m interested to hear anyone’s comments!


I made this

August 8, 2010 2 comments

I didn’t do my usual sitting-at-the-computer-until-my-eyes-bleed thing yesterday. Instead I built this:

What is it? Answer: a stepped tone generator with in built fuzz/distortion. A self contained noise instrument. Not having played with this stuff much for around 20 years and not having handled a soldering iron for over half a decade I’m pretty pleased with myself – though I have to acknowledge that it didn’t actually work until Stu discovered one of the components in the wrong place and fixed it for me.

It’s the result of going to an electronic music workshop run by Stench, a Leicester-based experimental music outfit. Interesting afternoon, with much conversation about circuit-bending – the ‘creative short-circuiting of electronic devices’, as Wikipedia has it. For the curious reader (you have to be pretty curious type of person to want to know, I suspect) there’s more on the topic at Or google it, there’s lots of stuff out there.

This all happened at Fabrika in Leicester, which is going from strength to strength, with fairly off-the-wall things happening. I don’t, for example, know who thought up the idea of workshops on recycling bicycles into other household items of furniture, decoration and utility but it’s a brilliant concept. No, I haven’t been, but just the idea of it is cool – workshops twice a month apparently.

Anyway… the evening was a Stench performance. Stench is a collaborative umbrella for a bunch of people all doing their own thing. So it started with someone whose name I didn’t catch, working with a range of samples. Then there was Steve Auxilec. Ordinarily it wouldn’t be the kind of noise I’d listen to for very long; the improvisation he did was pretty ‘ambient’ with no identifiable rhythm. That said, I zoned out to it and felt strangely refreshed afterwards. Someone commented ‘That looked like you’ve just downloaded the master code and re-set your circuits’. Why, what did I do??

I left about half-way through the next set, by Threep, because I had to get home early for other reasons. But what I heard was excellent. In fact, at the point I was leaving, quite a few people were turning up and the event was running until, I think, around 1am – so I hope everyone had a good time.

Next project: an urban-inspired take on a tribal mask, I think. I’ve got the stuff I need, had the whole project in a box in the shed for about a year and just never got round to it.

Oh, and if anyone with relevant knowledge can explain why a couple of virtual synthesizers I’ve downloaded (for Mac) need some additional sound files – VSTi support, or some such thing – and how I get hold of them, I’d be grateful.


August 4, 2010 6 comments

I’ve pretty much always had a drum or two around the house, either bought on holidays or bought for me as presents. But I rarely do much with them. This is the current one:

Small djembe drum

A small djembe

(The pic, by the way, is courtesy of Chris Cafferkey – it is my drum, but the background is a Seminole-style patchwork quilt she made a few years back).

I ended up doing a bit of drumming round the fire at a pagan gathering a while ago – where I was doing the fire stuff you’ll see in previous blog entries – and when I saw an ad for a local drumming workshop, it piqued my curiosity.

See, here’s the thing. Being a writer, I spend about 110% of my waking hours in front of my computer, writing stuff – or researching and preparing to write, or editing. It’s all very right-brain, word-based, analytic stuff. I write some things that look like stream-of-consciousness, but when they get fitted into stories it’s all carefully manicured and tailored to the plot… And the idea of crossing over to the ‘other side’ and doing something more physical, more visceral, perhaps, appealed.

So I went to the workshop. And learned a lot in a short space of time.

First, I’m crap at drumming. That much I already knew. But I could keep a simple beat going, at least. Apparently if I bothered to practice every day for say three months I could get pretty good.

Second, I learned some basic technique. For djembe this is essentially the bass slap, the higher-pitched ‘tone’ when you hit towards the edge of the skin and the ringing tone you can get from a glancing blow on the very edge. Yes, there are many more techniques. I said I was a beginner and these are basics. I found my own way of working out a rhythm, running it to a lyric in my head. Actually I already knew that one from years back, but doing it again was a challenge. And I learned I’ve very right-handed, struggling to lead into any beat with my left hand.

Third, and most importantly, I was impressed by the teaching/learning style. I guess I’m used to ‘learning’ being a case of discussing something, working it through in a conversation of some kind, and then putting it into practice. Almost every type of learning I’ve done, from academic to shiatsu to first aid, follows this general pattern. This, however, was very different. If you want to learn to drum – you drum. You see and hear what the workshop leader is doing, and try to replicate it, and then he goes off into something else that makes the beat more complex or interesting, and you keep going, and then he comes back to the basic beat and takes you off in another direction. It’s a whole lot more intuitive and I found I was using my whole body, almost doing a sitting-down dance, in order to keep time.

Which takes me to a fourth observation, which is how stiff my body is from all the sitting-down-thinking-and-typing I tend to do.

Lots more as well. I noticed how the drum I was playing was reverberating to the other drums, for example. And how loud a drum really is when you go at it (which at home, with neighbours, I almost never do). And I’ve decided I need a bigger drum because the 8-inch diameter is basically the whole length of my hand, which makes a bass slap tricky.

I’m going to keep going. At home, and not necessarily in that particular workshop because it’s Afro-Caribbean based and that’s not my particular thing, but maybe there are other groups elsewhere. But the more left-brain, intuitive, rhythmic side of me needs to come out from wherever I’ve been hiding it. And it’s a good upper-body workout as well… It must have been inspirational because I’ve started randomly hitting and slapping things just to see what they sound like and whether I can copy a rhythm – the rhythm of the dishwasher as its working, for example…

I’m sure there are more ‘analytic’ sides to drumming; but for the moment that’s not how I’m engaging with it. I’m seeing it as a counterpoint to the other stuff I do, not a replication of it.

In other news, I’m planning on going to a music event of a totally different kind, Stench, at Fabrika, Leicester on Saturday (they’re running Sunday as well, but I’m not sure I can make it then). This will be home-made electronic music, the kind where people have fiddled and rebuilt and customised various electrical appliances to make interesting sounds. Should be fun.

And for now, it’s back to the sitting-at-keyboard-thinking-and-writing thing…

The sounds of childhood?

March 6, 2010 Leave a comment

This rumination comes out of a late-night TV programme I saw on heavy metal recently. A point made by several musicians in heavy metal bands was that they grew up in industrial cities where the sounds of steel mills, power hammers and other industrial machinery was never far away and formed a soundtrack to their childhood. One also commented that there might have been a flower power movement, but his childhood was surrounded by weeds and his motivations in playing music were (a) not to spend 30 years working in a steel mill and (b) to express his reaction to his environment.
I didn’t grow up in an industrial town: my parents lived in a small semi-detached suburban house and actually it was never obvious where people worked, because most of the work locally was in anonymous office blocks. Nor were there many people on the streets; I could walk 2 miles to the shops in the daytime and see no other pedestrians. That’s not to say there wasn’t trouble. There were nascent gangs and I built up a collection of flick knives I found in gutters and by the roadside. But by and large the trouble was in specific locations and at specific times. My experience was that we lived in a social and cultural black hole, where if you wanted anything interesting to happen you had to find a way to make it happen yourself.
But that’s a digression. In the house, my parents played light opera (Gilbert and Sullivan) and ‘light’ music – UK readers might remember BBC Radio 2 in the old says, ‘Sing Something Simple’ and suchlike. That’s the stuff.
However, the soundtrack of my childhood was based more on a mainline train track that ran about half a mile from the house, and downhill from us so the sound carried at night. I remember the rhythm of trains passing over the points, the staccato drumrolls of the compressors that ran the trains’ airbrakes, and the unearthly metallic wailing and screeching of the bogeys as they took a long curve in the track.
And I wonder how much that influenced music choices in later adolescence and adulthood: obscure electronic music (Pierre Henri, Morton Subotnick, parts of Stockhausen, the Louis/Bebe Barron electronic music score to Forbidden Planet where you can hear the ring modulators frying…). And then more industrial music – Rammstein, Combichrist, and most recently Angelspit.
I wouldn’t want to overplay this. I actually listen to a wide range of stuff – examples include Bach, Ginastera (which I discovered because the prog rock band ELP borrowed a segment of a piano concerto for one of their tracks), Cab Calloway, world music (admittedly with a big dose of djembe drumming…). But somewhere underneath all of this I can still hear those trains at 2am, the sounds echoing over an otherwise silent suburban housing estate.


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