Monday, June 27, 2011

to Avebury! to Ireland, and beyond

Unexpectedly, Alan's been back in the Northern Hemisphere, visiting his mum in Peacehaven, on the Sussex coast. So I bought him a little djembe (I knew that he hadn't brought a drum with him from New Zealand) as an early 40th birthday present and showed up at her house to spend a couple of days with them, listening to The Beatles (she's from Liverpool, and proud of it) and reggae, jamming, out walking, getting lost in tangles of crosscountry footpaths in the traditional English midsummer downpour. As a result of our rambling rememberings, a videotape surfaced from his mum's boxed-up collection — me, Inge and Alan playing for her in her front room near Cork City. She filmed it, I'd forgotten. There's almost no footage of Inge and I playing together (apart from this), so this was a great find. I'll put an edit or two up on this blog once I've been able to digitise it.

Alan's mum also presented him with an old semi-acoustic guitar (I forget the make, but exactly like the one Paul McCartney used in the early Beatles before his switch to bass). She's owned since the 60's — her dad had a pub in Liverpool and bought some instruments for the place so that musicians could just turn up and play. He's going to get it fixed it up and use it in his new reggae band back in Golden Bay.

me on saz, Barbara on the phonemy saz, Alan's new guitar
[left] me on saz, Barbara on the phone (to Uncle Les); [right] my saz sits beside Alan's new guitar

Then it was on to Avebury, walking the whole of the Ridgeway from Goring (a three day 40+ mile trek) with Andy Bard (carrying mandolin), his wife Nomi, concertina Jim, whistler Jim and 'Midsummer Paul', an enthusiastic walker who we only ever see at this time of year (not musical, but a huge fan of what we do around the fire). No music en route (everyone was too exhausted from the walking!), apart from me noodling on my saz one morning while waiting to set off (we were camped in an ultranarrow strip of woodland, marked on the OS map as Rats Hill:

early morning saz noodlings in a hazel grove upon Rats Hill
early morning saz noodlings upon Rats Hill - photo by Andy

Stef joined us at our camp near Barbury Castle the next night. Good vibes, but no tunes. Not everyone was sure they'd be able to walk the next stretched — serious exhaustion. But we all did, strode up to Windmill Hill the next day (in a light shower of rain — almost miraculously, this was the most we'd had the whole way, despite parts of southern England having been lashed with it for the duration) and had a much needed nap under the sycamores.

As arranged, I met Alan (plus auntie Liz and cousin Sam) and John Crossan (he who began the Irish Treewalks, carrying his trusty bodhrán) in the village and escorted them to our favourite gathering place. The drumming was audible from the stone circle, but it's just too hectic for me with roads going through, people drinking, litter, chaotic drumming, etc. It's a peaceful gathering in an amazing place, it's great, but I'd rather be away a bit in a quieter space.

The music that night at our fire was really quite something else indeed. Hours later, I felt somewhat stunned, not quite sure how it happened, as the daylight started to stream through the trees. To have Alan there drumming, Stef playing his mandola as if possessed by ancestral spirits (full on inspirational Stef playing, among the most amazing I've heard), Whistler Jim playing beautiful slow Irish aires on his low whistle, spacerock saz-mandolin jams with me and Andy, Andy singing some new songs he's written, and some old ones that have become solstice favourites, other Jim doing some incredible stuff on his concertina...including a genius spontaneous arrangement of The Beatles' "Tax Man" (with all the bits, imitation vocal lines, everything) in response to a joke Alan made, and earlier Beatles requests (Jim's from Merseyside too, and I'd been induced to attempt "Tomorrow Never Knows", "It's All Too Much" and "Norwegian Wood" on the saz). But some of the mandola-percussion-saz stuff with Stef and Alan, sometimes Jim's concertina weaving in, it went to somewhere really far out, really ancient, yet really familar. We were all carried along on something — the sort of thing that you can't make happen, it doesn't happen very often, but when it does, you just have to be grateful.

During the only real pause, a couple of hours before dawn, Nathan and Harmony appeared at the fireside with their instruments, played some lovely slow Irish stuff and then something Welsh, Nathan singing in Welsh (he's fluent, grew up on the borders) — Nathan on bouzouki and Harmony on fiddle (and flute, perhaps). Twilit enchantment under the sycamore trees. It occured to me that Welsh is probably by far the closest surviving language (however far it might be) to whatever the ancient Britons who created the monuments of the Avebury landscape would have been speaking and singing in. So particularly resonant, that (I think N&H felt they'd missed out by arriving late, but their timing was absolutely perfect).

Nomi descending Windmill Hill
Nomi descending Windmill Hill (barrow in background) - photo by Andy

After spending a good part of midsummers day talking with Stef and chain-drinking tea by a pile of embers (this seems to have become an unintended tradition), Paul and Stef accompanied John and I on a quick tour of the landscape: the overlooked longbarrow near the Beckhampton roundabout, the Adam and Eve stones (end of the missing avenue), Swallowhead Spring and the Kennet, West Kennet long barrow, Silbury Hill (from below), the Avenue and, finally, the Stones. After watching a rather odd ceremony while sipping pints of Guinness from the Red Lion, we got the little bus to Swindon, then a train to Stroud where we were met by Melski and whisked to a stunning Cotswold ridge overlooking the Severn to see the sunset. I can't remember the name of the place, but it was on the way back to her home in Dursley. The next day, the three of us were on the ferry to Ireland — John on his way home to Longford (he'd come over especially for the solstice), Melski and I on our way to West Cork for our mutual friend Mike Collard's 60th birthday party (a three day event!)

The first day was Mike's actual birthday, and after a busy day tidying, cooking, wiring plugs, and generally rushing about, Kris (down from Sneem with Birgit and the kids) and I got the music going in the front room. Some old tunes we used to play in the late 90's, the Bear Dance, "Bella Ciao", various nameless Breton and Irish tunes. There were multiple DJs stationed around the outdoor parts of the property (this is an old farmhouse up in the moutains), but live music by the fireplace seemed to be what pulleed people in. The jam soon expanded with John Lynch and Fiona on twin saxes (both relatively new to the instrument, usually playing other winds), four young Israeli percussionists (just out of the IDF) who were travelling through, Andy Ra with his supersteady 12-string space skank, Melski on flute and chalumeau. Eventually the drums multiplied and took over and I wandered around outside to check out the various sounds.

Back in the house after the drums and subsided, Melski got hold of a guitar and sang us some songs. I have hazy memories of accompanying "Crazy Man Michael", "Lovely Joan", "Katie Cruel", "A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall", "This Land is Your Land". Various people in various states drifting in and out of the kitchen. A hilarious attempt at "Subterranean Homesick Blues" (Mel had the lyrics in her ubiquitous song book/notebook). We played "Ambee Dagez", the Armenian tune too... Probably loads more I've forgotten. I stayed up til first light then went to crash out in a nearby barn-like thing.

I awoke to a day of solid, torrential rain. So everyone who was still around (quite a lot of people huddled about in the kitchen drinking tea, making toast, playing chess, singing songs. Andy Man turned up at some point, down from County Clare, with his mandola, so I played a lot of folktunes with Andy that day. There was a crew of young Irish lads who were singing and playing some of their own stuff, late into the night, some relatively contemporary stuff that I didn't know, but all really good, and jammable. I can remember being surprised to find myself playing along with "Where is My Mind?" (The Pixies) while stooping over the kitchen table contemplating a chess move trying to remember which colour I was. Things got increasingly chaotic (alcohol..sigh...), but I did manage to get everyone to be quiet and listen a bit so Melski could sing/play "Wild Mountain Thyme" before I headed to the barn again for some more sleep.

This time I awoke to see a team of determined dreadlocked members of the Earth Star Tribe psychedelic trance collective putting up a marquee for a loud electronic party (the Saturday night finale). It was pretty muddy, didn't look too hopeful as a party space. But they seemed to know what they were doing. Toby from Wiggle is involved with this crew which suggests the music must be worthy. I was vaguely curious to see what the vibe would be like (a whole different wave of people coming up the mountain for this one), but we had to get to Cork — Melski to a Laurie Anderson concert and I to an online seminar (from Liz's house on the Old Head of Kinsale). After the 'webinar' (people really use that word!), Liz played me some recordings of her son Leo. I've not seen him from a few years, and he seems to have grown up into a talented poet/MC (MC name "Anonimis"), now part of the new young Irish hiphop scene.

We spent the next day with Liz, her daughter Lea + friends, and her friend Dervla. Old familiar songs were sung and played around a fire in the garden that evening ("She Moved Through the Fair", "Wild Mountain Thyme" again, "Spancil Hill", "Star of the County Down"). Melski was also delighted when Dervla was able to answer a question she'd been carrying around with her for years about an old Irish word for a very particular type of spontaneous musical gathering (the word was something like "screagha" I think).

Skellig Michael
Skellig Michael - photo by Kilaana

From there, we headed up to Sneem (County Kerry) for a couple of days up at Kris and Birgit's, which included a boat trip out to Skellig Michael, a rocky outcrop in the Atlantic now home to 8000 almost dangerously chilled out puffins, and, for a few centuries to some seriously hardcore early Christian monks (I was out there once before, autumn equinox 1996 — even took my saz and played it out there). In the evenings, Kris got out his new Gibson-inspired Heritage guitar and loop pedal and we had fun jamming over spontaneously created loops. The best of this was the first night, where we started with a loop taken from Ali Farka Touré's "Diaraby" and then just tranced out and layered endlessly on top of that for about an hour. But (as with the rest of this trip), that all went unrecorded...just didn't feel appropriate to get my Zoom H2 out. I did record the last session, not quite as lively, but with a few nice moments (just me and Kris on this, Melski got an earlier night, having to drive back to the ferry port early in the morning).

Listen Here

Kris's son Dylan got his electric guitar at one point and joined in with us. He's not bad at all for a 10-year-old! He's into The Ramones and AC/DC at the moment, but has grown up in a household absorbing sounds from all over the planet, so he'll quite likely evolve into an amazingly versatile player. He's learning the drums too (in a convenient outbuilding!).

The next day we were driving across sunny South Wales, debating the issues of the day, listening to the new Jesse Morningstar album (gorgeous, as expected), Henry Cow, a fascinanting album of 30's and 40's (I think) popular music from Egypt, etc. The song that seems to stick to the memory of that last bit of the journey (before my trainride back east) is Sufjan Stevens' "Casimir Pulaski Day", I don't know what it is, something about the gentleness and simplicity of that song, the way the simple trumpet line comes in...

* * *

Back in Canterbury that night there was another party at 'The Bungalow' down on the confluence of the Old and New Dover Roads. I arrived just as a jam was ending involving Adam (Delta Sleep, Lapis Lazuli) on drums and Phil (Lapis Lazuli, Madam Molotof, Mr. Lovebucket) on tenor sax. But soon something had started up involving my saz, Neil (Lapis) on bass and drums (rather than his usual guitar), really excellent connections made with him, Tom on guitar (I think he used to do electronics for Delta Sleep) and Phil's friend Stu on bass. Later, Jim from Lapis took over on bass. Really interesting jams, continually changing and evolving, quite loud, but I was being nicely amplified. Later into the night, Jim's Polish girlfriend sang some three-chord songs which we jammed around (a nice simple core around which to build something). Later still, penniless resident and drum maestro Adam provided abundant cake and curry for the late night party people — respect!


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