Musical notes (2014)

While in Geneva I thought it would be fun to write notes inspired by music and musicians I have known. This project spiraled into almost 20 pages of bits and pieces. The following selection includes what I have found are some of the most suitable notes to accompany the caravan on the long and winding road.

Amadou & Mariam, Salif Keita & Malian music

In 1986 Lene and I went to West Africa for the first time. We didn’t go out of our way to find music on our travels from Dakar in Senegal to Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso, but we were aware that some West African bands and names were beginning to gain fame on the “world music circuit.” The big star of the mid 1980s was Youssou N’dour, a Senegalese singer who we saw live at the Stade du 4 Août in Ouagadougou on his grande tournée africaine. Dancers were an important part of his show and they were extraordinary. The body can be moved in many more directions and with twists and turns that most of us never think of.

Amadou and Mariam are a different story altogether. My daughter Kathrine has seen them live on stage in Roskilde; a blind couple with the lilting voices and swaying sounds of the dusty southern fringes of the Sahara desert. I haven’t seen them perform but have enjoyed listening to their discs.

When we lived in Ouagadougou in the mid-1990s we sometimes went to concerts at the French cultural centre and at little downtown hangout called the Wasa Club. Kathrine’s class sang there once. I guess we probably introduced her to the kora at some point. There were surely drums! She and Martin were at the International School (ISO) and their teachers came from all over the planet. But there weren’t many West African kids in the school; it was too expensive. On Sundays there were jazz brunches by the swimming pool. It was a strange enclave of Americans and assorted English speakers in a city where most people spoke Mooré or Dioula and sometimes French. Vive la jeunesse inter-culturelle et la musique!

The best of the West African musicians are undoubtedly from Mali, the vast unruly country where Amadou and Mariam come from. Another famous Malian singer is Salif Keita. I saw him and his band at the Stade d’Omnisports in Bamako one evening in 1992, together with a team of rural development consultants I was working with at the time, before we went to the north for a ten day trip to the Niger delta and the ancient desert city of Timbuktu. But his performance was a shambles, with power cuts and angry people throwing bottles. After an hour or so we ran away, found a broken-down taxi and bumped through Bamako’s murky streets to our hotel. Salif Keita was there the next day as I recall, being interviewed about his disrupted show.

Other guests at the hotel were leaders of the Touareg rebels in northern Mali. A peace agreement had been signed and negotiations on regional autonomy had begun in the capital. It was a turbulent time for the different ethnic groups in the country; the fall of the dictator Moussa Traoré who had ruled since the late 1960s resulted in much jostling for power and influence. Despite the bleak politics of the Malian elite – often soldiers in one guise or another – the rich cultures of the region have generated some of the most fantastic sounds around. Salif Keita is one of best known; there are numerous others.

Times change and in early 2014, 22 years later, I saw the man again together with a huge band at a concert in Geneva. It was la journée de la francophonie, a bizarre celebration of French language and culture. Thus, the United Nations Organisations in Geneva (UNOG) had invited Salif Keita to perform in honour of la francophonie, even though his roots are far from France and most of his songs are sung in Dioula (Bambara)! He didn’t seem very perturbed; indeed he seemed grateful to the French cultural empire for encompassing West African traditions. Whatever the curious cause, for the large crowd who turned out well dressed and enthusiastic, it was a chance to see a gifted performer surrounded by supremely skilled musicians. Somewhat to my surprise he also invited a group of Swiss schoolgirls to perform acrobatic leaps and bounds and form pyramids during the concert. In the open spirit of a multi-ethnic institution (UNOG) the Malian singer made sure that there was something for everybody!

Being blind handicaps Amadou and Mariam, but that doesn’t detract from their beautiful voices. Salif Keita is an albino and has taken up the struggle against discrimination on the basis of skin colour. It seems that albinos often have a hard time on the African continent as they are considered aberrations. So it is good to know that music can bring people together, regardless…

The Chieftains, Irish folk

In 1978 I was given an opportunity to work in Northern Ireland and happily I didn’t say no. The “troubles” were in full swing (sic) and Belfast seemed like a dangerous and daunting place to go. But I was lucky to live in the University district where neither the Catholics (Republicans) nor the Protestants (Unionists) ruled the roost. Young people – as in any normal country – wanted to study and improve their lives. I worked for an organization doing good things for youth and communities, across the sectarian divide. While I lived in Belfast I became a long distance urban walker, exploring the many zones and boundaries and trying to keep out of sight of the army and police, not to mention the rioters and bombers!

After a couple of months in the city I was introduced to a folk club half an hour south in the small town of Downpatrick (where the saint is buried). Bars and pubs are closed in Belfast on Sundays – or they were in those days – so those hungry for sounds and thirsty for a pint head out of town. Downpatrick folk club on a Sunday night was an enjoyable spot. There were regulars and guests. Often rather well-known Irish musicians were found to be lurking in the crowd and called up on stage to join in with a little tune. I learnt to appreciate the rumble of the bodhran and the wail of the pipes.

The Chieftains have been good at including all sorts of sounds in their essentially Irish music. It is hard to understand how it works out, but it does. The Rolling Stones perform a rambling jamming number on the Long Black Veil and the CD includes a funny picture of a crowd of aging rockers and fiddlers; the two bands together! Ry Cooder is lurking in the credits too.

Irish music has a half-hidden Dionysian dimension. I witnessed this in no uncertain fashion in July 1979 when I went to the town of Letterkenny in County Donegal for the Fleadh Cheoil na hEireann (the national music festival). Officially the festival is a competition to find the musicians of the year, but it is also a drunken orgy. The weekend weather was good. The pubs of Letterkenny overflowed, while the various halls and chapels of the town were bursting with aspiring talents. I don’t remember much of the music from that weekend, but I do remember the headaches!

The Doors

I left the Grammar School in Cambridge after my ordinary level exams, and went to the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (CCAT) for two years to study for my advanced (A) level exams. I was there from 1973 to 1975. There was a student common room and café at the college called the Batman and that was where we heard the Doors virtually every day on the jukebox, playing Riders on the Storm. It is impossible for me to hear the opening chords of the song without drifting back to those teenage days and the smoky scenes of the Batman.

Frances Ford Coppola realized the immense power of the Doors epic song called The End and used it in the opening sequence of the film: Apocalypse Now. The Doors – particularly Jim Morrison – were keen on the drama of destruction, so Coppola’s choice of musical accompaniment was not bad. In addition, the Vietnam War was the end for over 50,000 Americans and millions of South-East Asians, mostly of course Vietnamese and Cambodians, but also Laotians. While the Doors boomed in the Batman, the bombs fell across the region. We watched the reports from the frontline and we protested. In the end the Americans were defeated.

I have been to Vietnam several times since 2006. It is a beautiful country, but not easy to “penetrate.” The language is one problem; nothing looks or sounds familiar even though the script is a modified form of European writing. As far as music is concerned, the Vietnamese are karaoke fans and there is always plenty of noise in the cafés and bars of Hanoi and Saigon. There are also strong dance traditions in South East Asia.

Through Hollywood we are well versed in American stories about the wars fought to defend Uncle Sam against all enemies. But few stories from the other sides get past the entertainment moguls who control our access to information. Indeed, telling the tale of the Palestinians for example is considered to be tantamount to supporting terrorists. The Israeli media machine has been quite effective in suppressing views of the conflict in Gaza and of the occupation of Palestinian territory that do not conform to their mainstream message: the terrorists are determined to destroy the peace loving, democratic state of Israel.

In a sense that was an innovation that appeared with the Doors and other sixties bands, culminating in the fury of the punk rockers in the mid 1970s: they discovered that both stage and TV performances could be provocative, subversive and irreverent. The idea of being anti-establishment began to figure in political discourse. Freedom of speech meant that anything goes and censorship became a dirty word…

Swirling, mysterious, ominous, threatening music booms from the Doors, with undercurrents of bizarre and devious behaviour and lost dreams. What was that storm they were riding on? I remember an evening in Cologne, which ended outside a flat somewhere shouting we want the world and we want it now! But mostly we scale back and settle for the mundane and routine. Jim Morrison didn’t, but he’s long dead.

Bob Dylan, 1960s & 1970s

Going further back in my archive of Cambridge memories, I can faintly hear Bob Dylan playing in my sister’s room on the top floor of the house where I grew up. I guess we discovered Dylan at the end of the 1960s, when he was already beyond a folk hero and had become a phenomenon. He has more or less stayed that way ever since, traipsing around the world on his never ending tour.

I think I was a bit scared of Bob Dylan’s music in the 1960s. His voice wasn’t soft and his lyrics conjured feelings that weren’t easy to just listen to and forget. I lay across my big (brass) bed and wondered about the future, while in our house madness echoed from my mother’s breakdowns. Like the Doors, Bob Dylan belonged to a fascinating but dangerous world of rebels, drugs, protest and instability.

A big surprise was when Martin became a Dylan fan around 2005. I don’t know what it was that captured his attention, but suddenly our house was full of the sounds of Dylan and the collection of CDs and videos expanded with incredible speed. He was just like me I thought, as he headed off to hear the man at a concert in Odense on Fyn, a day or two before some big exams. Subsequently he has seen him on stage live both in Berkeley and in Oakland in California. I’m envious!

I guess the secret is that you don’t get tired of listening to Dylan’s songs. The collection on Blood on the Tracks is close to the top of my list of favorites, including such wonderful songs as Buckets of Rain, If You See Her Say Hello and Tangled Up in Blue. When I drive our car I often listen to Bryan Ferry’s interpretations of Dylan’s hits. A few years ago Amnesty International released an album of cover versions by a variety of artistes and guess who sang You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome: Miley Cyrus!

Maybe it isn’t surprising that everybody performs Dylan. His music has become the background sound for our generations, and his mixture of creativity and passion is almost unique. Long may he never end!

Guardabarranco, Dame una Luz

Our big chance to understand and absorb some Latin culture came in 2002 when we moved to Managua. I worked for three years as a counsellor at the Royal Danish Embassy. Our kids went to the American School of Nicaragua (ANS) and during our three year residence we did our bests to explore the Central American isthmus. We traveled to the magic city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, to Panama, to Tegucigalpa and the Bay Islands in Honduras, to Antigua and the fantastic Mayan ruins at Tikal in Guatemala. We drove along the Pacific coast around San Juan del Sur and down to the Guanacaste region in Costa Rica and we discovered the impressive volcanoes of Ometepe and the Léon region, not to mention the coffee plantations in the central highlands and the lagoons and palm trees of the Caribbean coast north of Bluefields.

From time to time we went to concerts at an outdoor venue in Managua called la Ruta Maya. There we got to know the Nicaraguan sounds, from classical Spanish melodies to reggae inspired swing. One of our favorite performers was Katia Cardenal, a Nicaraguan with Norwegian connections. She has written a large number of beautiful tunes and appeared regularly at la Ruta Maya together with her band Guardabarranco (a little bird common in the region). Then a month or two before we left Managua to return to Denmark in 2005 we were invited to a special concert at the Delices del Bosque, a restaurant on a hillside overlooking the city.

The occasion was the 100th anniversary of the end of the Swedish-Norwegian Union in 1905. I didn´t know that this had been a fraught process, which nearly led to war between the two countries. The peaceful relations between the Scandinavian nations conceal a turbulent past and the end of the Union in 1905 was one of the landmarks in the transition to “normal” (i.e. non-violent) cooperation.

Guardabarranco played some tunes that evening in Managua and there were speeches, in Spanish, by both the Swedish and Norwegian ambassadors. I later found out that these had been difficult to write, as the sensitivities of both sides with respect to the events of 1905 are still a source of friction. As the Scandinavian “superpower”, Sweden has to tread lightly in relations with neighbours and the Norwegians it seems are particularly fierce nationalists. But the Danes are too as I have discovered over the years. It is remarkable that the Scandinavians – enlightened peoples – continue to be obsessed by their national differences, which to people from many other regions of the world must seem minimal.

Curiously the mini-states – or banana republics – in Central America are similar. Nobody likes the successful, dominant (and decidedly “Spanish”) Costa Ricans, while in the 1980s Honduras and El Salvador fought a mini-war after a football match… When I hear such stories I ask the old pro patria mori question: What are these nations that we cling to or invent or whatever it is we do to provide excuses for tribalism?[1]

We have also seen Katia Cardenal performing in Copenhagen. She has a fine voice and writes strong songs with Central American themes where the wonder of nature is particularly pronounced. She’s a bridge from one of my worlds to another.

Paul Simon, Graceland

The singer songwriter Paul Simon was hugely famous before he discovered South Africa and the music of the townships. Then, in the last years of the apartheid regime, he projected the music of the country onto the international mainstream. There had been considerable interest in southern African choirs and chanting in the anti-apartheid movements in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. When I lived in Antwerp from 1981 to 1983 a singing group called Hey Pasop was very popular amongst the Flemish lefties. They recorded the songs of the struggle in South Africa, including a strong rendering of Nkosi sikelel iAfrika (god bless Africa).

I learnt to speak some Flemish in those two years, but my accent was English. Once I ordered a beer in a pub in Amsterdam and the barman refused to serve me, thinking I was an Afrikaner! Apartheid South Africa – like Israel – provoked strong reactions from different viewpoints.

It is easy to forget that several proxy wars between the USA and the Soviet Union (USSR) were fought in the front line states bordering South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s. Then one day Nelson Mandela walked out of prison and within a couple of years there were elections (in 1994), millions of black voters stood in long queues outside the polling stations and the whole miserable era was over. Well, maybe it hasn’t been that simple, but nonetheless, the dismantling of the apartheid state, the truth and reconciliation process, etc. have been inspirational in many ways. It is just a pity that the ANC hasn’t generated many politicians with “the vision thing.”

So when I hear Graceland I think of Southern Africa and of my Flemish interlude. Music was in the air in Antwerp too. I got to know a guy called Kris who lived in a flat right in the centre of the city and was a keen fan of world music as well as Flemish classics. He introduced me to a local folk singer called Wannes van de Velde whose tough and sad songs suited the rough edges of the harbour city. I wish my Flemish skills had developed to allow me to fully appreciate the subtleties of the songs. Language is important, but often music transcends the spoken word.

Ali Farka Touré with Ry Cooder, Talking Timbuktu

In 1998 we took our kids on holiday in the Cilento region south of Naples in Italy. We stayed in a little cottage on a hillside, within a complex with pool and bar and entertainment for children. The village of Palinuro was a couple of kilometers away and we went there several times during a very relaxing week. One evening we noticed that a big stage had been set up in the harbour and posters announced that Ali Farka Touré would appear. There weren’t many people around when the band went on stage and our kids were tired. But we were treated to a great show, with a bunch of West Africans swinging in the night air.

Later, when Kathrine discovered the joys of Malian music, we realized that we had seen one of the great stars of the Sahel. Ali Farka Touré has been at the forefront of the wave sweeping from West Africa to the world’s stages, with kora players, dancers, guitarists and drummers conjuring beautiful sounds. In the same way as Paul Simon was a driving force in getting South African singers beyond the confines of their sad country in the 1980s, Ry Cooder was one of those who understood West African magic music and rode the world music wave. So at this point I have to take my hat off to a great musician and his even greater influence on apparently almost everybody! On the Rolling Stone website the man is described as follows:

“In Ry Cooder’s hands, the guitar becomes a time machine. Ever since he began as a teen prodigy in the Sixties, he has been a virtuoso in a host of guitar styles going back to the most primal bottleneck blues, country, vintage jazz, Hawaiian slack-key guitar, Bahamian folk music and countless other styles. He’s combined these different musical idioms into his own eclectic style as one of the world’s foremost performing musicologists. He got his start playing the blues with Taj Mahal in the Sixties and, after a stint in Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band, began making solo records such as Paradise and Lunch and Chicken Skin Music, unearthing obscure folk tunes like “Vigilante Man” and “Boomer’s Story” and breathing slide-guitar life into them. Cooder also gave one of the most significant guitar lessons in rock & roll history: During his sessions with the Rolling Stones in 1968, he taught Keith Richards five-string open-G blues tuning, which Richards used to write some of his greatest riffs for songs on Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Exile on Main St. He played on the Stones’ “Love in Vain,” which features Cooder on mandolin, and on Randy Newman’s “Let’s Burn Down the Cornfield.” Since the Eighties, he has composed acclaimed scores for films such as Paris, Texas. He continues to explore sounds from around the world, collaborating with African guitarist Ali Farka Toure on the 1994 Talking Timbuktu and assembling old-school Cuban musicians for the wildly successful Buena Vista Social Club.”

U2, All that you can´t leave behind, etc.

Another phenomenon of the 1980s was U2. Like ‘em or hate ‘em, they began rapidly to fill a lot of space on the airwaves. In a strange way they still do, becoming a bit like Bob Dylan, they go on and on and on, with new albums, lots of noise and posing in various… poses.

I’d like to leave behind U2 – particularly Bono – lecturing on good causes and producing inarticulate but well-meaning rambling on human rights and world poverty, in order to focus on the music, especially the love songs with surging guitar and restrained howling. When it became known that the carbon emissions of their high tech concerts had over-reached certain limits and that their tax evasion undermined any street credibility they might have had left, I was sorely tempted to leave them all behind. But then The Edge appeared in a film called It Might Get Loud about guitars, midway between Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin) from the 1960s and Jack White (the Stripes) from the 2000s.

Films about musicians are often a bit like interviews with sportsmen, the performances are great but the words (explanations) are often redundant or semi-gibberish. Perhaps Oliver Stone’s film about the Doors and Jim Morrison is particularly revealing in the sense that he shows how fame, drugs and booze reduced an imaginative poet to a fool. Celebrities as assholes!

It Might Get Loud is different. The three musicians are not impressive speakers with profound insights into the human condition, but they do appear as sincere, innovative, enthusiastic people, in love with their craft: playing the electric guitar. It is a wonderful film in my humble opinion, with some great sequences from concerts, cities, studios, etc. Towards the end the three men get together in a space that looks like a cross between a sitting room and stage, playing and smiling to each other as they fool around with noise.

Conclusion: stick to the music U2. There are so many good songs: One, We Still haven’t Found What We’re Looking For (?), Where the Streets Have No Name (which is about Managua I have been told…), In a Little While, etc., etc. May they rock on!

Postscript – two non-musicians in the news in 2014

These notes wouldn’t be complete without a little context and two non-heros with no musical associations are worth mentioning. These men have been important in the two countries where I’ve been a resident in Latin America and Africa. They have both been in the news in the autumn of 2014.

The first is Daniel Ortega president of Nicaragua, who was a revolutionary in the 1970s and led the Sandinistas to defeat a brutal dictatorship. But guess what! He became a born again Catholic and re-gained power the year after we left Managua, turning his country into una monarchia where his wife Rosario insists that it is always Christmas by keeping the lights and decorations on the streets all year round. As The Who sang: meet the new boss, same as the old boss! The worst twist in his nightmarish career is the latest deal with a Chinese tycoon to build a canal across the Central American isthmus, displacing thousands of people (by force and apparently with little or no compensation) as well as probably disrupting the ecology of the Lago de Nicaragua. I look on these works and despair.

On a more positive note, the people of Ouagadougou and Bobo Dioulasso finally rose up and kicked out another dictator who successfully pretended to be a democrat but ruled by a mixture of terror and fixing elections: Blaise Campaoré. It was great news that he had finally been chased from his exclusive palace, built with gifts of blood diamonds from Charles Taylor in Liberia and oil with arms from Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. Why does Africa get burdened with such dinosaurs?

Blaise pretended not to have been involved in the assassination of his old comrade the revolutionary Capitaine Thomas Sankara, back in 1987. It was a strange story, with endless rumours of French secret service and CIA involvement. But whatever the reasons for getting rid of one of Africa’s few inspiring politicians, it is worth noting that Sankara as president was famous for his simplicity and as an authentic man of the people he had few declared possessions, apart from a couple of guitars!

[1] This year is the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the first world war. Strangely there are those who still find cause to celebrate the glorious achievements of millions who died in the bloodbaths of Flanders and elsewhere. But the sad musical poetry of Wilfred Owen is the best testimony to this particular bout of mass madness. I guess the noise of the artillery bombardments drowned out whatever attempts the soldiers made to console themselves with music. However, I do remember reading the obituary of a Scottish piper who accompanied his unit onto the beach in Normandy in 1944 and who survived the German guns while playing tunes to encourage his fellow combatants as they struggled across the sand. I think sadly of the famous interview: What do you think of Western civilisation? Mr. Gandhi was asked and he replied: Well, I think it would be a good idea…

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