Monday, December 15, 2003

Well, strap me to a tree and call me Brenda! Has it really been a whole week? What can I say? I could plead pressure of work, but I'd be guilty of a little fabrication...I could tell you I spent more time with my family but that too would have the whiff of pork about it. I guess I'd better come clean, admit to a complete absence of anything worthwhile to say, prostrate myself before you all, beg forgiveness and throw myself upon your tender mercies. A thoroughly over the top grovel, in other words.

Mmmmm. "...anything worthwhile to say." I can see you all reaching for the green ink already, turning to the letter P in the dictionary and preparing to vent your spleens over this one and you would have a point. Since when do I ever have anything worthwhile to say? This blogging lark could quite easily be seen as the absolute peak of arrogance, couldn't it? Just imagine, some ex-pat wastrel possessant of enough self-delusion to convince himself that there are people out there who might just be interested in anything he has to say. I wonder if newspaper columnists ever feel the same way?

I guess it's the nature of writing. Essentially a masturbatory exercise, at its best whenever you've got a load on and just have to get it out but also pleasurable if it's just to while away the odd moment here and there. What I mean is that I write because I enjoy amuse and entertain myself but why I should then choose to publish the results is a question I have yet to really face. Yeah, I guess arrogance should just about cover it!

It's strange really, because in my other life as an amateur percussionist, I'm just the opposite. I don't mind people reading what I write but I hate them listening to the sounds I make when I hit things. Even though music is a shared experience, an interaction between the musicians themselves and also with their audience, I feel much more comfortable playing along to music in the comfort of my living room than I do playing live. My best gigs have been those which come closest to reproducing this experience in a live situation.

For instance, the owner of a disco here in town asked me if I would like to perform at his club and advertise it as a conga night. Maybe I was drunk but I agreed. On the night, I had a word with the DJ who reassured me that the only music he played was funky but who still looked a little doubtful that the experiment would work. We did a sound check...he played some choon and I played along. It was great to see the look of surprise on his face when he realised that this might just be successful!

Why it worked and why I enjoyed it so much was that it reproduced exactly what I do at home. Stick some music on and join in and drift out as the fancy takes me. If the rythmn is beyond my ken or inspiration fails to strike, there is no pressure on me whatsoever. I simply sit this one out and hope the next one resonates within me and inspires me to beat the skins as it were.

Now it so happened that last week a musician aquaintance of mine visited me and saw my congas for the first time. So taken was he by their vibrant colour and promise of latin rythmn that he asked me if I would like to sit in at a gig they had for the Saturday evening. I was not even the slightest bit inebriated but I consented immediately. I figured that his band plays traditional Irish music...okay, there'll be no samba rythmns but it should be straight 4/4, accent on the first so tone down the off-beats and everything'll be fine and dandy.

Was I ever wrong! It soon became apparent at the first rehearsal that they had become bored of playing 'Whiskey in the Jar" and other traditional ditties and reels of like ilk and had expanded their repertoire to include Iberian, arab influenced music as well. Now, I should make clear at this point that I am no professional musician, I have had no formal training whatsoever and my ability to read music is on a similar level to my competence in totally non-existent.

It was therefore with a feeling of doom and intense trepidation that I greeted his first words to me at the rehearsal. "Okay, this first one's in 7/8, switches to 6/8 for the middle eight and then goes back to 7/8 at the end." Yeah, right. " hum it, I'll play it." To make matters worse, as if counting bars and coming in and dropping out or changing the tempo on cue weren't catastrophic enough, their band consists of a cellist, a violinist, an acoustic guitarist, a flautist and two members whose versatility includes keyboards, banjo, bagpipes, penny whistles and recorders. The point being that there was no bassist nor drummer, the whole percussive input would have to come from yours truly. Blimey. Lawks oh Lordy.

Now any sensible person would of course at this point have requested a time out, headed for the bar and reconsidered the whole enterprise from a gently Stellad perspective. I just rolled a cigarette, told them to carry on as normal and I'd join in as and when I felt able.

I don't know if you know anything about playing congas so for the benefit of those amongst you who are in blissful ignorance I shall attempt to explain the unique problem they pose. With congas, rythmn is only a small part of the experience. Anyone can tap out a rythmn with a pen on a table. You can accent it every fourth beat or whatever but the point is that the sound of the pen hitting the table never varies. Hit a drum with a stick and you have the same basic sound every time. With congas, the rythmn comes from the wrists but the impact is through the hands and it is here that the unique character of congas shows itself. One conga can produce many sounds depending on both the point of impact and the shape of your hands at the time. The next time you hear someone play them, listen carefully and hear the tunes they play. The point is that even if you've got the rythmn down pat, the accents and the lilt are dependent on you knowing exactly what you are doing at all times with respect to hand shape and point of contact. That these patterns should follow and complement the music behind which they are playing goes without saying. My problem was not so much the strange rythmns, I soon picked those up but with finding the right patterns. Congas are Latin American and lend themselves to latin beats, samba, rumba, marenge and so on. Finding patterns to fit into Irish jigs is a horse of an entirely different colour.

Anyway, we had three rehearsals and out of the eight tunes they wanted me to play on, I had something down for about four of them in true conga style, another two just playing bodhran style on the biggest conga and nothing whatsoever for the other two, including the one in 7/8. Twas then I remembered I had two small North African clay drums and took them along to the pre-gig sound check. Just two sounds to bother about, just concentrate on the rythmn, job's a good 'un.

Onto the gig then...only about 100 people in a small intimate far so good...then I saw the TV cameras. At this juncture my mind clicked to blank. I'm looking at the set list, all those tunes I was to play on asterisked for my benefit and I can't remember any of 'em. Suffice it to say that during the very first number, I came in on the beat but played two bars of what should have been a straight 4/4 in something like 6/8 and had to bluff my way back into the groove as if I'd meant it all along. All week I'd been frantic about the 7/8 which proved a breeze and went down a storm and I cock up on the easiest one of the lot. Damn that Murphy! God knows when they're going to broadcast it but I sincerely hope no pirate videos find their way onto the'd cost me far too much to buy up all available copies.

The highlight of the evening? Well, apart from my solo in 12/8, the presentation afterwards to my good self of a bottle of Tullamore Dew as a reward for my endeavours. Nice work if you can get it.

So, hie all the equipment back home after the gig and log on to find United have only managed a 2-2 draw with 20th placed Watford despite their having their first choice goalkeeper sent off and being down to 10 men. Just what is it with the Blades these days? OK, we are still 3rd in the league but have yet to hit anything like form and that along with the injuries we have suffered seems to have affected the team's self belief. Think, "Oh, well. Bugger it!" call up a taxi and head back to town for alcoholic refreshment with the rest of the band. I enjoyed myself's always rewarding to make other people laugh in a language not your own and I was on good form! Added to that the fact that I managed to stay the right side of absolutely blattered made for a very good evening all in all.

And so on to Sunday and the capture of the 'Beast of Baghdad'. As good an excuse for a bit of statesmanship as any, I would have thought but the 'Ladies and Gentlemen.........we've got him!' soon put paid to any illusions I might have had on that subject. Still, I guess it's not too late to be able to make good use of this opportunity...if handled right, it could be the start of something good in Iraq but, if handled badly (and the first signs are not good), it could make a tricky situation even more insolubly messy.

Oh well. A one, a two, a one two three four five six seven...

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