A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 5

The fifth in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

  Developing a personalised approach

I had another five years of touring and recording with a reformed The Work to which I could now bring some of my new found musical attributes. It gave me greatly increased scope for how a drum kit could be played although, maybe perversely, it made me select and hone down to the essence how I chose to play something. Experience does give you choice.

From the 1980s to the present day, I’ve been developing my own music, whether it be manifested on record or in my workshops.  Such workshops tend to have an inclusive outlook. Unless specifically stated, beginners are always welcome and I tailor the activities accordingly. There are countless group activities to nurture and develop a sense of time, rhythm and beyond. These must be interesting and engaging, not terminally repetitive – that’s for personal, private practice. I incorporate many ideas and chunks of style from the many different people and styles I’ve been exposed to but I always attempt to mix them into my own personal take on them. I can’t claim that community drumming has taken off to the extent that community singing has done in the last 30 years but it has certainly become more visible. I like to think I’ve played a small part in this.

Home recording – 1980s and 90s style

I first bought a cassette recorder when I was in my mid-twenties. Its portability allowed me to take it out and about and record anything that made interesting sounds. I didn’t realise it at first, but what I was doing was to start building an audio library resource of my own, that would later expand greatly, and give me my own private vaults to plunder when making original compositions. It could be the sound of machinery operating in a factory or building site, snatches of conversation or even music. I’ve always believed in harnessing all sorts of odder sounds alongside a more conventional range of instruments.

During the late 1980s, I shared ownership of a Fostex 4 track cassette recorder.

It was a radical upgrade that enabled an expanded process of recording to happen – multi-tracking!  This allowed me to take my first steps in composing original pieces which I then invited other musicians to add parts to. I eventually had enough material for a whole album which I then took to a ‘proper’ studio to tidy up and polish. I called this project ‘Pangaea Sound’ but it failed to ignite immediate interest and after a while I had to recognise its own shortcomings. I put it to rest but it had provided me with a starting point.

When my own drumming workshops had become more regular and popular, I went into a small studio to record an instructional drumming tape: ‘Beating Time – Making Rhythm’. A good portion of that material has endured well and I’ve used it widely in developed forms over the years. During my time in that studio, I took the opportunity to create a variety of well recorded loops and samples – basically tiny extracts of my own and other people’s music that I could later transform out of all recognition and re-invent creatively. That would stand me in good stead for my next recording adventure. I will expand on the morality of this in a later blog.

We are now in the mid 90s and, by this time, I had my own dedicated working space in the garden. This was a generous present from Helen to encourage the expansion of my efforts.  It was structurally a pre-fabricated concrete building which I then slightly soundproofed. It was more than a shed though perhaps a little less than a studio. It proved to be an important transitional working space for me even though I could only get one other musician in there with me.

At this time, I felt the need to add some new ingredients to my life – to expand my experience in a new way. I had recently returned from another trip to Kerala where I had been overjoyed to meet and start a new period of chenda drum study, now under Mattanur Shankaran Marar, one of the truly greats of his genre. Apart from the practical business of playing and learning, I had developed a serious interest in the theoretical and historical aspects of not just this genre, but of Indian and African music in the wider sense.

This interest led me to apply to SOAS – the School of Oriental and African Studies at London University – where I investigated the possibilities of an undergraduate degree course that included these areas of interest.

To gain a place here, as a mature student, I had to undergo a preliminary course of study at Morley College to re-acquaint myself with the mechanics of study and studentship. I also had to take enough lessons in music theory, reading and writing, to satisfy the requirements of entry. This took an academic year by which time I had secured a place at SOAS. It wasn’t the course I had hoped for as it was a mixed course that involved south Asian cultural studies and Hindi language as well as music. The first year was a roller coaster where, at times, I doubted my decision but at least I was in there and I had often heard that, once inside, students could change courses. Fortunately, after the first year, I was offered the opportunity to specialise in music. The second and third years were far better. I worked industriously and was happy to achieve a 2:1. Where to now?

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 4

                                                              A Giant Leap into the Unknown

 

Inspired by the idea of a complete change of scene and influence, I (together with Helen), found our way to rural Kerala in south west India on the trail of Kathakali dance drama and its associated drumming. This trip could fill a whole book in itself but I will try to stay on task with the particular job in hand.

 

the chenda

We lived with a Brahmin (high caste) family in a village and began an intensive course of watch, learn and (try to) do – Helen with dance and me with drumming. Everything was different. Now concentrating on a single drum, the large, heavy, cylindrical chenda, I was required to start again, usually with the children, together with my first teacher Vidiyan Damodaran Nair (VDN). This was very much the traditional model of learning – one to one with a guru. Now, here’s the catch……..I wasn’t allowed the drum. Instead, a flat log and a pair of fat 10 inch sticks – first you walk then perhaps you might be able to run. More critically still, a new technique for my right hand needed to be learnt. Instead of the normal up / down motion, the right (or leading) hand is played in a ‘towards you, away from you’ action. This was very difficult to get to grips with and created many aches in muscles who screamed  ‘why are you putting us through this?’  The local children had no such problems and my struggles created a lot of humour amongst them on a daily basis. This was probably when I was first struck by the notion of humility. I did make some progress however and mastered the initial ‘Ganapedikai’ blessing. I even managed a go on an actual drum at the end!  I think my teacher thought it was ok but he had almost no English and the household weren’t in the habit of passing on any thoughts he might have had.

 

After this three month adventure, returning to England presented me with a blank page. I had left The Work to go exploring with no plan beyond. Helen’s vision of a multi-cultural group of storytellers and musicians began to crystalise and I could see creative mileage in it, having experienced many manifestations of such-like in India. I became the drummer in Common Lore Storytellers and Musicians, a group who told traditional stories with related music and song to young and old in every conceivable type of venue and circumstance. As the group secured funding, it expanded its personnel and remit. Apart from the performance angle, I now devised drum and rhythm workshops. I even told stories sometimes but that’s another tale………….

 

Working with African, Indian, Caribbean, South American and Middle Eastern practitioners quickly expanded my knowledge and capability and also showed me how much more I had to learn. New intricacies and subtleties were revealed. I learnt how to fit complementary but different parts of a rhythmic jigsaw together in the classic model of African polyrhythm – what I call vertical formation – or how to negotiate the lines of an Indian tala ( a cycle of a particular number of beats phrased in a certain way) and come out at the end to hit the Sam (1st beat of new cycle) bang on – what I call horizontal or lateral formation.  All very wondrous stuff that seems to carry a degree of elusiveness about it. There is a quote from a latin percussionist who says ‘ I play clave (key / time line) all my life in the hope that one day I will manage to  play the perfect clave’  There is always another destination up ahead!

A Slave to the Rhythm – Part 3

The third in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

No 3: Influences and idiosyncracies

Time check – 1976. Musically, my ears had been filled by a glorious and rewarding period of listening. Electric jazz had been stirring me most for three or four years and I was influenced by the various drummers that Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock and Weather Report employed. There were many others of course in other genres.  As players, they occupied a different planet to me but I followed the ethos (still do) that you make your own personal stamp and style. It’s all part of being your own man.

English drummer / singer Robert Wyatt had been an inspiration for some years. He made his own playing style by a mixture of following his own intuition and not being super-technical. I warmed to his individuality and his spirit, and his social circumstances were nearer to me than the super hero drummers through the ages and all the brilliant college graduates that followed in their wake.

Wyatt’s own drumming career was cut short by a major accident which caused him to become wheelchair bound but he reinvented himself as a singer who Elvis Costello described as ‘the most individual voice in English pop.’ Wyatt’s early playing provided a blueprint for drummer Chris Cutler to take a lot further, initially with the group Henry Cow and latterly with too many to mention. Cutler’s playing was a polar opposite to the jazz and groove players I’d taken to heart but I picked up some particular and idiosyncratic elements from him which I added to my playing – a kind of free flow stream of consciousness that wasn’t to do with holding down a line but snaking in, out and roundabout – playing like a moving target but with strong intent and purpose. When I first started playing with The Work, I needed this approach as the music, although tightly and densely written, was also restless and didn’t hang around anywhere for very long. I’ll return to that further on.

What then followed was a year of challenging old habits and trying to create credible idiosyncracies. This involved trying to make the knowingly naïve sit happily alongside sturdy rolling polyrhythms. It was a very experimental period and also when I was making records for the first time. Getting to be able to produce the goods when the red light was on was a new adventure. My co-conspirators at that time were The Family Fodder and People in Control who both aspired to make very off -centre pop music. It was during this period that I was inducted into roots reggae and the radical world of the dub mix. Once again, the way I saw it was not to mimic blindly but to incorporate facets of these styles into my playing and to know when to bring them to the fore. This involved a lot of listening and practical application. Also, at this time, I was listening to an increasing amount of non-western music which seemed to throw the doors wide open when it came to exploring rhythm and its endless possibilities. The concept of rhythm in Indian music is a deep and vast area of exploration – practically a science. I listened from a distance, unknowingly. I didn’t have a key that fitted that particular door but, not far ahead, I would find a locksmith who would create one for me.

Rick in action with The Work in Wurzburg, Germany in July 1981

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was next asked to be the drummer in a new group just forming. It would become The Work and would be a major step upwards. The Work was just that. A very intense initiation in total commitment to the cause. Eight hour rehearsal days learning complex music that required me to find new ways to play. The guiding force of the group was Tim Hodgkinson, a highly talented and driven musician I had admired previously from his time in Henry Cow. Tim played keyboards and reed instruments and was developing as a flat (slide) guitar player and singer. He also composed very demanding music. Our quartet made a fearful, uncompromising sound and no money but we toured Europe extensively and made records. I felt fully-fledged though somewhat marginalised  by our ‘super independent’ stance. I gained immeasurable experience from the two years I spent in this company but my ears were hearing more and more  music from far flung places and these sounds seemed to be voices calling me to up sticks and away.

After two years in this hothouse, I announced that I had intentions to travel. Despite the tempting prospect of a tour of Japan, I made the decision to leave the band. It felt like a huge leap into the unknown with no turning back. It was, and it wasn’t………………………

Voices from Off Centre

Rick’s latest album, ‘Voices from Off-Centre’ has now been released on Third Force Records and is available for download from Bandcamp.  It’s also available in hard copy on CD.

Voices From Off-Centre casts a wide view of voice:- songs, intonations, the calls of traders and of birds, captured voices recontextualised, playground rhymes and electronic manipulations. Some run on rhythm, some more mysteriously. All instruments are played or persuaded by Rick but considerable contributions are also made by Roxane Smith, who sings on nine songs, by Niall Ross, soprano saxophone on two and by Viv Corringham, a voice presence on one.

There’s already been some really lovely feedback, with the album being described as “haunting”, “beautiful – fresh and clear” and even “symphonic” in places.

You can hear ‘Voices from Off-Centre’ by clicking the link to Rick’s Bandcamp site here, where you can also download the album or give it as a gift.

 

A Slave to the rhythm: Part 2

The second in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now

No 2 –  Allusions, elusions and illusions

 

Not having any transport, I had little opportunity to get around and play with other people. For a while I couldn’t see any way forward without making some critical decisions.

 

After an unhappy term of study at North London Polytechnic, I dropped out and began a series of manual jobs – record packing, verge cutting, stockroom and warehouse portering and so on. The aim was to find a house or flat with like-minded souls where we could play music. This took five months, after which time we were installed in what we all saw as the perfect spot. One major bedroom doubled as the band room / social gathering space and it was perfectly positioned on the third floor, with no neighbours on either side and one below, who lived at the back of her flat and didn’t hear very well.

 

From here, we had the luxury of being able to play every day and a number of bands were formed with interchangeable personnel whilst I began to learn my craft – though still very much unschooled. I could keep time in 5, 6 and 7 beats in a bar before I could properly syncopate a strong rhythm in 4 (common) time. Evening rehearsals often had an audience of friends who dropped by for various reasons….but I digress.

Four core residents quickly reduced to three, two of which, myself being one, were musical novices. The third, who had proper musical grounding, knowledge and ability stuck with us until circumstance, and opportunity drew us apart. The core band started out as Bygones and Trigons but somehow had become The Famous Tripods by the end. But, by that time, I had had two lessons from a respected player ! It doesn’t sound like much but they made a huge difference. They got me over some technical limitations and gave me a clearer analytical angle on my playing , and on drumming in general. This luxury of a home rehearsal space turned out to be a mixed blessing. It didn’t give us much impetus to get out and play gigs, although we were keen to ditch our day jobs, such as they were .

 

Bygones and Trigons, or The Famous Tripods:

Clifford ‘Bill’ Taylor, Mick Parker, Rick Wilson.  1973.

 

My first unified drum kit (model – Olympic) was cheap but very decent. What made it peculiar was that, for reasons of needing to restrict the volume, I covered the drum heads with towelling cloth, which deadens the sound to a tuneless thud. As time went on, I cut away more of the cloth but never the whole lot and so, consequently, I never learnt about the subtleties of tone and about bouncing a stick – both crucial elements to understanding and doing. However, I pushed on.

 

During this time I had taken a government clerical job working locally. Such jobs paid salaries and were career orientated, but I vowed when I started that I would have saved the necessary pounds to buy my drumkit of choice and to have left the job within eighteen months. A year and a half later, I had my Hayman drums and my Paiste cymbals and I was out of the Home Office and into the Social Security Office – but as a claimant not a clerk. I had grown a small network of musicians and was getting out to play. The flat in Croydon had run its course. I had moved elsewhere and had started gigging semi-pro, supporting myself sometimes with pick -up work, plentiful then, and at others courtesy of the State. The towelling was off the drums for good !

A slave to the rhythm

The first in an occasional series from Rick about his life as a musician – where it all started and what it has come to now.

No 1  – How did it all begin ?

Its hard to say exactly what started me off on this caper but, if pressed, I would have to say it was in the ‘just pre-Beatles’ phase of pop music. My elder brother and I shared a transistor radio with earphones and Radio Luxembourg was our go-to domain. Perhaps it was hearing ‘Let there be drums’ by Sandy Nelson or ‘Diamonds’ by Jet Harris and Tony Meahan or maybe even “Take Five’ by Dave Brubeck that caught my ear. All were single 45 discs, all heavily featured drums and all were top ten hits – a rare combination.

I had a friend in primary school who acquired a drum kit somehow. Unimaginable for me at the time, but I got to look and touch it. I can’t say I ever played them but they sparkled and looked good. As time went on, my interest on the airwaves of music expanded to include the pirate radio stations Caroline and London. This certainly opened further my musical horizons in stark contrast to the regimented, dull music periods of early secondary school. For most of us, this meant singing scales or wrestling with recorders. Bad performance was often responded to by physical punishment from the teacher. There did seem a huge gulf between the pleasure I was getting from listening to music on the radio and the idea of taking part myself.  I had no positive pointers to help at this time as there was no history of music making in my family.

More time passed. More music was heard. By the time I reached the sixth form in secondary school, I had met some new friends who could play guitars and keyboards.  I had no hankering to do that but the spirit of the age caught me and I saw that there were people out there adopting a more individual and self-schooled approach to playing.  I was going to concerts and gigs by then and a different world became alive to me.

I can never remember exactly if I asked, or was asked, to try my hand as percussionist for a school play with two other ‘proper’ guitarist friends. By now I was magnetised by Ginger Baker and Mitch Mitchell – both great, expansive drummers who were given acres of room to improvise within their famous trios – Cream and the Jimi Hendrix Experience respectively.

That was the absolute opposite of where I was but it turned out well, as equipped with just a set of bongos, one cymbal on a converted music stand and a pair of sticks, I kept myself and my cohorts in time – result !  At that point, I must confess that I briefly took my lead from one Steve Peregrin-Took, who played a similar supporting role to Marc Bolan in the original Tyrannosaurus Rex. I kind of looked like him too at the time (or aspired to).

 

 

From this point, I started playing regularly with one of the above- mentioned guitarists and featured in a couple of school concerts. We both wrote lyrics too. I felt I was at first base now and that gave me the encouragement to want to develop. At home, with the aid of pocket money and an eye for a bargain, I began to buy second- hand bits and pieces that became my first drum kit. In private I began to play without recourse to learning the usual rudiments. I must have thought that I could run before walking but, more likely, thought wasn’t present in that consideration.  I set myself my own agenda. With a newly adapted headphone socket, courtesy of a clever friend, I was able to use headphones with a Dansette record player and play along to records. I would select 3 stylistically different album sides (I was developing a small vinyl LP collection and borrowed from friends), which would make for an hour’s playing. The choice of playing time in the day could only be before my parents returned home from work – ie after school. The next door neighbour, retired and mostly housebound was not best pleased. He made his feelings known to my parents and I played more discreetly !

 

Early band mates:

Neven Sidor, Rick Wilson, Jim Collins.   1970.

Locked down but not held back

Like so many others in the world right now, our live activities are on hold because of lockdown restrictions. We clearly have no idea when this situation is likely to change. However, we have not been idle in this time.

telling a fisherman’s tale

Just before we knew that lockdown was imminent, we took part in a joyful event organised by Extinction Rebellion in Oswestry.  With an inspiring display of the group’s recent activities, lots of things for kids to do and a hall buzzing with repair of tools and equipment, the day was a great reminder of how looking after our planet can bring people together to have a good time too.  We told two stories about how people are bound into their local environment, and how if we look after the natural world we reap the benefits in unexpected ways.

 

 

When we realised that the summer’s live performances could not go ahead we took our first steps into online broadcasts. On May 12th both Helen and Rick were interviewed via Amy Douglas’ webinar hook-up as part of ‘Taking the tradition on’: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VupjQStU4mw

Two days later we went live in ‘performance’ as part of Amy’s monthly ‘Get a Word in Edgeways ‘ webinar.

Helen has also done a podcast interview: http://traffic.libsyn.com/takingthet…/Helen_East_Podcast.mp3.

               At home in Llansilin we are appreciating the loveliness of the early summer. Helen continues to write and Rick continues to compose and record, awaiting the green light to be able to put the finishing touches to his forthcoming album ‘Voices From Off Centre’.

The old harper and the sea beast

The old harper and the sea beast is a story created for “Of sea and shore and the worlds in between”, first performed at the Roundhouse in the Felin Uchaf Centre at Rhoshirwaun, Pwlheli. Click here to hear how it unfolds.

Stick story maps

Stick story maps are a tool that Helen uses with groups creating stories in a particular landscape. Participants are given a stick and some string and encouraged to find objects that illustrate aspects of their story and tie them on as prompts when re-telling their story. The sticks illustrated were created from work in and around the Oriel Gallery in Newtown, Powys whilst working with artist Bec Knight.

Slate marimbas

Rick collects roof slates and uses them to make pentatonic (5 note) marimbas, struck with soft mallets. Each slate must pass the test of having a strong tone when struck. He often incorporates the playing and painting of these in creative schools’ work, then leaving them situated somewhere like the school garden, so they are accessible and playable. These examples are from a project with the primary school at Chirk.