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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 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 !

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