Monday, 16 November 2015

Fuck Guitars - Songlines Soapbox

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 113, December 2015.

A few pieces of wood, six strings and a handful of twiddly mechanical bits – put them together in the right order and you have an instrument that has arguably had a greater impact on music in the last 100 years than anything or anyone else.

Since the modern guitar came about in the mid-18th century, it has become the most widespread instrument in the world, being adapted to play almost every kind of music and acting as a catalyst for the development of new genres – from delta blues and reggae to flamenco and palm-wine – and of course many, many types of rock music.

2015 marks the 60th anniversary of the two guitars, bass and drums set-up, and that standard rock guitar band formula is going as strong as ever. In fact, it has become so ubiquitous that when the UK’s biggest music festival features headliner that doesn’t follow that format, more than 100,000 people will sign a petition of complaint.

It’s not hard to see how this global instrumental explosion came about – guitars are portable, they can be very cheap, it’s easy to learn the basics, and we almost all grew up listening to the guitar greats of the last century. Guitar culture is now well and truly ingrained.

Guitars are used in traditional and neo-traditional music almost everywhere, sometimes together with local instruments, sometimes replacing them – for example, Tuareg guitar bands are famous in our circles, but it’s very rare to hear a traditional tehardent or imzad. Closer to home, British folk clubs are now mostly the reserve of voice and guitar, with the wonderful array of folk instruments falling by the wayside. Well, I don’t like it. The guitar has been king for too long and it’s slowly wearing away at the world’s glorious diversity. I’m sure you all agree with me. But complaining won’t help. What we need is a plan.

Now, under my glorious leadership, I will propose a global guitar ban. I know, I know, it’s not going to be very popular, but it’s for your own good, got it? Not forever, let’s try it for 25 or 30 years and see where things end up. A guitar-free generation. Let’s make it acoustic, classical and electric guitars for now. Bass guitars would probably have to fall under the umbrella too. Non-standard guitars, including pedal steels, Mohan veenas and the like, are a bit of a grey area, and probably exempt, although further consultation would be required on this.

Guitar records are of course perfectly acceptable, it would be indecent to ban the legends; their influence deserves to live on. Hopefully, viewing the guitar oeuvre in retrospect will cause the best music and musicians to rise to the top, allowing us, as a people, to forget the most mundane output.

The idea is not to get rid of guitars because of some mean-spirited and petty gripe, it’s simply a means to an end. If all goes well, this could usher in a new dawn of musical creativity! People would no longer be shackled to the guitar and children would no longer grow up thinking that ‘musician’ means ‘guitarist’ – a world of instruments would open up to them, interest in a wider range of timbres would flourish, and with it an appreciation for more varied music.

Perhaps there would be a revival of older, less guitar-oriented styles. Folk and brass music would be reenergised in Britain. People would return to and reinvent the roots of what has become guitar music in many cultures. A cappella song would blossom all over the world. And as these other styles are rediscovered, so too a whole variety of older, dying or extinct instruments. The all-purpose guitar is out, let’s find more individual, unique and exciting instruments – there is such a wealth of sounds out there for former or would-be guitarists to embrace, so pick up something new and experiment! Bassists could switch to a double bass at a pinch, but why not opt for something more creative? How about using a guimbri, a bassoon or take the lead of Terem Quartet and take the contrabass balalaika to new heights?

With luck, by the time guitars are reintroduced, the musical landscape will have changed for good. Guitars will integrate themselves as an important but by no means necessary instrument in the newly and widely diverse scene. And then we’ll have, y’know, world peace.

As you can see, there would be absolutely no downsides to this plan. Well, maybe a few. All the experimentation will produce unexpected results, and these could be amazing! But on the other hand, we could see the guitar band replaced by spoken word recited over gamelan played entirely on electric accordions. Such is the nature of unpredictability.

Maybe guitars will just be replaced near-wholesale by another instrument – piano, perhaps – and the period of proscription would just be waited-out, the guitar and guitar music eventually continuing their global dominance for decades to come. It may even be worse: the (let’s face it) inevitable uprising and overthrow may well lead to a guitar revival, meaning even more ubiquity and homogeny.

So, do we reckon this is a good idea? Do the pros outweigh the cons? Will you join me in a global musical revolution against the tyranny of the guitar?! Well, for now, I guess we’ll have to let the UN decide…but watch this space!

Photo: Smashed Guitars, by Eva Rinaldi. Used under licence CC BY-SA 2.0.

The Umoza Music Project - Let Them Speak

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 113, December 2015.

The Umoza Music Project
Let Them Speak
Nub Country Records (41 mins)

18 musicians, separated by 18,000 km, record an album. The Umoza Music Project is a joint Malawian and British project, and many of the musicians haven’t even met in real life. Not that it shows in the music.

The first impression of this record is that of a sort of Afro-funk Beatles. The similarities are striking throughout: the guitar sounds at times as if played by a tribute George Harrison. In tracks such as ‘Upewe!’, the influence is so strong it’s distracting and it’s no surprise that when the last track comes, a sitar plays a prominent role. This track, ‘Malawi Parts I & II’, was the genesis track of the project, and is actually one of the highlights.

When not in Beatles mode, the group has a couple of reggae tracks. Their quality is fairly good, and they feel like the most honest pieces on the whole album: ‘Reggae Banta’ is probably the best track of the collection, featuring a great Chichewa-language rap.

There are moments where the group take a cheesy turn, but not offensively so. These moments can be ignored in the scope of the full album, which is fun and enjoyable…if not wholly original.

SK Kakraba - Songs of Paapieye

First published in Songlines Magazine issue 113, December 2015.

SK Kakraba
Songs of Paapieye
Awesome Tapes from Africa (33 mins)

SK Kakraba is Ghanaian, living in Los Angeles, and his instrument is the gyil. This pentatonic xylophone of the Lobi people gets its distinctive sound from the spider-web silks stretched over the sound-gourds. This creates a rasping sound and, sonically, it’s not an amazing leap to think of this as an acoustic equivalent of Konono No.1’s electric likembé. The aesthetic of the buzz is found all over the continent, especially in West Africa, but it’s becoming rarer as musicians and producers strive towards the cleanest sound possible. It’s great to hear the buzz celebrated on this album.

This is the very first original album by Awesome Tapes from Africa – unlike the label’s other releases, it is not a reissue of an African cassette, but was recorded especially for this release. Songs of Paapieye consists of six instrumentals, half an hour of solo gyil. It’s the perfect amount of time to be able to meditate on the instrument’s timbre and Kakraba’s mastery of skill.

Together, the layering of harmonics that the buzz allows and the cycles of slightly varying repetition create a hypnotising resonance that gets into your head and lets you to fall into it completely for the duration of the album.