‘Cometh the Hour’ – 2020 single release by Imani Hekima

I decided to put out this song as a way of voicing my perspective on the times. It’s a song I actually wrote a couple of years ago but which feels nonetheless relevant. The track was released on 16 November 2020 and can be downloaded at iTunes, Amazon & Spotify.

An interview that I did on BCB Radio on November 25th, 2020 can be heard below.

Cancelled Culture, OR: ‘Stand up for your rights’, said Fred

If someone had told me on January 1st 2020 that Right Said Fred of Deeply Dippy fame would be one of the few high-profile voices in Britain to speak out against government tyranny, I’d probably have given them a number to ring, and a wide berth. Yet this is exactly what happened during a surreal year in which the music industry, like many others, came to a virtual standstill.


As we entered 2020, like many I’d been feeling for some time that the popular music industry wasn’t in great shape. Everything sounded so samey and predictable. At live shows, audiences were no longer watching the artists; in many cases they’d be at concerts either stood still pointing a mobile device to the stage, or filming themselves gurning into their Smartphones while the band played on in the background. It seemed a far cry from the glorious chaos of the mosh pit I’d experienced, and the pioneering maverick spirit of the past. It felt like the music was going through the motions.


Of course, I’m generalising here, but when viewed in hindsight and in context of how the year has panned out, from a symbolic perspective it could be said that the creative stagnation audible in the music was heralding the decay of the industry itself. For some, this might seem an outrageous suggestion but it’s difficult not to see this allegorically.


I’m not in the least bit jingoistic but the passing of Dame Vera Lynn seems so poignant in terms of 2020. Just over a month before her death she was interviewed and spoke about the power of music to comfort during hard times, urging people to “keep smiling and keep singing”. How ironic it is that we have had bureaucrats warning people of the dangers of singing as a possible means of spreading the virus. How anal (and cowardly) can they get?


The same month that Dame Vera Lynn gave that interview, Little Richard died. Again, this was of such importance. Here was someone who changed the world with his creativity, and without being in the least politically-driven, his music effected powerful change in the social climate of the USA, and beyond. Without Little Richard, in the UK there would have been no Beatles, no Stones, and nothing of the powerful music scene that gave so much joy to generations of people, at the kind of venues that are now in danger of closing.


It’s been more than refreshing to see, along with a series of protests opposing the measures in the UK and across the globe, a body of research challenging the measures, independent of government and corporate media, calling into question the need for the lockdowns, their effectiveness and legality. Surprisingly, this has not come only from the alternative media; some opposing voices have also come from the heart of the mainstream. Again, who would have thought that such mainstream figures as Kirstie Allsopp and Richard Madeley would number amongst the rank of dissenters?

What’s been most noticeable to me has been the lack of any response to the developments from the infrastructure of the industry, as well as most popular artists themselves, and not only in the UK. (Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, Ian Brown, Sir Van Morrison and Noel Gallagher have been exceptions to this.) In particular, many artists that have made their name and fame through ‘anti-establishment’ content, artists that had hitherto never shied away from outspoken social comment on the most provocative of topics, have been largely silent. The few that have spoken out against the measures have been rounded upon by mainstream media and even some of their fans as ‘conspiracy theorists’ and other predictable replies. At the same time, legions of their audience have been fully supportive.

In a youtube video discussion in October 2020 with Vincent Dunmall of Save Our Rights UK, author/alternative music researcher Mark Devlin (whose work focuses upon how popular music has been used as a form of social engineering) surmised whether the controllers of the industry had pulled the plug on it, so successful as it has been in its objectives. It’s a fair suggestion; after all, there has been precious little in the way of resistance from any corner of the industry.

One would think that in a scenario where careers are being threatened, there would be more of an outcry. Such a protest would be welcomed, I’m sure. The object here isn’t to judge nor attack anyone. It’s a commentary on the state of popular music in our society in general, in particular from that area which had always been regarded as the ‘counterculture’.

‘Cancellation’ takes on another meaning in 2020. We have the ‘slow cancellation of the future’ articulated by Mark Fisher in his Youtube talk of the same name. Then there’s the literal cancelling of gigs. Finally, we have ‘cancel culture’, wherein anyone can be effectively banned from public life if they’re deemed guilty of ‘WrongThink’. It’s tempting to consider whether it’s the combination of all three that has rendered musicians largely mute.

Stagnation and atrophy in any life situation usually is a sign of the ending of something, and the need for something new. While most of us would have neither expected nor be supportive of the kind of change that is occurring, it is a strange coincidence. In many ways, we’re seeing the death of the old.

WHY MUSIC THEORY BOOKS CAN HINDER LEARNING MUSIC

The best way to begin learning music theory is probably to ignore music theory books as much as possible. Along with books I’ll also include Youtube tutorials and blogs – most of them, anyway. Though for the time being, do please continue to read this one.

Use your ears

As a foundation I’d always advise learning the musical alphabet – which might sound a bit obvious but you’d be surprised how many musicians haven’t done this. A picture chord book at the start of your musical journey can also be invaluable, as it helps you to see how chords are put together.

Apart from that, you learn much more by using your ear. Sit down with your instrument and put on a recording of a song you want to learn. Be patient; play back any tricky sections and with time and persistence, you’ll get it.

If you find playing by ear difficult, then put in extra work. There are many good tutorials on Youtube that can help in this area. Get hold of a song book or chord chart that has the chords for particular songs you’d like to learn but don’t become too reliant upon song books either. I would also say avoid all apps like the musical version of the plague – not just because they get things completely wrong at times, but because you aren’t using your ears. Your listening ability is the most important skill you have as a musician (apart from avoiding being financially ripped off), and there are no short cuts.

Drawbacks of theory books

Music theory books basically do this: They will look at a selection of pieces of music. It’s then noted that many composers at a certain time were using particular kinds of chords, rhythms, approaches to melody etc.

Music theory books usually say something on these lines: “This is how a chord progression works. This chord is always followed by that one…” Unfortunately, what most of these books don’t tell you is that musicians have always CONSISTENTLY broken or ignored these ‘rules’.

Imagine how confusing it would be to learn loads of music theory, and then try to learn and understand a song. It would be even more confusing for someone to write a piece of music, having never used their ears.

So, when SHOULD you learn music theory?

First of all, you should only learn it if you think it’s really going to help you, otherwise do what works for you.

I think it’s best if you start once you’ve got enough experience of learning songs by ear under your belt to begin with.

In general, sheet music, music theory, and video tutorials on youtube can be useful, in moderation. Their number one flaw is that they each fail to develop the listening skills.

You can learn all the rules of grammar in the world, but that on its own can’t teach you how to write or tell a great story. The same goes for music theory. This is why there are so many instances of artists who haven’t gone through academic music training that have come up with brilliant tunes.

There are some things you can only learn by doing, by putting the books to one side and putting the ears to work.

Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 2: the birth of reggae

 

Ska had given birth to rocksteady and by the late 1960s, another innovation was under way. The entire approach to musical instruments changed, especially the drums and bass but the keyboards – in particular the electric organ – also played a crucial role in the creation of this new sound, far more than it had previously done. The guitar had an equally essential role, which I’ll touch upon.

Reggae grew out of musicians drawing even deeper upon indigenous musical styles and traditions unique to Jamaica; they looked back in order to move forward. Reggae (and ska) were often seen by rock-oriented music historians as ‘upside down rock and roll/r&b’. American influences played a huge role in the music’s growth however, its most fundamental elements are indigenous to Jamaican musical styles. One of these styles was mento, a pre-ska style similar to calypso played on acoustic instruments.

In mento, the acoustic guitar or banjo does an offbeat strum that was directly brought into reggae.  This is a 1952 mento recording by Lord Messam, where you can already hear the offbeat that would later characterise reggae and rocksteady, a good decade before both of those musics ‘officially’ began.

Organists began to mimic this guitar pattern, and it added a new, choppy rhythmic feel to the music. Based upon the older mento style, it was a completely original approach to the keyboard. The musician that many cite as the originator is keyboardist Glen Adams, who featured on the Wailers’ landmark recordings with Lee Perry. The keyboard style was nicknamed as the ‘John Crow Skank’. The story goes that the alternating left and right hand action of the keyboard player apparently looked like the flapping of the John Crow bird’s wings, hence its name!

Here’s Adams playing on Slim Smith’s Everybody Needs Love.

Instrumentals

There’s an incredibly large amount of organ-led instrumentals in early reggae. With the exception of the early digital/computerised dancehall tracks of the mid 80s, keyboard-based tracks had never been so prevalent. They caught on in late 60s/early 70s Britain; the Trojan ‘Tighten Up’ series of albums had sold well in the black community, and then with the first wave of skinheads.

A few of these tunes did well in the UK charts; Double Barrel, featuring Ansel Collins on the keys, topped the British charts. Others such as Liquidator and Elizabethan Reggae also crossed over into the pop charts. The organist on those two tunes is Winston Wright.

There’s something about the keyboard-led tunes that reminds me of fairgrounds; indeed these tunes and other vintage reggae records were played at fairgrounds even up until the 1980s – and perhaps it’s because the organ has a traditional link to fairs that strengthens the connection.

‘Live Injection’, a Lee Perry production featuring the Wailers rhythm section and Glen Adams on organ is an exciting tune. The sound of the Hammond organ jumps out of the speakers. This sound informed 2 tone, in particular Desmond Brown’s playing on early Selecter records. (Listen to his solo on ‘On My Radio’.)

 

 

 

Keyboards in Jamaican music – pt 1: ska and rocksteady

This had originally intended to show the development of piano/keyboard playing in Jamaican music, but rather than just do a step-by-step timeline, I’ve picked out a few favourite tunes that have impacted upon me as a musician.

Ska
The first one is ‘Broadway Jungle’ by Toots and The Maytals. I love the piano riff that goes on throughout the tune, it’s the icing on the cake of a typically joyous Toots and The Maytals performance. The piano does an intro that is a little like Jackie Mittoo’s El Bang Bang, and it may well be Jackie playing on this track.

The next track I’ve chosen, Killer Diller by Jackie Mittoo is a departure, as it features the electric organ playing the main melody. It’s a Booker T & the MGs/Watermelon Man-type track but in ska, and, reflecting the influence of jazz on Jamaican musicians, the organ solo is in the soul-jazz mode.

Rocksteady
Napoleon Solo, is a classic piece of rocksteady. On piano again is Jackie Mittoo, heard with the Soul Vendors which was a splinter group from The Skatalites. (Could be Lynn Taitt and The Jets.) I could almost imagine this as something from a 40s big band but adapted to the one drop style. The piano has a nice, understated jazz touch.

Ali Shuffle AKA ‘Rock Steady’ (and Seven Wonders Of The World) is a tribute to Buster’s friend Muhammad Ali, and it’s another organ-led piece, played by Winston Wright. What’s notable is the middle eastern tinge, which may have been a musical nod to the fact that both Ali and Buster were muslims. Coincidentally, John Coltrane and Yusef Lateef were also exploring African and middle eastern elements, as was the genre called ‘exotica’ through people such as Martin Denny and Les Baxter. This sound crops up in some of Don Drummond’s work and was later mined by Augustus Pablo in his output. Anyone familiar with The Specials will recognise Ali Shuffle as a precursor to Ghost Town.

Continue reading

Reflections on ‘Mirror In The Bathroom’

MIRROR IN THE BATHROOM

 Mirror In The Bathroom is a remarkable song by British band The Beat, who came to prominence in the late 70s 2 Tone movement.

It went to number three in the British charts back in 1980 (it was their third single), and was their biggest hit. Yet if you were to ask anyone who knows the song to say what it’s actually about, chances are they’d go blank. It goes to show how a song can strike a chord with many people without them needing to understand it. In a lot of ways, it’s such a danceable record that the meaning is quite secondary to the ‘beat’. I’ll come to the lyrics later.

The music

When I first heard the Beat’s debut single, a cover of Tears of a Clown, I felt they had something different going on from their 2 Tone peers. From the beginning of the band, they’d set out to fuse the energy of punk with the supple, lilting rhythms of reggae. Among others, they initially took their musical cues from fellow Birmingham band The Equators but quickly established their own signature sound.

‘Ska’ became used as a convenient catch-all phrase to categorise the songs made by bands associated with 2 tone; look a little closer and you realise that ‘Mirror in the Bathroom’ isn’t ska at all. It’s a new music.

There’s a rich variety of musical ingredients in the pot. In Mirror, you have a mixture of uptempo steppers-reggae drums, dubby/Velvet Underground-styled bass, new wave guitar chords – neither major nor minor thanks to Dave Wakeling’s “wrongly” tuned guitar. On top of that, there’s Saxa’s jazz-tinged tenor sax with its soulful, dark yet sweet melodies. On paper, this mixture of styles shouldn’t work, but it does. Bassist David Steel’s description of their sound as a ‘weird chemistry’ kind of sums it up.

There isn’t one single element that defines their sound. Like with all great groups, the sum is greater than the individual parts. Though if I was to highlight an ‘x-factor’, it would have to be Everett Morton’s drumming. The drums always determine the sound of a band, and Everett’s playing – a sprightly Sly Dunbar-type of rhythm – gives the whole thing a unique energy, groove and edge.

The lyrics

If you listen to the words, what you have is a collection of images involving mirrors. That in itself is odd; what makes it even more obscure is the fact that there isn’t really a ‘story’ woven into the three verses. There’s an element of mystery about it, and you sense only the writer is privy to its meaning. Interestingly, the only other lyricist whom I’m aware of that writes in this way is Lee Thompson, saxophonist and founder member of Madness. Here’s Dave Wakeling revealing how he came to pen the lyrics.