Cooking food and making music

Not being a major gourmet, I’d never considered any link between the respective arts of cooking food and music making until recently. What triggered it was attending the funeral of a friend’s mother, a Jamaican lady of the Windrush generation who had made her transition in December 2021 at the age of 85.

Among the tributes given was one by a woman who as a thirteen year old had attended a cookery class delivered at Bradford West Indian Parents Association by this Jamaican ‘auntie’, and another Caribbean lady. By all accounts these two women were a joy to work with, yet with a formidable strictness that would have made Gordon Ramsay quake in his chef’s hat. In her tribute, she recalled one class in which she took out a notepad and pen to write down in great detail the directions given to her. Noticing the skeptical looks of her teachers, the conversation that followed ran a little like this:

“Weh yu doing?”

“Oh, I’m just writing down the ingredients.”

“No need, love. All yu need in the kitchen is yu hands, yu eye, and yu mout’.”

It wasn’t until I thought about this anecdote the following day that it struck me how much this approach has in common with music making. The sense of going by your own feel and intuition rather than following a strict format. The feeling of being in the moment, where the piece of music doesn’t have to be identically played every day, sticking rigidly to the same arrangement. In this way, the same meal/piece of music will be different each time but still taste good.

I’m sure people have experienced how food prepared by sticking to the letter of a recipe book usually doesn’t taste right. It’s as though there’s something missing. Even more in keeping with the musical process, I’ve seen a couple of cookery articles where writers are saying it’s OK to make mistakes in the kitchen, embrace them! I’d be willing to bet that some of the tastiest meals were created despite the misgivings of the cook believing they’d put either too much or too little of an ingredient, over-cooked it, etc.

To end on a culinary note, here’s Candy Mckenzie performing ‘Ice Cream’, with Lee Scratch Perry at the controls.

The Wisdom of Mistakes

One of my favourite musician stories is an anecdote Herbie Hancock shared about a concert he played in 1964 as the pianist in Miles Davis’ group in Stuttgart, Germany. It has an unconventional twist to it because rather than the usual recalling of how on top of their game the band was, his recollection actually centres around a wrong chord he played.

Many musicians have had the experience of mistakenly playing the wrong chord, note or beat during a performance (or for that matter a writing session) and finding that the thing they played ended up sounding better than what they’d intended. Herbie’s account runs on similar lines but takes the meaning of the event much further.

He takes up the story at 2:06 up to 5:34.

What’s remarkable is Herbie uses this experience on the bandstand as an analogy for what takes place in the process of everyday life. The phrase “turning poison into medicine” draws upon his Buddhist practice. I’m also reminded of the Kybalion (ancient Egyptian-based hermetic writings), and two of its seven principles/laws – ‘correspondence’ and ‘polarity’ respectively. The law of correspondence relates to how you can draw analogies from one life situation as a way of teaching you about something else that may be ostensibly unrelated. In this case we have the details of a musical performance being put forward as a metaphor for life. There’s also the law of polarity, which the Kybalion presents as follows:

“Everything is dual; everything has poles; everything has its pair of opposites; like and unlike are the same; opposites are identical in nature, but different in degree; extremes meet; all truths are but half-truths; all paradoxes may be reconciled.” (The Kybalion)

Let’s say someone finds themselves in a challenging situation, due to their own or others’ mistakes and bad choices. By being open enough to reflect and learn the lessons contained therein, the person can grow and the same situation becomes transformed from being “poisonous” to its polar opposite – medicine i.e. something that’s healing. The important point being that they had to make the mistake in order to then experience the growth. Just as Miles might not have played those amazing melodies without Herbie’s ‘wrong chord’.

Perhaps Miles Davis was right when he said “Do not fear mistakes. There are none.”. Then again, all truths are but half-truths.

Influences: Sunday mornings and reggae

An abiding childhood memory of mine is hearing ska and early reggae tunes playing in the front room on a Sunday morning. Time-wise, we’re talking about 1970 onwards, a few years before I started primary school. It’s a piece of nostalgia that many of the Windrush generation and their children will recognise and identify with, irrespective of which island that they or their parents and grandparents hailed from. This was also the period when the original skinhead movement was at its height in Britain, adopting the new songs coming out of Jamaica as its anthems.

The music also has a strong association with food, specifically the delicious smell of Jamaican rice, peas and chicken that my mum would have been preparing. Ska and reggae tunes pumping away, sometimes the occasional pre-ska JA pop by Wilfred ‘Jackie’ Edwards, along with the waft of the expectant big dinner. In a way, the vibes from those tunes were a hidden ingredient that went into the food. Even at that tender age, I understood that this was my parents’ way of maintaining ties with ‘back home’. Strengthening the link further, we even had the Jamaican Weekly Gleaner newspaper delivered to our home on Sundays, where we could find out about current events on the island.

I’ve many a favourite song from that period, far too many to mention. Standouts are Monkey Man by The Maytals, Double Barrel by Dave and Ansel Collins, Them A Laugh And A Kiki by The Pioneers (aka Soulmates), the whole of the Tighten Up Volume Two album, Here I Am Baby by Skin, Flesh & Bones – the list goes on! For me and my brothers, having being born in England, we were getting a glimpse into our parents’ world, the island that had nurtured them. They’d tell us about how a song such as Long Shot Kick De Bucket (about a racehorse that died during a race) was based upon real events. There always was a little sad undercurrent to the way the Pioneers delivered the story with their sublime vocal harmonies.

One thing I noticed was, those records were only played in our home on Sundays, except at Christmas time. For the rest of the week, it was Radio One at breakfast and around teatime, with its selection of mainly British and American pop, and of course Top Of The Pops without fail every Thursday. There was also some ‘crossover’ because in the early 70s, reggae frequently featured in the UK charts. Things such as Let Your Yeah Be Yeah by The Pioneers, and Bob and Marcia’s Young, Gifted and Black were on constant rotation. Yet it was English artists that we heard predominantly on the radio, and, by a neat coincidence, our family meals on weekdays were mostly the same dishes that you’d find in any English home – give or take the odd serving of plantain, dumplings or yam now and again. This would have been pragmatic on the part of my parents; making an elaborate Caribbean meal would have taken up too much time after they’d come home from work. Hearing ska and reggae only one day a week took on a special significance; I’ve also no doubt that by hearing such a wide variety of music throughout the week is the reason why my tastes were eclectic from day one, and remain so to this day. Though I still like to play reggae tunes on Sundays – keeping a great tradition alive, you might say.

‘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.

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’.)