A Dance for Sharks

Bajau Laut (Sea Bajou) fishing from a jetty on Pulau Mabul.

For me, a new song often starts with a title. In fact, I keep a list of song titles – titles that sound good, but for now have no music and no lyrics per se. There might be a solitary couplet, or a vague sense this song might be fast whilst another slow, but no more than that. Some of these titles have been waiting on me for years; I have a couple which I like so much I’ve never been able to find any music worthy of them.

A Dance for Sharks was on my list of cool song titles. My guitar teacher Derek Gripper turned me on to the Brazilian composer Egberto Gismonti, whose compositions often use a ‘dance’ as a naming convention (for example Dança das Cabeças, Dança Solitária and Dança Dos Escravos). I liked this approach. Being obsessed with animals I began casting around to find some poor creature which could be part of my dance. Thus the title A Dance of Sharks. After a little thought, I concluded that sharks probably aren’t very good dancers. So the title changed to A Dance for Sharks. Sharks evoke fear, and people do some fairly strange things to appease their fears. Perhaps even a little hip-shaking. I had read about how sharks were worshipped in places such as the Solomon Islands; the idea didn’t seem so far-fetched.

Shortly afterwards, I stumbled across James Morgan’s startling series of photographs of a young Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark. This struck an immediate chord (pardon the pun). Whilst living in Borneo I have worked with the Bajau Laut (Sea Bajau), an ocean-faring people whose traditional way of life does not really interface with how the modern world works.

James Morgan's striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.
James Morgan’s striking picture of a Bajau Laut boy playing with a shark.

Born upon the water

Like each and every one

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

The Bajau Laut are a nomadic people; their home is the sea, the Coral Triange framed by the Phillipines, Indonesia and Malaysian Borneo. But the sea has no flag, and can’t offer any legal protection from the likes of nations seeking to exploit it. As such, the stateless Bajau have been increasingly marginalised by countries seeking to take advantage of the sea’s bountiful resources.

When the ships coming flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

Sharks get a bad press. I’m pretty fond of them, although Jaws frightened the bejezus out of me as a kid (I have a distinct memory of insisting my Dad swim on the seaward side whilst going for a dip off a beach in Cornwall one summer holiday. My reasoning was that any passing shark would chomp him first, allowing me time to escape). As the song took shape around the situation faced by the Bajau, the identity of the sharks took a more metaphorical turn – more closely representing the greed of outside forces taking crippling bites out of a traditional livelihood. For a while I even toyed with the following closing lyric.

I left this world with but one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

The pitiful, bleeding, finless sharks

The final line being a reference to the Chinese demand for shark fin soup which is pushing many shark populations to the brink. Ultimately that line was to much of an about face against the overall direction of the song, and I cut it.

Musically the song is a composite of several different ideas – and I’m still surprised at how well it turned out when all the parts were bolted together. I wrote the lyrics to a straightforward, all minor chord progression (using Am, Dm and Em). However, I struggled to find a way to make these chords interesting when I started trying out different fingerstyle arrangements. Eventually I lit upon the ascending/descending bass runs from Am to C – a pretty common trick, but when I also started echoing the vocal line on the treble strings I found I had something I was happy with. I retained the original chord progression for the third verse.

The opening riff, perhaps rather improbably, stems from an attempt to transcribe some horn parts from a tune by Seun Kuti. It’s a persistent musical ambition to try and discover a way to convincingly reproduce the awesome polyrhythmic pleasures of afrobeat on fingerstyle guitar. It’s also a challenge that’s probably far beyond my current skills as a guitarist. However, as is often the case, I lit upon something of my own in my failed effort to impersonate another. Slowing down the afrobeat horn line, letting the guitar play it the way it wanted and giving it a folky roll led me to my intro.

Bajau-Mabul-Sotong
Bajau Laut children catching squid on Pulau Mabul, Borneo.

I also added a ‘lead’ instrumental part – something I’m trying to do more and more in order to extend my own abilities as a fingerstyle guitarist.

The final part of the puzzle is in fact the oldest part of the song. The bridge was something my fingers came across last year. Alone it didn’t seem substantial enough to build a song around, I kept trying it out in different contexts, until it finally found a fit with A Dance for Sharks.

Oh, and it also gave me an opportunity to do a bit of bellowing! My singing voice has its limits, but it doesn’t lack for oomph. I decided to give myself a lyric I could throw all of my strength behind on the bridge. My inspiration here was again from African music, particularly the extraordinary vocal power of praise singers such as Salif Keita and Kassy Mady Diabate.

What they can do is spine-tingling. My attempt was more like a foghorn.

The video clip was created by my wife, filmmaker Nguyen Mzung. It was made on the beach outside our home in Sabah, Borneo. Our dog Bolontos also gets a walk-on part. He normally sings along, but politely kept quiet this time around.

It was a pretty busy week, but we snatched an opportunity one afternoon. Apparently there wasn’t time for me to shave or put on a presentable shirt. I apologise to my mother. We only had one working camera, so the finished video is actually an edit of several different takes. I was surprised at how consistent my playing was – so much so that we could fit bits of video from a different performance to the master version without things appearing too out of sync. Unfortunately, because of the noise of the waves and our reliance on the camera’s in-built microphone, we had no choice but to use the ‘close-up’ cut as the master. As a result, interested fingerstyle guitarists will struggle to see what my hands are doing.

I’ve also recorded A Dance for Sharks in the studio for a forthcoming EP which will hopefully be released before the year is out.

The full lyrics are presented below.

A Dance for Sharks

 

Born upon the water, like each and everyone

Of the dozen laughing children

My father called his sons

Into the turquoise ocean

My mother’s blood ran dark

Awakening a dance for sharks

 

Born above the sunken stones of places that came and went

Outlasted outcast fisherfolk

Who lives without lament

Old blood it does still linger

Where the water’s running dark

Remembering a dance for sharks

 

Born beyond the sight of land, a paddle in my brother’s hand

Beyond the claims of nations, armadas, kings or clans

When the storms they rise up

And the watching skies turn dark

Heralding a dance for sharks

 

When the ships come flying flags

And claiming the very shifting waves

Making maps of a wide blank ocean

That almighty God he gave

To my people of the sea

I know the sharks have come for me

I know the sharks will come for we

 

Born upon the water, this child I call my own

And the ocean that has birthed her

One day may claim her bones

I left this world with one remark

That nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

Nothing stills the dance of sharks

 

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A Dance for Sharks

2 thoughts on “A Dance for Sharks

  1. I love this song! A beautifully written story accompanied by an incredible guitar arrangement. It’s awesome how the music itself paints such a vivid picture of the sea. I also really like how you talk about writing songs around interesting titles you develop. Can’t wait to read more!

    Liked by 1 person

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