Backyard Animals

A comment from my wife inspired this song, and the dog Bolontos is the star of the first verse (as well as ruining one video take!)

Last year I began taking Skype guitar lessons with South Africa maestro Derek Gripper. I stumbled across Derek whilst exploring African fingerstyle guitar on Youtube and was immediately entranced. Derek’s musicianship is plain to see, but furthermore listening to him tackling the music of the kora* on guitar provided me with an immediate answer to a question I’d been asking myself for years.

African guitar music has fascinated for years and years – ever since I heard Ali Farka Toure’s Talking Timbuktu at Jibbering Records in Moseley. But one of the challenges I’ve always faced is how to express those insistent African polyrhythms upon one guitar. Listen to a soukous tune for example, usually it’s just two or three simple chords, but being played by layers of guitars, not to mention the role of the drums, bass and percussion. Take one of those guitar riffs out of the whole, and same excitement isn’t there.

This was the challenge I faced when trying to write songs with that African feel. I could get a little groove going, but I couldn’t really take it anywhere without losing that groove. I began to wonder whether it was even possible without have some other instruments to provide those polyrhythms. Then I heard Derek.

What I wanted was perfectly possible. You just had to be a very accomplished guitarist to pull it off.


Luckily Derek teaches, and thanks to the Internet, we can even make it happen when one of us is in Borneo and the other in South Africa. My lessons were a great inspiration. I’m still very short of having the guitar skills to capture the kind of music he can, but thanks to his tuition, I’ve got some kind of idea of how the building blocks fit together.

Derek plays many of the kora pieces using the tuning DADF#BE. Trying to get my fingers and brain around his transcriptions meant my guitar spent a lot of time in ‘kora’ tuning. And so inevitably I began mucking around with the tuning when cycles of Jarabi weren’t quite working, finding my own ideas and letting new songs form.

Backyard Animals is one such song. It’s got none of the fretboard fireworks that Derek displays – I’m still working on that, but it is the result of me actively attempting to compose something capturing the African vibe. In this case the inspiration was more Ethiopian than West African (where the kora hails from), beginning with a loping bass line. For a while I tried to marry the bass line with a simultaneous lead line, but these amalgamations just sounded stiff and leaden. As I was also recording the song for the current EP project, I eventually resolved not to worry about stretching my fingerstyle skills, and opted to overdub lead parts in the studio (that verson’s now finished, and can be heard here). The prolonged instrumental outro evolved naturally as I kept playing the song, and couldn’t work out how I wanted to end it. There’s a bit of inspiration here from Richard Thompson, thinking particularly of songs such as The Great Valerio and Dimming of the Day/Dargai which conclude with a folk dance coda. My coda draws more from the traditional sape** music of Borneo,

The song itself is an odd beast. One day my wife was telling me about some bad advice a friend had given her, whilst fussing over our dog Bolontos (who appears in the howling hounds remix at the end of the song). She jokingly told Bolontos she’d only listen to him from now on, providing me with a spark of inspiration, We also have chickens in the yard (well actually, we just ate the last one) and pigs down the road. They were being noisy, as if they also wanted to be characters in the song – thus, a neat three verse structure.

I’m not sure I really agree with all their advice, nor would discount the ideas of my human acquaintances so readily, but it was fun writing it all down!


Backyard Animals

You know people never tell it straight

They speak in languages that don’t translate

And people never tell you how

So heed the counsel of the animals

The counsel of the animals

All the backyard animals

All the backyard animals


So I slunk out my backdoor and sat down with my hound

And we both howled together until the moon came around

He looked up at me with those chocolate saucer eyes

We’d both loved awry with all the woe that that implies

And together we howled into the night


He said perfect shapes are not nature’s way

And tomorrow never goes like yesterday

You know the people never tell you how

So seek the counsel of the animals

The counsel of the animals

All the backyard animals

All the backyard animals


Then out across the courtyard sounded a cockle-doodle-do

The mocking of a cockerel to a fool through and through

He said love is not a story that starts amongst the stars

Tussles, fights and tantrums are the common repertoire

And together we crowed until the light


He said the truth is nature is not on your side

And it’s not supposed to be an easy ride

So the people never tell you how

Heed the counsel of the animals

The counsel of the animals

All the backyard animals

All the backyard animals


Well so much for Mother Nature, this is what she did


She hurled me out the backdoor and I landed with the hogs

Facedown in the pigshit, the standard epilogue

But all the swine were merry and free of regret

They said the faster that you love then the swifter you forget

And together, we squealed with all our might

*Don’t know the kora? Here’s a picture!
**Don’t know the sape? Here’s a picture!
Backyard Animals

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