The Sun Slumps Down

 

I’ve written three new songs here in Egypt – this is the latest I’ve finished but the first I want to share. The Sun Slumps Down was filmed in my flat in Zamalek, Cairo, and includes the sounds of the parakeets that live about, the honks of horns and the ever-present low-level hum of the traffic.

Zamalek

It might be rather hard to believe, but the song originated from my attempts to play a song by Tabu Ley Rochereau*. The finished article sits quite a long way from Congolese Rumba – further than I’d like it, but at least my shortcoming resulted in something I could confidently call my own. It’s interesting that regardless of how hard I try, the centre of gravity remains the sound of the English folk tradition. Despite my efforts to emulate the music of Central Africa, I suspect The Sun Slumps Down sounds more like something that might have been played at Les Cousins in Soho during the Sixties folk revival. It’s a perennial conundrum; in my blog about composing A Dance for Sharks I noted a similar and unlikely trajectory from an Afrobeat inspiration to something more familiar.

 

Here I took a different approach than normal to the vocal melody, rather than writing a set of lyrics and fitting them to the chords I was playing (which is the usual method). I didn’t want the words to dictate the melody too far, so I recorded several demos just singing gibberish or la-la-la-ing over the guitar track. Thus the vocal was about 70% mapped out when I started writing proper lyrics, and I tried my best to write to the existing melody. It meant I had to drop a few choice lines, but I think it helped me craft a better song overall. It’s a technique that has worked for me before – I did a similar thing for an old Lazy Lizards song called You Are The Sky and the results sounded good to my ears.

One of the holy grails of fingerstyle playing is being able to keep the basic propulsion of a song (usually through its bass line) going whilst simultaneously playing a solo. I give myself a little instrumental break in the middle of The Sun Slumps Down. It’s well short of the ‘one guitar sounding like two’ wizardry of the best fingerpickers, but I am trying to push my further with what I can do. Originally I composed a longer sequence, carefully tabbed out using Guitar Pro, and resolved to learn it note for note. Inevitably though, when practising I couldn’t always be bothered to fire up the computer and go back to look in detail at what I’d figured out. As a result, the ‘solo’ part shrunk to four bars of the licks I could remember. This natural paring down was probably for the best, I imagine I remembered those licks because they were superior. Or maybe they were just the easiest.

Originally called The Well, I decided The Sun Slumps Down was a more evocative title. As the song developed, more and more of the imagery reflected the sunset – the time of day became more significant than the place. One technique I used in composing the lyrics was harvesting words that struck me as being interesting, or perhaps just sounding pleasing. In this case I used as my source articles and reviews from online music journal the Quietus. The writing in the Quietus, as the best music writing should be, is usually a little over the top and at times verging on the ridiculous. As a result, they tend to spew out some curious vocabulary. As I browsed through pages that took my fancy, I jotted down words I liked in my notebook. Then I tried to build sentences around the words and shoehorn them into the narrative of the song. At times it worked – often it didn’t. ‘Slump’ was one word I took that stuck. The sun slumping down felt to me a neat way of emphasizing the languid scene being captured in the lyrics.

I approached this song as vignette, a description of a scene inspired by two moments living in South East Asia. In Borneo there was a water pump I often used to pass on the way to school that was used by the villagers in the kampong to bathe and wash clothes. In the countryside in Laos, rivers are often used for the same purpose, and I recall disturbing (completely innocently) some young women at their ablutions on an evening’s walk. Early drafts of the song also included young men hiding in the bushes, spying on the women as they bathed. I was trying to draw allusions towards awakening sexuality, but ultimately it just sounded too pervy. Instead I looked at the angle of the cultural divide, with the foreign narrator the only one bearing witness to the scene. Without a shared language it can seem so difficult to make a meaningful connection beyond the look described in the song. At times people in other cultures can see impossibly far away. It surprises me that I still have moments of feeling like this, even though my own experience has shown given time you can forge a connection with just about anyone on our little planet.

Here are the full lyrics

The Sun Slumps Down

Verse 1

There’s a well beyond the village

And at a certain sunset hour of the day the maidens come to bathe

Where the old wives shuffle

Away they go with their buckets and pails, bowing heads to gossip

The hypnosis in how the water behaves in its leaping splashes and cascades

I swear it sings a serenade

As the sun slumps down

As the sun slumps down

But a single girl holds my gaze

 And she does not look away

But there are no words that we can speak

At least none that we can say

Verse 2

When the butterflies flutter

And make their certain zigzag way to take sleep beneath a leaf

When the fireflies stutter

Starting up their lamps just for the night ahead

There’s a dozen steps between me and her

But no matter what the fantasies stir, this moment won’t go any further

So the sun slumps down

So the sun slumps down

Yet the barbed branches hold me tight

At the dying of the day

And there are no words that we can speak

At least none that we can say

 

*Somewhat improbably, Wikipedia tells me that Tabu Ley Rochereau wrote somewhere in the region of 3,000 songs. I need to write something like 2,950 more songs to catch up. No problem, surely . . .

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The Sun Slumps Down

Where The Loot Is Buried

I was all geared up to record and post a new song this week when my guitar broke. Nothing serious, just a slipping tuning peg – no doubt a casualty of Cairo’s dusty conditions. But (of course) the neighbouring guitar shop hasn’t got the requisite part, meaning I either have to battle across town to find somewhere that does have the right set of pegs, or wait a few days for my local place to get some stock in. In Cairo these choices present a whole host of maybes. At least I have my guitalele to entertain me in the meantime.

Cat on Guitar
A wasted visit to the guitar shop.

I haven’t been idle on the music front, despite the blog being a bit quiet. I’ve been absorbing a lot of great Egyptian live music, getting a sense of the vibrant scene here. There’s lots of fascinating original stuff happening in Cairo, as well as engrossing traditional music. I’ve written three new songs and I’ve also been continuing to play with my friend Reem on the cello. It’s a nice sound and I hope I get to share some of it soon.

Whilst we wait for those plans to come to fruit, here’s a song from last year.

There once was a movie called Assault on Wall Street. It starred that other guy from Prison Break, and looked a bit naff. I remember it being the film we didn’t choose on a number of movie nights. From the trailer, it looks to be about a tough guy who loses all his savings in the banking crash, then decides to get his own back in the true American way – buying a load of heavy weapons and going on a killing spree.wall st

Perhaps I should check it out; because I rather fancy Where The Loot Is Buried could be its theme song. I wonder whether a jaunty ukulele-led protest song in quasi-pirate language was what the producers were looking for to play out over the end credits.

“I’m tired of talking

I’m tired of negotiating like a civilised man

I’ve a cutlass in my hand”

I’ve written before about my list of interesting song titles. Where The Loot Is Buried sat on that list for a few months. I can’t remember whether something in particular inspired the title. I do remember that its basic chords and groove came to me one morning in a hostel in Lima, Peru in December 2014. The ukulele probably has a shared history with the charango, a Peruvian instrument which also has a high treble string where you wouldn’t expect it, lending both a perpetually cheerful sound. I had a charango when I lived in Peru way back in 2004, and I think I was searching for a charango rhythm when I found the basic foundations of this song.

Obviously, the title brings to mind piratey behaviour, and allowed me to indulge in all kinds of piratey language when writing the lyrics. It was tremendous fun. But there’s one line though which I’m uncertain about, the Indian Giver. It fits nicely in terms of the meter and the melody, and thematically as well. It’s a phrase that was thrown around a lot in the folk-rock years of the sixties and seventies. Both John Martyn and Richard Thompson, two of my favourite songwriters, have songs that use this line – an Indian giver describes someone who gives a gift but expects something in return. Its roots lie in the misunderstandings over property between the white settlers and the Native Americans in the earliest days of the European colonisation. Given the rather bigoted etymology, I did question whether to leave it in the song. Thinking about now, I still do. Probably something to explore more fully in a future blog.

 

I’m planning that Where The Loot Is Buried will be one of the tracks on my increasingly delayed EP. We do have one song done now – you can hear The Beat of a Babbling Heart on Soundcloud.

Where The Loot Is Buried

I’m tired of talking

I’m tired of negotiating like a civilised man

I’ve cutlass in my hand

That’s bare and swift to greet

The naked throat of any lamb

That chooses not to bleat

Oh they’re meat

Tell us where the loot is buried

 

You sail a different pirate ship

One that’s never left the slip

And though the Jolly Roger’s not your flag

The whole world knows your dirty rag

Tell us many mischief makers, make us malcontents all merry

We’re gonna ask you very nicely once

But then we’ll execute and bury

 

You’d better spend that fatted bonus

Awarded under your own onus

Send hired men to stone us

Bash us, break us, own us

There’s another ninety-nine behind to bring you to your knees

So would you tell us where the loot is

Would you tell us kindly please

 

And if I am a buccaneer

Then you sir I do declare to be most honestly my mirror

Yes you sir lily-livered, you sir all aquiver

The very man to make first ape at the zoo

The Indian Giver

Tell us where the loot is buried

 

You sail a different pirate ship

One that’s never left the slip

And though the Jolly Roger’s not your flag

The whole world knows your dirty rag

Tell us where the loot is buried

UPDATE! The studio version of Where The Loot Is Buried is now finished and awaits your listening pleasure right here.

Where The Loot Is Buried