(Given Back The) Kingdom

I have to admit that it’s a little baffling to now have songs in my repertoire that are now ten years old. This is one such example – I wrote Kingdom some time in 2006/2007, one of the first songs composed for my old band the Lazy Lizards (who were then rather painfully called Los Crocodilos).

This performance is a very basic iteration captured last December while on holiday in southern Egypt. We were staying at Fekra, a cultural centre dedicated to championing the cultural heritage of the Nubian people of Egypt and Sudan. Fekra’s living room has a hexagonal design which provides a really nice acoustic sound. I spent a couple of night’s jamming with my friend Watter al Bahry, who plays the daff (دُفْ in Arabic). Kingdom sounded really good – so we spontaneously decided to record it. It was only the second time Watter had heard the song, thus the simple arrangement. My wife also started adding a little tambourine, before thinking better of it!

When I used to perform Kingdom with the Lazy Lizards it was a far greater beast. We recorded the version you can hear above in our very first studio session for our first EP. Our skills playing, arranging and recording were still coming together, so there are a few rough edges. The studio was a temporary set-up in a grand old Victorian house in Moseley, Birmingham, which was being rented by eight young musicians. As a result, the living room we set up in was full with about a dozen different drums from around the world the tenants had collected, and we resolved to use all of them in the extended outro to the song. You can even hear the sound of a jam jar of nails smashing at the close of the kit solo, as the vibrations of the drums shook the jar off the mantelpiece more or less in time.

Kingdom became a feature over most of our gigs across three years, and evolved out of the amorphous recorded version into a closely scripted mini-samba. It also blossomed into a different song, as the basis of Set Sail While The Ship Still Floats is simply an extension of Kingdom’s groove with an extra chord added.

samba-lizards-kingdom
the samba break-down at the end of this performance included drum kit, cajon, timpany, djembe, bongos, clave, bells, handclaps and shouts!

I wrote the song shortly after leaving Uni, where my subject had been African Studies. As well as influencing the musical component of Kingdom, this also led the direction of the lyrics. The song addresses the hypocrisy of the end of the colonial era in Africa, where the Western powers made a great show of granting independence to their African territories even as the legacies they left ensured the failure of these new states. A number of African animals appear throughout the song, most importantly the lion as an emblem of Africa’s pride, power and potential.

(Given Back The) Kingdom

Verse 1

My rivers don’t run no more

This eagle don’t care to soar

And this thirsty, skin and bone lion

Don’t have tongue to roar

Verse 2

I go in search of shade

Kneel and pray for aid

But no help come, these dry tears falls

The lion flees in dismay

Chorus

Given back the kingdom, you gonna call this freedom

Given back the kingdom, you gonna call this freedom

You know that giving back a skin

That’s not giving back anything

Is your conscience spread so thin?

Would you dare compound this sin?

Verse 3

A forest lying on its side

Men do what the termites tried

 Gone the trees and gone the beasts

The lion don’t have no pride

Verse 4

The half-moon shining pale

The harvest once again has failed

And the jackals, wolves and snakes

Lie hungry on the lion’s tail

Chorus

Given back the kingdom, you gonna call this freedom

Given back the kingdom, you gonna call this freedom

Because giving back a skin

That’s not giving back anything

Is your conscience spread so thin?

Would you dare compound this sin?

Outro

Mosquito buzz, hyena leer, the vulture flap and the baboon cheer

Mosquito buzz, hyena leer, the vulture flap and the baboon cheer

(Given Back The) Kingdom

10, 000 Years

In the previous post I talked about Monsoon, a song I wrote some four or five years ago. 10, 000 Years is a much more recent composition, written about three or four months ago. It’s one of a set of five songs I’m currently recording for a new EP of songs here in Borneo.

The tuning used for this song is DGDGBE (taking both of the lowest strings down a step). Whilst composing the song, I was also attempting to transpose some of the music of the master balafon player Aly Keita onto guitar. The balafon is a type of wooden xylophone played in West Africa. I’m utterly obsessed with all kinds of music from across Africa, and I’m always trying to infuse some of the magic that music has into my own songs. I hope some of the gentling swinging rhythm I found in Aly’s balafon playing has made it into the arrangement for 10,000 Years.

The song itself is a reaction in part to the horrific rise of the Islamic State (or Isil, Isis, Daesh, ignorant bunch of barbarians or whatever you want to call them). It’s something that touches me personally because many years ago (before 9/11 and the world deciding Islam and the West had to be mortal enemies) I travelled through Syria.

I’ve been to many countries renowned for being ‘friendly’, but have never experienced hospitality like I did in Syria*. It’s hard to think about what must have become of all the strangers who showed kindness to a young, clueless archaeology student as he blundered across the country.

Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra
Some dicks blow up the Temple of Bel in Palmyra

Alongside all the atrocities committed against humanity, Islamic State has also declared war on history in a land where the earliest roots of modern civilization can be found. The Fertile Crescent of the Middle East, where the states of Syria and Iraq now hurtle towards collapse, claims some of the first settlements known to man. Jericho in the West Bank has been inhabited for 10, 000 years.

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley and the fertile soil to sow

It struck me as a powerful observation on the state of our humanity that such barbarity is taking place over the same stones that marked the beginning of our supposed journey towards ‘civilization’. It doesn’t look like we’ve made much progress. Therein lay the central conceit of the song – we’re still living the same way we always have, just on an ever-increasing scale. Considering technology, culture, population, mankind’s come a mighty long way. But in the simple terms of how we treat one another, we’ve gone nowhere at all.

I'm fourth from the right, fifth row down
I’m fourth from the right, fifth row down

With reference to the situation in Syria, it’s my personal opinion that the West paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State with our reckless and acquisitive invasion of Iraq. I was one of the millions to join the futile march against the war over a decade ago. There’s no pleasure in saying “We told you so” now, but that’s why the imagery of the song’s second verse looks more to our own high-tech war machines over the medieval techniques of the terrorists.

Death still makes his bed

In the cradle of life

Listening to the kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why

Make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

A previous incarnation of the song went into more detail about our complicity in the misery overtaking the Middle East:

This morning I woke up to the radio

And the ravenous reporter

Reading from the book of death

A feast for the beleaguered vultures

Enough bloodshed to leave the commentators short of breath

Well she can’t be blamed for her excitement

Who hasn’t admired a building burning down?

So long as you stand well back

So the silent explosion precedes the sound

Eventually I excised this part as the song developed. Our shared history is not solely death and destruction. Take a look at the British Museum’s History of the World in 100 Objects. Alongside the artefacts of war and violence, there’re plenty of objects that exemplify our capacity to love one another. As I talked about when discussing the composition of Monsoon, I wanted to offer something to balance the darker reflections that had inspired 10,000 Years.

Some communication can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10,000 Years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 Years

I don’t think this part of the song is as strong; but then it’s always easier writing about doom and gloom than flowers and puppies!

As perhaps can be told from the earlier part of the song I chose to leave out, 10, 000 Years wasn’t written to any clear structure. I don’t think many songs are – invariably an idea generates a flood of imagery and fractured stanzas, which are then shaped into some semblance of order. With this song I wanted to ensure I broke out of following any subconscious habits when it came to the song’s structure and rhyming pattern, so I grabbed a random song on a completely different topic and began to ‘overwrite’ the lyrics with those of 10,000 Years.

Using other songs as foils for your own songwriting is a common device – a technique you’ll often see suggested if you investigate songwriting approaches online. You can approach them in different ways – as well as doing what I did with 10,000 Years you might also write an extra verse for an existing song, then use your verse as the basis of a new, original work. I’d argue it’s a perfectly legitimate approach – it’s something that’s happened again and again within the folk song tradition. For example, Bob Dylan’s earliest (and most recent) songs are often reworkings of existing folk songs**.

“Lesser artists borrow, great artists steal.”

Igor Stravinsky (and some other people)

Of course, a bit of caution is needed when using this approach – finding inspiration without baldly ripping someone off. In the case of 10,000 Years, the mistake I made was using the other song to arrange my words before I had a clear idea of the guitar accompaniment and melody. When I started honing these, I found my song kept drifting back towards the other song in sound, even though I was using completely different chords. Normally when I’m composing a melody I just follow my instinct. Frustratingly in this case I had to forcibly guide my instinct around the trap I’d set myself of mimicking the other song.

I believe that in the end I succeeded, but you’ll note I haven’t mentioned what that other song was. If you think you have an idea, feel free to leave a suggestion in the comment box, but I’m hoping you’ll be wrong and that I can say 10,000 Years is mine alone.

The full lyrics are presented below. I got the last chorus wrong in the live session posted above!

VERSE 1

Long ago we stepped off the road and laid our burdens low

Found this perfect peaceful valley, and the fertile soil to sow

Beneath the loam, the sheltering stone, let the sweet-water rise

Through our toes, up our bones, then to trickle back out of our eyes

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to say ‘I love you’, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us tight

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

But for all the ills, one thing remains

10, 000

In a cave painting make your sign

A celebration that my heart is thine

And thus the barbarian is tamed

10, 000, 10, 000, 10, 000 years

VERSE 2

Now Death still makes his bed, in the cradle of life

Listening to kill lists bouncing down from a satellite

Drones in the sky, never ask why, make murder of video games

Cast the world into ruin with not a soul to bear the blame

It’s been 10,000 years but the well has not run dry

In ways to kill your neighbour, the ways in which to describe

The mysteries … that hold us apart

CHORUS

Civilization takes its time

Still far short of the finishing line

Centuries ‘til the armistice is claimed

10,000 years

Gild your words, make ‘em shine

Decide yourself what they define

When tomorrow comes we won’t speak the same

10,000 years

The message, it can still be found

These songs leave our tongues unbound

Our love keeps finding new ways to proclaim

10, 000 years

Cast your raiment to the ground

Dance together to the sound

Let the world cast off its chains

10,000 years

*One caveat that should be mentioned – I was accompanied by some young blonde ladies, who may have had some influence to the eager hospitality displayed by many a Syrian gentleman.

** Did I say Dylan again?

10, 000 Years