Five Legged Holy Cow

I haven’t quite held true to my September promise of a blog post a week, but I’m happy enough with the renewed vigour I’ve been throwing towards my music. Five Legged Holy Cow is a new composition I’ve been tinkering with since June, since (as the lyrics suggest) I spent a month travelling in India. It was supposed to be a quickly written song, with a video I was hoping to make in India itself, but songs don’t obey your wishes, and while the bulk of the song came together on the subcontinent, a little more time was needed for it to find its final shape.

This is an odd song, and you’d be forgiven if it was a little lost on you. Permit me to explain. The song’s inspiration comes from a strange sight I saw in India. A gaily coloured, gaudily-decorated, auto-rickshaw (or tuk-tuk, as they’re called in many places around the world), crammed full with a family, and squeezed between, a calf. I asked my driver what the story was, and he explained: the calf had six legs, and was considered especially blessed with powers of healing to anyone who lays their hands upon this literal ‘holy cow’. The lucky family to whom this aberration had been delivered would have given up their farm and embraced a nomadic existence, knowing they could make better money touring their lucky calf around the local communities and charging people a small fee to touch their magic beast.

As we overtook the rickshaw, I could see no evidence of the calf’s extra limbs, but the story was too good to shed doubt upon it. Before the tuk-tuk had even disappeared in the rear-view mirror, I was writing the song.

Now a six-legged holy cow just seems plain impossible, so the first liberty taken by my song was to reduce the appendages to five. Five just sings better than six, and odd numbers hold more magic than even ones. My song also needed a protagonist, and considering the animal’s curative properties, this character would clearly be someone seeking out some healing. Another easy choice was to explore England’s dark history with India. So soon I had the idea of a deserter of Her Majesty’s Service, disabled in the course of keeping the Crown’s iron grip on its colonies, now disillusioned and willing to embrace any cure for his injuries, however outlandish.

This story was heavily influenced by the Sherlock Holmes tale “The Adventure of the Crooked Man”, in which Holmes is pitted against one Henry Wood, also a soldier, and one whose experience in the Indian Mutiny left him much the worse for wear. I always love to pepper my lyrics with some unlikely words and phrases, and in the case of Five-Legged Holy Cow I was seeking vocabulary that evoked the era in which the song was set, so I snatched several choice turns of phrase from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and dropped them into my song. These included “claiming the King’s shilling”, “a roaring lad” as well as a “bag of tigers”. Another lyrical influence was from George Harrison, whose music I always associate with India and whose album All Things Must Pass is a particular favourite. If you know that album, see if you can catch another stolen line.

Five-Legged Holy Cow is one of several songs composed recently in DADGAD tuning, which is often associated with ‘Eastern-sounding’ music. Think Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, or Davey Graham’s magnificent Blue Raga. I kept my guitalele in DADGAD throughout my Indian sojourn, and there were plenty of long train journeys during which to noodle around and find fresh sounds. A Bill Withers acoustic funk groove turned out to be a surprisingly successful match for the open tuning. I spent a long-time sitting with that groove, knowing I liked it but feeling the song could be expanded somehow. I hit upon the idea of adding a bridge in 5/4 time; a musical challenge for me as I rarely compose outside of 4/4 and a chance to change up the vibe midway through the tune. Somehow though, this section morphed into 6/8 without me really noticing, and so it remained.

By the time I finally got the song together fully, India was far behind and I found myself back inapis-bull-saqqara Egypt. I couldn’t find a holy cow to record with, but I did get to co-star with two delightfully calm and affectionate water buffaloes in Al Sorat farm in Saqqara. This, incidentally, is not far from the Serapeum of Saqqara, where the Pharaohs mummified and entombed their own holy cows; the Apis Bulls, which were conceived by the touch of rays beaming down directly from Heaven, and marked with ankh upon the forehead, the shape of a vulture’s wing upon the back, a crescent moon on the flank, a scarab mark upon the tongue, and bearing the sun between the horns. A tale probably worth writing an entirely new song for . . .

But in the meantime, here are the lyrics for this one:

Five Legged Holy Cow

Verse 1

From Africa to India, the Queen’s shilling I did claim

‘Til the misfiring of a musket, left me broke and maimed

Isn’t it a pity, ain’t it a Goddamned crying shame

That roaring lad

What hopes he had

Now like a bag of tigers tamed

Chorus

I’m open, my shield cast down

Luminous, what can you reveal

Liberate this soul from the spinning wheel

The heart within this hollow could be healed

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

Verse 2

Let the scholars talk of quackery and dismiss these conjuring tricks

For I live in the land of miracles, where the cripples heal the sick

Every point of the compass, every unlikely, outside chance

Drag broken feet

Through sand and sleet

To where the dead get up to dance

Bridge

So raise up your lantern and limp through the dark

To where a many-faced goddess has laid down her mark

Some say it’s a blessing, some say it’s a curse

The man in ascendance, while the beast just gets worse

The man in ascendance, while the beast just gets worse

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

Chorus

I’m open, my shield cast down

Luminous, what can you reveal

Liberate this soul from the spinning wheel

The heart within this hollow could be healed

Refrain

So hold your horses, Holy smoke

I bow my head to this cosmic joke

And if a Five-Legged Holy Cow

Could make me whole again somehow

 

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Video

Angel Coins

Also recorded during my recent few days in Abu Simbel was Angel Coins, a song I’ve been carrying around with me for about a year. Unfortunately, there are a few sound problems with the recording below. Hopefully the singing of the birds, golden desert and azure sky make up somewhat for the failings of audio.

When you’re writing your own songs, it can be very hard to be objective and recognise the quality of what you’re producing. Sometimes it’s the simplest ideas, which often barely register with the person playing them, that prove the most successful songs. I remember this point being made by Let’s Wait Until The Sun Comes Out, one of the most popular songs I wrote with my old band the Lazy Lizards. I remember it suddenly becoming a thing at a jamming session between our drummer and I one evening. We’d spent a couple of hours working on a song which we never finished, the details of which I don’t remember beyond it being heavy in subject and sound. Having made not a lot of progress, I started playing a bit of simple three chord township jive, Amjid joined in on cajon, and suddenly we had a hit on our hands.*

A similar story can be found behind the creation of Angel Coins. I spent Christmas 2015 at the house of a friend in the beautiful village of Tunis, near the Fayoum. This is the Egyptian countryside, another world entire from the hustle and bustle of Cairo. The weather was good, and most of the stay was spent doing little more than absorbing the mild winter sun in the orchard garden of our host’s home.

I had my guitalele to hand. I wasn’t trying to write something, but letting my fingers travel where they would while enjoying the tranquility. At some point during the morning my fingers found the two chord pattern that forms the main body of Angel Coins’ verses. I hadn’t recognised I had anything of import until my friend Reem mentioned that it sounded nice. This prompted me to play more attention. Mucking around a little longer brought me the descending bass line, and coming around to the realisation that I had something worth keeping I made a quick recording.

I kept fiddling around with the song whilst I stayed in Tunis, and began to conclude that whatever song it was going to be it should reflect its place of birth. In my previous post, I touched upon the challenges of finding a comfortable setting for songs that fall between the cracks of different cultures, and in Angel Coins I attempted another strategy. I tried to transpose some of the themes of romantic English folk songs to a desert landscape. Traditional song from my own culture is full star-crossed lovers finding their desires blocked by the constraints of social, familial and financial convention, and it’s very easy to find parallels in contemporary Egyptian culture. Conservative attitudes towards boy-girl relationships prevail here, and falling in love is a complex business. Once I recognised these mutual echoes, the narrative of the song unspooled naturally.

There is one element I still find a little inelegant. The object of the song’s affection lives with her uncle for unexplained reasons. Is she an orphan? Perhaps, but it’s got more to do with being forced in that direction because ‘niece’ rhymes with ‘caprice’. Sometimes being pushed into a rhyme like this suggests a new and pleasing direction for a song, but I have to admit in this case my solution was clumsy.

Probably the last thing to mention is the angel coin itself. What exactly are angel coins? According to a scholarly friend, an angel coin is actually the fossilised body of a tiny protozoa – a nummulite. This makes a sense; the Sahara was once a shallow sea, and in fact in Wadi el Hitan, the bones of prehistoric whales can be found amongst the dunes. Iangel-coins-rayann the deep desert there are arid fields of these angel coins. I’m no paleontologist, and some cursory investigation online finds no mention of angel coins, leading me to suspect that this name is actually a colloquial Arabic one. Whatever, the truth, it made a good song title!

The song mentions several other treasures of the desert; flint knives and pottery sherds. Egypt’s rightly famous for its early Pharaonic civilization, but the Nile Valley has played host to mankind for far longer than this, and on the shores of Lake Qairun the evidence of Stone Age settlements is liberally scattered across the ground. Are these ancient curios sufficient to win over a heart? The song leaves this for the listener to decide.

Ultimately, I’m really happy with the finished article. Thanks Reem for pointing out what I had; otherwise Angel Coins would have remained a brief little musical doodle played in an Egyptian garden – played and then forgotten.

These are the lyrics:

ANGEL COINS

Verse 1

Well, I came out of the desert

With my heart as barren as the moon

From a horizon indistinct

And with my faltering faith extinct

Marching to misfortune

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Verse 2

With my pockets rattling heavy

With the pearlescent coins of djinns

Out beyond the barren hills

The bones of ancient beings spill

Parched seas and bare ruins

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Bridge

Well I’m not a man of means

Yet I’m still hunting my very own dreams

And the wind still works the dunes

To form your face

I’m waiting for your alms

With these desert-creased, broken palms

And once in a thousand years the rains will come

So I’m standing at your gate

Left here by the laughing fates

With jackals wondering when I will succumb

Verse 3

Your uncle’s a man of circumspect

With no mood for caprice

And with no pennies to my name

I know he will not entertain

My petition for his niece

Chorus

Yes I came out of the desert

With nothing much to trade

Just flint knives and angels’ coins

Pottery sherds and angels’ coins

Just a sky full of stars and angel’s coins

Just a heart full of love and angels’

Angels’

Angels’ coins


*Well, not a hit, but by any stretch our most popular song.

Video

Pass Without Trace

A few months have passed since I resolved to write four songs in one month, but finally I have a full recording to present of one of the tunes written during that project. This is Pass Without Trace, recorded in Abu Simbel, the most southerly town in Egypt, site of Ramses the Great’s famous temple, and a mere twenty minute drive from the Sudanese border.

An anti-protest song

Writing from the folk music tradition as I do, the concept of the protest song stands tall. Pass Without Trace though, might be considered an anti-protest song. Six years ago I wrote Nyabinghi 11-01-11, a song celebrating the Arab Spring, and the overthrow of the ‘tyrant upon the throne’ in Egypt. However, the promise of those days has long dissipated, and now most of the Egyptians I meet turn their energies mainly towards escape, be it an actual escape or just a creative one. So Pass Without Trace works as something of a sister song, reflecting that desire. It’s a thesis that spreads itself more widely – as the world strides towards its own destruction, it becomes harder and harder to muster the energy to battle the forces of darkness (and I mean you, Mr. Trump!).

Magical Realism in songwriting

Since I left the UK, one of the most interesting considerations I face when lyrics writing is finding the right world for my songs to inhabit. My day to day experience is no longer the familiar culture of pastoral England, but it’s not a world I can pretend to fully understand – be it Egypt (where I live now), or the other countries I’ve been lucky enough to spend time in. Mixed up in this, my musical influences veer further away from the traditional canon of Western music, and as a result, I find my lyrics begging a different setting.

In magical realism, I think I’ve found an answer that suits my natural proclivities. Magical realism is a genre perhaps most famously illustrated by South American novelists such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Novels such as 100 Years of Solitude, present a version of Colombia which is recognisable as our own world, yet where fantastical places, characters and events exist naturally alongside the familiar.

I find using such an approach helpful, as it allows me to excuse my own ignorance while stealing all the best imagery Egypt has to offer. In Pass Without Trace, this is best demonstrated by a reference to the High Dam, the great civil engineering work of President Nasser, which blocked the Nile, controlling the inundation and allowing Egypt to exploit its limited water resources like never before. Beyond the High Dam, Egypt does indeed get wilder and emptier, and like in the song, there are crocodiles to be found. Yet unlike our protagonist’s journey, there is no swamp to negotiate, just the largest man-made lake in the world, and the desert on all sides. Thus the real world provides the starting point, but in service of the song, fictional and fabulous details emerge.

crocodiles-lake-nasser

Some well-placed foul language

Front and centre of the chorus of Pass Without Trace is some rather Anglo-Saxon language in its most expressive form. Sheepishly, I must admit being an enthusiastic fan of bad language in song. ‘Fuck’ has such an aural aesthetic – it might batter the ears but it’s a delight to say. And there are many songs which benefit from its deployment, such as the gleeful contempt in Cee-Lo Green’s Fuck You, or the quiet exasperation and befuddlement expressed in the chorus of Thom Yorke’s Black Swan. I must admit to being a bit of a serial offender in this department, another song in my repertoire is called Your Shit Still Stinks The Same.

1 month 4 songs progress report

So whatever happened to those four songs that were supposed to be finished in a month? Well, the initial burst of creativity bubbling away during the project got 80% of the songs written, but in perfecting them and mastering the singing and playing of them progress has slowed. It’s not surprising that Pass Without Trace was the first to surface, as guitar-wise it’s the simplest to perform. Of the others, Bold Little Weasel is complete, but still a challenge to pull of successfully to the tempo as written. But for a few fiddly bits, When The City Is Home is also more or less together. Let’s Make Our Bed Together lies a little in limbo, as I’m not sure whether it completely works as a song, and I’m undecided as to whether to kindly euthanize it or throw it out in public and see if it can survive.

Blog posts relating to the writing of Pass Without Trace during the project can be found here:

Day 2: Stones in the Stream

Day 7: Zoom Zoom

Day 25: Reggae on the River

And these are the complete lyrics:

 

 

Pass Without Trace

Verse 1

These shackles hamper our every move and rattle with each twitch

No doubt that the turnkey would start awake should you even scratch an itch

So crash the system, dupe the world, and set the currency aflame

Usurp the tyrant on his throne, though you’d end up just the same

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 2

There’s no move that could salvage the game, you’ve not even a pawn to play

The only move that you have left is to simply turn away

To the swamps above the High Dam, where the vapours take the scent

The primeval ooze it fills back in and your footprints leave no dent

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Verse 3

The crocodiles still linger here to devour the tracking dogs

The spy drones can’t probe the undergrowth, the murk through which you slog

Sleep in all your clothes tonight, they’ll slowly tear away

And there’ll be no trace left of the modern world whose presence would betray

Chorus

Though you have been fucking with the fates

You better move from here, and simply pass without trace

You think you can leap clear over the buffalo’s horns

Go ahead and vault this thicket of thorns

And pass without trace

Pass without trace

Pass without trace

Video

(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

Hard Days for Dreamers

 

As soon as I started learning to play the guitar, I started writing songs.* As I worked my way through Russ Shipton’s The Complete Guitar Player book, each new chord or technique generated a new song utilizing them. Although this certainly helped augment my repertoire beyond the 60s hits and folk standards in Shipton’s tuition book, my own songs were more about being ‘the one where I use a bar chord’ or ‘the one where I try a bass strum style’. As minor chords were easier to play, playing slow was easier than playing fast and I was in my last years as a teen, everything I wrote was inevitably plodding and depressing.complete-guitar-shipton

Eventually though, I learnt all the chords**. I also realised that few people would notice a depressing song if it was played with a little verve and bounce. In short, composing songs stopped being about expanding my box of tricks as a guitarist. The reverse was now true. I knew enough tricks already to serve the needs of the song.

Hard Days for Dreamers was one of the first songs I wrote that fell into that category. It’s a decade old, but looking over the lyrics, I’m fairly pleased with this one. There’s a lot of the existential angst of my early twenties there. Now I’m old enough to recognise that none of that angst is existential at all – it’s all perfectly real.

Joking aside, the song remains sadly topical. At the time I wrote the song, immigration was in the news as it is now. Back then, the main route of migration was across the Straits of Gibraltar, and like today, the sea claimed many trying to make the crossing to Europe. It was a theme also addressed by Steve Knightley in the Show of Hands song The Flood, which influenced writing Hard Days for Dreamers.

felucca-aswan-guitalele
Our felucca on the Nile, near Aswan. 

I hadn’t played Hard Days for Dreamers for a long, long time. Last week I found myself in Nubia, Upper Egypt, traversing the First Cataract of the Nile on a felucca (a traditional sailing boat). The desert looming on both banks of the river brought the song back to me, and to my surprise I discovered I could remember all the words. I wrote it capoed high on the guitar, so it was a natural fit for the guitalele.

Hard Days for Dreamers

Water always vexing me

For the rain it never falls

All the clouds been lured away

To desiccation’s call

You’re shelter in an empty land

A well beneath the tree

When the endless sky is closing in

With its white-hot jealousy

 

These are hard days for dreamers

Them out to bind your wings, them fools keep breaking things

These are hard days for dreamers

Distillation of a tear, no drinking water here,

Oh my darling sing

 

Water always vexing me

And again my girl’s have broke

Another child, another blessing

Another weight upon the yoke

You’re shelter in an empty land

A haven in the drought

The offer of sweet sanctuary

From the desert’s silent shout

 

These are hard days for dreamers

Them out to bind your wings, them fools keep breaking things

These are hard days for dreamers

Distillation of a tear, no drinking water here,

Oh my darling sing

 

Water always vexing me

And perhaps tonight I’ll drown

Perhaps I’ll reach the distant shore

Or the waves may take me down

Drifting desert, raging sea

Still I taste the salt

Struggling on this maelstrom

So I somersault

 

These are hard days for dreamers

Them out to bind your wings, them fools keep breaking things

These are hard days for dreamers

Distillation of a tear, no drinking water here,

Oh my darling sing

Oh my darling sing

Oh my darling sing

 

* Arguably, I was writing songs even before I picked up an instrument, but calling them poems rather than songs (and terribly mawkish things they were too!).

** Well okay, maybe not the jazz chords

Hard Days for Dreamers

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

 

A Dance for Sharks

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