(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

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(Given Back The) Kingdom

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

Nine thousand years of history. These are the terms we speak of when we consider the span of humanity’s habitation of the Nile Valley here in Nuba – the lands of Ancient Kush and Meroe. Here we’ve gone back in time – though only a little ways I grant you – and spent five days sailing the Nile aboard a felucca under the care of Captain Sero.

Our felucca – the Nile Queen – is more or less full with a crew of two plus my wife and I. She’s handcrafted, older than I am, and based upon a design that is centuries old*. Of course, that means that wind and water are our only means of propulsion. No engine, so no electricity.

This also means that I’ve had no choice but to divest myself of my technological aids and do things the simple way, as I promised myself.

Unfortunately, of my four nascent songs, only Bold Little Weasel is sufficiently far along for me to feel confident continuing to write it without resorting to my computerised notes. This song has travelled far enough that I was quickly able to complete it as we drifted amongst the islands of the First Cataract of the Nile. Though by complete, I mean only felucca-songwriting-nilethat I have a complete set of lyrics – some good, some okay and all open to further revision – and the basic arrangement of chords and picking. Still to do is to add the ‘twiddly bits’; stitching in some riffs, runs and motifs to the overall song.

Besides working on Bold Little Weasel, I had plenty of time on my hands. Trepidatious of returning to the other songs, I decided to start from scratch. Now, Nuba is one of those many cultures to have embraced the mighty Bob Marley as their own, so reggae seemed the natural choice of music to play. Pretty soon I had a simple two chord skank ripe for embellishment and a slightly more complex progression which could work as a chorus.

Having taken with me the sheaf of papers I’d written at the start of 1m4s, I looked back over the song titles I’d spurned, and rescued Pass Without Trace from obscurity. Its lyrical themes – of disappearing from the capitalist strictures of modern living – seemed to fitfelucca-songwriting-aswan the reggae vibe nicely. Rearranging the free writing I’d set down almost a month ago, I was able to quite easily extrapolate a narrative complete with verses and a chorus. With only minimal rewriting I had a complete song.

Here’s rough demo of a verse and a chorus of Pass Without Trace from early on in its composition. It got a bit stronger later on, but by then the camera battery was exhausted and we weren’t able to record any more.

I am wearing a tea towel on my head. I have neither excuse nor explanation.

*I am referring here to the boat, not my wife.

1m4s Day 25: Reggae on the River

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects

philae-temple-morning

With just over a week left of 1 month, 4 songs, the likelihood of success is beginning to dwindle. At my half-way point, I noted my holidays were coming, and that I’d have more time to put into my songs. It’s a myth I’ve fallen for before, because of course time on holiday is spent being on holiday. Though I’ve had some productive songwriting sessions since I left Cairo, more time’s been spent travelling, exploring and enjoying what Upper Egypt has to offer.

Today did see a good songwriting session though, as we spent the day chilling at Fekra, a (rather dilapidated) cultural centre celebrating Nubian heritage. While the rooms don’t offer much to celebrate, the view is a cause for celebration; a stretch of the Nile dotted by rocky islands, framing Philae Temple, one of the wonders of Ancient Egypt rescued and rebuilt after dams harnessed the might of the river. Fekra was the site of one the Nile Project’s residencies – a musical project/evolving band that brings together the different musical traditions of the people who live along the longest river in the world. It’s a band I’ve followed since before I came to Egypt, and with their music in mind and the fantastic vista it was easy to feel inspired.

I turned my attention to two songs. When The City Is Home now has verses, choruses and a bridge, although only the latter has music I’m set on. I experimented with some different ideas with the verse and the chorus, nothing quite fit. I gave up before I started feeling too frustrated, though in retrospect wonder whether this was premature. With songwriting you’re always on the verge of a major breakthrough or a minor breakdown, and it’s never clear how close you are to which.

The other song I worked on was Bold Little Weasel, which has pulled ahead of the other songs in terms of progress. At this stage I more or less know how the song goes and what the various parts consist of, though there are some holes in the lyrics here and there. With my friend Watter Al Bahry playing the duff, I made the short demo above of the bridge and a section of the verse. The living room at Fekra has a hexagonal design, which creates a really warm acoustic sound.

The Nile’s influence will continue to be felt over the next few days, as I will spend them on rather than next to the water. We’ll be sailing aboard a felucca – a traditional Egyptian boat for the next five days, and the pace of life will really, really slow down, though I hope I’ll still be able to fit in a little songwriting alongside doing nothing. Am I, after all, on holiday.

philae-temple-evening

 

1m4s Day 23: Nile Projects

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