In My House

BG Frigiliana

In my last post I was reminiscing on my time spent in Frigiliana, Spain in 2006, in the early stages of writing songs for No Straight Lines.

It is an extraordinary thing to hole up in a place like that to write songs.  You bring your instrument, your tape recorder, your notebooks, your rough ideas.  You know no one, though you always make friends.  Everything around you has a newness to it.  You arrive full of hope.  What you might possibly draw from your surroundings you can never know, and that’s why you go there.  Fes, where I spent time in 2004 writing, was a relentless beehive of people.  Frigiliana, arriving as I did during the rainy off-season, was a silent, whitewashed dream.  Ironically, in each place I got exactly what I wanted — total anonymity.

I love literature easily as much as I love music.  Many times during the writing of No Straight Lines I re-read Lorca‘s inspiring “In Search of Duende” essays and many times over his poetry.  Modern flamenco owes a lot to Lorca, having organized with Manuel de Falla the legendary 1922 Concorso de Cante Jondo in Granada, that helped flamenco begin to be appreciated for the incredibly deep art form it is.

cante_jondooriginalAn amazing recording from that event exists.  A number of years ago Sonifolk, a label in Madrid, released a CD of performances from the Concorso along with various selections from both de Falla’s and Lorca’s personal flamenco collections.  It’s quite a slice of history.  I naturally had that with me in Frigiliana as well.

Songs are miniatures.  I often think of them as akin to pottery, certainly not high art.  They’re hand-thrown objects that might at best hold a few ideas, assuming the listener wishes to store something there.  The lyrics have to fit around the outside.  Half of the time they crack in the oven.  They most likely get thrown out and only rarely passed down through generations.  If I consult the higher arts for direction now and then, it is only as someone seeks a flashlight in the dark.  I love being informed by what is out there in the world.  But I can’t fit into my own pants from ten years ago, let alone a larger figure’s shoes.

Stumbling down the hill to Frigiliana’s central café every morning, I blew through two café con leches at the bar thumbing through yesterday’s emails on my Blackberry while the the chief of police nursed a breakfast sherry next to me.  Afterwards I trudged back up the many steps to my rented house, where I spent the day hard at work writing, as the shape of the album began to finally take seed in my mind.

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Songs like “I Threw Your Heart” and “Came So Close” off of No Straight Lines became highly influenced by flamenco lyrics.  For a really nice, concise collection, check out “Gypsy Cante,” selected and translated by Will Kirkland.  In the meantime, below is an Andalusian poem in a similar vein, one of my very favorites.  As the writer (and lawyer) José Monleón once aptly remarked, “Flamenco is a tragedy in the first person.”

In my house
I am keeping a garden,
so I can sell flowers
for you if hard times come.

I went out to the fields to cry
like a mad man screaming,
and even the wind kept telling
me that you loved someone else.

From your neck hangs a cross
Set in gold and ivory.
Let me die on it
And crucify myself there,
On that cross that hangs from your neck.

I have bought three knives
For you to end my life,
So that I will not have to
Suffer the pain
Of hating you.

 

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Frigiliana

 

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In my last post I was writing about Al-Andalus music.  “Al-Andalus” refers to the lengthy period from roughly 711 through 1492 during which major parts of Spain were under Moorish (i.e., Muslim) rule.  If you enjoyed the music I linked to there then why not throw this on some Saturday while you’re cleaning house…a Spotify playlist that purportedly contains a full 26 hours of Al-Andalus influenced music (assuming you’re willing to use Spotify, which I do have mixed feelings about).  https://play.spotify.com/user/prakalos/playlist/0NxQpTdmstDfIVRlJ6Qp6E

The small, whitewashed hillside Andalusian village of Frigiliana looms large in the creation of No Straight Lines. I rented a house there in early 2006 where I worked on a number of songs that wound up on the album, and where I took the photo above.  But to discuss Frigiliana I need to go way back.

Sometime around 2000 I took a trip to Spain.  After visiting old friends in Granada (I started going there in 1979), I wound my way through Murcia and Andalusia on back roads ending up in Seville in an old hotel near the Cathedral Gino Dauri had recommended to me.  It’s fitting I mention Gino, because he would later play his own role in No Straight Lines.  I met Gino really soon after moving to LA in 1980.  Probably the best-known flamenco player in LA during those years (though rejected by some purists because he was always into experimentation), he later sold me the Hermanos Conde flamenco guitar I used for most of the nylon string guitar parts on No Straight Lines.  Gino was quite a character…but if I were to go off on Gino – whose flamboyant life was cut down way too soon by cancer about 10 years ago – I’d lose the ever-important meticulous and decisive train of thought that so defines this blog.

My travel journals say I was re-reading Lorca’s plays, Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” and Jan Morris‘ excellent “Spain” book during that trip.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I often hand-pick books to read whenever I travel that are tied in some way to the place I am in.  I so strongly recommend traveling that way, it adds immensely to any trip.

But I digress, because on the way to Seville I had discovered this amazing small whitewashed village called Frigiliana, only 5 miles inland from the Mediterranean town of Nerja, but seemingly still 500 years in the past.  I arrived around 2:30 in the afternoon. The town was utterly dead and I mean utterly. There were a few dusty ancient cars and a handful of existential donkeys spread around the main square.  It was incredibly hot.  I started walking up into the village on these winding walkways that seemed to never end.

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I finally arrived at an outdoor café perched high on the hillside already closed for the afternoon with a large unoccupied patio that looked out over the Mediterranean in the distance.  I was totally winded so I sat down to catch my breath.  Remarkably, Pat Metheny Group’s “First Circle” album was playing softly through the patio speakers.  Having recorded This Perfect Day a few years earlier with PMG bassist Steve Rodby (who also played on No Straight Lines) but also knowing both Lyle Mays and Pedro Aznar in that group, I had a really uncanny feeling sitting there — in such thoroughly familiar musical surroundings, while simultaneously in some faraway distant place and time.

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For some reason I afterwards often thought if I ever found myself with an extended period of time to write, I might want to return to Frigiliana.  So in early 2006 (through an incredibly generous 5-month leave of absence granted my employer Morrison & Foerster to allow me to travel and work on music) I holed up there for a steady month of writing.  The photo above was taken from the rooftop of the 600 year-old house I rented, looking out beyond the newer part of Frigiliana to the Mediterranean beyond.

I’ll write more about my time in Frigiliana later, but today I am making Ajo Blanco (white garlic) soup, and that’s what prompted this post — the interconnectedness of Al-Andalus music and Ajo Blanco soup.  Because it was the Moors who introduced almonds to the Iberian Peninsula and most likely also invented Ajo Blanco.

Whenever I had put in an especially hard morning of work in Frigiliana, I rewarded myself with lunch at La Bodeguilla, a family-run place featuring regional food.  They made a truly memorable Choto Frito (stewed kid) that I always ordered with Ajo Blanco and Migas (fried breadcrumbs with garlic) on the side.  (For a short article on Andalusian food, see http://www.marbellagoldenmile.com/andalucian-food.asp).

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Not only is Ajo Blanco incredibly good, it’s just about the easiest thing in the world to make.  If you’re interested, I’ve included my recipe below, created from trial and error.  It makes batch large enough for about 12 servings or 1 small foot bath.

3 cups blanched almonds

6 garlic clove

one 6″ x 3″ piece of day-old white bread, crust removed

1 1/4 cup Spanish olive oil

10 tablespoon sherry vinegar (vinagre de Jerez)

4 teaspoons salt

5 1/2 cups water

Instructions:  Cover bread with water and soak 5 minutes.  Meanwhile, pulse the almonds and garlic in a blender or processor until finely ground.  Then squeeze the excess water out of the bread and pulse it into the almond mix until it becomes a thick paste.  With the motor running add the olive oil slowly, followed by the vinegar and salt, and finally the water.  Put the soup in a tureen in the refrigerator and cool for at least a couple of hours.  This will get you started, but then taste the soup and add more water, salt or vinegar to suit your taste.  It should be tangy.

 

 

 

 

 

Al-Andalus

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Throughout the period I was working on “No Straight Lines,” I was listening to a fair amount of Al-Andalus music (i.e., dating from the period roughly 711-1492 A.D.).  I’ve been keen on it ever since hearing the wonderful group Al-Andalus from Portland, Oregon 10 or 15 years ago.  The cross-fertilization of Spain and Morocco during that era was extraordinarily rich and anyone traveling around either Southern Spain or Northern Morocco often stumbles upon many syncretic relics, including an entire section of the Fes medina built during the Al-Andalus era.  It’s not unusual to see Al-Andalus groups using cello and violin (played in the lap) but playing melismatic maqams rather than European parts.

Here’s but one example:

The photo at the top of this post is from the medina in Fes, taken during the 2004 Fes Festival.  The one below is from a back street in Malaga in 2006 when I spent an extended period of time in Frigiliana and Malaga writing songs for “No Straight Lines.”  How far apart are they really?

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The Mediterranean region continues to be a particularly potent area for musical collaboration.  When it came out in 1988, I loved the Ketama record “Songhai” that featured Toumani Diabate on kora and Danny Thompson on upright bass (I was a big Pentangle fan during the 1970s).  I enjoy what Javier Limon has recently been doing with Buika and Anouska Shankar, and what Neopolitans like Enzo Avitabile and Pino Danieli have long done with cross-cultural references in their corner of the region.  During work on “No Straight Lines” I listened quite a bit to Karim Ziad‘s very cool “Ifrika” CD, a refreshing Gnawa-meets-Zawinul thing.  In short, these various musics all share antecedents of one sort or another, just as we are all connected to each other, however tenuously it seems at times.

When it first came out, I saw the extraordinary film “Latcho Drom” in a theatre, and afterwards listened to its soundtrack album hundreds of times, I’m sure.  I had already encountered a lot of flamenco by then and was highly curious about its origins, which are explored in the film through Romani performances from all parts of the world.  I watched many more Tony Gatlif films during the making of “No Straight Lines,” so many of his characters torn between Spain and North Africa.  My friend Cihtli Ocampo was the featured female dancer in Gatlif’s amazing film “Exils” (for which he received the Best Director award at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival) and her husband Ethan Margolis played on and contributed to “No Straight Lines” in numerous other ways.

While not strictly Al-Andalus, the group that I probably got the most inspiration from while working on “No Straight Lines” was Radio Tarifa.  I love their melding of flamenco with North African influences, but also the way they work really unusual instruments like hautbois de poitou, crumhorn, argul into their productions.  To my ears theirs is a really novel and successful alchemy.  And I love that they recorded their first album in their living room, which is where I recorded most of “No Straight Lines,” since I years ago sold my studio and now no longer even have a soundproofed room.  If you’ve never checked out Radio Tarifa, here’s a short video that will introduce you to them:

As I review this post I am struck by how much music I refer to, when in fact I have always found it next to impossible to listen to other music when working on an album, lest I get distracted or lose focus.  But I can see why one common thread that binds these artists together — their celebration of a world larger than themselves — was and continues to be an inspiration.

 

Egypt 1979

 

It is simply incomprehensible and surreal what is going on in Egypt right now.

“Egypt court sentences Al Jazeera journalists”

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/egypt-finds-al-jazeera-journalists-guilty-201462373539293797.html

I don’t offer any easy analysis here, merely a fond personal recollection of way better times. Egypt was the first Islamic country I ever traveled in. I was there during Ramadan in 1979.  I arrived at the Cairo airport from Athens around 1:00 a.m. I was startled to see so many people there to greet the plane at that hour in the night thrusting cards in our faces and waving their hands wildly directly outside customs. I wound up following the first hustler who spoke English and offered me a place to sleep, way down into the belly of the city, in a place called the Gresham Hotel that cost 1.85 Egyptian pounds a night. I can still recall the huge cockroaches that scuttled off the tops of the bed into every dark corner of the room the minute he turned on the light to proudly present my room. All night long car horns were blaring non-stop, just like in Athens.

The next day I began to take it all in. I saw mendicants crawling down the middle of the main street.  In the train station 500 men were down on prayer mats facing Mecca.  Cairo was utterly chaotic, draft animals and cars sharing the streets.  I heard one of the most beautiful sounds I’ve ever heard, the call to prayer of the muezzin. I’d never been any place like that.  I’d read a lot about ancient Egypt before going there.  I was in no way prepared for modern Egypt.  But I never felt alarmed.  I felt welcome everywhere.

What I remember the most about Egypt is how great people there were.  Behind the Pyramids I met a guy selling hash.  He had none of the high-pressure sales pitches you quite often get in places like that, just a really nice down-to-earth Egyptian guy about my age.  I had the most incredible photo of the two of us standing in front of the Great Pyramid that I lost within a month of returning, as with so many other precious things.  That was still in the era when they allowed people to climb all the way up the narrow walkway of the Great Pyramid into the King’s Chamber.  I remember how claustrophic that walkway was, and how I was so bent over the whole time.  I know I must have been telling myself “soak all of this in” but of course you never fully can.

When I got outside the guy was still there hanging around. We walked over to the Giza village, where I took the photograph above.  All the streets were dirt then, I bet they aren’t now.  We ate excellent falafel from street vendors.  Everyone was so laid back and friendly.  Afterwards we took a wild taxi ride at breakneck speed out into the country to the small village he was from.  I bought a carpet.  With his friends it was all in sign language.  We all had tea.  I can’t remember exactly how I got back to my fleabag hotel, although he probably arranged a taxi for me.

That falafel was definitely a bad idea.  In the middle of the night I started exploding out of every bodily orifice, my fever reaching 104 degrees.  What followed was one of the most miserable weeks I’ve ever had, a violent dysentery that came back over and over again during the months that followed.

 

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Two days later I bought a 2nd class overnight train ticket from Cairo to Luxor.  I spent several days there.  I was barely able to eat anything other than entrocid, my stomach was still so sensitive.  I was travelling on $15/day so I rented a bicycle and rode it out through the desert in 120 degree heat with bottles of water strapped to the bike. I rode it to Karnak through small villages alongside the Nile, children running alongside me.

The streets in Luxor were dirt.  I stayed in a small downtown hotel for 4 days and became friends with the hotel owner, also about my age.  We kept in touch by letters for a year or so.

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It’s hard to describe the awe one feels in a place like the Valley of the Kings, or in Karnak.  And so hard to describe my feelings upon hearing in 1997 that Islamists had massacred tourists there.
  I oppose fundamentalism everywhere, in every form.

Postscript: I quite often read books related to the place I am traveling, one of the simplest pleasures in life. I was reading “Justine” on that trip for the first time, from Lawrence Durrell’s amazing “Alexandria Quartet.”  One morning before I got sick I splurged on the breakfast buffet at the Nile Hilton, which someone had told me was supposed to be fantastic. It was! I had three full plates of food. Afterwards I wandered into the gift shop and noticed a short row of perhaps 20 books for sale. Thinking I might at least maybe find something on Egyptian history, I went over to see if they had anything interesting. What a peculiar twist of fate. Throughout the late 1970s I had been looking everywhere for a copy of the complete 3-volume set of Robert Musil’s “The Man Without Qualities.” Previously published in the U.K., only the first volume remained in print in English.  For months (before the age of the internet no less) I had been trying to find the set through U.S. and U.K. used booksellers, without any luck.  Right there in front of my eyes, next to a stack of pyramid-shaped nicknacks, was the entire Musil set! 

 

Sufis

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All this talk of Sufis, reminds me of jazz guitarist Mick Goodrick, who came along at an interesting time in my life and who reinforced a lot of my own feelings about music and musicians.  In 1976 or thereabouts, while I was living in Boston, I studied for a year or more with Mick, with whom I developed a really special friendship as well.  I didn’t really “study guitar” with Mick.  Mostly we talked about purposefulness and watchfulness.  I brought my demos over and Mick played guitar solos on them.  We talked about a myriad of things, including the music we liked and why.  (I read a great Jazz Guitar Life Mick Goodrick interview recently where he mentioned that Mike Stern “studied” with him a few times during that same period, where the two of them mostly just talked about psychology, which sounds a lot like what my “lessons” were like.)

I still recall the day I arrived at Mick’s house the first time.  I found myself in a dark room in the middle of the afternoon, with Mick leaning back in some kind of Lazy-Boy recliner in the far corner.  I said “I’m Bill Gable, I called you on the phone, I’m really interested to see what I can learn from you,” to which I think Mick responded “If you’re at all confused about what you need to learn, why are you here?”  And so our friendship began.

Mick was reading a lot of Sufi stuff those days and some of his music and thinking was probably influenced by it. I’m thinking of his wonderful composition “Mevlevia,” off the Gary Burton Quintet “Ring” album (with Gary Burton, Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow, Bob Moses and Eberhard Weber). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mevlevi_Order. For another great example of Mick’s writing and playing during those days, check out his extraordinary ECM record “In Pass(s)ing,” with Eddie Gomez, Jack DeJohnette and John Surman.

During those years I was playing over 250 gigs a year and keeping fairly active “Gig Journals.” Mick and I used to often talk about how the most interesting aspect of playing live gigs was watching what was going on around us in the room.  Sometimes I would recount to Mick things I had seen at gigs and we would crack up together. I plan on sharing the occasional Gig Journal on this blog over time. (As an odd aside, during breaks at gigs during those years, I read the entire Will and Ariel Durant “The Story of Civilization” series. I basically can’t remember any of it now, which I must agree is not an altogether good sign for what may lie ahead.)

Watching the Sufi concerts night after night at the Fes Festival, I often found myself wondering why on earth Sufis have been so persecuted, often for their ecstatic music, including in recent times by the Taliban. http://freemuse.org/archives/1721.  In the room pictured above, I began writing lyrics to a song called “All Are One” that wound up on “No Straight Lines,” inspired by Rumi and Hafez, two of the greatest Sufi poets. My favorite verse, which I later was forced to take out because the song was getting too long, was:

if it’s my time I’ve had my say / I’ve had my fill of music already / So take me now oh and by the way / Do you know the changes to Rock Steady?

I’d put Aretha up against the Taliban any day.

Sufi Nights

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Every night long after the formal Fes Festival concert ended an informal, unadvertised concert series took place in a courtyard in the Medina known as “Sufi Nights.” I hear it may no longer take place. If so that’s truly a shame because many of the most memorable musical performances I heard in Fes that year took place there.

During the performance I videotaped above, about halfway into the song a few Sufis leaped up from where they were sitting and starting dancing ecstatically. The guy in the white djellaba was so huge, easily 300 pounds, way outsizing anyone around him. It was really moving to see him jumping up and down so joyfully, it already being about 1 a.m.   There is a documentary out that features music and footage from the 2002 and 2004 Fes Festivals (http://www.soundofsoul.org/show.asp?content_id=14402) that incorporates footage of this same guy that very night.

But for me by far the most memorable Sufi Night jam was the one the last night of the festival. From my travel journal:

The final evening of the festival the local Sufi group from Fes was scheduled to play and the moment was extraordinary. All of the space anywhere near the stage had been taken by those of us willing to sit on the hard ground for a couple of hours in wait, most of whom were locals and probably Sufi. The week before, the U.S. government had released the first images from Abu Ghraib, which Donald Rumsfeld had warned were going to be superseded the following week with even grislier images. The local police had swept the streets before the festival, but given Moroccan hospitality it is no surprise there was nothing resembling any tension between anyone in Fes, and particularly not in the medina, which seemed infused with an eternal calm. Around 1:00 am we heard the blaring zurnas announcing the musicians’ arrival. They had decided to enter the courtyard playing and had already reached a fevered pitch by the time they snaked through the crowd directly in front of me. One of them carried a burning brazier and a handful of sparks blew into my face as a drummer tipped the head of his darbuka too close to the coals trying to raise its pitch. There is no finer thing than to be a musician.

Fes Festival 2004

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Any album represents a journey. This particular one more or less began in May of 2004 at the Fes Festival of Sacred Music. Every evening long after the concert ended the most incredible jam sessions occurred in a private garden inside the medina, where each night a new Sufi group from a different region in North Africa played its trance music for hours. Afterwards I stumbled home through the dark alleyways and lay in bed unable to sleep, reading Rumi and Hafiz, Mohammed Choukri, Driss Chraibi and others. Holed up every day inside the medina at Riad Al Bartal to avoid the scorching mid-day heat I embarked on this journey working on the first of many songs I would compose for this album.

It was an amazing couple of weeks. I spent a lot of time hanging out with Alecia Cohen and her circle of world music journalists, who were great company. Earlier that year returning from MIDEM I sat next to Alecia on the plane from Cannes to Paris and we discovered we were both going to be going to the Fes Festival and kept in touch. At that point she was still running her magazine Global Rhythm, which was one of the sponsors of the festival that year. She later wound up moving to Morocco, she loved it so much, where she started a travel company called Travel Exploration.

Fast forward to 2011, in the overdub phase of “No Straight Lines,” my wife and I spent a couple of weeks travelling throughout Southern Morocco with Alecia and Hossaine Amiri booked through Travel Exploration. It was great getting another chance to hear a bunch of Gnawa and Berber music again and inspiring to finally make it that part of Morocco I’d read so much about. The photo below is of our bivouac out in the Sahara, as the sun was finally fading from view.   What a world, what a world.

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