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.

 

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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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