Sometimes I wonder what I’m doing here. I mean that in the grand scope of finding purpose in life, in my work, in getting up in the morning to start another day. It’s something we all face, looking for a key that makes everything make sense. Sometimes you can find that key in a song — you find the key, the lock opens and things just fall into place.
Sometimes that key shows up at just the right time, like when I bought a record by Stevie Wonder in the mid-‘70s called (poetically) Songs in the Key of Life. I played that record over and over — “Love’s in Need of Love,” “I Wish” and other songs — the music somehow led me to the love of my life, a woman who I eventually married.
Sometimes the key is a literal key. I have a hook inside my front door where I hang my keys when I come home (against advice of the Neighborhood Watch folks) and I always try to put my keys in the same pocket in my pants. Yesterday, I was getting ready to go out the Blue Lake for “Bluegrass and Beyond,” and I had a momentary panic when my key wasn’t on the hook. No worries, I’d just changed pants and the keys were in the pair I’d worn the day before.
I’d spent part of the day before flailing around, wondering why I write this column every week (well, almost every week). A partial answer came that afternoon in a message from the bass player in a couple of bands that play music I like.
Glen Nagy described himself basically just saying he “lives in Arcata and plays bass.” He didn’t mention that he plays that bass in The Yokels and, in years gone by, in an outfit called Buckshot, but that’s a bit off topic and a story for another day.
He was writing to say his other band, Safari Boots, has, “a couple of public gigs the week after the Folklife Fest before John heads back to the UK. [That would be bandleader John Howarth, more about him in a minute.] Wednesday, July 19, we’re at the Mad River Brewery for Pints for Non-profits [with Blue Lake’s Old Crows getting part of the money] and the next night we're at the Redwood Curtain Brewery. I also sent this notice about the RCB gig to ‘The Scene’ [a Hum-like column that took my place in another paper, but that’s off-topic and another story for another day]. Let me know if you want any more info or if you'd like to talk to John.”
I saw this just before heading out to Blue Lake where I figured there was a good chance to run into John since he’s a Dell’Arte associate, so I didn’t write back to Glen to make arrangements.
We’ll start with his p.r. blurb: “From England to California by way of African influences, Safari Boots play their unique form of world music. Blending world beats and polyrhythms into their mainly original tunes, they create a joyous Afro-Euro fusion. Soukous, mbaqanga, rhumba, plus a touch of blues and a hint of Eastern scales, all find their way into an unusual repertoire.”
He went on to explain John is also filmmaker, director of the Dell’Arte film Mary Jane: A Musical Potumentary), who is originally from rural Buckinghamshire in England, “but spends a lot of time in Africa and in Humboldt, plays guitar and sings.” The third member of the trio is another local, percussionist Charly Eitel from Eureka.
I knew some of this info from talking with John, who I met a few years ago, before the Mary Jane movie, which, in the interest of full disclosure or whatever, I should mention I’m in, in a very small part as a member of the choir of pot people at a Bored of Soups meeting, begging “Please, please regulate us…” something that seems to be happening now. (We’ll see how it works out.) The movie is reportedly doing quite well, you can rent it on some service or other, and some day we might be able to see it on Netflix or something like it.
Out in Blue Lake
In Blue Lake, Folklife central last week, I caught the “Bluegrass & Beyond” night, a truly impressive collection of musicians, starting with the all-star bluegrass boys Clean Livin’ — pickin’ some good stuff.
Jenny Scheinman followed with some solo neo-traditonal tunes on her fiddles that sent shivers up my spine. (Pick up her new Here on Earth album.)
Then she shifted gears smoothly for a second set with John Wood, who, surprisingly, I have never heard play before, even though he’s lived here for a year or more. He added colors and filed in any gaps with his vintage Rhodes keyboard (augmented by minimal effects). This showcased Jenny’s prodigious skill at songwriting with stories that seem to be about my friends and family. In one case, a song about the local rock band The Lost Luvs, it actually was about friends of mine and she nailed their story.
As the sun disappeared and the air chilled, Compost Mountain Boys gave us some no shit bluegrass and country classics and originals. They were still going when I headed for the merch table to spend all of my money buying music from Jenny her sister and chatting about how it went. (It was breathtaking for everyone.)
When I turned around, the music was over, the sound crew was wrapping things up, and my chair was the only thing left in the grassy amphitheater. That’s when I saw John. I asked if he might have a few minutes to talk and he said he’d love to, but there was something more pressing on his mind. He was scanning the grass searching for his keys, which he’d somehow mislaid. I helped his retraced his steps, first in the bowl, then in the streets. He had borrowed the car and absolutely had find that key. I was little help.
Lost and found
John was still looking when I put my stuff in my VW before hitting the afterparty at The Logger, which was jumping for joy as Turtle Goodwater and Rinky Dink String Band played for a full dance floor. Kate, who owns the bar where everyone knows your name, bought me a drink since my wallet was empty post-merch. I ran into one friend after another and had a good talk with Angie, a Facebook/Instagram friend I’d never met in the “real world.” (“Angie, you’re beautiful,” as Mick sang.)
At some point John showed up, he’d checked in with Dell’Arte’s lost and found and someone had indeed found the missing key. Now he had time to talk Safari Boots.
“The band started in England about ten years ago, that was with bass, drums and guitar,” he explained, with a different rhythm section from now. “It was my idea to write songs with a African flavor because I’d traveled in Africa and picked up on the music. I was in a band in the ‘80s where we did our first African flavored song,” one that especially emulated that guitar sound. Me? I describe it as “like ringing a bell,” but it’s nothing like Chuck Berry. John has been exploring that music ever since.
As we continued to talk about the trajectory of what is now known as “world music,” in England, then in the US, I mentioned something I’d read in The Guardian (something like England’s New York Times) that pinpointed the beginning of the trend, at least on the marketing front, to a meeting at a London pub in June of 1987. The late, great, very influential DJ and music writer Charlie Gillett was there with Ian Anderson, currently the editor of fRoots, a UK-based folk/world magazine, and a couple of record producers were there.
In 1986, fRoots had started giving out awards for “Folk World Album of the Year,” beginning with the “African flavored” Paul Simon hit Graceland. In a Guardian interview Charlie laid their plan: “We had a very simple, small ambition. It was all geared to record shops, that was the only thing we were thinking about. In America, King Sunny Ade [from Nigeria] was being filed under reggae. That was the only place shops could think of to put him. In Britain they didn't know where to put this music — I think Ade was just lost in the alphabet, next to Abba. … Graceland burst everything wide open, because [Paul Simon] created an interest in South African music.”
Similarly, a record re-released as Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares had spurred interest in East European music. Over time, Cesaria Evora, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and Buena Vista Social Club found audiences in part because their music was lumped together under a “world” banner, at least in record stores and in the press. Of course “stores” and “the press” of any kind are now seen as a quaint notion by young folks, but whatever.
Safari Boots John had his own experience, first in Africa, where he was working on films that had nothing to do with music, then back in London, where Stern’s Electrical, a shop that sold tubes and parts for short wave radios and the like began selling records to immigrants from Africa like "Sweet Mother" by Prince Nico Mbarga and Rocafil Jazz. The business eventually evolved into Stern’s Records, a source for music from the African continent with stores in London, New York and Sao Paulo, and a large footprint on the web. Stern’s is the topic of a Safari Boots song, "Freetown Bus," which you'll find above.
The song was one of many on a double album I picked up in the '80s called Music and Rhythm. The collection was a benefit for Peter Gabriel's WOMAD.
It included tracks by XTC, Pete Townsend, David Byrne, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan,Holger Czukay's influential "Persian Love," and a song from Jon Hassell who came up with "Fourth World Music" working with Brian Eno. John and I talked about the changing face of world music, something that musicians like my son, Spencer, is dealing with, what another journalist refers to as music, "Beyond the Fourth World."
I caught Safari Boots Wednesday...
They also played their new world music at the All Day All Free Folklife, where they were on the main stage. They'll play it again Thursday at Redwood Curtain (see above). It was great to hear them stretch out on tunes with a sound from Africa via England with Humboldt touches. Good stuff...
What else is going on this weekend? I’m not sure exactly. And at least this week, you’re on your own. I’ll see you somewhere where the music is playing…