Archive for January, 2008

Happy New Year

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Dear Mailing List,

(These news letters seem to get longer and longer. But enough of you say you enjoy them, so I’m not going to edit too severely.)

Plenty of travel and music to report since my last newsletter. The journeys began at the end of September when I went back to my hometown of Princeton, New Jersey for my father’s memorial service. Local friends of his had worried that so many of his friends were dead or moved away we might not get much of a turnout, but there were about 70 people in the meeting room of Princeton Community Library. My brother and I and others shared memories, some of Dad’s as yet unpublished book on the global economy from a local perspective was read, slides were projected and, after I described my father teaching me double-entry book-keeping by comparing it to the elegance of a Bach fugue, SuzanneFremon – who had studied piano with my grandmother – played a Bach fugue and some Schubert. All in all a very satisfying event.

From there I flew to California for two evenings built around the release of new Nick Drake material and screenings of the film “A Skin Too Few”. Sometime in the late ‘90s, the BBC approached Gabrielle Drake and me about making a documentary on Nick. I was impressed with their young director and the production unit was one of the best in the BBC, so the project went ahead. While that was being shot (working around the fact that there is no footage of Nick performing), some Dutch guys started pestering me about a film they were making on the same subject for Dutch tv. In the cause of spreading the word about Nick’s music to the Continent, I took part in their film as well, despite the fact that I found their methods a bit off-putting. The BBC film was eventually aired and was very disappointing. A few months later, I attended a screening of the Dutch film with very low expectations. Naturally, it was brilliant.

This is the film that was shown in San Francisco and Los Angeles at the beginning of October. In Los Angeles, Gabrielle Drake and I were upstaged by Robin Frederick, who did her brilliant de-construction of a couple of Nick’s songs. She plays and sings, not attempting to put across a performance, but in order to demonstrate what Nick is up to with his complex harmonies, melodies, rhythms and lyrics. After listening to Robin, you gain a new understanding of why Nick’s music has endured.

In San Francisco, I stumbled across a free festival in Golden Gate Park called “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass”. What an amazing thing! A local millionaire gives it free to the city every autumn – 5 stages, free entrance to everyone and stars from T-Bone Burnett to Teddy Thompson and Emmy Lou Harris to Boz Scaggs and Elvis Costello plus lots of roots country artists performing across three days.

Next was a reading tour of Germany with Geoff Muldaur. It was, if I do say so myself, not a bad show. Andreas Schaefler from Kunstmann Verlag- my German publisher – read selections from my book in German, I told tales of the Sixties and answered questions in English and Geoff performed songs related to the book. Seven cities in eight days; it was nice to have a tour manager, someone else to hold the tickets and tell me when to be downstairs and ready to go.

At 5am on the morning after the final stop in Dusseldorf, I grabbed a taxi to the airport and flew to India.

My visit to the Rajasthan International Folk Festival began a year earlier, when I was invited to attend the Jaipur Arts Festival. A condition of my invitation was that I write about it for an English paper. Preparing my pitch for the Guardian, I had a close look at the festival website. Evening events included collaborations between Rajasthani musicians and an ex-member of the Thompson Twins and village dancers in a piece directed by an Italian choreographer. I suggested to the Jaipur press attaché that perhaps it would be better if I didn’t come; in all probability, my piece would take the piss out of such things and I’d feel bad for having accepted their air tickets and hotels. She was appreciative of my frankness and agreed it might be better if I came ‘another time’. But she couldn’t resist adding a comment that while she understood my ‘purism’, I ought to appreciate that they were concerned with making international contacts for their local musicians and had to do what was best for them. I countered by saying that I was the last person to be against promoting traditional musicians on the international stage. The difference was that I believed that ill-advised ‘fusions’ were far from being constructive, that most successful international touring ‘world music’ artists are pretty true to their traditions and ‘Western’ audiences are far more responsive to the ‘real thing’.

A day later, I got an email from John Singh, director of the festival, saying he agreed with me completely and proposed meeting up when he was next in London. Those fusions, he explained when we met, were the strings attached to funds dangled by cultural consulates from places like New Zealand or Italy. But he then explained about the RIFF festival in Jodhpur that would take place for the first time in October; it would focus almost entirely on village musical traditions. Why didn’t I come to that instead?

Thus I found myself in a taxi, climbing a twisting road through the ancient Rajput city of Jodhpur. When we broke clear of the streets crowded with cows, ‘tuk-tuk’ rickshaws and pedestrians, a gigantic stone fort loomed before us on a crag above the city. There were turbaned guards at the gates, trays of cocktails for the opening night celebrations on the cobbled street inside the fort and musicians serenading the guests at every turn as we slowly wound our way via courtyards and spectacular parapets towards the top. The banquet was a star-studded affair – my table was graced by William Dalrymple, foremost chronicler of Moghul India and Mick Jagger, a genuine Indian music buff and an old friend of the Maharajah’s. After goat tikka and delicious vegetable curries, everyone repaired to a courtyard surrounded by filigree-carved stone windows and topped by a full moon for a concert of Indian classical singers and musicians celebrating Rajasthani folk songs.

For the next three days, afternoons were spent under a canopy in a beautiful garden listening to unamplified traditional musicians from the Langa and Manganiyar communities performing ancient songs about Saints and Gods, dressed in beautiful costumes, occasionally unfurling huge scrolls with painted accounts of the deeds of heroes who defended low-caste cattle against the predations of Rajputs. There was an ethno-musicologist on hand to explain the meaning of the songs. What a wonderful way to pass an afternoon!

At dusk, the festival moved along the road to a cement plinth overlooking the fort where Sufi devotional songs helped the sun lower itself below the horizon, turning the fort and the ‘blue city’ of Jodhpur brilliant shades of rose and orange in the process. In the evening, there were more concerts in huge courtyards in the fort, with food and drink for sale along the ramparts looking down on the old city, where, one evening, you could hear the sound of a wedding and a brass band hundreds of meters below our eyrie. For anyone looking for a great musical adventure next autumn, google Rajasthan International Folk Festival and start booking your trip now. For those of you in the World Music business, the only problem is that it will probably take place once again on WOMEX weekend.

When the festival was finished, John Singh had plans for me. I might well have gone to the festival in any case, but I had a feeling that what John was up to in Rajasthan would make good material for my book on World Music. On Sunday afternoon in the garden, I sought him out and pointed to a family that had intrigued me all weekend: a bearded patriarch who liked to shake his ass and dance while waving his giant tambura, a clever-looking daughter who sang beautifully and played the harmonium and a veiled daughter-in-law who sang even better. When I asked if he would translate while I interviewed them, he said I needn’t bother. “We’re visiting their home on Tuesday on the way to Jaipur.”

Monday started with a dawn concert of Sufi devotional songs on the plinth and a Rajasthani breakfast and ended with a small private concert in the country home of the late Komal Kothari, the ethnomusicoligist who pioneered the documentation of Rajasthani folk culture. Many of the musicians who had gathered for the festival were there, but that evening they performed a completely different repertoire. Kothari always hated the harmonium, a ‘modern’ 19th century invention which, with its steady drone, made singers lazier than they had been when they accompanied themselves on one of the many varieties of sarangi found in Rajasthan. The musicians played for the audience of other musicians and musicologists (and ringers such as myself), reaching back to remember the songs they and their families first performed for Kothari when he came to their villages forty years ago. No microphones, the music reflecting off the stone floor and the adobe walls, singers taking turns for almost three hours and a delicious vegetarian meal under the moon at the end.

Tuesday we drove through the land of the Bishnoi, the original tree-huggers. In 1730, the Maharajah of Jodhpur ordered the felling of Khejri trees, a marvellous plant that provides animal fodder, housing material and medicines and flourishes in the Rajasthan desert. Women and children from the Bishnoi community stood between the axes and the trees and hundreds were killed. Eventually, the maharajah relented and the trees have been protected ever since.

By midday, we were in Jaitaran, at the simple house of the family of Sajjan Dass and his daughters. We heard how their musical life had deteriorated through the disinterest of traditional patrons who had stopped paying them decent fees for the all-night performance of the devotional songs that had been their stock in trade. Since John Singh had invited them to perform at the Jaipur festival, however, their lives have completely changed. They have been in the newspapers and even on television. Local families are paying good fees for all night ceremonies again. They have set up a village teashop and bought an old car that Sajjan is trying to repair. They worship Singh as a kind of deity.

In Jaipur, we stayed with John and his wife Faith at the Anokhi compound outside of town. What John is doing for music, he and Faith have already done for the tradition of hand-block printing. Female readers may have heard of Anokhi; in the ‘70s you could find their clothes at Liberty and Monsoon in London and when fashions shifted, they made home furnishings. Now they have a chain of stores in India, where the middle-classes are beginning to appreciate the traditional crafts of their country. Their land was reclaimed from waste ground and is now full of trees, birds, an organic farm, houses built from traditional materials in pure Rajasthani style and the Anokhi headquarters, cooled with water and fans, where the 300 or so employees all gaze directly from workstations onto greenery. It is a magical, contented and industrious place. The Singhs are also involved in saving tigers, making life better for working elephants, preserving the architecture of Jaipur and have started a multi-caste progressive school. You could tell the RIFF had real class and spirit and in Jaipur I understood where it came from.

I won’t go on and on about how beneficial traditional music, crafts and architecture are for a culture. You’ll have wait and read my book for that. But I do highly recommend the Rajasthan International Folk Festival in Jodhpur. Maybe I’ll see you there next year. ( Please visit my website for photos of last year’s event. (

Back in the ‘West’, the December highlight was a trip to New York to receive a “Deems Taylor” award from ASCAP for White Bicycles. The week began with a visit to Prairie Home Companion at Town Hall to see Geoff Muldaur perform three pieces he had arranged for vocal and brass ensemble. One was a song by his old Woodstock friend Geoff Gutcheon called “(Don’t Want to Have A) Slow Death” written after he watched his mother’s extended suffering in her old age. Geoff says he’s never had such a response to a song! (Geoff’s website is For non-Americans, Prairie Home is a regular radio (and occasionally tv) broadcast by the monologist and writer Garrison Keillor with plenty of music amid the tales of Lake Wobegon. Keillor is pretty impressive, standing on stage in a natty suit and tie and bright red trainers (‘sneakers’ to us Yanks) and telling wry tales without script or prompter. Geoff assures me they’re different every night. The other singer that night was Odetta – who I confess I never liked back in her ‘60s heyday, but age and illness have taken the oomph out of her operatic contralto and the result was far more soulful and satisfying to my ear.

The ASCAP event was impressive. The small auditorium in the new ‘Jazz At Lincoln Center’ complex in Columbus Circle is steeply raked and at first glance had what seemed like a huge bank of tv monitors behind the stage. My misapprehension was soon corrected: it is, in fact, a high wall of windows looking out onto Central Park and 59th St: quite a spectacular setting. Awards went to books, magazine articles, liner notes and documentaries and I was proud to be in such company. Highlights of the evening included Lorraine Gordon, author of a book about her life in music. She keeps the New York jazz club flame alight at the Village Vanguard and when accepting, pretended to read “troops out of Iraq, now!” off the plaque. The only bigger ovation was for Les Paul, who, at 92, still performs regularly. He told a great story about showing up unannounced to audition for Paul Whiteman in the late 1930s, which is how he got his start. No in those days….

I was counting on a quiet holiday fortnight to make more progress on my ‘difficult second book’, but an energy-sapping flu has set me back. I’m currently in Paris for the launch of the French version of White Bicycles, then I’ll try to resist further promotion opportunities in favour hard work on the World Music book.


Happy New Year to all.