Shirley Collins and the fall of Eden

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In 1969 an album was released entitled Anthems in Eden. Its creators were sisters Shirley and Dolly Collins, folk musicians who hailed from Sussex in southern England. Released on the newly created Harvest label, and much lauded by the likes of John Peel and other progressive music luminaries, Anthems in Eden was a world away from what normally passed for underground music in those days.

I most probably first became aware of Shirley and Dolly Collins through John Peel. Most likely I was listening to my transistor radio beneath the sheets to Peel’s late night BBC programme Night Ride, where all manner of quirky underground music got an airing – folk, classical, film soundtracks, as well as poetry and world music before it was ever even called that. I should have been asleep, of course, so as to be sharp and bright for school the next day but even then I was captivated by strange and beautiful music whatever genre it might belong to. I was never what might be called a folkie but there was something about Collins’ voice, along with the gorgeous melodies and sometimes dark narrative of the songs, that awakened something deep within me. Somehow it aroused an atavistic connection with a long-vanished England of the past. It seemed to connect with the very folds of the landscape itself, with distant land-tilling ancestors who had preceded those forefathers who had uprooted themselves from the countryside to work in the soot-stained industry of the West Midlands. The music of my ancestors – that seemed about right.

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The record’s first side was a 28-minute song-story that incorporated songs often heard at singarounds at folk clubs, which having enjoyed a boom in the 50s and early 60s were experiencing a slump in fortune by the time the record was released. Instead of the usual finger-picking and finger-in-the-ear approach, the songs, centred upon Shirley’s pure, undemonstrative voice and the plaintive piping of Dolly’s portative organ, were set in a soundscape of medieval instruments – rasping crumhorn, sawing bass viol, scale-sliding sackbut – played by the Early Music Consortium of London. The eccentric, slightly out-of-tune musical setting provided a surprisingly sympathetic backdrop for the traditional songs that were featured, which included Searching for Lambs, The Blacksmith and Pleasant and Delightful among others.

The intent of the song-story was to evoke an England that had vanished since the outbreak of the First World War when rural life was torn apart by the savagery and deprivations that ensued. The Great War brought about change as catastrophic as an epoch-ending meteorite strike, brutally fracturing cultural stability like sudden tectonic slippage. Vast numbers of agricultural workers were lost to the Flanders mud; country estates floundered through lack of a workforce; folk traditions that hitherto had been second nature were lost or only dimly remembered. A great disconnection took place. Naturally, there were some benefits to emerge eventually from the debris of war – women’s suffrage, the seeds sown of social change to improve the lot of a downtrodden working class — but  the old songs were largely forgotten and England’s utopian Eden, if ever it existed, was lost forever. In the villages of broken post-war England war memorials replaced maypoles.

The notion of Eden draws on a long tradition of locus amoenus – an idealised ‘pleasant place’. Such idylls of place, time and circumstance were frequently employed as the backdrop for traditional English song, although the same places might also serve as the realm of dark deed-doing. Traditional English murder ballads tend to inhabit an English pastoral setting as much as Midsomer Murders favours a fictitious village idyll complete with cricket green, parish church and George Orwell’s ‘old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist’. Such a dreamlike ‘pleasant place’ was seen as the apogee of rural life. The narrative action habitually took place on labour-free Sundays and holidays. The weather was always good, the birds always singing. The season was invariably summer. All this, of course, is a literary trope, a celebration of how things might be, or might once have been, had the world been a kinder place.

The uplifting sing-along of Pleasant and Delightful, a fragment of the Anthems in Eden song-story, is a case in point. It begins by setting the scene of a pastoral locus amoenus before introducing an element of uncertainty – a love-struck sailor who is due to travel overseas. It concludes with the sailor-narrator taking leave of his true love Nancy to go off on the next tide, promising that ‘if I ever return again’ they would marry.

‘Twas pleasant and delightful one midsummer’s morn

To view the green fields all covered with corn

And the blackbird and thrush sang on every green spray

And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.

The suite of songs that make up Anthems in Eden is presented as a vignette of a rural romance before the First World War, before the fall. Its component songs flowing one into the next to describe a meeting, courtship, leave-taking and subsequent forsaking that leads the way to a new beginning. The effect is both a celebration and an elegy to that which had vanished and was now lost. The voice behind the project, Shirley Collins, would go on to experience many losses in her own life: a father who walked out on the young family, two broken marriages, the death of her dear sister Dolly and, most cruelly, the loss of her remarkable singing voice in 1978.

The recently released film Ballad of Shirley Collins directed by Tim Plester and Rob Curry documents Shirley’s past life as the ‘High Queene of English Song’.  Interspersed with scenes of cosy domesticity at home in Lewes, Sussex is shaky faux-retro 16mm footage of her song-collecting road trip with then-lover Alan Lomax to the United States in 1959, with lookalike actors playing the young Shirley and her much older American beau. The soundtrack features archive recordings of Collins performing, fragments of the material she and Lomax collected in the rural Deep South and original music by Ossian Brown and Michael J. York. The American field recordings are remarkable in their own right. Cleaned-up sonically, yet retaining all their untutored rawness, they include English murder ballads sung by nasal Appalachians, cotton picking blues shouters, maniacal banjoists and, most extraordinary, a hollering polyphonic choir of such unrefined intensity that it sounds capable of raising the dead. The rawness of the collected American material reflects the state of the nation at that time. In interview Collins speaks matter-of-factly about the commonplace violence – domestic, racial and otherwise – she encountered, the shameful segregationism, the unabashed racism that tainted the American South in the 50s. Plus ça change some might say.

The crux of the film hinges on the singer’s return to recording after a 38-year absence — the tentative home sessions that will eventually produce her acclaimed 2016 return album Lodestar. Intercut with this are finely observed details of the world that Collins’ and her ageless songs inhabit. The camera flits around, gleaning detail from Collins’ home, the local haunts she visits, the Sussex countryside. It alights on green man masks, on sheep’s heads, on tea mugs and curious pottery figurines; on the Garden of Eden ceramic that was featured on the cover of Anthems in Eden and which hangs on the wall of her musician friend David Tibet’s house. The Sussex landscape looks ravishing throughout, all sloping hills and golden fields of grain that swoop down to white cliffs and the English Channel. A gentle warm breeze seems to be ever-present, rippling the grass and wild flowers in the foreground of the screen. A particularly effecting moment is a lingering long-focus shot of sheep contentedly grazing their way across the hillside chalk feature of the Long Man of Wilmington, the giant’s arms raised to support what look like Norwegian walking poles in each hand.

This is Sussex seen as an English Garden of Eden, folk tradition seeped into the ancient chalk of its rolling downs. A landscape gifted as a living repository of the old songs and stories that holds Shirley Collins, lover of tradition yet challenger of what she calls ‘the toxic side of Englishness’, rightfully in place as keeper of the keys.

And the larks they sang melodious at the dawning of the day.

Space is the Place – Shakespeare and Sun Ra

IMG_6581Still reeling from the solar onslaught of the Sun Ra Arkestra the previous night we travelled yesterday to Great Yarmouth to see The Tempest at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre. The Sun Ra Arkestra fronted by nonagenarian alto-sax maestro Marshall Allen had done what they always did: channel the Saturnian spirit of their erstwhile and now-deceased leader Sun Ra and perform their joyful big band space-jazz to an appreciative audience for nigh on two hours. As the song goes, Space IS the place, and the place in this instance had been Norwich’s Open, a venue fashioned from the  brick and mortar of late capitalism – originally a  Georgian building that had started life as  a wine merchants before its vaults were re-purposed for the storage of bullion by the Gurney family. Merging with Barclays Bank in 1896 and soon outgrowing its original premises, a new building was constructed in 1926 with a large hall, extensive vaults and what was reputed to be the longest banking counter in the country. Later in life it went on to become the regional headquarters of Barclays Bank but now the clink of wine bottles and kerching of cash registers were nothing more than silent ghosts that observed on the sidelines as the Arkestra’s music swirled unfettered to the ceiling in this neoclassical void. A quotidian space formerly dedicated to the exchange of capital now given over to brave sonic venturing seemed like the best of outcomes, and the Sun Ra Arkestra quickly made it their own, filling the cavernous space with a joyful stellar noise and a powerful, if playful, presence. IMG_6568The Tempest took place in another very singular space: the wonderful Hippodrome on Great Yarmouth’s seafront, the only surviving purpose-built circus venue in the country. Built in 1903 by the great circus showman George Gilbert the building once faced directly onto the seafront across a square but now huddles behind the garish pink bulk of the Flamingo amusement arcade, a gaudy slice of Las Vegas tat transported to the Norfolk coast. Slip into the narrow street behind though and the gorgeous facade of the Hippodrome can be seen in its full glory, with Art Deco lettering and charming panels around the door, its towers peeping above the pink nonsense of the Flamingo to peak at the beach and the North Sea beyond.  This  was, and still is, a grand and stylish place: a theatre of dreams, a venue fit for the likes of Houdini and Chaplin who both performed here in the Hippodrome’s heyday. IMG_6589If the exterior seems full of promise, the interior is even more beguiling: all dark velvet and chocolate brown, and a warm, well-used ambience that has left a rich patina on the fabric of the place. The seating is snug and steeply tiered; its darkly lit corridors lined with old posters and portraits of clowns and past performers, most notably Houdini (where better than Great Yarmouth to demonstrate the art of escapology?). There is even a poster of Houdini in the gents and, while a male toilet in Great Yarmouth is probably not normally the wisest place to take out a camera, my fellow micturators seemed to understand my photographic purpose. IMG_6602Theatre in the round; theatre in the wet: the Hippodrome might have been made for The Tempest; or, given a bit of temporal elasticity that could anticipate three hundred years into the future, The Tempest for the Hippodrome. The production, directed by William Galinsky, Artistic Director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, is a hugely inventive, almost psychedelic, affair that makes full use of the circus’s horizontal and vertical space and central water pool. For two hours we were mentally transported to Shakespeare’s island zone by means of brilliant storytelling, excellent acting and inspired direction, and, in keeping with this circus venue,  the acrobatic shenanigans of the Lost in Translation Circus. IMG_6591Shakespeare is reliably universal of course, but did I detect a whiff of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) in there? A hint too of Samuel Beckett?  Of course, we each bring our own cultural references to bear. Today, yesterday’s performance seems almost dreamlike – a short-lived transportation from reality in which both the drama and the unique properties of the venue itself had an equal part to play. As Prospero remarks:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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Lunar Sun (Ra)

IMG_2069This post comes not from Elveden or points east but from Arden, as in Tanworth-in-Arden; from the lush green countryside between Redditch and Solihull in northwest Warwickshire, that rolling bucolic Eden that lies just south of the diesel-rank treadmill that is the M42.  Umberslade Farm near Tanworth-in-Arden is the inspired location for the Lunar Festival, which has just enjoyed its third annual convocation.

“Hello Lunar. I’ve been living in North Wiltshire in a mystical state” was how Julian Cope introduced himself to the audience before launching into a troubling but catchy song about ‘sleeping in the room that they found Sadam in’. Cope, enthusiastic psychedelic practitioner, occult archaeologist, Krautrock chronicler and self-parodying rock survivor, seemed a natural choice for the Sunday afternoon slot at Warwickshire’s Lunar Festival. Dressed like a fallen Hell’s Angel and accompanied by only a sparkly 12-string guitar he entertained the crowd with darkly melodic songs that he interspersed with rambling tales of how no-one would work with him these days because of his errant Byronic ways.

IMG_2114Sadly I missed The Fall and Mark E Smith’s malevolent mumblings on the Friday night, along with Tuareg camel-rockers Tinariwen, but had enjoyed Wilko Johnson and a resurgent, partly septuagenarian Pretty Things on the previous day. I had also witnessed Mike Heron and Glaswegian nu-folk-rockers Trembling Bells covering some early Incredible String Band back catalogue in the Bimble Inn bar – a slightly shambolic but warm-hearted performance with Heron grinning broadly at the crowd, clearly enjoying himself as they performed the likes of “This Moment” and “A Very Cellular Song”. And it was – very cellular.

IMG_2075The Lunar Festival is intimate and small-scale with a local feel. The lingua franca spoken here is mostly Middle Brummie, a tonal language spoken throughout the West Midlands, north Worcestershire and Warwickshire: a tongue in which I have working proficiency having grown up nearby, although decades in East Anglia have stymied full fluency. The Lunar vibe is early Glastonbury: gently pagan, psychedelic and counter-cultural. Imagine a Midlands Wicker Man without the unpleasant sacrificial burning at the end. Crow symbols abound, there are quite a few animal-headed folk strolling about, and the wood-smoked air is pleasantly redolent of 1967, as are some of the attendees – patchouli and other popular herbal fragrances may possibly be discerned. An oak tree trunk next to the arena’ s central camp fire is carved with the legend: ‘A day once dawned and it was beautiful’ – a line from a song by Nick Drake, a large portrait of whom hangs from a tree branch next to the Crow Bar beer tent at the top of the field. The reference is deliberate: leafy Tanworth-in-Arden was the childhood home of troubadour Nick Drake, whose tragically short life created a musical canon of great longevity.

IMG_2161The Bootleg Beatles concluded the festival on Sunday, and were glorious with their note-perfect trawl through the very best of the Fab Four’s 1966—70 material, but for me the real star of the festival was the penultimate act, the Sun Ra Arkestra directed by 91-year-old Marshall Allen. Allen joined the band way back in 1957 and took over the musical directorship in 1993 when their controversial leader Sun Ra (born Herman Poole Blount, legal name Le Sony’r Ra  1914—93) ‘left the planet’ to return to his native Saturn.

IMG_2179I had seen the Arkestra perform last year at London’s Barbican Centre when they celebrated their erstwhile leader’s centenary. They were good but somehow it seemed that they did not quite gel musically on that occasion. At Lunar though, they dazzled, segueing from one tune to another, Marshall Allen directing his cohorts with hand gestures, ear-whispers and alto sax squeaks. Despite a playful sense of humour and the faintly ridiculous galactic-warrior outfits sported by the Arkestra players, the music they generated was deadly serious: spontaneous, risky, and on occasion quite unsettlingly beautiful. At times the music seemed to teeter on the edge of anarchy but it was usually only a brief time before the band swiftly gathered itself together to swing into another languid yet skin-tight ensemble passage.  It has sometimes been dubbed ‘space-jazz’ or ‘afrofuturist’ but to accurately describe the scope of the Arkestra’s music is a futile endeavour – never has the dictum ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture’ seemed more apposite. There were a couple of tunes I recognised: “Saturn”, I think, and “Angels and Demons”, and near the end of the set we were treated to a superb straight-ahead blues in which everyone took a solo and the Arkestra seemed momentarily to almost be a normal sort of jazz band, albeit one where the adjectives ‘left-field’, ‘spacey’ and ‘psychedelic’ still seem to be wholly appropriate.

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The set concluded with the Arkestra leaving the stage to lead a procession around the site: a motley pageant of aged jazzmen in sparkling capes followed by an assortment of folk in badger and crow outfits, black-faced Molly dancers and a few adventurous children. The denouement came with the ritual combustion of the wooden crow-man totem that had stood in the centre of the site for the duration of the festival. The crow-man burned hard and bright, sparks crackling to the strains of “Space is the Place” played by the Arkestra’s gamely marching horn-men.

Perhaps space is the place? But then so is Tanworth-in-Arden in early June. Magic is undoubtedly in the air around this time. Wicca comes to Warwickshire; Sun Ra smiles down from Saturn. Lunar, I’ll be back.

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Rain

Lying in bed this morning with the curtains still drawn it was obvious enough that it was raining outside, the thrum of workday traffic softened to a watery swash. Soon the hum became augmented by the unmistakeable sound of running water on the street – the drains temporarily overloaded such that a little stream was flowing downhill along the kerbside for a brief minute or two. This soothing sound was soon interupted by the piercing screams of a group of girls on their way to school – ‘Aaargh! Oh my Gaaaad’ – more an exclamation on the shock of suddenly getting wet than any profession of faith. Extreme weather like this tends to provoke a reaction but we are lucky – this is about as extreme as it gets in dry, temperate East Anglia. This year, though, it seems hard to believe that this is the driest corner of the country.

We had been warned: last night kindly TV weathermen had promised a month’s rain in a single day. This, on already saturated soils in many parts of the UK, did not bode well but at least here in Norfolk there would not be any major problems other than temporarily hazardous roads. It is all a matter of proportion, of course. To find really wet weather one has to venture much further east, to Meghalaya state in northeast India where the Cherrapunjee district holds the claim to be the wettest place in the world (although its soggy crown is challenged by neighbouring Maysynram, which likes to assert that it is just that little bit damper). Either way, it is wet: in excess of 12,000 mm per annum, and nearly 25,000 mm back in 1974, which is as much as some of us see in half a lifetime. I spent a happy week in this region a few years ago (admittedly in the dry season). You can read an article I wrote for Geographical magazine about the wonderful living root bridges of the Cherrapunjee region here.

Really wet days like this often put me in mind of places I am especially fond of – the English Lake District, the Scottish Highlands, monsoon India, Meghalaya. I remember washed-out camping holidays with long hours spent peering out of tents looking for a break in the clouds; taking shelter from the monsoon to drink sweet chai in an Indian teashop while the street outside turns into a muddy culvert; the sour smell of city pavements after heavy rain. I am also reminded of my favourite Beatles track, which features Ringo’s finest drumming, superb McCartney bass and a psychedelic backwards-vocals coda for good measure: Rain.

Tomsk Waits

In contrast to the northwest Scotland of previous posts, the central Siberian city of Tomsk is indisputably East of Elveden – both figuratively and geographically. It is, after all, almost one quarter of the way around the world heading east from where I write. I spent a few grey rainy days here last autumn as a side trip to a long Trans-Siberian rail journey.

Tomsk lies just north of the main Trans-Siberian line, a sizeable city of about half a million sitting on the right bank of the Ob, a river that snakes its way north from here to the Gulf of Ob and the Arctic Ocean. Tomsk isn’t Arctic though – it lies at about the same latitude as Moscow and Glasgow, although it does drop to less than −20 °C in winter. Back in the 19th century, Tomsk was populated mostly by Cossacks, Tatars and political exiles but the city was side-stepped during the building of the Trans-Siberian railway line, when the new city of Novosibirsk (‘New Siberia’) was favoured as a stop instead.

These days Tomsk is a youthful, student-filled city; a relatively attractive place by Siberian standards, with a clutch of trendy brightly lit cafes around Ploschad Lenin, its central square. Trendy coffee bars are all the rage in the new Russia – even in backwoodsy Siberian cities like Tomsk. Here you’ll find ‘Travellers Coffee’, where you can get a pricey ‘bolshoi’ cappuccino, and another place called ‘Food Master’ – in a land where the Cyrillic alphabet reigns supreme, Latin script and English names are considered a guarantee of Western sophistication… or cheerless fast food. Food Master dishes up Mexican food with a pronounced Siberian accent – fajitas with beetroot, refried beans with dill and so on. There’s also an awkwardly translated English menu that temptingly offers ‘Languages with mushroom sauce’ and ‘Fat lard’ – fusion cuisine perhaps, but with a ‘con-’ prefix. Even here, in an establishment that is unapologetically ‘New Russia’, a Soviet-era fixation persists that has each component priced according to weight and itemised on the final bill – bread (the precise number of slices), sauce, garnish, meat (again precise, eg: ‘pig meat, 100g’) – as it would be the humblest factory workers’ stolovaya canteen. Actually, stolovayas are the places that I generally try and seek out – redolent of boiled cabbage, they promise cheap wholesome stodge served up by plump headscarfed women – just point and smile (or scowl if you want to blend in). It’s a genuine retro experience: school dinners, Soviet style. There is one of these tucked away in a basement a little further along Prospekt Lenin.

Stylish cafes are not the only concession to Western culture. Halfway along the high street a gable is covered with an enormous poster of gravel-voiced American troubadour Tom Waits standing astride a railway line and bellowing into a microphone windscreen mounted on a crooked stick – very much Tom the iconic hobo poet. The club in the basement beneath is called ‘Underground’ (a song from Swordfishtrombones) and, of course it is a lovely pun – Tom(sk) Waits – geddit. It seems unlikely that Tom Waits’ management is aware of this brazen Siberian deployment but equally doubtful that Californian copyright law stretches quite this far.  Waits is well known as an enthusiastic litigator of those who besmirch his image but this one seems to fit the brand perfectly.

Drop down a street or two to the west, away from the clubs and cafes of Prospekt Lenin, and you immediately find yourself in Old Siberia. A leafy street called Tatarskaya (this was once the city’s Tatar quarter) has old wooden houses with elaborately carved window surrounds and friezes. Poor, a little tumbledown but undeniably picturesque, this is the sort of thing that tourists  come to see, although most tend not to wander this far off the direct Trans-Siberian route between Yekaterinberg and Irkutsk.

Heading further north along Prospekt Lenin you soon reach a part of town that seems to have far more resonance with the old Soviet Union. Naturally enough, there is a Lenin statue here – this one in ‘hailing a taxi’ pose – as well as some brutalist Stalin-era civic buildings, Krushchevski apartment blocks and rusting boats at the river quay. This really could be a scene from almost anywhere in the former USSR pre-1991 but it is not – it is simply a matter of post-Soviet redevelopment not quite reaching this far uptown yet.

Tomsk may have once been lauded as the ‘Siberian Athens’ thanks to its univeristies and large number of students but Anton Chekhov did not like it one bit, although surely it must have been an improvement on the penal colony at Sakhalin Island that he had visited prior to passing through the town.

He wrote to his sister: ‘Tomsk is a very dull town. To judge from the drunkards whose acquaintance I have made, and from the intellectual people who have come to the hotel to pay their respects to me, the inhabitants are very dull, too.’

Quite understandably, Tomsk citizens have never quite forgiven this scathing dismissal of their city and in response have erected a mocking statue of Chekhov close to the university. Perhaps wounded by the accusation of  dullness, the authorities seem keen these days to instil some European-style civic fun into the Tomsk city calendar. They have inaugurated a carnival, and the one I witnessed last year was the fifth according to the posters. Roads were closed and a stage set up in the main square where a variety of acts came on to dance and mime to Russian turbo-pop. There was even a group of African djembe drummers hired for the task who grinned amiably as they performed to a bemused crowd that did not really know quite what to do. Young families and groups of friends watched the action on the stage and took pictures of each other with their mobile phones before sloping off for an ice-cream. No doubt it will take a while for imported carnival culture to catch on here – just two decades ago, rather than drumming Africans or disco-dancing teenagers, the citizens of Tomsk were watching processions of tanks and soldiers with supersized hats march by.

While Tomsk may struggle with the concept of carnival it is doing well in the world of football. In recent years the city’s home side FC Tom Tomsk (their logo in Cyrillic spells TOMb) has risen like an eagle up the divisions to reach the dizzy heights of the Russian Premier League. It remains there, respectably mid-table, to this day. The Hotel Sputnik where I stayed is located right next door to the team’s stadium but sadly I had to move on to Irkutsk the day before their fixture with Lokomotiv Moscow.

For a look at another quirky Russian city, Kazan, take a look at my feature in the latest edition of hidden europe magazine here.

Homeward to Mingulay

Heel y’ho boys, let her go, boys

Bring her head round now all together

Heel y’ho boys, let her go boys

Sailing homeward to Mingulay!

What care we tho’ white the Minch is

 What care we for wind and weather?

Let her go boys, every inch is

Wearing homeward to Mingulay!

Wives are waiting on the bank, boys

Looking seaward from the heather

Pull her ’round boys, and we’ll anchor

‘Ere the sun sets at Mingulay!

Another day, another island. Mingulay lies in the Outer Hebrides, just north of Berneray at the very southern edge of the island chain. In many ways, the island is reminiscent of St Kilda – formerly populated, now deserted, it may not quite have had Hirta’s desolate edge-of-the-world isolation but it made up for this with living conditions that must have been equally harsh.

Although there are parallels with St Kilda, the people here were more involved with fishing than they were at Hirta  where seabirds were central to both diet and economy. With frequent violent Atlantic storms but plentiful fish and some decent grazing crofting life was tough but just about sustainable. Seabirds did have their part to play though: rent was paid to absentee landlords on Barra mostly with shearwater chicks collected from the island’s precarious cliffs.

Unlike Hirta, and perhaps to the good, there was no well-intentioned but misguided 19th century tourist industry here, and Mingulay continues to lack the celebrity status that has long been associated with St Kilda. Here there is no post office, gift shop or warden’s house; no quay – just a sheltered beach, some fine views, wild yellow irises and a plethora of kittiwakes and guillemots. By way of welcome, inquisitive grey seals loiter beneath the cliffs in the bay, their sleek heads bobbing on the waves like maritime Labradors.

Walk uphill from the beach at Mingulay Bay and you stumble upon the remnants of a few dwellings, the roofless shells of the turf-roofed black houses that Mingulay folk called home. The most complete building is the schoolhouse, built in the 1880s by the Free Church Ladies’ Association, while further uphill lie the remains of the chapel house, which had the Catholic priest’s living quarters downstairs and a chapel above. Now the chapel house is a picturesque ruin, with one gable still standing while the chimney pot from other stands centre-stage amidst the rubble like a post-Apocalyptic pulpit. Someone has gone to the trouble of sorting the reusable roof tiles into neat piles – even today, Hebridean island life does not encourage waste or the overlooking of free architectural salvage such as this.

The sea shanty quoted above could never have been sung by Mingulay-bound sailors as it was composed  by a Glaswegian in the 1930s – the island has been deserted of folk since 1912. Nevertheless, it evokes splendidly the atmosphere of the place, its sea-tossed shoreline, heather moorland and the ghost of a seafaring tradition.

If you would like to hear a contemporary version of the Mingulay Boat Song you can find Richard Thompson’s excellent rendition here.

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Dancing about Architecture

St Peter Mancroft Church, Norwich, May 19

Yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Today programme included a short feature on the 73 year-old American jazz bassist Charlie Haden. In the interview Haden discussed his musical history and how he had started out singing with his family in the Midwest but after contracting polio had taken up double bass and embraced the church of jazz. There was also talk of his political activities and his arrest by police in Portugal in 1971 just before the revolution there. The feature concluded by saying that Charlie would be performing in London this weekend. True enough, but it failed to mention that he would also be performing with his Quartet West at the Norfolk and Norwich Festival that same night.

St Peter Mancroft’s Church next to Norwich millennium-old Market Place is a wonderful place to hear music, even if its pews are unforgivingly Calvinist. Charlie Haden took the stage more or less on time and after introducing his fellow musicians announced that he hoped we would all be able to see them play in London too as there the band would be accompanied by a female singer or two and perhaps even a string section. He held his new Sophisticated Ladies CD aloft to indicate the 1940s and 50s material they would be performing with the fuller line-up – not here, though. Nothing against the Great American Songbook, female jazz singers or violins but I was quite pleased to hear him say, “Tonight, there’ll just be the four of us. We’ll be playing some beautiful music for you; some old and some new.”

The quartet set off on a series of four tunes, each one with plenty of space for solos. On the first composition Haden’s bass seemed a little lost and meandering, as if he could not quite find his way, but I sensed that it was a sort of practice lap for muscle memory as he tried out different progressions and constantly readjusted his tuning. By the fourth song of the sequence, the gorgeous First Song (For Ruth), he was really in his stride, playing a beautifully developed and poignant solo before handing over the creative reins to tenor man Ernie West. West, whom I have since learned was responsible for providing solo saxophone on many of Marvin Gaye’s 1970s recordings, has an impeccable technique, enviable musicality and what appears to be enormous stamina. A genial, gentle-looking man who seems able to breath through his ears, West moulded clusters of quicksilver notes into a procession of aural sculptures, each one rising like bubbles to float up to the hammerbeam roof and make the wooden angels on the mediaeval frieze smile. It was also around this time that the sun must have set outside, lighting up the sandstone pillars and high clerestory windows with a warm golden glow that seemed to give approval to the music rising from the nave. Fifteenth-century English Perpendicular architecture and 21st-century American music go surprisingly well together.

During a break to talk to the audience Haden announced that they would be playing something he had first recorded in 1957. “1957!”, he exclaimed, “Why, that’s way back in the 20th-century!” He was wrong in fact, by my reckoning Lonely Women was actually recorded with Ornette Coleman in 1959 and released on the iconoclastically modal (and prescient) The Shape of Jazz to Come, but why quibble? An angularly dark musical refrain led into more wonderful slow-cooked solos, from Haden, West and pianist Alan Broadbent, while new drummer Rodney Green kept time in the same sensitive and understated way he had been doing all evening.Ten, maybe fifteen, minutes elapsed before some sort of natural conclusion was arrived at. The audience, almost in shock, erupted into thunderous applause.

An encore was maybe too much to hope for but musicians that play in churches have nowhere to hide. “Thank you for listening so carefully. You’re good listeners; you’re an audience with good ears,” said Haden, genuinely moved. A lengthy, heart-aching Blue in Green ended the evening. More beatific tenor saxophone, more bass solos that sounded more like compositions in the making than mere exercises in dexterity, more lush piano that on occasions hinted at Bill Evans and at other times, Keith Jarrett without the self-importance. More rapturous applause. Haden was right: we did have good ears.

Azerbaijan – Azerbaijazz

Eurovison Song Contest 2011. This year it is Azerbaijan’s turn to take the honours at the annual whine and cheese fest. As this year’s winners become next year’s hosts, May 2012 will no doubt see Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, shimmering with a million sequins and strobe lights as it reverberates with the overblown oompah-pop that characterises this glamourous event.

So exactly where is Azerbaijan, you might reasonably ask? Is it part of Europe? Well, politically yes; geographically and culturally, not really. What matters here is that Azerbaijan has been part of the European Broadcasting Union (along with Israel and Morocco) since 2008 and so is eligible to enter the annual Eurovision Song Contest.

South of the Caucasus Mountains, straddling the Caspian Sea’s dark, once sturgeon-filled waters, Azerbaijan is but a stone’s throw from Central Asia. With Persian, Turkish and Russian colonial influences, current-day Azerbaijan has a culture that owes a debt to all three neighbours. To the casual visitor though, it probably seems more like an oil-rich Turkey than anywhere else and, rather than Euro-friendly pop music, it is the thick black stuff that sweats copiously out of the Apsheron Peninsula and Caspian seabed that normally attracts most attention from the rest of the world. In truth, Azerbaijan’s precise geographical provenance is really not that important unless you are one of those misguided individuals that consider ‘Asia’ to be some sort of pejorative (for instance, try telling someone from Tbilisi that Georgia is not really part of Europe).

Eurovison notwithstanding, music has long been a thriving force in the country. Even New Orleans-style jazz was once regularly performed in Baku restauarants  in the heady days of the early 20th-century oil boom. During the Soviet period such music was labelled ‘capitalist’ and unceremoniously banned – rather ironic considering that Hitler had already done exactly the same thing in 1933. However, jazz never dies, it just withers a bit, and following Stalin’s death in 1953, a new form called mugham jazz that fused jazz and traditional Azeri folk forms began to emerge in Baku. A major proponent of this new music was the pianist Vagif Mustafazade whose daughter Aziza continues the musical dynasty as a well-respected international artist today. You can read Vagif Mustafazade’s story here.

There’s a small museum dedicated to Vagif Mustafazade in Baku today, and a statue. There are also clubs where mugham jazz is performed nightly by enthusiastic Azeri musicians. In its own modest way, the Azerbaijan capital has quietly become an unpaid member of the international jazz pantheon: New Orleans, New York, Paris…Baku. Not bad for a city that sits 28 metres below sea level. Coincidentally, New Orleans is mostly beneath sea level too so perhaps there is some sort of link between musical innovation and sub-maritime altitude.

Somehow it seems doubtful that there will ever be a statue dedicated to Eurovision 2011 winners Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal.  You probably won’t hear much evidence of Vagif Mustafazade’s mugham jazz in Running Scared, the Eurovision winner either. There again, the UK’s 2011 contenders, the thirty-something ‘boy’ band Blue, manage to disguise their Evan Parker influences pretty comprehensively too.

Norwich Wolves

Norwich Wolves. Not a Premier League football fixture (that should happen next season now that it looks less likely that Wolverhampton Wanderers will be relegated) but this year’s opening of the annual Norwich and Norfolk Festival. As with most years, some dramatic street theatre has been employed to kick off proceedings and 2011 sees the return of those wacky Basques, Deabru Beltzak, with the world premier of The Wolves, a  reworking of the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

On Friday and Saturday night this weekend, a strange procession started and ended at Millennium Plain. This involved three giant fire-breathing wolves, an ambulant keyboardist inside a giant wolf’s head and several hundred willing followers. Dramatic stuff indeed, and good to see so many Norwich citizens turn out to enjoy this European-flavoured extravaganza.