Listen for the drums

Before I learned how to drum, all I heard was guitar and voices. I wasn’t listening for the drums as an instrument in any music I heard.

Once you start listening for new things in music, it opens up a whole world. This is something I love. I have recently tried to listen out for any horns sections in songs – there’s a surprising amount of horns out there!

Back to drums – as a backing instrument it rarely gets the credit it deserves. Consider this an effort at shining the light on two examples.

Muddy Waters’ “Mannish Boy” has impeccable blues drumming. It kicks off the track and keeps it rock solid so that he can moan and growl on top. It’s so hard to drum slow and strong like this.

An easier one to hear: Ringo in the Beatles’ “Ticket to ride” adds syncopation and a lurching thump. This beat keeps an otherwise very average song up in the clouds.

Listen for the drums :).

Specifications

Specs can dominate your life if you let them. What chip is in your smartphone? What resolution is the song you are listening to? How big is your car’s engine? Newer, smarter, better. It’s a game that can drag you down a rabbit hole.

The biggest problems of chasing the specs as I see it:

  1. There is always a newer gadget coming up around the corner. This means your claims and feelings of superiority are always going to leave you empty when the new gadget is released.
  2. The FUNCTION of the gadget often gets totally lost in the spec wars. I was describing the problem of being an audiophile to a grounded friend of mine. I told him how the marketing leads us to believe that the newer amplifiers and DACs and speakers can reflect a truer sound than the old. He dismissed the whole thing in one simple question: “What is the point of listening to music? It’s to enjoy the music, right? You don’t sound like you’re enjoying the music much when you talk about the specs”. Music players are there to serve us music, not to make us feel like we are lacking something.
  3. Specs are corrupting in the most real sense. If two different specs matter, but they are contradictory – it can corrupt the human spirit. Take VW emissions standards as an example (link). The tension between on the one hand, environmental responsibility and the customers’ perception of the company doing the right thing, and on the other hand, customers need a high performance vehicle that is zippy and meeting speed and power specs – this dichotomy led to false information being manufactured and published. Possibly 20 years in jail??! Hectic punishment all to meet a specs expectation.

As someone prone to chasing specs, I am learning that making do with something that is GOOD ENOUGH for the job it is intended – this is the secret to a lot of contentment and productivity.

Where is the art coming from?

Art as a consumable product. When we experience a piece of art, it is tempting to think that there could only ever be one version in the world. The song you’re listening to could surely only have sounded like this, could only ever have this tempo, could only be sung in this key. The picture you are looking at must have arrived fully formed – divine intervention flowed through the painter’s brush to the canvas in a single instant of inspiration. There was no practice involved and no research.

Art as a process. Of course the opposite is most often true – artists above all are experts at curiosity and playing with ideas. The curiosity and the playing results in countless versions of an idea until one day a version feels right (or is chosen by a company executive) to represent the artist’s vision.

Examples are everywhere – look at Bob Dylan’s countless versions of his most famous songs. Director’s cuts often differ wildly from the original film release. Look at Picasso’s obsessive research into the minotaur leading up to Guernica.

Curiosity and playfulness are where the real magic is. I think that this is important to remember, both as customers and as artists. These processes are not instantly gratifying, and can often be frustrating. But they are processes that we have to go through and we have to acknowledge to get the most from any piece of art.

Otherwise, there is a danger of art becoming a pre-packaged commodity. No back story. Nothing more to see.

 

Waiting on a mic

I got my old Fostex MR16 multi-track recorder out the other day. There were a bunch of recordings on there from my music playing days. Some were ok, most were rubbish. All of them brought back amazing memories of creative times. It’s strange to hear yourself ten years ago singing songs and talking into the microphone.

The encounter with my previous self inspired me to order a microphone online and do some more recording.

Waiting on a mic.

Insomnia, America, and Tunein Radio

I can’t sleep. Insomnia is hard to shake because the more you worry about not sleeping, the less likely you are to sleep. When this cycle happens I eventually make a call – It’s time to get up and drink coffee.

So here I am listening to my newfound, favourite TuneIn radio station “American Routes”.

This has me thinking about America and American culture. I am not American in any way – I come from Kenya and South Africa, but in many ways America is always on my mind. I grew up on American cartoons, toys, series and movies. Whether it is the brunt of our jokes, our jealousy or our ambitions, America is a place and an ideal that is all over Africa: “Stupid American tourists” “America is keeping us in debt”. “America is killing our traditions”. “America will save us”. “God bless America”.

At a personal level, this relationship between myself and America is at its most peaceful when American music is playing. For the last 20 years, hiphop has taken Africa by storm. But this is the tip of the iceberg. Blues, jazz, soul, folk, country, bluegrass and gospel traditions of America have enriched my life like little else. All merged together into the melting pot that is Rock n Roll, I would feel starved without American music in my life.