Montserrat Foundation UK
Blog 6: National Youth Choir in the Recording Studio (March-April 2015)
As I had briefly mentioned in one of my previous blogs, we have embarked on quite an ambitious project: to create a National Youth Choir CD. I decided that the best theme to suit this would be to choose a selection of 80s hit songs that were recorded in AIR Studios Montserrat and rearrange them with the choir members.
AIR Studios forms an important part of recent Montserrat history. During 10 years it was one of the world’s most important studios and was host to many famous recording artists such as: Paul McCartney, Rolling Stones, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Dire Straits, The Police, Sting, Eric Clapton, Earth Wind & Fire, Simply Red, Boy George, Duran Duran, among several others. A number of world-known hit songs were recorded here including: Every Breath You Take (The Police), I’m Still Standing (Elton John), Walk of Life (Dire Straits), Fragile (Sting) to name a few.
Montserrat’s own local music culture scene was impacted by the visits of all these artists. Late night jams between local artists and visiting artists used to happen frequently in nearby bars. It was surely a very vibrant place musically. In 1989, Hurricane Hugo hit the island and caused a lot of devastation, including damage to AIR Studios which led to its shutting down. Just over five years later the Soufriere volcano started erupting and continued eruptions for the following 10 years. This has left Montserrat in a very different place than what it was 25 to 30 years ago.
Choosing a selection of these AIR Studios hit songs, arranging and recording them with the National Youth Choir is our way of paying tribute to that great time lived in Montserrat’s history and of showing how musical culture is still alive and regaining itself on the island.
The choir will be recorded in the Montserrat Cultural Centre and in a small local studio, and then post-produced with musician and friend of Montserrat Peter Filleul in London, UK. Peter Filleul was lucky to be in the first band that ever recorded in AIR Studios, Climax Blues Band, in 1979. He has continued his ties with Montserrat visiting the island every year and helping in the arts and culture side of things, a valuable cultural asset for the island.
Our first adventures in the recording studio happened with the teenage division of the choir. We first did an afternoon of recording at the Cultural Centre. The following week we spent three afternoons in the recording studio. Because the studio is small and not enough equipment is available, I had to split the choir into smaller groups of 3-4 singers to record on separate tracks. We had our moments of difficulty trying to figure out the best way to record everyone. Because the members are used to singing as a group and they balance the harmony parts between them, recording separate tracks for main melody and different harmonies was at times challenging. We ended up with a varied set of tracks that were recorded with different mixed harmony singers and soloists. I am happy to say that so far everything looks quite promising.
Schools start again this week after a nice break for Easter Holidays. This last term with the Secondary school students I will be focusing on listening skills and exposing them to a large array of styles. The ReBEAT Recycled Percussion Ensemble will get back to practice and we will start collaboratively creating our own beats and grooves. Ukulele sessions start up again and we need to focus on some particular chords and rhythms. I would like to include the ukulele group as accompaniment in one of the songs in the Choir CD. I might have to double up rehearsals with the Adult division and Children division of the National Youth Choir to get them ready for recording. So it looks like quite a busy few weeks ahead, but very glad that things are going the right way.
Will keep you posted next month on how the recordings are developing!
Blog 5: Full steam ahead! (February/March2015)
Work is full on now. Schools, choirs, percussion ensembles, ukulele groups, everything full steam ahead.
The concert that was put on by the adult division of the National Youth Choir for Valentines Day was a great success and had people talking about it for days after the show. It was a group of 5 singers (one of which came from the teenage division to support the lower harmony section) that presented a diverse array of songs about love: happy songs, sad break up songs, back together songs, etc. About 16 songs all arranged to follow the storyline of a small play that was set between 2 actors pantomiming while following a narrative. It was sweet and very comical, with a few improvised moments added by the actors that were hilarious. The singing was great, a lot of rich vocal harmonies, and very well expressed on stage. It was the result of a lot of effort and good will to get it done. The group met twice a week for about 1 month and then 3 times a week for 3 weeks and finally one week of rehearsals every day leading up to the performance. It was well worth it!
That done, I met the next challenge of developing Re-BEAT, Recycled Percussion Ensemble. People in the community were very kind in donating all sorts of things that I thought could work. Eventually, I settled into arranging the ensemble into 3 sections: barrels(lows), buckets(mid) and tins/cans(highs). Here is a brief explanation on each section:
-Lows: There are metal, plastic and thick cardboard barrels. Cardboard ones make great thick low sound. Of course, it all depends what you hit them with. So for those, I constructed some mallets by putting a champagne cork in the tip of a drumstick, covered it with a few layers of scraps of cloths and then securing it with duct tape. Otherwise, they can also be hit with thick cardboard tubes that are used for the inside of carpet rolls at carpet stores. Metal barrels are tricky because they resonate too much, so I filled part of the insides with bubble wrap and put a layer of cloths on where the barrel would be hit. Worked quite well.
-Mids: Mostly plastic buckets with two holes drilled into them to adapt a strap, again with scraps of cloth. These are played with broomsticks cut to adequate length.
-Highs: Mostly big Nido(powdered milk) tins and some paint cans, again with holes drilled in for straps. You need to dampen the sound a bit, so a bit of duct tape across the top(bottom) makes it work (but not too much because then the high sound dies out). Those are best played with ordinary drumsticks.
I had about 15 volunteers joining in to form the first version of the ensemble. We had three rehearsals to create a couple of pieces before presenting it in the opening concert of St Patrick’s festival. Despite technical limitations in an open-air stage and lots of wind, the performance went really well and was very well received by the public. So good that they asked us to play for the main concert on St Patrick’s Day, the biggest day in the week-long festival.
St Patrick’s festival here in Montserrat is a very interesting and unique event. It’s the only place outside Ireland that St Patrick’s is celebrated as national holiday, but not entirely for the same reasons. A large number of Irish Catholics settled on the island in the 17th century, which explains why there are so many Irish names to towns as well as Irish surnames and why Montserrat is called the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean. It was during a St Patrick’s festivity in the mid 18th century that the first slave rebellion happened. It’s true that present day St Patrick’s Festival is held to link up with past Irish cultural ancestry, but mostly it is to commemorate the bravery and importance of this first slave rebellion in their Afro-Caribbean heritage. Everyone and everywhere is decorated with shamrocks and green, white and orange colours, but the reasons that are behind the celebration are much deeper and meaningful. It’s a very good example of how Montserrat is a unique, very interesting, and curious little island, and a great meeting place of different world cultures that are well embraced in its society.
More on choir activities next month!
Blog 4: Back on island! (January 2015)
Look to one side and you enjoy beautiful ocean views.
Look to the other and lush green mountains rise up.
Look up during the night, and you see probably one of the most starry night skies you’ve seen. Full moon is better than having a street lamp on.
Snorkelling, diving, and hiking.
Barefoot most of the day.
Nature nightlife sounds are so amazing and loud.
It’s beautiful to be back.
Had a great time (busy!) back home in Mexico. It made all the experience in Montserrat feel very surreal, a bit like a dream. But it’s not a dream, and after a necessary break, we’re back and ready for more activities!
The first project that was just concluded involved an overseas collaboration called Digital Dialogue, with Barbican Guildhall Creative Learning in the United Kingdom. I was to do a collaborative project on the theme “People Songs” using the visual and audio stimulus that was sent to me via the web. I used this opportunity to work with the primary and secondary schools in Montserrat to create different musical compositions. We had amazing results and used two of the highlights to send back to the UK and which will be exhibited in the Dialogue People Songs event in London at Barbican Arts Centre in late February.
That done, I now put my attention to the next immediate projects that will keep me busy for the following months:
#1: Re-BEAT (or the Recycled Percussion Ensemble): I’ve been collecting all type of recycled materials that could be used to create a 15-20 piece percussion ensemble in a similar style to Brazilian batucadas, the show Stomp or World in Motion Drumming Barbican. This includes: barrels (metal, plastic and cardboard); buckets and paint cans; PVC pipes and thick cardboard tubes; champagne corks, scraps of cloth and rubber bands (for the fabrication of mallets), etc. Once collected, cleaned and tweaked, I will hold auditions for it and hopefully in about 3 weeks we will start rehearsing for it. We might even be in time to do a performance in St Patrick’s Festival in mid-March! I think group percussion is one of the best ways to engage teenagers in a fun and productive musical activity. It’s rhythmic, physical, and involves developing an awareness of group work and collaboration. I’m trusting this will have a positive effect regarding musical activities for the Secondary School students.
#2: CD Recording with the National Youth Choir – Hits from AIR Studios Montserrat:
I will keep this very exciting and ambitious project reserved until next month’s blog once things have fallen more into place and rehearsals have started. But it will definitely be a great experience for everybody to get into the recording studio and I believe it’s something that will have a very positive impact on the island’s community in general.
But in the meantime, I’m quite busy with the Adult division of the choir rehearsing for an event that is being held for Valentine’s Day. Should be a fun show. All romantic hit songs, done acoustically and filled with great vocal harmonies.
Just after arriving back, I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Sir George and Lady Martin. It is always fantastic to meet musicians you admire, especially when you meet them in a personal level. Meeting George and Judy Martin, sitting in their veranda at Olveston House a couple of evenings, having tea and talking about Montserrat and music in general will be a memory that I’ll cherish for a long time. They are extremely kind people, very down-to-earth and an example in many ways. I am very thankful for having had the opportunity to be here and have met them.
Great example of collaborative music making: (All lyrics, melodies and arrangements were co-written with the children, Grade K up to Grade 5.)
Blog 3: Past and Present, Christmas, Calypso and Sinking Boats (December 2014)
In 1995, the Soufriere volcano explosion brought the country to its knees with the loss of the capital city, along with the southern two-thirds of the island. Since then, the country has been going through many struggles trying its best to regain its past renown. It has been almost 20 years since that devastating catastrophe and it looks like it is still dragging. However, from the short time I’ve been here, I feel it’s time for the country to move on and start walking forward. Dragging has become a habit I feel is no longer necessary. Montserrat is naturally beautiful. Its population is that of a village. Its people are very friendly, and it’s one of the safest countries in the world. Nonetheless, it doesn’t escape certain problems present in other countries worldwide, especially those we know as third world or developing countries. But because Montserrat’s population is so small, all these problems feel much more present at times. One would want a place so small to be better organised, looking forward in better ways, and problem free. One might think that because it is so small it should be easier, but it’s clearly not that simple (and that may be just a characteristic of humankind). It is out of a positive wish for this place to meet its fantastic potential that I share my comments in this blog. Fortunately, it is a beautiful place filled with incredibly friendly and capable people, and I’m sure Montserrat is well on its way to regain its past greatness taking care of its rich culture, nature and community.
On the more musical side of things, it’s been a busy month. The teen division of the National Youth Choir presented themselves at the opening of the Science Week, singing great and having fun on stage at the Brades Arts and Education Centre. All four primaries had their Christmas concerts with poetry, theatre, dance and songs. It is great to see all the young children performing.
The Calypso Monarch eliminations concert had to be delayed about 5 days due to some problems in organisation but it was still a good and fun event. Thirty-plus singers were reduced to 16 for the next elimination round before Christmas. Although some contestants lacked experience in singing and performing, they still deserve to be applauded for their courage in writing down their personal views on social issues and performing for all the island (on stage and on radio).
Another pleasant experience was performing at the Governors’ House along with my wife Abi. I performed a mixed repertoire of classical, jazz and brazilian music, after which Abi presented different Polynesian dances from New Zealand, Hawaii and Tahiti. It was a very well received performance, and it was a very nice occasion for both of us since it was the first time we’ve shared a stage together. Polynesian dancing and extra ukulele lessons might be starting soon in the island.
Plans for very interesting music projects are starting to become clearer now that I understand and feel more adapted to the community. They will slowly start happening once the New Year kicks in and I’ll keep you posted on what they’re all about and how they progress. In the meantime, we’re going home for a nice quiet rest with family for Christmas and New Year and will be back on island in about 2 weeks time.
Before I sign off, a very surreal experience worth sharing happened recently. Just as we were sitting down to have dinner at a beachside restaurant, a man came in completely soaked, gasping for breath and high on adrenaline. He tried saying something, but no words came out his mouth. Finally, as if slowly turning the volume knob up, he was able to start repeating louder and louder: “Help… my boat is sinking, help. …Help! My boat is sinking!” A few of us rushed out and got to the shore just as we saw the fishing boat capsize in the waves. Three of us dove in the water to help rescue the scattered belongings and help control the boat. We eventually managed to turn it over and tie to a sturdy post on land while the fire brigade arrived. Once they did, they managed to tow the boat out of the water and attend to the fishermen. Fortunately no one was hurt. Three fishermen from Antigua had gone fishing near the small island of Redonda but their boat started flooding as the waves got bigger that evening. They were very lucky to get to shore on time just before their boat could no longer advance. And just as randomly as the whole thing started, so did it end, and we went back inside to finish our dinner. Probably the most exciting night so far on the island!
Here are pictures of some events by the children. I’m including a great video done by the Lea family that gives you a good insight into Montserrat’s streets and society. Hope you enjoy!
Blog 2: Two months on the island and I need a haircut! (November 2014)
We are slowly adjusting into our new environment and starting to feel this is home.
Montserrat’s population is under 5,000 and it is spread out in several small “villages” or neighbourhoods on the north and west parts of the island. There is no cinema, no shopping malls, no McDonalds or anything of the sort. Activities are boiled down to much simpler and healthier things. You have two main options: either go on hikes, or go swimming in the sea; and both options are fantastic. The sea is crystal clear with beautiful fish and corals just off from any of the beaches. Hikes take you into lush jungle forest through trails with stunning views of the island. Each beach is different and each hike is different, so we’ve never been bored. And the overall safety of the island is what pushes you out your door and lets you really enjoy. Cars are left with windows open, houses aren’t locked and you don’t worry about someone stealing your mobile if you leave it unattended for a minute. That says a lot for what freedom and quality of life mean, something that is sadly missing in my home country Mexico with all the social problems that are happening right now.
Socialising has taken us from Government House reunions to beach bonfires on Guy Fawkes Day to hidden bars around the island (of which some happen to lead a curious double life as Bar & Bakery or Bar & Grocery!). As adjusting goes on, getting to understand the cultural and behavioural differences is necessary and helps greatly. It’s something that takes time, but is important for proper integration and development in communities. From what I’ve observed in the island(as well as other countries I’ve lived in) as a foreigner, you either stay in your own tower of comfort and communicate with people from that distance, or you try to understand differences and you integrate yourself into your society at ground-level in the best way possible. The second option is always the one that takes more effort and time, but it’s obviously the most valuable. So far, I’ve come across a bit of both in Montserrat’s international community, in all levels of economical/social situations.
As we adjust as a family to this new culture, so do I adapt for teaching at the primaries and secondary. Some groups’ behaviour has improved a lot and I can say we are now on a good path towards advancing in musical knowledge and experience. With certain groups we can finally do some fun creative work at some moments. Other groups continue to be a challenge. The most drastic (and slightly comical!) situation was having been locked in the music room (hut) by some mischievous 10year old boys. It was a serious matter because we were locked in with other 20 children and the building is far away from other classrooms. Thanks to mobile phones, we were quickly let out. Despite my anger, I couldn’t help looking at it from a slight comical angle also. Probably because I was so amazed that something like that could happen. To make matters worse (or laughs better), 10 days later it happened again with a different group…
The National Youth Choir is running well. The adult division had a performance within a Gospel event at the Montserrat Cultural Centre. We had some technical problems with overhead mics plus a bit of stage fright, nonetheless it was still well received by the public. With the teenage choir we’ve started writing a song, one with a good theme. About how life and love is great, but that doesn’t mean they are perfect: through imperfections, problems and challenges, we still enjoy the ride. A lot of the members in the group have excellent intuition for melodic material and we already have some structures for verse and chorus. I feel this is a good subject to expand on its many possible directions and hopefully this will be the first of many original songs.
Last week I played with the house band for the Calypso Monarch competition held during Christmas vacation. The way it works is that anyone in the island can sign up. The only requisite is that you write your own lyrics as well as melody, and you have to perform it yourself at the competition. Most lyrics talk seriously about political and social situations, although others play in a comical and fun way about some community problems (like One Notes’ “Be on time, don´t be late!”). The lyrics and melody are then taken to the house band and they put down the harmony progression and arrangement. It ends up being about 30 to 50 new songs composed and played to accompany the singers on stage for the eliminations during early-mid December, leading up to the finals held just before New Years Eve. The players in the house band are very able. It’s a good example of how experience and old school philosophy of “learning on the street” are so valuable and, in my opinion, an important part in today’s music education philosophies. All 40+ songs are learnt by ear and memorised in a relatively short period of time. Although the harmonies are simple, it’s still a good challenge for musical memory!
So as we start settling in properly, things start to get rolling. Next month will be filled with Christmas and Carnival preparations and rehearsals. The weather is cooling down a bit and making afternoons and evenings more enjoyable. We are slowly meeting very interesting people on the island, and some with whom I hope collaborations can start developing.
I’ll keep you posted next month as more music starts to unfold. Here are some more pictures!
Blog 1: Hello Montserrat!! (October 2014)
It’s a tiny propeller airplane, maximum 7 people, and you have to be weighed before you are given your boarding pass which of course they don’t pickup as you board because they remember all the passengers faces. Like a mosquito flying it’s way noisily across the water, you begin to get a glimpse of a large mountain (volcano!) in the distance, and the island begins to appear. The landing was very exciting, very well worth the applause and sigh of relief that came from a few of the passengers. After clearing immigration, we were greeted very warmly and taken to what would be our house for the next year. When the sun went down that day, an amazing pool of sound began. Mostly crickets, frogs, and birds creating a wall of sound that bring the patches of forest that border our backyard much closer to my senses. This is what every night sounds like. And every morning at around 5:30 or 6am, roosters walking around the yard or in the street let you know you don’t need an alarm clock.
Montserrat is beautiful, no doubt about it. And what makes it different to me is that it’s not your stereotypical vacation-resorts-surrounded-by-white-sand-beaches kind of place. Filled with cliffs, a few black sand beaches tucked in small bays (there is one white-sand beach), beautiful mountain range in the middle of the island, ghauts and small streams, it makes you feel tucked in by wilderness, and at the same time really gives a sense of space around you (also probably because there is only about 5,000 inhabitants in the whole island). There is one radio station that tells you everything that’s happening in the island: local politics, festival planning, special movie showings, and even asks for all students who borrowed a ukulele last term to take it back to the secondary school. But what you hear the most is energetic Caribbean music, calypso and soka for the most part.
I had my first shot at playing steel pan a week after arriving. The simplicity of its conception and the great sound it produces makes it an incredible instrument. The high rhythmic energy of Caribbean music is really present in the teenagers and kids’ characters. I couldn’t help laughing when a few children responded to how they felt after listening to a piece I played for them. It was an arrangement for guitar of J.S. Bach’s Prelude from Suite 1 for Cello, and when asked most said it was depressing music. And although they liked more the fast brazilian samba with jazzy chords, they said it was hotel music. I love it how kids are not constrained in their comments because of social pressure. The honesty in kids makes them wonderful, and teaches us a lesson in how every kind of music should be placed on the same level of value. It also goes to show how music (and music appreciation) is completely linked to social/cultural elements. From the “out of tune” fiddle playing in the sierras of Mexico to the “out of tune” gamelan in Bali, music is appreciated and enjoyed as it is: beautiful sounds and rhythm put together by the people who create them.
The Montserrat National Youth Choir is back again, rehearsing old repertoire and starting new songs. Hats off to Becky Chalmers who did an amazing job with them! One of my goals with all the different age group choirs (kids, teens and adults) is to compose original songs with them. At first everyone is slightly intimidated with the idea, but I think we just need to get comfortable with each other after a couple of more sessions and then we can start bouncing ideas off each other. What we still need though, is some sort of theme. We have a small performance coming up with the adult group in a gospel event for the island’s Police and Fire week. We’re working on some small arrangements to get together a short medley for that day.
I’ve got usual classes going on at the local secondary school. It’s a challenge working with early teens, but I’m sure we’ll get something going. Most are interested in percussion/drums and Caribbean rhythms. Maybe we can get a small percussion unit going. Groups at secondary are big and discipline is not their strength, especially since music is an optional side subject. The instruments at most of the schools aren’t in very good condition. Some are completely unplayable, but as with other things on the island (such as food), you just deal with what there is. And it’s always good results! Makes me think how we are used to having so many extra (and unnecessary) things in our lives.
It’s been a really interesting first month, with both exciting and challenging things happening. Adjusting to the heat, the change of pace, and the change of work is gradual. Especially with family (yes!, I forgot to mention that my wife and baby son are here also!). But it has been a wonderful experience and I’m really curious and excited as to where all the music will lead itself as the weeks and months go by.
Will keep you posted next month!
Here are some pictures, courtesy of my wifes’ Abi Kamalei Studio. Link: facebook.com/abikamaleistudio