Democratic Music

The English language, as the better half and I often agree, is a wonderful thing. You might think that a brass band was just like a steel band but mellower, or, if you were of a literal turn of mind, yellower, but you would be wrong. You would be very misguided if you drew similar conclusions as regards a band of gold.

These rather trivial thoughts went through my head as I watched a series of performances at Music for Youth’s National Festival in Birmingham last week, some of them performances by steel bands; the brass bands were in another part of the festival and a different hall. Setting a steel band’s equipment up on stage takes a certain amount of time, unlike a brass band which only requires chairs, so while I waited I permitted myself a second train of thought.

Steel bands are the most democratic of musical enterprises, because no one has the tune. The players each have a limited number of notes available on their pans and strike them at the right point, just when the tune has need of them. Then someone else does the next note. People who carry tunes, on the other hand, often develop undesirable habits involving grimacing and the tossing of hair. Jazz trumpeters and first violins in string quartets are particularly given to this; lead guitar players notoriously so; meanwhile the other players look grimly supportive. With steel bands everyone is in it together.

This steel band was particularly good. It was a youth group from Tyneside, thousands of miles from the tradition’s roots. The music ebbed and flowed and there were sudden magnificent crashes. Then, as the final climax approached, there was a fire alarm. Apparatchiks ran into the hall clutching their walky-talkies with one hand and making throat-cutting gestures to the band. It has to be said that their behaviour did not fall far short of grimacing and hair-tossing. Certainly they were enjoying making their throat-cutting gestures much more than listening to the music.

Such was the shock that some of the band wept briefly, before recovering their cool. We all went and stood in the sunshine and then went back in and they played it again. The smell of recently-charred concert hall, incidentally, was conspicuous by its absence, but better safe than sorry.

This throat-cutting gesture is a strange thing. I remember it on one of the two occasions when I was interviewed on the radio. I was sitting companionably at a table in Broadcasting House across from the interviewer and with a microphone in between; I was in full flow. The interviewer was making supportive gurgles and then did the throat-cutting gesture. The combined effect of gurgling and throat-cutting was so macabre that it brought me up short, which I suppose is what she intended.

Anyway, I soon found myself again musing on musical matters in circumstances where no alternative was available.

Last Saturday night there was a terrible commotion in our block of flats. It was mainly shouting and screaming but as the evening wore on there were also sounds of revellers being unwell. It was a very noisy party but not a particularly musical one. It went on until five in the morning. To be fair, though, if it hadn’t been so hot the windows would have been shut and some of the sound would have been muffled.

Actually our windows seem as if they had been designed to magnify the sound below. The other evening the local drug dealer was standing underneath shooting the breeze (is that the expression?) with a friend. We heard every word. He was complaining about how hard it was to make a living as a drug dealer in these terrible times. Sometimes goods were ordered and the orders were cancelled; sometimes payment due was not forthcoming.

Maybe it is because I am black, he said with a sigh.

But I digress from the party. We thought that up to a point revelling could be put up with on a Saturday night. However by mid-evening on Sunday there were ominous signs of party-goers, like the crows, gathering again. The better half met one of them. He said that he was from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, as was his host. His host had just celebrated a birthday and had decided that a two-night celebration was appropriate, although only special guests would be invited to both nights. These favoured ones had gone home to watch Andy Murray on television and change their underwear and were now back for more.

The better half told me that the young man brought this helpful exposition to an end with a proposal of marriage.

Shortly afterwards a limousine arrived and the host came down to greet it. Out stepped five statuesque young women. He kissed each one, a tribute that they accepted regally. Then they all progressed inside. Who are they? I said to the better half. (We were at the gate as they arrived so that she could smoke her after-supper cigarette.) Are they his sisters? Will they sing in close harmony, do you think? Will they burst out of a cake?

Um, said the better half, with the intonation of one who has seen the world.

But five! I said, weakly.

Later that night I lay awake and listened to the sounds. The better half snored gently beside me; she is not musical. It was West African music and it sounded live. First the drummer and the bass player set up a groove. There were guitar and keyboard solos, planned improvisation or merely interjections. Sometimes nothing would be going on at all except the regular beat of the high hat. From time to time there were women’s voices – maybe the glamorous women from the limousine, but, no, probably not.

Like the steel band, it was democratic music, whether it was live or recorded. The musicians were diligently combining to justify the drummer’s groove, and there was no grand-standing.

Or so it sounded as I lay three-quarters asleep with several walls in between.

As I say it seemed to be live. But it’s hard to believe that they found room in one of our dinky little flats for a band and a party, though who knows? This time it was a serious party, no one spilled outside to smoke on the lawn and no one was obviously unwell. I slipped off to sleep before the end and by morning it was as if it had never happened.

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