Voltarol - related music

Sunday, 31 October 2010

Taubkin's back in town

I have good news and bad news. The good news is that that masterful Brazilian pianist Benjamin Taubkin will be appearing in London on Saturday November 6th. The bad news - well for me at any rate - is that I will not be there for the concert. I can't tell you how cheesed off I am to be missing the gig. As followers of this blog will know, Benjamin Taubkin is one of my favourite musicians and I was fortunate enough to be able to interview him  the last time he was here. All I can say is - go and see him if you possibly can. You won't regret it!

Thursday, 28 October 2010

How the Voltarol got his name

 (With apologies to Rudyard Kipling)

Left to right: Ganja the Dwarf, Voltarol, Alcohol

On the right hand side of this blog you will see my profile, which includes a reference to my two brothers – Alcohol and Ganja the Dwarf – and the fact that we have been known to go on the occasional mystic quest together. This apparent nom de blogish whimsy is in fact firmly rooted in reality and I have had several requests to explain more. So – as senior brother Alcohol has already written about this for publication elsewhere, I thought I would reproduce his piece here but with the addition of a few appropriate links and photographs. Only the names have remained the same to identify the far from innocent…

Three Old Farts in a Boat.

It was all the fault of my younger brother Pete. We bought him a first edition of one of his favourite books, “Three Men in a Boat”, for his sixtieth birthday last August and it reminded him of the enormous fun that he and I and his little brother Bob had on, in, and around the River nearly fifty years ago.

            Within a week he ‘phoned me to suggest that the three of us get together and, using the book as a model, have a week on the Thames. He had already propositioned Bob, searched the Web, and found a small company that hired out Victorian camping skiffs.
 I hesitated for about a millisecond before agreeing. It has always been my ambition to grow old disgracefully and this seemed like a significant step in the right direction. As the plan was elaborated we decided that we would follow as directly as possible in the footsteps of Jerome K Jerome’s heroes. We would start from as near Kingston as we could. We would take small tent for one of us and the other two would sleep under the canvas awning of the boat. If the weather was foul we might take refuge in a pub for the night. We would also exactly retrace their path by rowing upstream to Oxford, ninety-one miles and thirty-one locks. Circumstances even ensured that we did it at the same time of the year, the third week in May.
Just after three o clock on the afternoon of Wednesday the 17th the three of us shoved off from the landing slip at Thames Ditton. Pete and Bob were at the sculls and I was on the rudder lines. I uttered a confident and seamanlike cry of “give way” and we rowed out manfully into the stream. At this point Judy, our chauffeuse, began to look less apprehensive but we rather spoiled it by hailing her to ask which way was upstream.
Left to right: Ganja the Dwarf, Voltarol, Alcohol

Once this tricky point was resolved we made our farewells and set off pulling along the boundary of Hampton Court palace. It was bright when we started out but the sky had been clouding over for a while and it was not long before it started to rain. At this point we were very pleased that our gear was all stowed in waterproof stuff bags. Three hours later it was still drizzling and we made our first nights camp moored alongside a rather muddy island near Shepperton.
Alcohol wrestles with the camping cover

 It was something of a pantomime. None of us had erected a camping cover since I was a lad, the Victorian folding hoops seemed intent on inflicting painful injuries on our fingers and the heavy canvas cover weighed more than we remembered. Eventually we got it up, Bob’s tent was pitched, and with the aid of an entrenching tool sanitary facilities were provided in an adjacent thicket. This first night it took well over an hour and a half to set up camp but we got faster with practice
Ganja and Votarol work on the wine lake

Once order was established Pete cooked supper and I opened the first bottle of wine. We washed up in the river (We carried our drinking water with us but relied on the Thames for washing water) and then opened the second bottle. We followed that with Pete’s secret camping potion, hot chocolate laced with about a quadruple brandy and by bedtime we were three deeply contented men. When we retired to our sleeping bags we slept like logs. We woke at about seven the next morning, breakfasted on tea, dried fruit and muesli, struck the tent and the cover, tidied the camp site and rowed off up river.

That first day set the pattern except that we abandoned the notion of cooking a main meal in the evenings as the weather worsened. From then on we found a pub for a couple of pints, a substantial lunch and coped with plenty of tea and cold food for breakfast and supper besides making serious inroads on the European wine and brandy lake. 
Alcohol, Voltarol, Montmorency, a friendly landlord and Ganja the Dwarf

The weather worsened and the wind was pretty consistently against us. On one day it recorded a mean speed of twenty-five knots, and as the heavy rain continued the lock keepers progressively opened the weir sluices and the current ran faster and faster. Passing through Reading we were overtaken by a three year old riding a fairy-cycle along the towpath and several times we were rowing flat out and only just managing to breast the current, while we hunted across the stream for slack water.  
           Ganja and Alcohol ,  Rosalind and Actief
 On the fourth night we decided that a shower and a dry bed would be a good idea but discovered that most of the cheerful riverside pubs of our youth had been tarted up and become hideously expensive. What is more, in our wet and mud splattered condition we would have been about as welcome as a mild dose of amoebic dysentery. In the end, the friendly keeper at Sonning lock introduced us to “J” and Charlotte, the owners of the hotel boat “Actief” which was moored just above the lock. Despite the fact that they had just said farewell to a full complement of guests and had been looking forward to an evening off, they provided comfortable beds, hot showers, a great deal of wine and a magnificent breakfast.
 Restored by good company and this touch of luxury we pressed on upstream and despite being awarded a yellow card, which told us that the current was now too strong for unpowered boats, we continued to head for Oxford and became increasingly confident that we were going to make it. We developed a sneaking feeling of smug superiority when we encountered two more of Tom Balm’s skiffs coming downstream, the crew of one of them announcing that they had asked to be retrieved after only two days.
Alcohol, Voltarol and Ganja the Dwarf 'having a ball'.                  

 Despite the weather we were having a ball and despite an average age of sixty- two, reverting to our juvenile selves. We are none of us the sort of blokes to take readily to stuffed toys but Montmorency, the toy dog that had been loaned to us in place of Jerome’s very real one, began to develop a personality. 
Montmorency availing himself of the facilities...

Dafter still, we boozily decided that we were on a quest and adopted the characters of Voltarol, Alcohol, and Ganja the Dwarf. Any one that has suffered from arthritis will be familiar with Voltarol, Alcohol needs no explanation, and two years teaching in a school for disturbed adolescents provided me with the third name. We later added a fourth character to our pantheon, Offa’s Dyke, a Celtic princess of indeterminate gender.
 The week wasn’t merely a combination of a nostalgia fest, an endurance trial and a geriatric booze cruise. It was also a journey through a positively magical landscape. Once above Windsor, apart from a rather dreary passage through Reading, the Thames Valley is every bit as beautiful as it was fifty years ago. There wasn’t very much river traffic and because a rowing boat makes very little noise the wild life took next to no notice of us and we saw at close range Red Kites, Parakeets, Herons, innumerable water-fowl, and a quietly busy little water vole. The banks were as leafy as ever and the May blossom brought to mind hackneyed comparisons with lace and foam, and an odour that booted all three of us back to being about ten years old again.
 The lock keepers were almost universally helpful, there were still a few cheerful unpretentious riverside pubs which gave us a very warm welcome and most of the folks we shared the river with were friendly and good natured.
           Elderly hooligans

When we emerged from the final lock at Iffley we ran directly into a flotilla of Oxford regatta crews who were evidently bewildered by a trio of elderly hooligans chanting “Voltarol, Alcohol and Ganja the Dwarf” but before we could get in to serious trouble we reached the slipway above Donnington Bridge, where two daughters and three grandchildren were cheering and waving flags at us. “Rosalind” was hauled out of the River and on to Tom Balm’s trailer, and our voyage was over. There will be another one next year. Despite a few creaks aches and pains none of us wants to wait for another forty- eight years before we do it again.
                The good ship 'Rosalind' and her crew at journey's end.

Well, that was in May 2006. The following year we paddled two Canadian Canoes down the River Wye together, on a quest that we named  - unsurprisingly - 'Three men in two boats', and one day I'll tell that story here. For various reasons there has not been a quest since then but we are currently planning one for next year. We are not quite sure what form it will take but it will definitely involve boats and a renewed assault on the European wine and brandy lake. Maybe we'll try to swim across it...

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

The Afro Sambas

Baden Powell

When I first started working in a record shop in 1964 (see (High) Street life) I soon discovered the joys of specialist record importer’s catalogues. Good record shops stocked ‘in depth’ in those days, and one of my more pleasurable tasks was to scan the pages of the aforementioned catalogues in search of interesting stock. One such catalogue was produced by a company called ‘Selecta Records’ who were, I think, principally the distribution arm of Decca Records, but they had a fine imports selection and among other things distributed the French Barclay label in the UK. As I observed in a recent posting (French Leave), the French do have an appetite for good music generally and this characteristic manifested itself particularly in the Barclay catalogue in the form of a number African and Brazilian recordings.

At this time I had yet to recognise the passion for Brazilian music that was stirring in me, so I was drawn to the name ‘Baden Powell’ out of sheer curiosity and amusement. When ‘Le Monde Musical de Baden Powell’ arrived in the shop it was with no more than vague interest that I put it on the turntable for a listen but I was hooked from the start. This was guitar playing of the highest order and although some of the tracks were a bit ‘syruped up’ with unnecessary strings, others were sublime. I was particularly taken with a tune called ‘Berimbau’. I didn’t know then what a berimbau was and certainly had no idea that I would ultimately own and play one.

Time passed and my enthusiasm for Brazilian music generally and Baden Powell in particular resulted in an ever growing collection of Brazilian recordings, which went positively nuclear after my first visit to Brazil. My face is extremely well known in many Saõ Paulo CD shops and I rarely return from a Brazil trip with less than 30 albums. Ironically though it was on a regular on-line CD trawl that I first came across ‘Baden Powell – Afro Sambas’ (1991) on the French JSL label.  By this time I was fairly familiar with many of Baden Powell’s compositions and was also aware that amongst the numerous people he had collaborated with in his composing career was Vinicius de Moraes, who had co-written ‘Berimbau’ with him.
Vinicius de Moraes

I noticed that, with the exception of the first tack – ‘Abertura’ (Overture) – which was credited to Baden Powell alone, all the other tracks were co-written with Vinicius. I also noticed that one of the titles was ‘Variações Sobre Berimbau’ (Variations on Berimbau), and that a number of the Candomblé gods or ‘Orishas’ were referenced in the other titles (I knew about these from having visited Salvador and through my reading of the works of Jorge Amado). The disc was duly bought and played and I was, of course, hooked.

 All though my linguistic abilities are poor and my French in particular is only marginally better than Del Boy’s, I was able to ascertain from the sleeve notes that this was a re-recording of the Afro Sambas and that the original had been issued in 1966 but had been unobtainable for quite some time. Furthermore, Vinicius de Moraes, who had died in 1980 and was therefore not a participant in the 1991 recording, had performed on the original. This original recording immediately migrated to the top of my ‘must have’ list, where it was to stay for the next twelve years or so.

A few years after this initial purchase I was on yet another trip to Brazil and searching through the racks in Pops Discos (see Voltarol in Brazil 2010, continued) when I came across a second-hand copy of Afro Sambas performed by Paulo Bellinati and Mônica Salmaso and immediately added it to my haul for that particular day. I think that I had it on the CD player within minutes of returning to my son’s apartment and was immediately seduced by the wonderful voice of Ms Salmaso and the superb guitar playing of Paulo Bellinati as they breathed new life into these songs. I was also beginning to realise that they had not actually been composed to go together as a suite (although they worked well enough in that respect), because the order in which the songs were performed was different to that of Baden Powell’s 1991 recording, one title was omitted and the disc included an original guitar composition by Paulo Bellinati – ‘Cordão de Ouro’ (Golden Cord), which had been grafted on to ‘Berimbau. I subsequently learned that Mônica Salmaso was only twenty four when she recorded this – it was in fact her first CD – although Paulo Bellinati was a seasoned performer who had already made a name for himself. If I’m honest, I think I actually prefer this album to Baden Powell’s re-recording.

So that was that, and I now had another two artists whose recordings were on my ‘must have’ list. Time passed and I began to think that I was very unlikely to find that original recording unless one of my Brazilian friends knew someone that owned a copy but didn’t want it…or maybe I would find a Japanese reissue (surprisingly, there is a very big following for Brazilian music in Japan). And then, a couple of months ago, I learned about an extraordinarily eclectic reissue label called ‘él’. There, lurking in their catalogue alongside such unlikely bedfellows as Becker and Fagan, Brigitte Bardot, Segovia, Chet Atkins and Malcolm Arnold were a number of Brazilian artists and – yes! Result! There it was, the original ‘Os Afro Sambas’ from 1966 which has been reissued with a Baden Powell solo guitar album from 1963 – ‘Á Vontade’ (loosely - ‘Chilling Out’) – on one CD. When my copy arrived I couldn’t wait to play it but was a bit trepidatious. Would it live up to my expectations? I needn’t have worried. His recording is an absolute masterpiece and well worth the long wait.

In his sleeve notes for the original album Vinicius says – “When the young and talented producer Roberto Quartin approached us about recording this album, we agreed that it should be made with maximum creative freedom and minimum commercial interest. We were not interested in producing a well crafted record but instead to be spontaneous in conveying the simple message of our sambas’. In truth, the net results - which utilise as many amateur and semi-pro musicians and singers as they do professional ones – occasionally teeter on the verge of chaos, and yet it is sublime chaos. These performances capture the spirit of their subject matter and at times transport one to the same heights as “…the powerful magic of candomblé baiano ( candomblé as practised in Bahia)…” to quote again from Vinicius. Here's a sample track.

All that remains to be said here is that all three of these albums are worth owning, but if you must choose between them then the original is by far the best. It’s up there in my top twenty recordings of all time – but then again, so is Mônica Salmaso and Paulo Bellinati’s version! Go on - get them all.