The Next Album – Making a Start

On the off-chance you might interested in this sort of thing, I’m going to describe where my musical attentions are currently being directed. Chico Chica are long overdue an album. Birds came out at the beginning of last year. We were meant to follow up directly afterwards but money constraints prevented us from doing so. The income from streaming services such as Spotify is insufficient to justify large outlays for studio time and session fees. Hence the delay.

But I’m determined to push things forward because in order to get gigs it’s important to have an ever-evolving story – a new album, a new show and a new sound. It also keeps me motivated and stops me getting bored.

Six of the songs we have in our set are in French and this collection will form the new album which I hope will be released by early summer 2019, ready for Chico Chica’s gigging season. The working title is Cafe d’Amour.

Some may say six isn’t enough but there are no rules – an album can be as long or short as the artist wishes. Albums are getting longer at a time when attention spans are shortening. A small collection is easier to produce because I can keep a sharp focus on the material. In my hands, a large amount of recording can become unwieldy and unmanageable.

Chico Chica is a professional band comprising musicians who play for money. This is proving harder to do for a band performing original material. It’s easy to keep a full diary if you’re not worried about fees – the challenge is to get paid. For this reason it’s imperative I keep control of costs. That may be ok for genres which have an electronic backing but Chico Chica inhabit the world of jazz and acoustic music. We’d rather be playing our instruments than sat at a computer screen.

On previous albums, we had the feeling we could have planned our expensive studio time more carefully. We made up ideas and arrangements as we went along and that’s a luxury we can no longer afford. The answer is to record a version of the album at home – we can then try out different keys, instrumentation, tempos and structures until we come up with something we’re happy with.

This procedure means I have to get to grips with complex recording software (Logic Pro). It’s a long learning process but now I’m managing to use it well enough.

With this new skill other ideas are coming to me. I could, one by one, replace the artificial-sounding midi tracks with real instruments. I can do this by going to the musicians’ houses thereby reducing session fees.

It may seem a bit long-winded and lacking the spontaneity of a group playing together in the same room but needs must. The album will probably be more tightly arranged and less jazzy but that is by no means a bad thing. A budget defines style not quality. Rest assured, we will not be crowdfunding this venture.

The aim is to get the whole project wrapped up by Easter 2019. This will give us a good run-up to a planned Chico Chica tour starting in August 2018. I will keep you informed how things develop over the coming months.

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Gates of Fear, Barnaby Conrad

th-1Every now and then, I choose to read an out of print book about an esoteric subject. Of course it has to be recommended – life’s too short for random choices. I’ve just read Gates of Fear by Barnaby Conrad. The author worked for the American consulate in Spain during the 1950’s. During his posting there, he became an aficionado and his afición was bullfighting. He even took it up himself.

My life is sedentary and easy. I play a sitting down instrument. That’s why I admire physical courage. There is a kind of courage in performing in public but it’s not physical. In a world where police officers refused to rescue a drowning boy, I find myself inspired by men and women who put their bodies and lives in danger.

During the middle part of the twentieth century you could say there was a bullfighting craze. This was largely thanks to Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926), Death in the Afternoon (1936). Such was Hemingway’s stature, bullfighting became a topic of literary interest.

This book’s book’s 550 pages include photographs and drawings as well as extensive passages from other writers making it a type of anthology. The cost of permissions must have dented the author’s earnings.

We learn about tauromachy’s ancient roots and the feeling of the Roman amphitheatre is never far away – the sand, the animal versus man contests, the cruelty, blood, death and the braying crowd.

Bullfighting spread throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It crossed the Pyrennes into the amphitheatres at Nimes, Arles and Frejus. And the Portuguese developed a version with mounted matadors.

Conrad conjured up the excitement and terror that was unleashed when the gates of fear were unbolted to allow a huge, angry bull into the arena. Bullfighting comes with a history of famous names and stories. Many were killed and even more suffered life-changing injuries. My favourite was Josellitto who became so successful, the crowds became bored and started to boo him. Soon after he lost concentration and was killed. His bull had poor eyesight so didn’t fall for the matador’s visual trickery.

There were a few female matadors notably the American, Bette Ford. And she fought bulls, not cows. Alas, the glass ceiling is still an integral part of bovine life.

But after a while I tired of matadors and their silly tight trousers and glad the book came to an end. The passage I enjoyed the most was written by Lysander Kemp. It was a contrarian piece about how he didn’t care for the spectacle and probably best reflected my own views.

Nowadays I hear very little of bullfighting. It never troubles the British sporting press and doesn’t seem to try to spread its appeal outside the Spanish-speaking world. Corporate sponsors have stayed away though this has allowed the sport to maintain its integrity as a spectacle.

But I’m writing this after reading a report on the Wilder-Fury fight and watching the press conference after. Now that’s the kind of physical courage I prefer. The match might be in London.Bring it on!

Rolo Tomassi and Blood Command at The Scala, King’s Cross

It’s good for musicians to listen outside their genre. With this maxim in mind, I went to see Rolo Tomassi at The Scala, King’s Cross, London.

The Scala is a building I’ve passed so many times but until recently had never entered. It used to be a cinema and at one point was a primatarium. Cinema goers used to complain about the smell which was sure to detract from their experience unless the film happened to be Planet of the Apes.

The theatre works well as a rock venue. My friends and I parked ourselves in the balcony away from the mosh pit. We were tempted to enter the fray but I suppose it’s an age thing. Up on the balcony we were mistaken for parents of the band members.

Rock music was what originally made me take up guitar so it has always had a special power over me. I know people who work in festivals and they tell me the heavier the rock, the friendlier the people.

Nowadays, I feel short changed if a band is all blokes with their arrays of guitar pedals. It worked well in the past but now it just seems wrong. And boring. But tonight was going to be adorned by two exceptional women.

There were three acts on the bill. I missed the first (sorry Cassus) but arrived in time for Blood Command. Four guitars (including bass) and drums (of course) created a raucous wall of sound. I liked the way the musicians moved around on stage. They put thought into choreography and movement. That’s good. Every now and again they’d lift their left legs up in the air in unison. Not high like a ballerina – that’s hard to do while playing guitar but enough to make an effect. It’s an idea Chico Chica could steal. I might raise it at the next band meeting (the topic that is, not the leg).

Blood Command are fronted by Karina Ljon (pictured). Ljon is a fabulous presence and she naturally stole the show. Afterwards she was meekly sitting behind the merch counter selling CDs and t-shirts and chatting to fans.

The main act always has the advantage of being last. Miles Davis used to prefer to go first when the audience’s ears were still fresh but also so he could finish while the night was still young. But rock is different. The sense of anticipation gives the headline act an unfair advantage. Even so, Rolo Tomassi are brilliant. They can be thrashy and screamy which the crowd loved, but they can suddenly switch to melodious sections with jazzy chords and rhythms.

However, Rolo Tomassi are nothing without the singer Eva Spence. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. She also happened to be the main reason I bought a ticket. Screaming works well in rock but less so in other genres. I’m unsure if Ms Spence screams words or just sounds. Not that it really matters.

Occasionally the keyboard player would move centre stage, join in the screaming and try to steal her limelight. Why? How dare he. It came across as macho posturing and a forlorn attempt to bask in the glory of Ms Spence’s luminous aura. Sorry matey. Get back behind that keyboard where you belong.

Rock musicians are able to feel the music from the inside because they commit it all to memory. If they were reading from music stands people would ask for their money back. This is what musicians from other genres should learn. Memorisation of the music is in itself a wow factor and it enables a different type of body language. The more technology we use the less we remember so it is even more important for musicians to buck this trend.

The gig finished at 9:45pm. Now that’s a modern development. It is no doubt to do with legal restrictions. Purists complain that rock should be a late night thing and music is more exciting when it’s played at that time. I don’t see the logic in this view which seems to be a hangover from childhood. Late finishes discourage mature people who, like me, enjoy their mornings. From a promoter’s point of view, excluding a more affluent demographic doesn’t make sense. There is also a greater choice of places to eat as so many close at 11:00pm. I’d better move on to the next paragraph as I’m starting to sound like a grandad.

By the end of the evening I had come to the conclusion that Ms Spence is quite possibly the most wonderful human being alive today. Eva Peron cried for Argentina, Eva Spence screams for England.

Clockers, Richard Price

Clockers CoverIf you happen to be looking for a drug to take up, crack cocaine has a lot to offer. It’s attractions aren’t just the intense thirty minute high but also the paraphernalia that goes with it. This type of pipe smoking lends the pastime a hobby aspect. It also creates career opportunities among vulnerable groups. However, despite these benefits, I think I’ll give the drug a miss because after reading Clockers by Richard Price, I discovered crack cocaine has a fatal downside: it’s a bit morish.

Crime fiction doesn’t feature high in my reading. There is no particular reason for this and I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot. The trouble with genre fiction is that it exists on its own. There are few references from other books which lead me to this remote but happy valley. So it takes an exceptional crime novel to gain my attention.

According to the blurb, Clockers is the inspiration behind The Wire. In fact Richard Price was one of the writers of this TV series. I’ve never got round to watching it because I’ve never warmed to the American big-tough-guy-in-a-big-tough-city thing. But Clockers is different. Here, nobody is tough, or sexy, or witty, or handsome, or charismatic. It’s a little like real life in that way. And real life is what happens in the projects of a New York suburb called Dempsey, most of whose denizens have succumbed to the pleasures of the pipe.

The book is set, and was first published, in 1992. The dealers communicate by call boxes and pagers. The action is primarily in the dialogue which explains why Clockers transferred to television as The Wire so successfully. 

The story centres on Strike, a nineteen year old crack cocaine dealer called Ronald Dunham but is known through most of the story by his street name, Strike. On the streets of Dempsey, there are no surnames. Throughout the story there is little reference to the outside. It’s as if nothing else matters.

Banks offer us consolidation loans. These put all your card debts into one so there is only one debt to worry about. Addiction to crack cocaine does something similar. Instead of worrying about work, money, health and relationships the addict worries about just one thing: the next fix. In this complex world, the addict has a much simplified life.

Strike occupies a lowly, customer-facing position known as a ‘clocker’. His boss Rodney, is pleased with Strike’s work especially his innovative marketing ideas such as Happy Hour and Starter Kits. Strike also keeps the three golden rules of drug dealing. If dear reader, you happen to be contemplating such a career you may wish to make a note of them: 1) trust no-one 2) maintain good quality and 3) don’t do the product.

The strange thing about Strike is that he never expresses emotion. So we neither like nor dislike him. If he does feel anything it is fear but this is suppressed. There doesn’t even seem to me much lust or yearning for friendship or greed. Dealers cannot bank their earnings and they cannot draw attention to their wealth so it’s all in the form of cash ‘rolls’. These are either in their pockets or stashed in an elaborate system of hiding places.

And yet the dealers never have the courage or imagination to escape. America is a big country. Couldn’t they get a bus somewhere and start afresh? This thought does occur to Strike but he feels an irresistible force pushing him to return to his life as a clocker.

There is one other character crucial to the story and that is Rocco, a Homicide cop or as he’s referred to throughout, a Homicide. Rocco is investigating a murder which is at the centre of the story. Drug dealing is outside his domain so he pays no attention to it unless it directly relates to a murder.

A good story has to have the main character go through a change. And this happens in Clockers, but not until the last few of the 360 pages. 

In London we also have crack cocaine and gang crime. But it somehow seems different here. The projects occupy whole swathes of cities whereas in London, council estates are interspersed with private housing so council tenants don’t feel such a sense of isolation. But the US has the advantage of offering a huge hinterland in which to escape and start again. It is the land of reinvention. Strike realises this at the end. But what took him so long?

Devon and Cornwall Tour – August/September 2018

It was mid afternoon on August Bank Holiday. Sun visors down, the two cars set out for Chico Chica’s Devon and Cornwall Tour. Double bassist Alison Rayner is driving her leather-seated Volvo, instruments in the back, me in the shotgun seat.

As the mobile world of leather rolls along the M4 I discover Alison, as a bandleader herself, is a useful source of advice and sympathy. After coffee at Newbury I enter a reflective mood.

Tours take a lot of time to organise. Fees are no higher then those that can be earned within our usual gigging radius. The added expenses of travel and accommodation make a serious dent in the earnings.

And yet…there’s something that compels a band to strike out into the unknown. It might be that no-man-is-a-prophet-in-his-own-land thing. Or wanderlust. Could it be, what in the corporate world they call, a team building experience? Perhaps we’re subconsciously inspired by the wandering troubadours of long ago. There seems to be a feeling that a band is not really a band unless it tours.

Our first stay was in a forest in deepest Devon. Using a star to guide us (it was actually a satellite which is a kind of star) we find our AirBnb destination. We drive along a rough forest path, passing piles of logs. Twilight adds to the general Hansel and Gretal/Blair Witch mood. We were greeted by Fred who is in the process of converting an abandoned mill compound into something habitable, one building at a time. Fred keeps birds that don’t fly much. Swans and ducks in the pond, a peacock which wanders around the yard who’s frankly a bit arrogant and a cock who does a proper crow at around 7 am and then again twenty minutes later as a kind of snooze alarm.

In the morning we head to The Bude Jazz Festival. Every band needs friends and champions. Chico Chica are lucky to have Rosie and Matt who come to the gig and treat us to pasties and whitebait at The Brendon Arms. We stroll to the beach and watch the waves, imagining what it would be like to surf them.

The set list for the tour is:

This is My Heart

Mon Oiseau C’est Enfui

Cuando Sali de Cuba

Casa Flamenco

Vanity

Cue the Cucumber

On Va au Bois

Private Hands

Final Safari

Cinderella

Falling, Falling

The Lizard

Quand Tu Me Touches

Son Tresor

Fingers in The Dark

C’est Ta Chanson

L’Abeille Dansante

Goodnight

The mainstay of the set is Chico Chica’s French collection which the band plans to record in the near future. There are a few old favourites from previous albums, others from a future flamenco project and one cover. Variety is key to the Chico Chica show: in singers, instrumentation, keys, feels, moods, tempos, languages and subject matter.

But would a Cornwall jazz festival audience accept such a radical departure from the usual mainstream jazz? Happily, the reaction is positive. The pattern here is set for the rest of the tour: surprisingly large audiences and CD sales.

After Bude the band drive to The George, South Molton. and then back to our forest den chez Fred. On the next day we motor west once more. Destination: Penzance. It is Chico Chica’s most westerly gig to date. Now there’s a fact you won’t find on Wikipedia.

On the following morning, on our way to Falmouth, I’m on BBC Radio Cornwall but the presenter has his interviewees muddled up and I am introduced as the man who has survived seven lightning strikes. While waiting for my time to speak I learn that Cornwall is England’s longest county.

A tour feels a little bit like a holiday but of course it isn’t. The schedule is tightly packed with little space for downtime. But it’s Devon and Cornwall in August so it’s hard not to feel like a holidaymaker and resist the urge to visit beaches. The picture shows Hilary and Barbara in front of the St Michael’s Mount which is Cornwall’s rather lacklustre answer to Brittany’s Mont St Michel.  

The 31st August is often regarded as the last day of summer. This year it coincides with caravan turnaround day and we celebrate it by travelling most of Cornwall’s fabled length, through Devon and into Somerset. The tedium of the traffic jams is mitigated by the spectacular scenery.

The last gig was St James Wine Vaults in Bath and from there we returned home to do a cluster of dates in London including the Bull’s Head which is a kind of homecoming gig for me.

My Edinburgh Fringe 2018

A feature of our age, so we’ve been told, is that categories are breaking down. That’s why ‘generic’ has become a term of derision. And yet The Edinburgh Fringe Guide is separated in to categories.

TomHannahFringe2018_022_CroppedSmallerSize
Photo: Aiden Sun

My show is not theatrical enough for Theatre and not comedic enough for Comedy. Cabaret seems to be another word for Burlesque and I had every intention of keeping my clothes on. How we define Spoken Word, Poetry and Talks is anyone’s guess so I fell back on my professional identity and chose Music with the description jazz rap.

The Edinburgh Fringe, being an open-access festival, is whatever its participants want it to be. A browse through the Fringe Guide will establish the fact that comedy and theatre predominate so what is there for the musician?

Chico Chica is a vocal jazz band playing original songs. In order to add variety to the live show, I perform the odd (sometimes very odd) rap song. This year it seemed a good idea to gather these together to form a one man show. The Edinburgh Fringe seemed a natural outlet for this. The idea was to raise my profile, have the show filmed and to see as many other shows as I could.

Being my first time, I decided to do the Edinburgh Fringe on a shoe string, taking a cheap 35 seater, slightly off the beaten track. This turned out to be a false economy. I needed to average twelve people per show to make a profit. During the many conversations I had during the three weeks, I learnt that the average audience number is twelve. So for me it was a struggle getting into double figures. It was only in the last few days I was able to pull more than twenty. If I were to return I’d choose a more centrally located venue and spend money on advertising and PR.

Flyering is integral to the EdFringe experience but limited in its efficacy. In the first week people take them out of politeness but by the third, flyer fatigue sets in and people learn to blank out efforts to get their attention. It is more effective to see other shows and talk to fellow audience members.

It’s easy for the performer to retreat into his bubble, but this is missing out on where the Fringe comes into its own. In order to improve as a performer and writer, we need to see how best it is done (or not). With over 4,000 shows, the EdFringe can be overwhelming. After a couple days trusting serendipity I decided to make some serious filtering decisions. You might want to take these as a guide for next year.

Favour gravitas over levitas. The stand up comedian character type reminds me of that of the school bully. The type of person I avoid. Much of the comedy drama has crude sexual humour and I find myself the only person the audience not laughing. I prefer the subtle depiction of repressed characters we find in Bennet, Ayckbourne, Orton and Rattigan. This year I learnt that actors love playing the Upper Class Twit more than any other stereotype and Trump is the favourite subject for political satire but I suppose you kind of know that already.

Favour original over heritage. There is an enormous amount of tribute acts. All are well publicised and attract big audiences. This year I saw imposter posters for Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, Dolly Parton, Johnny Cash, Carole King, Eva Cassidy, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor and Carly Simon.

Favour professional over amateur. There are many one person shows that could be titled ‘My Miserable Life’. I’m not sure how these performers plan to proceed with their careers as they only have one life. Perhaps it’s a kind of therapy. Many university performance arts courses require students to bring a show to Edinburgh as part of their degree course. This is an excellent form of education because only by doing can a student realise how hard it is to write an entertaining play.

The age group of my audiences reflected mine. This seems obvious really and I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me before. A musician needs to pursue not just those with a similar taste but also those with a similar age. The formative years for the generation just coming to retirement age were the early seventies when originality was everything. They can be just as hungry for new ideas as anyone.

So should a professional musician go to the Edinburgh Fringe? I would say yes if you have a clear goal of the kind of work you want post Fringe. It’s more viable to be on your own. A duo doesn’t sell twice as many tickets as a solo performer. You can save on the cost of rights by playing your own material. If you are lucky enough to be able to rent your home out while you’re away you can offset your accommodation expenses.

 

Most importantly, you should love performance art generally especially theatre.

Birds – Chico Chica’s Third Album

Birds is Chico Chica’s third album and we have to say, we are inordinately proud of it.

Here is a sample:

 

You can buy downloads here: https://store.cdbaby.com/cd/chicochica5 and CDs here or else purchase a copy at one of our upcoming shows:

 

22nd-27th May 2017:  Brasserie Zedel, Sherwood Street, London W1
1st June 2017: Bull’s Head, Barnes.

 

You should be able to listen on Spotify as well. And while you’re listening you may like to read these album notes:

 

Since the band’s inception in 2010, Barbara Snow and Tom Hannah have been diligently combining original song and spoken word with textures, sounds and rhythms from around the Western Hemisphere. Snow has a very direct approach to her composition, eschewing obscurity and aiming to please the public while maintaining a high degree of artistic integrity.

 

For this album, Chico Chica enlisted the help of an all-Brazilian rhythm section to help bring about a truly exceptional work. It marks a growing maturity in this song-writing partnership. Tom Hannah’s perceptive and well-crafted lyrics are the perfect companion to Barbara Snow’s beguiling melodies and arrangements.

 

Falling, Falling is a lament for the demise of what was once a soaring love affair. The creamy vocalising here is reminiscent of Sergio Mendes.

 

The idea for title song Birds came about after Barbara Snow had a period of convalescence. She was lying on a bed next to a garden window. It was May and she listened to birdsong all day. The song is about what birds already know and that is, the limitation of words. The song culminates in a ‘la la’ section alternating with instrumental solos including one on marimba by Rob Millett.

 

Ever Since You Found Me starts with bold percussive brushstrokes and leads on to catchy instrumental sections and a spirited flute solo from Hiilary Cameron. She and Barbara Snow share the lead vocal and this gives the song a soulful emphasis. The song is an expression of  anticipation and desire.

 

The Happy Pain of Love is a tightly arranged pop song is an expression of new love from the viewpoint of a world-weary realist. Barbara Snow sings the lead and plays a flugelhorn solo which is a model of pace, poise and energy.

 

Flauta Charona is a rare Chico Chica instrumental. The interplay between Carlos Straatman’s bass guitar and Hilary Cameron’s flute is the essence of this jaunty melody which sounds as if it could be a theme tune for a light-hearted children’s cartoon.

 

Words and music by Chico Chica

 

Chico Chica are:

 

Hilary Cameron – voice, piano, keyboard, flute
Tom Hannah – voice cavaquinho
Barbara Snow – voice, flugelhorn

 

Additional musicians:

 

Carlos Straatman – electric bass
Jansen Santana – percussion
Xande -Oliveira – drums
Rob Millett – marimba

 

Recorded at Porcupine Studios, London
Engineered, mixed and mastered by Nick Taylor with the help of Barbara Snow and Carlos Straatman.

 

Picture by Phil Bartle


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