Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Leap Day in Durham: The Musicon Festival of East Asian Music

Leap Day today; I asked my husband to marry me, and he said, "What? Again?". Well, if not leaping into marriage, there are other things to leap for joy about.

Kiku Day with some of her myriad
jinashi shakuhachi
Leapin' lizards! How often do you get to hear jinashi shakuhachi and Satsuma biwa outside of Japan? Or even inside of Japan? These two instruments were the first offered in the 'bamboo' themed Musicon Festival concert series at Durham University last night.

The shakuhachi is usually identified as an instrument of Zen Buddhism, useful in inducing meditation. And indeed, the first performer entered the concert hall as a Buddhist monk, in formal dress with the usual tengai basket over the head. The basket is supposed to erase identity, so it would have done no good to take a picture of Kiku Day in that costume. Here you see her relaxed with some of her shakuhachi that do not have a lacquered bore (thus, jinashi, 'no lacquer'). She played several meditative pieces, astounding her audience with the fluttering, plaintive, evocative sounds of the free-rhythm wanderings.

Kiku, a Dane with a Japanese and American background, studied honkyoku, with Master Okuda Atsuya in Tokyo for 11 years. She is a founding member of the European Shakuhachi Society and teaches shakuhachi in London and at Aarhus University in Denmark after having taken a Ph.D. in Ethnomusicology at SOAS in 2010.

Charles Marshall on the biwa lute,
in formal Japanese dress
Charles Marshall, a consummate biwa lute player of the Satsuma tradition of narrative storytelling, gave us recitation in Japanese of the famous 12th-century hero, Nasu no Yoichi, who shot an arrow from the back of a skittish horse at a fan mounted on an enemy boat during the Battle of Yashima. He also sang a piece once performed by Buddhist monks travelling door-to-door to collect alms. The amazing sounds from the biwa – deep undertones capped with a wailing melody, buzzing bass strings, all punctuated by the slap, slap of the plectrum on the instrument body – were equalled by Charlie's perfect rendition of the Satsuma recitation style, not a trivial accomplishment for either foreigners or Japanese. (His serious facial expression, by the way, is the one expected of Japanese when performing most genres of traditional music - even in happy stories. One audience member asked him about this after the concert.)

Originally an Organ Scholar at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, Charlie went to Japan as a JET English teacher and ended up spending 14 years there, learning Satsuma biwa from the Master Yoshinori Fumon between 1994 and 2003. He is now back in Ireland pursuing an MA in organ performance while continuing to maintain these extremely specialized and rare skills.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

How to play "Pub Cricket" in a car

This is a car game that is disappearing in England. It used to be that one drove narrow A-roads winding through multiple villages to get where you wanted to go. Along the way were lots (and I mean lots!) of pubs. So somewhat like spotting out-of-state license plates (English: car registrations) on American roads, English kids instead played pub cricket...

The pub sign for the Market Tavern is a market
stall selling veggies – the man counts for 2 legs.
The Durham 
Indoor Market sign in red and gold
behind it has 8 legs – but it counts for nothing
as it is not a pub sign.
Every pub sign passed that has an animal on it (including human animals) has a value for how many legs it contains. The King's Head or The Shakespeare only give two legs each, while Coach & Horses or Fox & Hounds are real mother loads. Pubs like The Market Tavern, whose names don't refer specifically to animals but the pub sign contains animals (photo) do count for legs. When one meets a pub sign that doesn't have any legs, like the Elm Tree, then not only do you get zero points for that one but it becomes someone else's turn to count.*

These days, of course, everyone takes the M-roads (motorways) which don't have any pubs on them a'tall (American: adall). And besides,
the kids have screens to watch, either embedded in the backs of seats or held in their grubby little hands.

* Despite going to the Elm Tree every week, I couldn't think off hand of a legless pub (ha, ha: that's what you call someone in England when they've drunk too much – legless). So I got out the Durham phone book and the separate Yellow Pages. I was astounded to find only one (1) pub listed in each under the classifieds for 'pubic houses'.  Our old Cambridge phone book (1993-4) has seven (7) columns of public houses listed. What's become of this country? Ads too expensive? Too many pub closures? Pubs reclassifying themselves as restraurants??

Friday, 24 February 2012

Spring has sprung – maybe

It was heart-warming walking through Durham yesterday. Partly cloudy, no wind and 13° (54°F). Doesn't that sound like spring? And flowers were up in at least two well-tended gardens I passed: heather, snowdrops,  crocus, hellebore, primula and primroses. But I always like best the carpets of crocus, like this one under the tree in front of Durham University Library. These are smaller and more slender than the usual round-leaved cup-shaped crocus blooms, and they were open in cloudy weather. See how they are straining towards the east at 11.30am!
Regular crocus don't open unless in bright sunshine.
Crocus vernus photo by JR Crellin
Creative Commons Licence

The ones under the tree looked like the wild form, similar to Crocus vernus (right). They are so much more delicate and subtle than the strong yellows and purples of the domesticates. Apparently there are 80 species of crocus, so you have a wide variety to choose from in naturalizing them in your grass. But then be careful not to cut the grass too soon after they finish flowering. English lawns often have a patch of long grass well into early summer, and you wonder why it wasn't cut until you realize it is a crocus or daffodil bed!

Welcome, oh herald of spring! (as the Dutch say)

My crocus on a sunny day

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Famous Author on East Coast Trains

What an interesting idea! East Coast trains (now owned by the public since GNER was forced out of its franchise by National Express, who then defaulted on their payments) run from Scotland to London down the eastern side of England. GNER used to publish a bi-monthly on-train magazine with tourist options and descriptions of their local food providers along the way. Now however, East Coast have produced a volume of short stories commissioned from Alexander McCall Smith, the celebrated Scots physician who now writes very interesting and entertaining novels in retirement.

We have revelled in his series about the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency", set in Botswana with Mma Ramotswe as laid-back lady detective; the BBC TV series starring Jill Scott was a great rendition, too, now available through HBO online. But these are not his only achievements: he writes several series on "von Igelfeld" and on "Isabel Dalhousie, on "44 Scotland Street" and on "Corduroy Mansions". Prolific!

The train magazine entitled "East Coast Stories", published by The Scotsman, was written specifically for train clientele, McCall Smith says, as they "sit back and...feel the rocking of the train...hear the sound of its wheels on the rails...And sometimes there are conversations to be had." The five short stories – five contributions to a conversation between five strangers on their way from Edinburgh to London – are entitled:
Brief Encounter
Classical Landscape, With Train
The Way the World Used to Be
The Flying Scotsman

All very enjoyable indeed. Since this is a limited edition magazine of a famous author's stories, with restricted distribution, I'm keeping my copy just in case it becomes a collectors' item!

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Fantastic Ceramics Japanese Style – by Jill Fanshawe Kato

If you go in to any of the 450 Japanese restaurants in London, you might well come face-to-face with ceramics by Jill Fanshawe Kato. The Tsurukame on Gray's Inn Road have these lovely pitchers on display sitting on a piano, while the counter at Blossom in City Point, near Moorgate tube station, supports a huge, globular narrow-necked jar by Jill.

Stoneware pitchers by Jill Fanshawe Kato.
The bamboo are in another vase behind!
These are advertisements for Jill's work, which can be seen in galleries across southern England as well as Glasgow, Edinburgh and Cardiff. Inspired by Japanese ceramics and by nature, her creations are wonderful statements in swaths of colour, bold shapes, and naturalistic images. I particularly like the pitcher shown on the right here, with a jay painted in a white oval. The pouring spout of the pitcher mirrors the bill of the jay, both facing upwards to the left in optimistic expectation.

Having taught ceramics at Goldsmiths College, University of London for several years, Jill now does workshops open to all in Devon. Her new schedule is:

2012 Pottery courses at Coombe Farm Studios near Dartmouth, Devon.
May 21-25'Inspired by Nature'
September 14-16'Creative Clay'

Jill also does special exhibitions and commissions across the globe. Her work challenges the more subtle Hamada school of stoneware carried on by the Leach Pottery in St Ives, Cornwall. More colourful and more playful than the Hamada tradition, Jill's ceramics are conversation pieces as well as utilitarian items. Really interested persons can make a special appointment to see Jill in her London studio; see her website for info.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Valentine's Day 'stay-in'

So what are you doing today? Going out and shooting your wad? Or staying in and eating gourmet? Both John Lewis and Waitrose, not surprisingly, are pushing the latter. Spend your money here, say their ads. The supermarket Waitrose offers "Dinner for two: Starter + Main course + 2 Side dishes + Dessert + Wine or fizz" for £20. Now, that's worth considering any day! And John Lewis (the staff-owned department store) will set the table for you: "We've got everything you need to make dinner feel special this Valentine's day."

At first I thought a stay-in fancy dinner is like a stay-cation, a new type of British holiday promoted since the banking crisis started, to stay in Britain rather than go abroad for a vacation. But at least a stay-cation has the advantage of eating breakfast in someone else's house (B&B); staying home for dinner doesn't much cut it, especially if all the food is bought in.

Just cook me a nice stand-up lasagne from scratch and I'll be happy....But actually, we are going out for our Valentine's Dinner on Saturday, so I'll report back on it then.

Monday, 13 February 2012

'Morning Doves' Duo

The 'Morning Doves' at the
Shakespeare's Head, Islington
Two young women are making the rounds of pubs and clubs in London, singing guitar-accompanied harmony in beautiful, interesting voices. They visited the Shakespeare's Head in Islington Sunday night and sang a couple of songs in the Old Timey music session. I asked if they were singing professionally and they said they're just starting out, calling themselves the Morning Doves. This is a duo to keep your eyes and ears out for!

I should have asked them more questions about who they are because when I got home to google them, I couldn't find them anywhere online (definitely spelling themselves 'morning', not 'mourning'). If anyone has more information, please let me know!

Saturday, 11 February 2012

SOAS has a ceilidh band!

SOAS, the School of Oriental and African Music at the University of London, focusses its research and teaching on Africa and Asia.* Big surprise. Diaspora countries also come into focus, such as Black African communities in the Caribbean. This is particularly evident in the activities of the Music Department, recently rated the best ethnomusicology programme in the country. And it's not just British students wanting to learn about these other countries but many foreign students coming to learn about their own or other Asian and African countries.

SOAS regularly runs concerts of ethno-music, usually by visiting musicians but sometimes by their own members. A World Music Summer School is also offered (sign up now!) for learning these various music traditions. However, Ireland and Irish music are not on the agenda.

SOAS ceilidh band in action (before the trombone joined in)
So how did SOAS end up with a ceilidh (pronounced 'kay-lee') band? Ceilidhs are an Irish phenomenon that have been taken up with gusto in the university community here. The Durham University Folk Society has a ceilidh band and periodically runs ceilidhs in the Student Union building. But Irish, and British folk music in general, is so far from the remit of SOAS that it seems incongruous, but not unwelcome.

Teaching the dance moves at the SOAS ceilidh
For those of you who don't know, ceilidh dances are line dances (like the "Virginia Reel", often done at ceilidhs), square dances (like country western square dancing), circles or sets. The moves are called by a caller, and each dance can be accompanied by a set of two to four tunes played by the band. Students who play in ceilidh bands are often classically trained and then get into folk music at university; others come out of folk-music families who participate from birth. (They are really hard for beginners like me to compete with.)

So the band existence can be explained to some extent by previous exposure unrelated to what the students are studying; and besides, many band members aren't SOAS students anyway. But what about the dancers? When I was at university (granted, it was a long time ago), square and line dancing were really 'square', and you'd have to go to special folk nights to participate. That attitude is not found here. The SOAS band played squashed into the SOAS bar, where tables had to be removed and drinkers shooed into other corners. But everyone enthusiastically clapped after our first tune.

Granted, not too many people got up to dance, and by our accounting, many of the dancers were also not SOAS students – or else, they were SOAS students from foreign countries. One of the latter for sure was having a great time, he told me; I imagine this was a real "English" experience for him. So it all comes down to the attraction of the 'other', a concept in anthropology that allows us to explore and understand what isn't a part of oneself but what can surely be made into it.

* Not just South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh) that's usually meant by the term 'Asia' in Britain, but also western, eastern, and southeastern Asia.

Friday, 10 February 2012

"The Floating Palace" at the Barbican: featuring Martin and Eliza Carthy

One of the golden rules states that "If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all". But where would we be without restaurant, book, and theatre critics? Wednesday night we went to hear a folk roots performance at the Barbican entitled "The Floating Palace". I didn't enjoy the 'performance' much, and my partner simply said, "Well, I know more about what Nu Folk is now."

Martin Carthy and gang at the Barbican
The music was reasonable; I must say that the audience was extremely enthusiastic and cheered the performers into a second encore. But it went by me, I'm afraid. Three nondescript, nice, flowing, laid-back songs began the concert; good sounds but I couldn't understand any of the lyrics (and not just because I'm not British: two of the performers were from the USA). These were followed by an American song, a Morris dance tune, and an English folk song; equally, the lyrics were near-unintelligible. Martin Carthy did his usual excellent guitar picking with interesting syncopation and driving bass, and it was nice to hear him and his daughter Eliza do a duet.

But the performance was marred by an unprofessional patter (really terrible repartée), half of which couldn't be heard because they were talking off-mike (but the front rows laughed). Also, they fiddled with their instruments a lot (and I don't mean fiddling), seemingly launched into songs hesitantly, and two of the pieces definitely didn't hang together. They joked that they had just learned some pieces, and it sounded like it. I still don't know what the reference to "floating palace" mean.

In addition to the Carthys, the mainstays were Robyn Hitchcock, KT Tunstall, Krystle Warren and Howe Gelb, with a guest performer towards the end who was inadequately introduced and said he "didn't know I was going to sing this song". So all in all, though the individual musicians were all skilled and often moving singers and players and well known in their worlds, the show didn't hang together. It was more like visiting a practice session, not a 'performance'.  At least the sound desk was on stage to the right (see photo) instead of in the middle of the audience as at the South Bank Queen Elizabeth Hall.

Thursday, 9 February 2012

The Hajj exhibition at the British Musem

One of the perks of being a Friend of the British Museum is getting to see special exhibitions for free. We took advantage of this to see the current exhibition on the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca). It was a great exhibition in many ways: lots of panel explanations to set items in historical context, both objects and documents on exhibit, testimonials from British people who have accomplished the Hajj, and an interesting geographical approach that led one through the main pilgrimage routes to Mecca – from the rest of Arabia and the Middle East, from eastern Eurasia/Indonesia, and of course Britain.

I was particularly impressed by the aerial photographs and aerial video of Al Haram, the "mosque" containing the Kaaba, the holiest shrine of Islam. First, contrary to our usual visual impressions of mosques, this one is a huge flat building surrounding an open courtyard in whose center sits the Kaaba. Second, circumambulation (7 times counter-clockwise) takes place not only in the courtyard around the Kaaba but on the flat roofed building surrounding it. Third, the video does time-lapse photography that shows circumambulation as a galactic spiral, much like the opening part of the YouTube video of a new vision for Al Haram in 2020.

However, visiting this exhibit in particular, I realize the dire need for a new dedicated temporary exhibition room at the British Museum. The current ones are held in the old Reading Room of the Museum, under the central dome. The walls are still lined with leather-bound books from floor to ceiling, but for the Hajj exhibition an internal wall was built in front of the library wall. This meant that upon entry, one had to squeeze along a passageway between the books and that internal wall before making one's way up an temporary internal staircase to access the elevated exhibit floor. All very jury-rigged and artificial. But once there, the Reading Room dome made for an appropriate ceiling, giving the feeling one was in a mosque oneself.

British Museum extension work on Montague Place with
construction site office placed over the street!
The new exhibit room is in the making! At the northwest corner of the Museum, construction is going on that will provide temporary exhibition space in a dedicated room, together with multitudes of space for artefact conservation and scientific analyses, object storage and study rooms, as well as biodiversity and sustainability (i.e. plants on the roof). You can follow the construction (due to be completed at the end of 2013) on the BM's* New Centre website.

* As an American, I always have trouble referring to the British Museum by its initials. But that's the way it's done here! Sorry, folks....

Monday, 6 February 2012

Anyone else cold out there?'s 3 degrees out (C) and we sat there in an unheated station waiting area, nursing coffees while waiting for our train, and then sat on a train that was blowing cold air through the venting system. Even the locals were bundled up and complaining:

Send Us Your TXT, in the Metro this morning:
"Can someone please explain what exactly we are paying increased rail fares for when the train companies won't turn the heating on when it's minus five outside?"  Shivering, Liverpool

Why is it that warm heating is still such a luxury here?

Watching the train monitor in a cold train
station waiting area
Now back in the days of coal fires (when we first came to England), it was understood that if you moved out of the room, the rest of the house was unheated. Central heating didn't become a standard option till the mid-1980s, and believe me, we put ours in fast!

But not having grown up here and been exposed on a regular basis to cold rooms, rainy soccer days outside, short skirts/trousers in the winter – believe me also that we still haven't acclimatised (but I did spell it with an 's', so that's something).

You will never see me on the street going to a winter event in a mini-skirt, spaghetti strap top, and no coat. I mean, I can't even wear such an outfit in the "heat" of summer here. In our college town, you can spot town from gown immediately: even English from other areas don't undress like their Durham/Newcastle counterparts. Coats, scarves and gloves are the order of the day. That suits me just fine!