ON THE FERRY, ON THE WATER…AFRICAN STYLE

ON THE FERRY ON THE WATER shot 1

[The Block Island Ferry, leaving Old Town Harbor, in the fog with a rainbow.]

TO HEAR “ON THE WATER” CLICK HERE.

Yesterday as I walked outside I heard a bird I haven’t heard since last Spring. This particular bird sings a wistful yet hopeful two-note song that dips down in an interval of either a major second, or a minor third “dee dee…..dee dee-dee”. I usually hear this bird (high up in the trees, never visible) in mid-April so it was especially exciting and hopeful to hear this sound in the middle of February. It is the mating call of the male black-capped chickadee.

He is impatient with Winter. I know I am. I am ready for that change in the air and the earth, when the branches of those bushes grow bright red, when the first snowdrops and bluets appear in the yard, and when those early Spring birds start singing again.

To hear and see the male black-capped chickadee announcing Spring CLICK HERE.

Suddenly those cold dark Winter days, hidden back in the forests buried with several feet of snow, seem like they never happened. The angle of the earth turns on it’s axis slightly, the sun shines into all the dark spaces of your heart and everything is possible again.

As far back as I can remember, I have imagined the months of the year as a very definitely shape. It is a flattened circle, an ellipse, with the months drawn as segments almost like the rectangular properties on a Monopoly board, except that it is not square, it is oval, turned on its side. I can view the year from above, or step into a month at any point and look around. And each month (like the days of the week, for me, too) have a definite colour. Now, on that egg-shaped calendar in my mind, I am standing on the last weeks of February, which are a cold light blue, staring down into the first weeks of March, which have the faintest hint of red, like the hazy rouge of tree buds on a hill, seen from a mile away.

CARDINAL IN BUSH copy

[Cardinal in a bush in our backyard.]

As I feel and hear the faint promise of Spring today, I remembered a song I wrote in the early 80’s called “On The Water”. With this song I wanted to express the joy of the warm weather finally returning, and for the story of the song I thought of the the many ferry boat rides I had taken to Block Island and Martha’s Vineyard.

I decided to use an African influence for the music.

A bit of history: In the early 70’s I had studied West African drumming with John Miller Chernoff, who was at that time finishing his doctoral thesis at the Hartford Seminary. He later published it as the book “African Rhythm and African Sensibility” (University Of Chicago Press, 1979). He also collaborated with Talking Heads’ David Byrne on dancer Twyla Tharpe’s 1981 piece “The Catherine Wheel”. John had returned from one of his trips to Ghana with about twenty African instruments: drums, sticks, bells and gourd shakers. Over the course of six months, I learned different drum parts for various beats.

One in particular that I loved was a drum and dance style called Gahu, a Ewe dance from Ghana, that developed into a lively social music. The different elements were the two-tone bell called a gankogui, the gourd shaker called an axatse, a low drum called the sogo, and two other drums called the kidi and kagan. The master drum, the atsimewu, leads the conversation and shows everyone, including the dancers, when to change.

I became fairy fluent in the gankogui, kidi and kagan. The gankogui kept the time of the different dances, and had set repeating beats. The kagan plays a repetitive two-note pattern on what westerners would call the “off” beat, and the kidi plays a variety of rhythmic patterns that you’re allowed to be a little free with, as long as you hit certain key beats. The overall effect of all these drums, bells and shakers is hypnotic. Agbekor had a slow and fast version. The slow version was incredibly funky and sensuous, like a big fat undulating snake. Playing the fast versions was like riding giant waves in the ocean. Everybody has their role and has to keep it steady for the whole thing to work.  If somebody messes up, especially when you’re all playing the fast version, it feels like you’re toppling off the crest of that big wave. Then the whole train caves in on itself and derails. The trick is to not let that happen, and that takes a lot of practice.

The Gahu groove seemed the perfect ebullient style for this song.  I recorded it at the 19 Recording Studio in South Glastonbury, Connecticut, with my good friend Ron Scalise, who engineered and produced most of my music from the mid 70’s, including my self titled album in 1981. I asked him to program a Linn Drum (remember those?) to repeat a high hat and tom tom two-bar phrase, and against that I added myself on marimba, congas and agogô bell. I had guitarist Tom Majesky playing an African “dry guitar” style of West Africa, as well as chording in his inimitable way. (It’s called dry guitar because it uses no amps. This style originates from one or two guys sitting by the road jamming away, with a percussion accompaniment of people hitting Fanta soda bottles.) Bassist David Stoltz provided the nimble and funky bottom and I sang all the vocals.

The result was this slightly Americanized, African-influenced recording, which, I hope, captures that joy of being on a boat, headed to an island where the earth is just beginning to explode into being again.

It’s coming. It’s just around the corner of this snowdrift…

LYRICS:

Last night she and I went to a movie
but it was real slow
when we walked out it was April
in the air and the town below
the yards were growing flowers
and bay was full of boats
the Spring was waiting for us
our hearts were full of notes

On the ferry, on the water
in the moonlight you and me
gets so misty in the morning
on the cliff out by the sea

We went down through the steep streets
and we went out on the quay
the harbor lights were shining
and that lighthouse lit the bay
we got a cup of coffee
in the hotel by the sand
waiting for that early ferry
to go to some other land

On the ferry, on the water
in the sunlight you and me
with the gulls our hearts are soaring
to the island in the sea

When we got there it was morning
and the sun was shining strong
‘course you can go, I want to go
come on now, let’s go where the seagulls go
I want to go tonight with you
to the fields and the beaches
where the sand and seashells lay
everything is waiting for us
so glad to be away

On the ferry, on the water
in the moonlight you and me
gets so misty in the morning
on the cliff out by the sea
on the ferry, on the water
in the sunlight you and me
with the gulls our hearts are soaring
to the island in the sea

© 1984, 2009 by Swamp Yankee Music/ASCAP

VIEW OF MOUNTAINS, SHORE AND SAILBOART FROM FERRY DECK

[View from the deck of the BC Nanaimo Ferry on the way to Vancouver Island.]

 

2 thoughts on “ON THE FERRY, ON THE WATER…AFRICAN STYLE

  1. Wow! Thanks, I’m really learning stuff today! A beautiful spring greeting as well as beautiful photos. I think Connecticut must be a great place to live. (I must confess I suffer from a lifelong love affair with the entire planet.) I also wanted to make a point of thanking you for your SoundCloud links because unless I have a link to follow, SoundCloud will not integrate with TTS or speech typing. It is a SoundCloud glitch.
    After listening to this terrific song I can’t help but think about the glorious Miriam Makeba, Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke. I also liked the open-chord ending.
    You are, indeed, a poet and musician. Thanks again!

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