FairTrade thoughts

The talk at St Lukes this morning was an introduction to FairTrade by Geoff Crawford – a fantastic photographer who has visited loads of fairtrade projects and co-operatives around the globe in his role as photomonkey for various aid agencies and fairtrade associations. He pitched the talk perfectly, and kept it to his central theme, which was about the difference that buying fairtrade produce makes to the people who make or grow it, how buying fairtrade coffee directly impacts the lives of coffee growers, and he gave some good pointers for people wanting to start thinking about such things, as well as lists of coffeeshops that stock fairtrade coffee and supermarkets that stock fairtrade produce.

It’s a discussion that could easily have been derailed by some very valid other discussions, about supermarket monopolies, fairtrade imported goods vs the food-miles argument of how far something has to travel to end up on your plate and the damage that transport process does, etc. Those are really important subjects, but a 20 minute talk in a church service wasn’t the place to have them.

What he also avoided was the notion of boycotts – with labeling it as such, he took the same path that I’ve been thinking about in regard to shopping of late – that of seeing everything you buy as an investment.

The problem with thinking of boycotts is that the surface value expressed in the action is that of damaging the profits of the company you’re boycotting. There have been notable examples of this working and starting to affect company policy… or at least marketing policy – Shell oil, Barclays bank and Nestle have all at times taken a major hit through boycotts, and have altered as a result. Not enough, but any stretch, but the change was noted.

The problem is, there are millions of companies who don’t behave the way we’d like them to – Naomi Klein’s vital and fantastic book No Logo highlighted corporate abuses around the world, and looked at the idea of using brand image as a weakspot in their armour. It works, she’s really onto something. But what she’s describing is activism – that’s something we all need to do, but it’s tough to fight every battle.

So what’s the alternative? When we realise that every single penny we spend is investing in something, we can start to think, on a day by day basic about what we’re investing in. I don’t have to see a change for it to have value. I don’t need to feel like everyone else is doing the same thing, I just need to know that the two pounds I spend on fairtrade Bananas is being divided up amongst people who are involved in the ongoing work of improving the world. The producers are improving their own world, providing better healthcare and schooling within their communities, the importers and distributors are people that have chosen to work within the rules of the fairtrade foundation, in order to further those aims. My money is being invested into the long term sustainability and growth of the fairtrade movement. The fact that Del Monte or Fyffes or whoever isn’t getting my money is an added bonus, the direct inspiration comes from that direct investment.

The next stage is thinking about where I buy them from – obviously part of the money goes to the retailer. Shopping in the UK without going to supermarkets is pretty tough in most places, and we go to Sainsbury’s for a fair bit of our grocery shopping – it’d be great if there was a branch of Fresh And Wild on southgate high street, but all we have is a tiny health food store – he’s great for herbal tea, muesli, cleaning products, tinned stuffs, etc. and we buy as much there as we can, but he doesn’t stock fruit and veg. So for now we go to Sainbury’s, but as much fair trade organic stuff as we can. But soon we’ll get our organic box scheme sorted out, then it’ll be organic, fair trade and v. low on food-miles. Yay – ecomonkeys are us.

So, try it – go for positive investment, not guilt-trip boycotts. Either way, it means you’ll never go to McDonalds again, which has to be a good thing.

Soundtrack – me and theo, live in Cambridge last week. sounding good!

'Particularly Recommended'

Nice to see in this morning’s Time Out that tonight’s Recycle Collective gig gets the ‘particularly recommended’ red star of approval. I always feel that what I do operates in some strange realm where audiences love it and the press are never going to be interested, so even getting little things like this cheers me up immensely.

It also means that you really ought to be there. No excuses (except maybe living in another country. unless it’s Wales, that’s near enough)

SoundtrackThe Works, ‘Beware Of the Dog’.

Looperlative is back again!

My Looperlative arrived back today, fixed from my having ballsed it up last time, and with a software upgrade.

So I’ve been experimenting, and used it while teaching. I’m getting the hang of the way it operates, and am still compiling my list of things I’d like it to do – the great thing about it having the ethernet port on the back is that bob can keep the list, implement the list in order of how important the modification is or how easy it is (I think some of the things I’ve suggested are going to be very easy indeed for a man with Bob’s wikkid skillz, while others are going to take some more complex programming…) I’ve also not hit on any bugs in the software as it stands, which is a great sign. I’m still getting used to the specific things that it can/can’t do at the moment, and what the workarounds are for the things I’m used to doing on the EDP.

It’s interesting how different bits of musical equipment reflect both the personality and preferences of their inventor – the Echoplex is very much Matthias Grob’s vision, and the way it operates is clearly derived from his musical world-view. The looperlative reflects Bob’s background, which thankfully looping-wise features a lot of me. :o) So the controls and way it works makes loads of sense to me already. The feeling of this only being the tip of the looperlative iceberg is pretty big though. The possibilities are enormous.

Anyway, enough blogging, more looping! This looping in stereo lark is amazing – just been playing a version ‘Highway 1’ from Not Dancing For Chicken, and for the first time ever I’m able to loop the sparkly bit at the beginning in stereo, so that ping-pong delay keeps ping-ponging all the way through… :o)


ah, now I remember what I was going to talk about WRT Springer the Opera!

It’s the news story that Woolworths and Sainsbury’s have refused to stock the DVD. How ridiculous is this?? Both shops have no ethical trading policy that I’m aware of, and as Stewart Lee pointed out on the radio, both will receive far more calls to stop stocking Nestle or Proctor And Gamble products, but won’t do that because that’s about money. It’s a marketing balls-up, and just highlights the double standards of the big chainstores…

However, what it will also do is give a whole load of publicity to the DVD release of the show. After the loons at Christian Voice protested the stage show, attendance went up, when they complained about the TV show, it broke broadcasting records, hopefully the same will happen with the DVD…

When will these minority interest groups get their heads around the notion that picketing and complaining about stuff just gives it publicity. The same thing happened with ‘the Last Temptation of Christ’ – not, I’m told, a particularly good film, but a box office smash thanks to a bunch of well meaning complainers who made it a front page news item when it came out.

Right, so my next album is going to be called ‘all religions can kiss my arse… and atheists can piss off as well.’ With track title targeting each of them in turn. Hopefully I’ll get banned and sell a million.

art vs totalitarian religion

I’ve just been listening to a fascinating interview with comedian Stewart Lee, on BBC Radio London – Stuart is the writer of Jerry Springer The Opera, a stage show that had a hugely successful run in the west end and then became the biggest watched opera or music in the BBC’s history when it was shown on TV. It also racked up 67,000 complaints from lots of people who hadn’t seen it and probably wouldn’t have understood it if they had.

The controversy arose from the supposed depiction of Jesus in the show – Jesus being a guest on the Springer Show, dressed as a baby. So the show was accused by a few people of blasphemy, and as the church loves a good scandal, an email campaign was started which lead to tens of thousands of complaints to the beeb and threats to the writers and members of the cast (oh yes, how marvelously Christ-like).

Anyway, Stuart on the radio made a very apposite observation, the the effect that ‘Good art is about questioning everything and then leaving those questions open to the interpretation of the audience. Bad or repressive religion is about absolutes and certainties’.

Which is true – I’ve been around a few repressive religious scenarios where questions and doubting were seen as dissent of the worst kind, and blind faith was encouraged. If you’ve got a question, just ask the leaders and believe their response, however bizarre it may be.

Conversely, I’ve also been around a lot of good people of faith, people who see the life of faith as a journey not a destination, one on which we have to constantly reassess our take on things, to question everything, to leave ourselves open to questioning and scrutiny, and keep searching, open to the possibility that we might be wrong. And I’ve met people like that from a whole range of faith traditions, be they christian, jewish, muslim, hindu, buddhist or agnostic/athiest. Whatever it is that you place your faith in has to be tested and questioned.

Which is where art like Jerry Springer The Opera comes in – satire is a very powerful tool in asking questions, a great way to expose elements of belief systems that require exposing, and should be a debate starter not a debate crusher. One of my favourites of late is the Church Of The Flying Spaghetti Monster – a spoof religion set up to counter the decision of the Kansas School Board’s decision to teach 7 day creationism as the alternative to Darwinian evolution. It’s hilarious, both as a pastiche of religions in general, and in its treatment of its main target.

The problem, of course, is that you end up in a situation where the two camps are polarised and the more mystical middle ground is ignored – either you believe that the world is 4000 years old, and God is the supreme bull-shitter who made the world look like it was a lot older just so he could send a load of people to hell, or you reject any notion of there being a creator who was involved in the development of the universe. The evidence for evolution in the trad darwinian sense does have a few gaps in it, but is nowhere near as impossible to grasp as the notion that the world was made 4000 years ago! But neither are where my head is at. I don’t see Genesis 1 and 2 as supporting a literalist interpretation of the jewish creation myth, but neither do I think that all of this could happen by accident.

Ultimately, if your faith in either god or there being no god is reliant on the veracity of the jewish creation myth, you really need to get out more…

Anyway, back to Springer the Opera… So they are off on tour – I’m told the show isn’t actually all that good, but I still really want to see it to support people who are asking questions, to have my own faith challenged and see where the answers sit. I missed the west end run, sadly, but will see what I can do to get to the stage show. And if I’m offended, so be it – it does us good once in a while to have our sensibilities scandalised. I can’t quite imagine what could be in it that would offend me though…

'yeah, I listen to everything'

the daftest answer ever to the question ‘what music do you like?’ – it crops up a lot on MySpace – people who write under their music preferences ‘everything’ or ‘all kinds of music’. That’s rubbish.

I’ve got pretty extensive taste, but I dislike MOST music… There are literally millions of bands in the world. There are probably a few thousand that I quite like, and a few hundred that rock my world. A few dozen that have changed my life. That’s a pretty poor percentage. The thing that makes special music special is that we have to track it down. We look for it, we feel great not only because of what it is, but what it represents.

If I loved all music, it’d be like air. I don’t have favourite air. I might notice the sea air as being particularly bracing, but I don’t get bags of it shipped in, I don’t trawl ebay looking for Berwick on Tweed air just because it reminds me of my childhood. No, because all air is equally fantastic. Air is an amazing thing. It keeps me alive, I’d be very dead without it, and can’t say enough nice things about it. But it isn’t ‘special’.

Great music isn’t like air. There is a lot of great music out there, but you have to hunt for it. It’s rare that a major record label releases anything ‘great’. They often spoil potentially great things by sticking their lame-assed focus-group-led coked-up-executive-with-no-clue oar into the discussion, but they rarely let genuinely great records get through. That’s what makes Hejira so special. Or Songs In the Key Of Life, Plumb, Steve McQueen, Nothing But A Burning Light – they are amazing records on major labels. Extra kudos to Joni, Stevie, Jonatha, Prefab Sprout and Bruce for managing to get past the ‘hmm better make it a bit more shit just to make sure it gets on the radio’ moment…

So stop pretending that you’re into everything, or that you like ‘most music’ You don’t! You probably don’t even like the best of most styles of music – it takes a fairly broad set of ears to deal with the, um, idiosyncratic intonation of Chinese Opera, Tuvan throat singing, Tibetan Chanting, Ana music, or even Tom Waits at his most weird.

If you’re in a band, the likelihood is that it’s not going to rock my world. That’s not your fault, it’s just the law of averages. It shouldn’t stop you sending your CD out to people – I send mine out to all manner of people, safe in the knowledge that it’s not going to blow all of their minds. I hope some of them dig it, and am particularly grateful when people who aren’t already friends email me to say they really dig what I do. Last night, I got a text message from the lovely Jane who was listening to Grace And Gratitude and it was helping her out at the end of a tough day. A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a soldier who said it helped him through the tough time telling his folks that he had to go to Iraq. that stuff is worth a thousand people saying ‘yeah, I quite like your CD’.

It’s OK to not be blown away by everything, and people who don’t like your music aren’t losers with no taste. But remember to cherish everyone who is touched by what you do – it’s a huge privilege to be able to help soundtrack memorable times in people’s lives, whether it’s music that helps them celebrate, or comforts them in dark times, or just fits the occasion – one of my proudest musical moments is when a friend of mine took my CD in to be played while she was giving birth!

Let people know if their music means something to you – that’s one of the great things about having a blog; being able to big up great music, to get the word out about fab stuff that’s out there, the things that move me. And more often that not, the artists will find it while vanity searching, and drop me an email, which is always fun.

Cherish great music – it’s an honour not a birth-right.

Soundtrack – Iona, ‘Beyond These Shores’.

Two important anniversaries

Today is an important day for two reasons – one, it’s World AIDS day, and two, it’s the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ monumental decision to not move on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. Don’t let either of these days go unmarked in your world.

For World AIDS day, do some research into what’s causing the spread of AIDS, the places in the world where its growing fastest, and how hard it is for them to get the medication they need. Petition your elected officials to do more to fund education initiatives in the places where it’s an epidemic. In Botswana, 30% of children born have the HIV virus. 30%!!!! that’s an inconceivable statistic. The stats on the spread of AIDS across Africa are terrifying, and it’s still rolling on, there are still squabbles over drugs companies refusing licenses to produce the drugs cheaply to keep people alive, still squabbles over Catholic leaders telling men infected with HIV/AIDS not to use condoms to protect their wives – look, I’m generally fairly old fashioned, i think abstinence is generally a good idea – very few people are messed up by not having enough sex – but the idea that limiting access to contraception is more important that protecting people from the AIDS virus is ludicrous. That there are religious and cultural stigmas attached to condom useage across huge parts of the world is a travesty, and one that needs to be campaigned against virulently.

What can we do today to help stem the spread of HIV/AIDS? Check out the DATA website for more info, and ways to help.

And on the anniversary of the bus boycott, let’s not forget that Racism still exists, that Europe is becoming an evermore xenophobic continent, that an unofficial economic colour bar still operates in the US. Today, two Liverpool teenagers are going on trial for murdering a young black guy with an ice axe. That such thinking still exists in Britain today is a tragedy. That racism was ever legal in the UK,US, South Africa, etc. is a blot on all of our consciences.

I was watching a documentary the other evening about forgotten stories from the world war. One of the people mentioned was Walter Tull, who was Britian’s second black professional footballer, and first Black army officer. The tragedy of this is that at the time it was still illegal for a Black man to be an officer in the forces. That he triumphed over the racism is testimony to Walter’s strength of character (he was also from a working class background at a time when the officer’s rank was almost exclusively upper class, with a few middle class people), but it’s a disgrace to the forces that we ever had a time when people were excluded on grounds of race…

Heavy stuff, both AIDS/HIV awareness and racism, I know, but if you’re lucky enough to live a life not directly influenced by either, give thanks and use your oh so privileged position to make a change for those not so lucky…

Soundtrack – Peter Gabriel, ‘Up’.

from bad to worse

We were hoping for the best while preparing ourselves for the worst. And got the worst.

According to our lovely vet, the tumor is too big to operate, and anyway the fairly aged feline has got fluid on his lungs that mean they couldn’t put him under the anesthetic. So pretty much as bad as the situation could be.

He’s going on chemo to see if it will reduce the size of the tumor to the point where it’ll be operable, and also he’s being treated for the lung thing, so that if it does shrink they’ll be able to do the operation. But all in, the future doesn’t look that bright for the furry ginger one.

And we’re heartbroken. After the pain of losing The Aged Feline just over a year ago, we thought we’d have these two for years and years to come – they’ve settled in fantastically well, and become a vital part of the life of the house, having their own routines that we have to fit round, and their own novel ways of communicating. the tiny ginger one had a few delightful idiosyncrasies and was one of the clingiest cuddliest cats I’ve ever come across, never happier than being bundled up in someone’s arms for a big cuddle.

So we’re still hoping for that miracle, hoping that the chemo will work better than it ever has before, hoping that our genius vet can remove the tumour, and that our little guy will have years of happy life left. But it’s really not looking likely at all.

Soundtrack – Prefab Sprout, ‘Steve McQueen’.

a Last.fm experiment

So, while I’m waiting for the washing machine (newly fixed) to finish its cycle so I can hang the washing, I thought I’d try skipping through 20 tracks on the ‘similar artists’ radio station for me on Last.fm – here’s the list:

1. Mike Watt – Heartbeat (Ball Hog or Tugboat?)
2. Ginger Baker Trio – Rambler (Going Back Home)
3. Roy Budd – No Co-Operation (Buddism)
4. Haden/Metheny – Two For The Road (Beyond The Missouri Sky
5. Randy Crawford – Secret Combination (The Very Best)
6. Elza Soares – Deixa a Negra Gingar
7. Sheila Chandra – Nana/The Dreaming (Weaving My Ancestors Voices)
8. Marcus Miller – The Blues (Tales)
9. Bob Mould – Megamanic (the Last Dog And Pony Show)
10. Show Of Hands – Yankee Clipper (Live)
11. Truby Trio – New Music (Elevator Music)
12 (someone chinese, in chinese writing)??
13. Denison Witmer – These Days (Recovered)
14. Level 42 – Talking In Your Sleep (Forever Now)
15. Terry Callier – 4 Miles (Lifetime)
16. Zakir Hussain – Tabal Solo In Teentaal (Festival Of Indian Music: Roma)
17. Incognito – Listen To the Music (Nortern Jazz – Southern Soul)
18. Goodbye Mr Mackenzie – Goodwill City (Love Child EP)
19. Lies Damned Lies – Only You (Lonely Together)
20. Senser – Return To Zombie Island (Schematic)

Is that close? it’s definitely swayed by who has uploaded music and who hasn’t (every time a Level 42 track comes up, it’s always from ‘Forever Now’, so that’s obviously the only album of their up there) – hopefully this will be an incentive to indie peoples to get their music uploaded there for the radio listeners to get familiar with (Andrew H, Trip, Buck, Manthing, Big Buzzard and any of you other indie peoples reading this – get your music uploaded! Email me if you need a hand…)

Right, washing machine has finished…

Some thoughts about Eric

I first heard of Eric when he was teaching at the Musicians Institute, when it was above the Bass Centre in Wapping. I’d seen his name on their literature, and had various people come up to me to tell me about this amazing guitarist they’d heard. Not long after that (late 90s, I guess?) I heard him play at a trade show, doing his arrangement of ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ (bassline, chords, melody ‘n’ everything on acoustic guitar, and managing to not make it sound like a gimmick) – it was obvious from that that he was an amazing musician, but trade shows back then for me were a blur of running from one Bassist mag event to another, demoing gear (like Eric) or doing on-stage interviews with the various celeb bassists that had been booked (without any thought for what they might do when they got there).

It was quite a few years before I got to meet Eric properly – he turned up at a gig of mine in California, with our mutual friend Thomas Leeb – I’d met Thomas through Ashdown and he’d been telling me loads about Eric as well. We chatted briefly at the gig. We met up again a couple of months later at another music trade show in London, where Eric was feeling pretty rough, but we spent more time talking. We pretty much instantly hit it off, as we were in a similar place – solo players who taught and wrote for magazines. About a week later I found out that Eric had be diagnosed with Cancer for the first time. No wonder he was feeling rough at the show.

Very soon after that, Muriel Anderson was coming over for some gigs, and she knew Eric from booking him for her All-star guitar night at NAMM, so the two of us went up to see him. The conversation at Eric’s house that day was the one that showed me what a strong character he was – he talked with great honesty about his hopes and fears following the diagnosis, his concern for his family (his partner, Candy, was pregnant with their second child when the first diagnosis came through) and the way it had made him focus on what was important in life.

We swapped CDs, and it was clear from listening to his latest album, With These Hands, that that depth of thought was already there when making the record. It’s a beautiful record, moving in parts, funny in others – the guitar playing is outstanding, but the music and Eric soul shine through. (later on he told me that he had me in mind for one of the tracks on the record – Deep Deep Down – but producer Martin Taylor wanted to keep it all solo. Listening to the end result, I agree with Martin, though it will be a source of eternal regret that Eric and I never recorded together).

After that we kept in touch via email, text and phone calls as his treatment progressed, through the hell of radiotherapy to the joyous news of his first ‘all clear’. After that came plans for a tour together, recordings, all the usual muso stuff – none of it felt urgent, Eric was well again, and we had plenty of time for that.

Met up again at the birmingham music show in November – Eric was not long out of radiotherapy but was playing so well (the version of Bushwhacker – an anti-GWB track – was incredible). After the gig we were chatting and mucking around while Eric signed things, and one guy came up and said ‘what would you say if I asked you to sign this?’ to which Eric replied in his dry caustic way ‘I’d tell you to fuck off’. The reply from the guy (clearly phased by this) was ‘I’ve been praying for you’ – Eric then recognised the guy, who he’d met before, and was mortally embarassed that he’d offended the guy, even in a joke. He’d commented before about how moving it had been for him when people who knew he was ill came to pray for him after gigs. Eric was a Buddhist, and a seeker after truth – that was another connection we had, music with a spiritual meaning.

He came to see me play in Colchester with Michael Manring a couple of weeks after the Music Show. I was so pleased to be able to tell the crowd they should buy his CDs, to put him in touch with the guys running CAMM – a local college where he could have started teaching again (he’d been head of guitar at the ACM in Guildford, but living in Cambridgeshire, the drive was beyond him now), to introduce him to the venue for a possible gig.

NAMM in Anaheim this last January was the last time I saw Eric, and it’s another huge regret of mine that I didn’t spend enough time with him there. I spent AGES dragging everyone I knew to come and see him play – he was on a punishing demo schedule for Avalon guitars, playing on the hour every hour, and I must’ve watched him play 20 times over the weekend, but we spent nowhere near enough time talking. I introduced him to friends, made everyone I knew stop by the stand to hear him. He was playing well, though as usual at tradeshows, he was amplified and cranking the top end just to cut through the hubbub of the hall.

When I heard that Eric’s cancer was back, and was inoperable, I couldn’t believe it – Eric, strong, spiritual, clean-living, had beaten it. Surely that was it? The conversation where he told me about it, where it had spread to, what the docs had said was one of the saddest phone conversations I’ve ever had. But he was still so positive. Scared, worried for his family, desperate to keep playing and meet his gig commitments.

Our jam never happened, nor the gigs, nor the recording. I’ll forever be thinking what it would’ve sounded like. We had very similar ideas about the purpose of music, about why we did what we did.

All in, I didn’t spend that much time with Eric. Nowhere near enough. His impact on me was huge, due to his beautiful music and his inner strength when facing his illness. He was an inspiration, and I was really pleased to be able to play my tune for him each night at the Edinburgh festival, pointing people to his website and recommending his music. It made me even more pleased that it was most people’s favourite tune on the gig. He never got to hear it.

I’ll miss him, I’ll miss the possibility of him and I’ll regret that we didn’t know eachother better. He left behind three CDs and a live DVD (I need to get the DVD) – the first two CDs are really good, but it’s With These Hands that is his masterpiece. It’s beautiful. Deep Deep Down is one of the most beautiful instrumentals I’ve ever heard. That he thought of having me play on it is one of the biggest compliments I’ve ever been paid as a musician.

Go and buy his CDs. Please. You’ll get some amazing music, his family will get the money. I can’t imagine what his family are going through now. My thoughts are with them – no matter how much the sense of loss that one has for a friend and musical inspiration, it’s not even close to the pain of losing a husband/dad/brother/son.

Rest in Peace, Eric. Thanks for the inspiration.

Soundtrack – Eric Roche, ‘Spin’.


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