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The Writers Block - with Ron Knight
The Writers Block - with Ron Knight

Episode · 7 months ago

The Magic Box

ABOUT THIS EPISODE

What is the brilliance and meaning of The Magic Box? Reflecting on the story of the first guitar brought into an African village in the homeland, renown Classical Guitarist John Williams shares his story behind "The Magic Box" on Sony Classical. The piece works as tribute to the impact of Francis Bebey, awarded journalist, as the Cameroonian-born writer, author, guitarist, and composer, was also one of the best-known singer-songwriters of Africa. While the gramophone may have a needle in the past, the work moves the needle between Classical Music in the western traditions, while making room for the UNESCO honored author, surveyor of African Heritage and authority of African traditional music. 

Angood Day to you all, this is rownight en with me today. The classical Guitaris John Williams, who werepleased to have with us and, of course, has graced many of symphony hall andtoday will be focusing on his release the magic box on Sony classical welcome,John. How are you terrific thanks? Yep Is Goo Good Toti thanks thanks forjoining us, John Williams, you have been ranked in the top level ofperformers of classcol guitar for over thirty years. What prompted you toexplore indigenous cultures and, in particular, world music? Well, there's!NO POINT OF DEPARTURE! Really! You know it's once I've digress here, a little bit onPurposeas, my father had changed his whole life once that he turned frommusic to trying to the conservation. As for monkeys and people used to ask him thatquestion, you know, when did you suddenly decide to do this and he saidwell, you know I woke up at thre ndfifteen a am one morning and I sortof suddenly sort of thought. That's it that's! What I'mgoing to do I'm going to devote the rest of my life to monkeys and he saidwell, of course it doesn't start like that and sorry to digress in that way.But Y, U O it's very difficult to say when you're, a guitarist as I am, theguitar belongs in so many different musical cultures and if you're like Iam if you live in London and you're, surrounded with so much music, not justguitar music, obviously but music, that involves guitar from other diffrtmusical cultures, obviously jazz being one of them. But it's also everythingelse. That's going on round about you, I always say you'd have to be some sortof antisocial idiot for some of it not to rub off. So it's not a question thatI at any point suddenly become interested in other musical cultures ismy different interests in, I suppose,...

...just other other people and culturesand and and the world even politics. You know if, when I first got really interested inGreek, music was wet the Greek dictatorship in t as whenyou know a lot of Greeks were living in London and I met them and startedplaying music with them, and then I ended up doing an album oftheaterarchus music with the Great Maria Farand Dury. Likewise, with theINTILAMANI, the chilion group, they were exiled during the Pinoshit yearsin Rome and lived in they living back in Chilinow, of course, but you knowthey used to come to London thereuse to be concerts, support groups for thefamilies of the disappeared. You know prisoners disappeared, children and also you know, victims,families, that's sort of thing, and so that's when I really got apart fromhaving the odd record and liking chillin music, I actually got involvedin it by playing it with them. So these things you ow come from a multitude ofreasons. African music now it' just happen to be that by chance I metFrancis Beby again, having first met him in Paris about twenty years ago. Imet him again about four or five years ago. At a time when someone had askedme about doing an African CD, the record company, my record company Sonihad said, would I like to work with and they named a few people to do that, andI thought it wouldn't work in the way they suggested. So I said no, however, in thinking about it and meeting fancisbaby again I decided there was a you know, really wonderful sort of world ofmusic for me to you know that I actually would have a reason to getinvolved, W th as a performer, not just as a listener, and so I did it in myown way. That's why it took another. You know three years to do while I learned a bit about it andcollected the music from different sources, but Francis Beby was a greatinspiration and encouragement, because, when you're from outside the Cultre,now I'm not African, I'm a sort of middle class white boy living in NorthLandon. You know...

...you feel that Tho do you did you have aright to do this and he was very encouraging saying that you know ifyou're a you know, we play our music and our onway. But if that music we went our music to be part of communication tocelebrate life and to be joyful and happiness and peace. You know he was awonderful inspirational character, oh he sure was, and if you allow me justto chime injust for well here, I think perhaps you know- maybe most of ourlisteners might recognize most of your contribution in the classical fields ofmusic. But perhaps those listeners who aren't familiar with Frances baby, itmight be, you know- might do as well to explain a little bit, especiallybecause much of world and world culture and music is some ways, political innature. It might be interesting to express just for a moment. Tor Explainwho Francis Babey was, I mean I know he was a phenomenal musicologist, a writer,a composer, a filmmaker. He was UNESKO's des. You know designateddignitary to the world and ambassadory and whic culture from his homeland. Hewas a phenomenal spirit, yeah he was and he's written one of the standardtextbooks on African music is called African music of people's art, it'spublished by Laurence Hill books and it's available on Amazoncom free pladfor them ther go ahead, but I've bought dozens of copies of that to give to myfriends, which tells you all about the background to a lot of not just Africanmusic but actually the instruments and how they played and what they mean. Buthe was an extraordinary person for another reason for guitarist is because,although he was a a Virtueso on instruments like the the senser orThumpianos, we say in English or Bira in other parts of Africa, Sansa inCameroon and the pigmy flude, and is done actually CDs. Just on thoseinstruments, you know M Yo, vertes it his first instrument as a boy in th swas the classical guitar. That was his first instrument that he he took up inhis village and Cameroon, and he was first of all known to most people as asinger. Guitarist you know, and then he later went on to you know all thethings that you were you were...

...describing yeah amazing plage, so youcan imagine, for me, is a guitarist, a very important encouragement andinspiration. You know, Oh, I could imagine, especially because both oftyour almost like a mentoring relationship to find people of equal,you know fidelity and and accomplishment around the instrument tobe able to discover each other must have been quite powerful. That's right,but I mean he was always very kind about. You know me and the classicalplaying andl that sort of thing, but you know it's just that when I hear himplay guitar and his own way. I still thir's just a way of playing it way offeeling the rhythms and that and you can learn such a lot. You know now Imean, sadly, as you know, he died. Last year, N Li e say Yes, I know, and but it's Nice, that I've got all thosememories. Ive got to know him so well in the last you know four or five yearsinteresting. The course of your relationship then sounds like it wasmore involved than perhaps just music. You were able to spend some time, oh noone another. We did O absolutely yes. I mean I wish we'd had more time, becauseit's funny enough right in the middle of it he got very ill ot, not not hisfinal illness, but he had very big heart problem and he'd been ill forabout a year and it was progressing. Wasn't it it was, but then he gottotally better and that's when he he did the vocal and treck on our CD and wrote finishewriting and gonme the number which is specially for us or watand yeah, and itstarted off actually a long time ago about four five years ago as just to doit for guitar and Senser. That was his original idea, O interesting, yeah andwell. He but ther'Rei the WODS. I was going to say I mean it's such aninteresting collection of tracks that seem to be representative of a varietyof styles of African music, not only from Cameroon but also Molli andSenagal, and some of the othersright. Well, it was one of the wherries I had when putting it together was that itmight. In my you know, I really wanted to show and to share really the whatIad found out the variety and the and the and it you know just wonderfulmusic from all over Africa. You know...

...all the different colders is very, verydifferent. I mean Madig ask some of the Madagaskin songs. I like this onecalled Ombi, which we do on the CDM. beformer Ma it's a song by a guitaristRalento, singer guitarist, and it could be something if you we do it as aninstrumental, and you know it could be something outof some French borock music. You know the phrase lengths and the harmoniesand the way that the way the rhythms take their sort of gentle asymmetricway, so the variety is enormous and Isuppose the guitar music was the was was the key to the record. But as youreferred to the fact that you know it's not only gootire music, in fact,because S, there are a lot of things from cor of music of West Africa, ValeMusic, that o sort of bamboo cylindrical harp from Madagasca, there's a lot of music sort of foot for plack strings otherthan the guitar, which is very suitable for guitar. You know so yeah and Africa.It's probably keen to note had its own fair share of stringe and Plucton boadinstruments that really didn't you know there wasn't a lot of room for theguitar in the African history. Now was there there wasn't, I mean, and untilthe way you know, musical culture has crossed boundaries and countries in thelast specially is, but over the last hundred years generally know they'v theGuitar Lever. Unusually, if you compare it to the Americas, you know north andsouth and central. The Guitar never got a look in in Africa simply because Ihad so many stringed instuments of their own, whereas the Americas hadnone at all until the spenids and the Portugueseand in the case of seventeen eighteen century, thes slaves. The Africanslaves brought the instruments like the Ingoni, which iswhat the origins of the Benjo. So you know in the Americas. There wereonly whistles and drums here and there were no harmonic instruments and nopluk strined instruments at tall. So obviously the guitar had a very bigroll to play, but I think in Africa...

...only in recent times has when music hasbecome much more. You know, whenit's gone across becomes country isbecome infused, we might say it's becoming es. Well, it's just becauseyou know we've learntd so much. You know th the American blues, ND and folkmusic and country music players. Falk me a place like Pete Sgarwere, hearingthe African Guitaris than they had heard American blues and folk players.So you know you've got that sort of crossand porlination one could say pollen, culturization, Iyeah Coiin. That wordgood term. So you know it's a never ending. I mean for a guitarist and I should emphasize this even for aclassical guitars. I think that the the use and the development and ofAfrican music l should become a really main part of our repertire yeah.Excellent. Now this question that I have from you for you next is webriefly chatted before the interview is coming to you from toopes from toopsBaybay Francis is son, who some listeners may know if they followedroots world and the world music scene, and the charts is a promiece world andjazz saxophone player. That's right, Youre, Lata, CD N, this title the magicbox. Now what is the meaning of that name in particular in context tof, themusic, either from being African in nature or perhaps in conjunction withFrances right? Well, the magic box is as many meanings, both literally andspecifically, and both as a kind of symbol and, very specifically, it's thename of a piece by a piece of music by Francis Babi, a guitar piece, but it'salso exists as a song call the magic box and as a song, he is describing thearrival of in his village in t s in cameroons. As a boy arguments, the songdescribe, the arguments between the villages and different families is towhere the singer was when the first windup gramephone appeared was thesinger in the box or on the disk. Oh...

...interesting, and that's what theorigins of it Ar Utd. It's also solo, which, which kind of obviously keepsthe sort of circular harmony, is going round and round repeating almost as ifyou're getting lost forgotten, but I promise you I haven't done the on theCD and so that's the Arda. I liked it as atitle simply because it refers in that sort of subliminal way to the magic box. Theguitar itself in Ow lots of magic sounds coming out of it and also as anallegory of foand. This is mainy for classical music people, music lovers of Africa itself,because they're surprised at how many sort of wonderful musical ideas comeout of Africa. You know most classical people. Think of Africa is a lot of youknow, rhythm and Jumming, and not not a lot else. You know other people and people inJazz and the World Music sceine. Of course that's you know. That's thatdoesn't apply. They know exactly how wonderful it is, but for classicalpeople it does so. I kind of like that, meaning of it O it's a wonderfulmeaning and an interpretation and has a lot of colors. If you will to it, I dohave another question: Whoo in your tour will be filling in or playingparts that may have been associated with parts played by Francis baby onthe recording Wene. No one could you know Ibe Francisjust sings and players on that one track. End Gome, I see basically, sothat's an instrumental and we've just reredone it. Richard Harvey has learntthe Sanser enough to play that part and he also plays partly when he's notplaying that we play the that tha the on guitars. We play thethe Sampiano, the Sanza Pard on guitar when he stops playing it and he thenplays a tune on base clarinette and clarinetes, which is what he played onthe recording. So we kind of mixed it in the way so that we can keep it inthe program. We do a lot of that. I mean in the live shows which we'redoing this to in October and Wi'll be...

...back again next year, because this hasworked so well as a group, we it's much more extended than the CD, the CD it s.The usual thing you know the CDIT's fresh and when I wasits when we'regetting everything together and then once you get together on the stage youthings tend to grow and blossom, you know we've got lots of new numbers tobecause the state shows about two hours, whereas the CDs, only one out sothere's lots of other stuff. We do on the we are digital entertainment coastto coast, and it's an interesting thing, because I see that on your CD, you havehad reviews and coverage on this CD from as far as Australia and looking atthis presentation of yours, which is classical and world, and as far as thisfusion are you finding a different level of audience appreciation indifferent countries, I mean: Is it accepted on some kind of a differentlevel depending upon which country might be receiving the CD, not betweencountries? No, it's more specific, I suppose, of all the countries. Germany and Japan have been slightlyskeptical in our initial approaches, because a lot of the classicalestablishments there are very, let's call them Eurocentric. They tend tothink there's a great you know. The great classical tradition is thewill,be all an end, Al Uhhuh, but we went to we had terrific Sucessin, munic andHamburg, so we probably will now follow up,because what we've found is that sometimes, when places are a bitconservative about it, a bit worrid, they then hear the how well otherconcerts have gone and then they, then they say, Oh Wel, will you will youcome to us next year wee having a little bit of problem withJapan now? For that reason, because you know we need to get quite a tourtogether to get five people across the world, you know it's quite expensive.Yes, it Isand to keep them Awa and in Australia we had you know we had tosort of mix. We had great reception, we had mixed audiences in terms of numbers.For that same reason, although a lot of people blamed it onnine eleven and things like that, I think that's Pritt of an outworn excusenow. I think that affected audiences...

...for a few weeks, but not afterwards,yeah, and so you know, Australias had a bit of a Downto, but we did a too verysuccessful to. We were sold out in Melbourne festival and etct Ceh Etca,but I think there is that problem that some places are a bit. You know worried what it might be, butStraighteif we haven't had that problem here at all yeah. I don't- and Icertainly haven't- had the problem in England either. Have you not a problemin England either? It seems like T. Your CD has been nominated for therover album of the year in the two thousand and two classical Brit awards.Now what sounds great? It sounds wonderful. What what is ha? What arethese words? Yes, you might well ask it's a listeners politay from ClassicFM, which is the sort of classical the more popular. It's not a crossoverstation, but it's sort of classical popular station and very very widelylistened to and it's o. So I don't I mean it's nice to be nominated foranything. You know issure, it is a sign. I mean people generally. I think you know in one way it's aneasy record, because it's great variety and it's lots of tunes and rhythms andthat'. That's what you know we all like, and you know we're going to develop itmore and become. You know I meanwell see where it takes us. You know, butbasically it's it's just one or two of the moreconservative organizations like they are with guitar. Generallythere are one or two I mean here in New York City there's been a problem in thepast yeah one or two of the big hall harse have been very nervous about bt about guitar. You know yeah. Whatcan you do? You know there is a eurocentric sort of part of theclassical music establishment. The kind of thing I's, a classicol music. Youknow central European classical music is when all things are said and done isthe best music. In the world you know it's, the most advanced is the mostdeveloped is the most of this, the most that which is a totally unhistoricaland inaccurate. Apart from being, you know, very imagere way of looking at scultures, but you know, I think it's...

...just a part of that pasting phase. Youknow, and that is passing, that it's not a problem. It's just every now andthen you come across organizations wh who reflect that a little bit of amusical sociological shovinism. I guess that might be yeah, but as far as thismalbum with Francis Babey and the African children's choir, you arejoined by your fine artists Associates Chris Laurence, Paul Sharvis, JohnEthrige, and Richard Harvey doing. A very unique collection of Africanrooted music from Camero and Molly tracks are all very much somewhatdifferent and they do sound reflective of each of the different countries. ButI do have one last question for you: Yeah: Are there any tracks or attrackin particular, which you feel is most representative of Francis Babay andmight because of his passing might be regarded as either an anthem or aniconor? Somehow? would be most symbolic of him his place in the world in whatwe may remember him by? I think, without doubt, on the CDE hasto be the piece with him singing and play he's playing the embirath atSampion of the senser and his singing himself and mere kind of playing withhim. So as far as Francis goes, that track would have to be. However, youknow his music is cover such a wide variety or all the other pieces. Ithink the magic box itself, strange enough is the least African sounding ofthem an I think. The other pieces, Guitar macasa, Oba and Sangara- are allmycossas ats Te Dance, coastal dance from Cameron they're verytypical. For me of his the sunny side of his character, you know that twinklyeyed lovely chinful lilting side of his compositions, but in Gomet, which is alittle different in character. I think, because he's singing on it thatwonderful, deep, rich voice, nd and I think that would have to be the mostsymbolic- really fabulous- the magic box on Sony classical John Williams,classical masterong guitar and an interesting adventure into the world.Indigenous musical cultures of Africa with Frances Baby John I'd like tothank you for joining us here today,...

...lovely. Thank you very much. Chees thenCeson by a by.

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