Swedish Blog #5: A Musician’s Perspective on the Swedish Tour (Dallas Smith)

March 27, 2009, written on Svanö (Swan Island) in Northern Sweden

Playing thirty-three gigs in twenty-five days is a personal record for concentrated performances within a short time period. The lifestyle of constant travel, meeting new people every day, and playing one or more concerts per day, all combined, gives me the firsthand experience of the lifestyle of a dedicated touring musician. There are positive and negative aspects to this lifestyle:

On the positive side, my technical musical fluency is as good as it has probably ever been. I don’t really have to warm up to play…I can simply pick up my instrument cold and play rifs that I would normally have to work up to over a period of hours or days of practice. For example, the guitarist, Max, and I have warmed up by playing Charlie Parker’s daunting composition, Donna Lee. I play it on clarinet, whereas I had previously played it only on sax. (Max’s father was a clarinetist, and Max used to play this tune with his father.) We joke about forming our own Charlie Parker “cover band” in our spare time. Otherwise, at sound check, I often play the Bach Solo Partita for Flute as my microphone test. I’m annoyed when I don’t get to finish playing it, when the sound tech is ready to move on to someone else.

On the negative side, six guys traveling in a van, loading and unloading, dealing with personal quirks, etc. can cause inter-personal issues to arise. Two years ago, there was a conflict between two of the members that caused one of them to threaten to leave the tour. Luckily, that didn’t happen, and so the personnel has remained stable for the five years I’ve been touring with the band, with the exception of Sebastian, the percussionist, who replaced the previous percussionist during my third year with the band.

Just to quickly describe the cast of characters:

Christian (Swedish): the bassist and band leader that I met in 1984. He’s responsible for booking all the gigs, arranging the hotels, driving the van, providing the sound system, and more (including paying us). We call him “Papa”.

Max: (Swedish) the guitarist and composer of the majority of Mynta’s repertoire.

Sebastian (Swedish): multi-percussionist, newest and youngest (38) band member.

Fazal (Indian): tabla player from Bombay, the band’s “star”.

Santiago: (Cuba): brilliant but temperamental violinist, lives in Sweden.

For any readers of this blog who haven’t done so already, look up Mynta’s website, www.mynta.net, to hear the band. I think there are also video clips on MySpace.com. A listen is certainly worth more than a thousand words that I might write. Nonetheless, I shall attempt to describe some of the musical aspects of the tour, hopefully in a way that will be accessible to musicians and non-musicians alike.

When the band is in practice, in tune, and everyone is in a good mood, then it’s like a fast sports car that runs smoothly through challenging terrain. If we’re not in such good practice around a particular piece, or we’re not warmed up as a group in the new concert setting, or if someone is in a bad mood, then the road trip is not so smooth. The wheels are bumpy; the carburetor needs to be cleaned; the spark plugs don’t fire evenly. We have to constantly work to keep our band in good tune.

Like most bands that exist over many years, (Mynta celebrates thirty years of music-making this year! This is my fifth year with the band.) there is a legacy repertoire of songs that date from the beginning or earlier in the band’s history. Two of those songs are Christian’s compositions. The first is Yellow Fellow, a song that Susan and I have played in concert for years, and that we recorded for our New Times Good Times CD. At my urging, Christian makes that tune his bass guitar feature, playing a bass solo for several minutes before launching into the composition.

The other tune of Christian’s is Mynta’s biggest “hit”. It’s called Gånglåt (pronounced gonglot, with long o’s, which means song) from Laggars (the village on the island outside Stockholm where Christian has his summer cabin). Christian introduces it to audiences as a Swedish folk-type melody with a world music accompaniment. It features my “American bluesy clarinet”, and I open the song with a relatively long solo. Sometimes I start the solo with the opening rif from Rhapsody in Blue, which I have never been satisfied with, since I’m picking up the clarinet for the first time in the concert at that point. Nonetheless, however I open the solo, I transition through a quote from Hugo Alfven’s Swedish Midsummer Rhapsody, which contains a melody that all Swedes recognize. The main reason that Gånglåt is a hit is that Christian was approached by Sweden’s largest fitness company, to include the piece on one of their music fitness CD’s. Fifteen thousand or more units were produced, giving Christian good publicity and royalties. A new version (as opposed to the fitness CD version) is included on Mynta’s new album, Meetings in India, which is the first Mynta CD of which I’m a part.

One of the other anchor tunes, which is included in every concert, is a composition of Fazal’s which gives him a chance to introduce his tabla drums and to play an extended solo. After having played it at every concert since I’ve been in the band, he finally composed a new piece, which we’ve just begun to perform recently on the tour. It was meant to replace the first one, but we’ve ended up playing both tabla features as concluding numbers of each set of a two set concert.

I’ve brought a half dozen or so of my compositions into the band’s repertoire. Most unique among them are Seven and a Half (which refers to the time signature) and the Vietnamese Reggae (which Susan and I played in the past, but not recently). Both pieces are included on the new Mynta CD. However, after playing one or the other, or both of them at our concerts this year, I think we’re playing them better now than on the CD. I suppose that this is a consequence of musical evolution, in which the CD was just a musical snapshot of the time that it was recorded. If we were to re-record it now, it would sound differently, and perhaps better.

Playing Seven and a Half gives an opportunity to involve the audience in counting the beats, particularly for the school programs. Christian and I have a shtick worked out, where he introduces me in English, after which I welcome the audience in Swedish. At this point the audience usually claps, to celebrate that a visiting musician from the US can speak Swedish at all. Then I continue, in Swedish to tell them that they should overlook any language errors that I might make. Then I tell them that counting to seven and a half is only half as difficult as counting to fifteen would be. The piece has been enthusiastically received by our audiences.

Between our old and new tunes, we have enough repertoire to fill two completely different programs. However, since there are those anchor tunes that we must play every concert, that leaves only certain slots in the programming, which we vary from night to night. Also, I always play a short classical Indian raga with Fazal in the middle of the set. I prepared for this tour with some (for me) new ragas, which I learned by listening to recordings of India’s greatest classical flutists. As a consequence, I’ve managed to play a different raga almost every night, which keeps things fresh for everyone.

I must mention that Fazal Qureshi, our tabla drum player, comes from one of India’s most illustrious Indian families. His father was Alla Rakha, the tabla player who accompanied famous sitar player Ravi Shankar for decades. His brother is tabla player Zakir Hussain, who is probably India’s most famous current musician. Zakir has played for many years with guitarist John McLaughlin in the group Shakti. He has appeared with many famous American jazz musicians, such as keyboardist Herbie Hancock, Micky Hart (Grateful Dead), saxophonist Charles Lloyd, etc. He even starred in a movie, Heat and Dust, with Julie Andrews. In any case, to play a classical Indian flute solo with Fazal every day is just like playing with Zakir, which is to say it is humbling, stimulating, and exciting all at the same time.

Generally, everyone gets along just fine. If there is ever a personality clash, it is usually with Hermano (brother) Santiago. Santiago’s mentality is simply different from the rest of us. He is practically a chain smoker, so every time the car stops, he has to get out and smoke. He doesn’t speak English, so he is left out of the ongoing conversations in English, since Fazal doesn’t speak Swedish. Santiago and I have our own private way of communicating. He speaks to me mostly in Spanish. I answer in Spanish when I can, or otherwise in Swedish. I’ve insisted that Santiago (at age 44) begin to learn English, so we have had a little language instruction in the back of the van. Early in Mynta’s existence, they played in Cuba at the Havana Jazz Festival, i.e. the original “jazz Mynta”, before it became the Indian-fusion group it currently is. Santiago heard the band at that concert at age seventeen, while he was a student at the Havana music conservatory. He’s been playing with Mynta for ten years or so.

The compositions and their arrangements that we play every concert are mostly fixed in form. The improvisation occurs in our individual solos over the form and also in certain exchanges that take place between two or more of us. The exchanges incorporate the Indian tradition of starting with an exchange of a certain length, then halving that length, then halving again, until both (or all three) instruments are furiously playing at once, then culminating in a unison rif. Many of the band’s unison rifs are relatively fast and complicated enough to impress any audience. However, the rifs are meant to serve the musical compositions first, not just to be a mechanism for garnering applause.

Christian likes to invoke the Indian mood to begin every concert. And so, concerts usually begin with the Indian tanpura drone sound, followed by a short bamboo flute or guitar solo, which leads into the first composition. One of my challenges is to play in tune. Since the evening temperature in Sweden is usually well below freezing, the ambient stage temperature can be quite chilly. This means that every instrument I pick up is initially flat, i.e. too low in pitch. I have to retune by the middle of each tune as the instrument warms up (from my breath) and thus rises in pitch. If fact, all instruments are affected by temperature extremes, so that playing is tune is probably one of the band’s biggest continual challenges.

Looking at videos of the band, I pointed out that everybody looks too serious, like we’re working hard and not having enough fun. That comment has led to more exchanges of eye contact and smiles in the course of the concerts. However, it has been carried to extremes, when, for example, during one of Fazal’s extended tabla solos, Sebastian started raising his eyebrows whenever Fazal hit a certain high sound on his tabla. And so, like all bands, Mynta has its private jokes that occur among ourselves in the course of our daily concerts.

Another inside joke concerns so-called “desert gigs”. These are gigs in which the hotel is bad, the food is bad, and the audience small and un-responsive. These gigs are referred to whenever we play one of Max’s compositions, Desert Jig. We’ve had only one desert gig on this tour. We played in a church in a small village in rural Sweden. The gig was arranged through the priest of this Lutheran church. There was a snowstorm outside, and only about thirty people attended. In the middle of our music set, the priest gave a ten minute sermon, after which a collection was taken by women carrying long poles with little baskets on the ends, which could be extended into the pews to receive the collections.

We’ve had a lot of really good concerts on this tour, including at community culture-houses, churches, schools, and in rural Sweden in the domed culture house of a forty-year-old cooperative, i.e. an old hippie commune. For six days, we had the luxury of a sound and light crew, with whom we first worked on last year’s tour. They are very nice guys, who make things so easy for us, by setting up a full light and sound system in advance, such that we could simply show up like big stars for the sound check. Now that week is over, and we’re back to setting our own sound system. (We’re not traveling with any of our own lights this year.)

We’ve had four standing ovations during the tour. Even when we didn’t get a standing ovation, the audiences’ responses have been consistently positive. We get comments, like, “I didn’t know you’d be that good.” Or, “This is some of the best music I’ve ever heard,” spoken by someone older than I am. The bottom line is, no matter what songs we play on a given night, we’re trying to create musical magic among ourselves as a group, which will usually, hopefully, transfer to the audience. We can’t allow ourselves to become personally jaded, or as a group to over-rehearse so that everything is too predictable, even when we play some pieces every concert. There has to be something fresh each evening to keep the music meaningful.

Fazal will be leaving the tour three days earlier due to a commitment in India. Taking his place will be a lady tabla player named Suranjana. We worked with her for some concerts last year in both Sweden and India. She lives most of the time in Sweden, where her husband is employed. Having Suranjana in place of Fazal will change our repertoire somewhat, since some pieces are very personal to Fazal. Fazal is a hard act to follow. We will have very little chance to rehearse with Suranjana. I will be a different band for the last three days of the tour.

On Another Subject

Here at Swan Island, I had a new experience—riding a snow mobile. This is something I could have done at Lake Tahoe, but I simply never availed myself of the opportunity. One discouraging factor was that early in our hospital career Susan and I played in the hospital for a young man who had just been made a quadraplegic the day before in a snow mobile accident. So with a great amount of caution, I set out following the tracks of previous riders. The path led me down to the frozen bay. It was amazing to be out on the open ice. The bay around Swan Island is perhaps a mile wide. I could see the high bridge that we had traveled to reach the island. I had been warned not to go too far toward the center of the bay, but that close to shore was safe. I played it totally safe and simply stayed in the established track which paralleled the shore. Riding on the open ice was my chance to drive fast. The snow mobile could reach around 100kph/60mph, but I probably didn’t reach half that speed. However, it felt like I was going really fast, with the cold wind and snow flurries flying around the helmet I was wearing. Riding a snow mobile was compared to riding a Harley-Davidson motor cycle, and I have a better understanding of the thrill of both of those activities.

There’s so much snow here that while we were filling up the van, three snow mobiles pulled up the gas pump to fill up, including one carrying a guy, a gal, and a dog.

Northern Sweden is experiencing higher than average snow fall this year. Everything is covered by ice and snow, including the roads. And it’s snowing again today. The van got stuck yesterday, spinning its wheels on the ice covering the road. A local guy brought sand to pour under the wheels. Then with five guys pushing, and Christian driving, we managed to free the van. The problem occurred because of the trailer. Christian was making a U-turn on a slight incline when the wheels started to spin. If the trailer had not been attached to the van, there would have been no problem.

I fly back to the states one week from today. I plan to write at least one more blog this coming week, giving my humble cultural observations. I hope you’ve enjoyed my musician’s observations of the life of a musician touring in Sweden.

Dallas Smith

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