Meeting and recording musicians is always a joy, and two wonderful artists – both local to us in east London – that we’d met through separate projects but only now got to record for Orchestra of Samples are multi-instrumentalist Layil Barr and clarinettist František Holčík.
We’ve been commissioned by Manchester based cultural arts organisation ArtReach to create an installation for their Journeys Festival International with Somali-British poet Momtaza Mehri, sampling a number of musician sanctuary seekers and refugees from across Europe.
With Covid restrictions in the UK easing more and more, we headed north to the city of Manchester for our first trip outside London since the pandemic began! Just east of the city, in the foothills of the Pennines is the small town of Ashton-Under-Lyne, where we were recording Sufi singer/songwriter, musician and peace activist Sarah Yaseen.
Originally from Sri Lanka and blind from birth, percussionist Ghow Ratnarajah is an expert with mridangam and kanjira drums – the primary rhythmic accompaniment in Carnatic music ensembles – he also sings in both Tamil and occasionally Hindi. We’ve both performed and worked with Ghow a number of times, including on shows in the UK and in India, and last year on our documentary project Our Journeys for the London Borough of Culture 2020, so it was great to finally recorded him for Orchestra of Samples.
Originally from Italy and now living in the UK, Alex Akal is an experimental musician who connects traditional instruments with contemporary music. A multi-instrumentalist with a taste for progressive and psychedelic rock, he blends instruments and sounds from around the world, creating his own unique style of music. As well as singing, he plays didgeridoo, drums, electric guitar, bass guitar, fujara (a Slovak flute), dan moi (a Vietnamese mouth harp) and both Native American flute and dvojnice (a flute played in many parts of the Balkans); as it happens, we previously recorded dvojnice in Croatia and then very recently a fujara too, with its beautiful deep bassy sound.
London based ‘Fordey’ Forde, who’s actually now performed with us a number of times, especially as part of our Dhol Addiction project with east London’s Dhol Academy, is an incredibly talented percussionist we’d met through our old friend Paul Gunter from Stomp.
With east London’s Big Creative Academy supporting Orchestra of Samples with the use of their recording studios, we organised a filming and recording session with Saul Eisenberg aka The Junk Orchestra. From performing, teaching and workshopping to appearing on numerous television shows, The Junk Orchestra rock ‘n’ recycle a huge collection of re-invented objects all salvaged from “the industries of the sprawling metropolis” as he puts it!
Having set-up recording sessions with both multi-instrumentalist Andrew Cronshaw and duduk player Tigran Aleksanyan, both introduced us to their fellow musician friend Ian Blake. A talented composer and producer himself, Ian plays woodwinds, keyboards and bass, and we recorded him improvising on bass clarinet and soprano sax.
We were incredibly pleased to be introduced to British multi-instrumentalist Andrew Cronshaw, who plays a wonderful range of non-mainstream instruments, and we recorded him playing three: a 74-stringed electrified chord zither; then a fujara (a nearly 2 metre long 3-hole overtone vertical whistle from central Slovakia); and a marovantele (a double sided 44-stringed hybrid of Finnish kantele and Madagascan marovany which Andrew designed himself).
Continuing with our 2021 UK recordings, particularly looking for lesser known instruments, we read about Armenian duduk player Tigran Aleksanyan, so decided to get in touch. He’s one of few people in the UK who’s a master of the ancient Armenian instrument, which is a double reeded oboe-like woodwind hollowed out of apricot wood; it has a beautifully melancholic sound. We also recorded him playing pku, the single-reeded horn.
In early 2021, with the pandemic and resulting lockdowns continuing, we were fortunate to receive funding from Arts Council England to further develop Orchestra of Samples, so began organising recording sessions with musicians in the UK, starting in London while lockdown limited our travel.
As pandemic lockdowns around the world began to ease and outdoor events began to slowly happen, one area of London decided to have a whole weekend of online only events, celebrating the London Borough of Newham and its incredible cultural diversity for audiences to watch worldwide. From 14 – 16 August 2020, Newham Unlocked streamed a live programme of arts and music, including circus, cabaret and theatre performances.
June 2020 and we were to perform Orchestra of Samples at UNESCO’s headquarters in Paris for the launch of their new magazine Humanities Arts and Society, the event was unfortunately cancelled due to the pandemic.
For over a year, working with East London community music project Stow-lab, we’ve been co-organising a series of music events and workshops called Plugged, with the ethos of connecting people through music. We were also successful in receiving funding from Arts Council England to organise a whole programme of events.
After just over a week in the Indonesian city of Solo – aka Surakarta – working with Indonesian artist Tesla Manaf as part of the British Council’s Connections Through Culture initiative, we travelled over night by train to Bandung, a city few hours south of the capital Jakarta. While there, as well as meeting up with the British Council, Tesla also arranged a recording session with the supremely talented multi-instrumentalist Manshur Praditya who plays (and built his own) Angklung.
Rumah Banjarsari – or Banjarsari House in English – is a fantastic independent arts centre run by artists for artists, and was first set-up in 2017 in the grounds of the former home of the extended family of the Mangkunegaran royals, the house itself is now a museum (Mangkunegaran is a small Javanese state located within Surakarta, in a similar way to Monaco or The Vatican). Quite a number of international artists come here to perform, practice and hold workshops – particularly in the field of ethnomusicology.
In a week of meeting so many great musicians in Surakarta (locally known as the city of Solo) and hearing so much about the ISI – Institut Seni Indonesia (the Institute of the Arts Indonesia), where many of those we recorded studied, we actually had the opportunity to visit the ISI and record a section of gamelan there. So one evening Indonesian artist Tesla Manaf, who we’re working with as part of the British Council’s Connections Through Culture programme, introduced us to ISI lecturer Mukhlis Anton Nugroho, who allowed us to attend a gamelan rehearsal of his students.
We’d timed our week in the Indonesian city of Surakarta, known locally as Solo, to coincide with its week-long festivities celebrating the 275th anniversary of the founding of the city, which was on the 18th February 1745. One of the week’s opening events was an outdoor concert by traditional local band Barona, and intrigued by their surprisingly Latin-sounding music we decided to speak to the group after their performance.
It’s February 2020 and we’re working on a different project recording traditional instruments in Indonesia supported by The British Council’s Connections Through Culture programme, collaborating with Indonesian artist Tesla Manaf (aka Kuntari – who’ll we host next month in London at Plugged, the event we’re involved with). The artists we recorded in Indonesia were all fascinated by the concept of Orchestra of Samples and were also happy to be part of the project too, which was great as we hadn’t recorded in Indonesia, although have performed in Jakarta some years ago.
During our Tamil Nadu trip in India, we decided to visit neighbouring Auroville – the experimental township founded in the late 1960s, when back then a roughly 5000 acre site of wasteland was chosen to build a future community on. In February 2018 Auroville celebrated its 50th anniversary and Indian President Ram Nath Kovind called it “a unique symbol of human unity.”
January 2020, and while taking a holiday in Tamil Nadu, in South India, to visit our musician friend Perumal Varudaraj, we decided to travel to Pondicherry.
While there we took the opportunity to meet up with Yatra Arts – a film, theatre and photography studio who produce media projects but also, through their Yatra Art and Culture Foundation…
Selected to join hundreds of artists from across mainly Africa and the Middle East and some from Europe and Latin America, we headed to Morocco’s capital Rabat to perform at music industry showcase event Visa For Music – the largest of its kind on the African continent.
July 2019 and we were asked to once again play at the amazing Timitar Festival in Agadir, Morocco, so took the opportunity to record that most Moroccan of instruments – the Rebab (which we didn’t record last time we were here in 2014).
Croatia… a wonderful country we had wanted to record in for a long time, particularly with its traditional instruments from bagpipes to long-necked tamburica lutes. For info, a number of tamburicas were developed in Croatia and Serbia near the end of the 19th century and took their name from the Persian tanbur, which we happened to have recorded in Turkey – see here.