This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Yes, we have no bananas

"If you could see exactly what I could see, it would be a great mystery"
- Joaquin Rudd in Koonyum Sun by Xavier Rudd

I’ve been lucky enough to see the Australian musician Xavier Rudd perform, with his fusion of world music, blues, reggae and rock in the varying forms of one-man-band, front man and master of three instruments at once, including the didgeridoo, on two occasions since first being introduced to him in a random field in Far North Queensland in 2007. The lady responsible for playing his music to us, as we sprayed weed killer around valuable tree saplings in the regenerating forests, had a tendency to shriek and twitch in a way that was slightly uncomfortable to watch. Like robots we trudged the fields, large tanks on our backs, spraying poison at opportunistic weeds from pipes and nozzles extending from our bulky apparatus. The relaxing tones of Mr Rudd (Xavier, not Kevin) kept my spirits high for the day. Weeks later I would awake to the same music on a sailing boat in the middle of the Whitsunday islands, content with the world and hooked on this music.

At both of these shows the audience felt the need to talk extensively over Xavier’s performance, and this troubles me. Certainly, songs about our connection with the earth and Aboriginal Dreaming are alien to an audience in Birmingham, but I think that if you pay to see an artist, you should respect their performance and pay attention to it, not wrestle your way to the bar and treat the show as background music. Positivity and respect, I believe, should be paid at all times, not just to established performers but to all who clearly put effort and care into what they do. Here’s why.

Gabit Sagatov, from Kyzylorda on the edge of the deserts of Kazakhstan, studied in music school and played the accordion. Deep in the USSR, students spent their summers on collective farms, collecting the rice harvest. The Iron Curtain kept out Western influences, particularly the “decadent, bourgeois Western rubbish” of, say, the Beatles. But such music did get through, and it had a profound effect. Sagatov became obsessed with the Beatles, copying the music note for note on his guitar and learning all of the words, not knowing what any of them meant but feeling the emotion, finding hope in an oppressed country. His dream became to go to Liverpool, to understand and experience the inspiration for those songs that shone like a beacon in his otherwise restricted life. But this was the Soviet Union: leaving was not possible.

In 1991, Kazakhstan claimed independence from the disintegrating Soviet Union. With this, Sagatov’s hopes were raised – could he at last travel to England, the country he had sworn would be the first that he would visit abroad? He formed a band, the Kazakh Beatles, learning all the songs, imitating the original four-piece perfectly, performing to English and American tourists in a hotel in Kyzylorda, then to government officials in Astana and Almaty. Their fame spread, and with it came promises of sponsorship to go to Liverpool. The promises fell flat, the hotel burnt down and all Sagatov had to show for his ambitions was a letter of membership to the Beatles fan club, postmarked Liverpool.

But hope prevailed.

In 2003, the BBC contacted the band. Having shown previous footage of the band to the organizers of the annual Beatles Festival in Liverpool, they were being invited to perform no less than seven times at that year’s event. The dream was coming true – with a United Kingdom visa in his passport, Sagatov was soon landing at Heathrow. Disembarking a train at Liverpool, he kissed the ground. That week he barely slept, visiting as many Beatles landmarks as possible. Was he disappointed? Not at all, adopting Liverpool as his spiritual second home.

Imagine, at this moment, what it must have felt like for Gabit Sagatov and his bandmates to stand on the stage at the Cavern Club after such a build up. Imagine, also, how they might have felt if the audience had received them ambivalently, preferring to talk over their performance, to wrestle their way to the bar instead of watching and appreciating.

My point is, I suppose, that there is no way of ever knowing how much work, how many dreams and how much baggage is ever attached to somebody else’s work. For this reason I believe it is paramount to always behave courteously, with a positive and encouraging attitude, towards others, even if their performance is not to your taste. By receiving something badly you may be shattering more than just one performance. Positivity can sometimes be irritating, but I wonder if it should be our default state?

As it happens, the Kazakh Beatles were well received that year in Liverpool. Last year, British Ambassador David Moran took to the stage at the first ever Beatles Festival in Almaty, Kazakhstan’s second city and former capital, performing In My Life. Eventually, the Birmingham crowd were silenced in reverence as the band left the stage and Xavier Rudd sang, alone with his slide guitar, a mesmerizing performance of Land Rights. And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

Sources: In Search of Kazakhstan: the Land that Disappeared by Christopher Robbins, Daily Telegraph, www.shootandscribble.com (I become ever more jealous of Simon Reeve), The Embassy of the Republic of Kazakhstan in the UK

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