I've been reunited with my good friend Allal Yamine, percussionist, performer, researcher and artist. We share many interests, both musically and more generally artistically but what's drawn me in this time is his profound knowledge of the musics of the Sahel. I won't reduce the richness and complexity of the Sahel's musical patchwork to something almost meaningless like 'desert blues' for example but I can say that I've reduced my research to two fields of investigation - the how and the why/where/when. How you play the music and the social contexts around it. I'm fortunate to be able to spend many hours with Allal playing and absorbing. Guitar and percussion. There's talk of a trip to the Sahel to meet and play with some of these fascinating musicians.
Because he wanted to tidy up his studio Allal offered me this Yamaha organ, which I now have in my own studio.
It's a Yamaha Electone A55N built in 1981. There are 37 keys, 13 pedals and and as you can see lots of sliders and switches to fiddle about with. These each make substantial differences to the sound and the sounds are wonderful, especially in the low midrange to bass registers. It's what we might call a complex drone generating machine, like a modular analogue synth but with a different kind of versatility. It's a bit 'wheezy' which I particularly like, especially when you load up the 12 inch speaker to the full 30 watts. The beat or drum sounds and the arpeggiator functions are not what you'd expect from say a digital keyboard - they're so idiosyncratic that they'll be excellent for film music.
Here's another picture showing the footpedals.
In case you're curious here's my guitar and amplifier. I keep promising to do some kind of 'tour of my studio' and I will once I dig everything out and think of the best way to film or photograph all the stuff I've collected.
This is 'the best guitar in the world'. For the cognoscenti it's a Yamaha RS 820CR which I bought second hand in perfect condition. I've played hundreds of guitars and this comes out as good as or better than the best I've played. Apologies to fanboys or girls of more expensive brands. I've noticed that guitarist of a certain large capitalist nation have some kind of distrust of Yamaha and Japanese guitars in general, mainly because the Japanese manage to make guitars as good as or better than Gibson for far less money. The body is perfectly styled with the simplest arrangement of hardware. The humbuckers are Yamaha's own and there are three distinct tones with the pickup selector. It's like riding a racing bike - in fact the styling is drawn from Yamaha's own bike range. Gibson don't make racing bikes in case you don't know, or grand pianos or even fiddles.
The valve amplifier is a Fender Princeton Reverb II which I bought for £50.00 many years ago. It's been modified but I still have the schematic if I want to rewire it. The reverb has been and the midtone boost reassigned to the one spidery footpedal. I had it refurbished in Edinburgh with new valves fitted and it sounds perfect. This amp has a fine vintage. I read somewhere that Duane Allman used it as his studio amp, which is good enough for me. I find it difficult to know how to come to a judgement about the sound of amplifiers. Of course it sounds good and des its job but how do you balance brightness with treble or midrange with bass? Because I have a particular sound in mind using a chain of pedals I tweaked it for a clean setting and listened to the decay of a lower string until some kind of steady sine wave emerged. That's about as clean a sound as I could produce. Then in principle the pedals should sound the way they're supposed to.
Speaking of which:-
Apart from a clean sound for what I might call a kora-inflected guitar style, ultimately best played on a nylon or steel strung acoustic guitar, I'm actually chasing after something approaching the electric guitar sound that many in the Sahel favour (probably best known in the music of Ali Ibrahim "Ali Farka" Touré), not because I'm devoid of ideas as to what I want but because the qualities of that kind of sound bring out the best in the constantly shifting pentatonic improvisations driven by the intricate rhythms of North and West African musics.
Here's a quick summary of the pedals. An old tuner which makes too much noise so it'll have to go eventually. A compressor (placebo of the pedals), perhaps not so essential for a live rig but it does make a difference. Then a freeze pedal to sustain open-string tones as pedal points. Next a Boss PS-6 Harmonist which fattens up the sound using the 'detune' setting. After that a very powerful and versatile Eventide TimeFactor delay which works best if I tweak my own patches and try not to overdo the effect. Finally a simple but effective Electro-harmonic Holy Grail reverb pedal which does the job. There's also a Boss RC-30 looper pedal there (which I can actually work). I look forward to trying out some live layering.
Finally if you want to hear what's going on with some of these Sahel players listen to the incredible tehardent and percussion of Tallawit Timbouctou. Better still, buy their album.