Tuesday, June 16, 2020

If this is not a new opera what is it?


We should value those who speak differently, even if we do not agree with them. Because as the American philosopher Richard Rorty explained: "A talent for speaking differently, rather than for arguing well, is the chief instrument of cultural change". For forty years the diverse musicians of Suns of Arqa have been contributing to cultural change by speaking differently. More than 200 musicians from different cultures have played with the World Music collective that is Suns of Arqa since their formation 1979. Forcing music styles into pigeon holes is meaningless and futile, so let's ignore attempts to categorise Suns of Arqa's music as world beat, ambient, downtempo, electro-dub or whatever, before it drives away readers steeped in the Western classical tradition. But if we must pigeon hole Suns of Arqa, let's settle for progressive art music heavily influenced by the Indian classical tradition. Since 1979 Suns of Arqa have released more than thirty diverse recordings across vinyl, CD and digital formats, and have played at prestigious events including Glastonbury and Womad. The instruments heard on the band's first studio album Revenge of the Mozabites typify the eclectic sound that would define the band over the next four decades - sitar, drums, esraj, bass, tabla, harmonium and violin.

Personnel and styles may have been fluid over the years, but one constant has underpinned Suns of Arqa, the band's founder music shaman Michael Wadada. That is Michael in the photo below, and the other images show the band in action. Michael Wadada formed the Suns in 1979 after receiving higher guidance during a trip to Kingston, Jamaica while working with legendary reggae deejay, producer and Rastafarian Prince Far I. Revenge of the Mozabites was recorded in 1979 in Rochdale, Greater Manchester and London, and Manchester's diverse cultural mix provided the musicians for the first Suns of Arqa live band. Michael has since worked with a wide range of musicians including ambient and dub group The Orb, producer and remixer Youth (Martin Glover), and refugee classical flautist turned Goan fraggle Raja Ram.



Michael Wadada is an accomplished sitarist, and his mission has been to exploit the supra-mundane power of the Indian raga form. To this he added the Rastafarian Niyabinghi drum beats that dominated Manchester's reggae scene in the the late 70s, and later Highland bagpipes were added as impermanence became the defining mantra of the Arqa sound. This Scottish musical influence became a lifestyle cue for Michael: he now lives in Scotland where he is forming a spiritual-political movement in the Highlands and it is his adopted homeland that provides the setting for the latest Suns of Arqa album..

Alexander Stewart Earl of Buchan (1343-1405), the great-grandson of Robert the Bruce popularly known as The Wolf of Badenoch, is one of the most notorious figures in Scottish history. He maintained a rule of terror across much of the Highlands, for which he was censured by the King's Council in 1388. Following a schism with the Church over his childless marriage, Alexander Stewart was excommunicated. The Wolf of Badenoch reacted by fighting a long and raging battle against what he saw as the power and corruption of the Church. His reign of terror included burning Elgin Cathedral to the ground and destroying much of the royal burgh of Elgin.

Legend has it that the Wolf died in 1405 after playing chess with the devil at Ruthven Castle. It is said he played through the night with a tall man dressed in black, and a storm raged as the visitor called “check” and then “checkmate”. The following morning Alexander Stewart, the Wolf of Badenoch, was found dead in the banqueting hall with his personal bodyguard dead outside the castle walls. Perversely he was buried in Dunkeld Cathedral where his effigy can still be seen in the choir.

Michael Wadada has turned the story of The Wolf of Badenoch into a an epic 63 minute production*. This features the usual eclectic Suns of Arqa mix of sounds including bass guitar, Highland bagpipes, sitar, Moog, bansuri, uillean pipes, tabla, and seven vocalists including Sanyogita Kumari from the Indian classical tradition, with lyrics by the Scottish poet and polemicist Alan McLeod. It is very difficult to do The Wolf of Badenoch justice in words; so I went straight to the wolf's mouth for help in communicating its breath-taking scope and discussed it with Michael Wadada.



Bob Shingleton: Michael, many thanks for agreeing to be interviewed for An Overgrown Path. Let's cut straight to the chase: there's not too much drum and bass in The Wolf of Badenoch. So if it is not an opera, what is it?

Michael Wadada: Well it's a musical story, so it is a kind of opera. I think you will hear a good deal of bass and drums as well if you play loud on a big sound system

BS: Let's go back to your roots now. The Indian raga form and the sitar are obviously dear to you. how did that love affair start?

MW: I first heard a cassette of Ustad Vilayat Khan playing Raga Alhaya Bilawal, that had a great effect on me. Later I was invited to run the sound studio at Dartington Art College where they had all-night Indian classical concerts with Debu Chaudhuri on sitar and the amazing Sharda Sahai on tabla. These six-or seven-hour concerts are the best way to go on that deep raga journey. Also, I attended the all night classical Indian Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I am not sure if they still do these now? I then went to Benares to study sitar with Rajbhan Singh.

BS: Michael, let's return to The Wolf. Discussing whether or not it is an opera may just be toying with semantics. But tell us what influences there were on this startlingly original project.

MW: We live close by several of the Wolf castles, those he is associated with, and on visits to Lochindorb the music and story emerged from there over a couple of years

BS: Many Overgrown Path readers come from the Western classical tradition. So tell us what your wider musical influences are. Do you listen to Western classical music?

MW: Yes, as well as the obvious influence of Nyabinghi and dub living in Moss Side, Manchester and travelling to Kingston to meet Prince Far-I. I fell in love with the music of Gabriel Fauré while working on Behind the Iron Curtain tour with Nico in 1982. When I returned, I staged Fauré's Requiem at Albany Empire in London, and recorded dub versions of Kyrie, Libera Me and In Paradisum for the Suns of Arqa album Seven in 1987. In Paradisum is a perfect classical three minute tune and we released it as a 12" single.



BS: A 12" single of Fauré is a pretty impressive example of classical crossover. So next is a question that I ask all my guests. Western classical music is preoccupied, indeed obsessed, with finding a new and younger audience. How do you think the art form can achieve that?

MW: Well my idea would be the same as I did with the Indian classical music. We also recorded Funeral Ikos by John Tavener on Suns of Arqa CD/DVD 'Stranger Music' with extra vocals by Angel Eye and the Quatre Vox choral singers, this went down a storm in the clubs, so this would be a good introduction for the younger folk.

BS: Michael, back to The Wolf. Indian classical music is essentially improvised, while Western is notated. What role did improvisation play in The Wolf of Badenoch.

MW: Well much of it was improvised then laid to tape. As indeed the original classical composers’ improvised or inspired musings were then written down in notation for future performance. I think if the great composers of the past had the option to record their music onto a tape recorder, many would have done just that.

BS: The Wolf of Badenoch was obviously a rogue. In fact a Scotsman article asked whether he was Scotland's vilest man. Yet your interpretation of him places emphasis on his fight with the power and corruption of the Church. Is this an attempt at rehabilitation, or am I reading too much into it?

MW: Yes indeed, if you investigate Bishop Bur and the shenanigans at Spynie Palace, corruption was evident everywhere. And as is the case in most accounts from the dark past, the victors get to write the history books. As in the present accounts of 'minor' wars the Western powers have staged over the past few decades, right up to the present dire world situation, the truth is often obscured and rewritten.

BS: Michael, tell us a little more about the spiritual-political movement in Scotland you are involved with.

MW: At the moment I am not able to say but hope to in the very near future. Please keep an eye on the Suns of Arqa website for announcements.

BS: Your scenario for The Wolf of Badenoch sticks pretty closely to the known facts about Alexander Stewart. But you introduce a new turn of events: namely that a mystic from the East prays for the release of his soul. Presumably that is to accommodate the signature Arqa Eastern inflections of the project?

MW: Yes, artistic license… there is an old tale of him playing chess with the Devil! And the legend that the Wolf dabbled in black magic, and on his death bed said, “a Geddes will walk on my grave, and my name shall be heard in sounding brass". And in 1979 the composer John Maxwell Geddes conducted The Wolf of Badenoch with a brass orchestra. [Listen via this link.] So this is my take on it.



BS: The Wolf of Badenoch features a posthumous appearance by legendary Highland bagpiper John Snelson. I know that John was an important musical influence on you. Tell us about him and his contribution to the album.

MW: I hired John Snelson to pipe my mother’s funeral cortege. The same week we played a huge gig at Heaton Park in Manchester and I invited him to join us to play an acoustic set, with just three of us - while the Buzzcocks were setting up on stage behind us! John lived in Eccles near Manchester, a self-taught piper who had never been to Scotland until we took him on a short “Arqa tour of Scotland” playing Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen in the early 90's. We loved John and miss him dearly.

After his passing I discovered a cassette tape of him improvising while busking in the Arndale Centre in Manchester. These recordings birthed the album... together with Dublin-based musician/producer Brian Hyphen the album and stage show took shape. I met the poet Alan McLeod at Redwood Studios in Invergordon and he wrote the libretto to the music. We already had the Wolf of Badenoch title track recorded with Angel Eye who wrote and performed the original lyrics. The great Uilleann piper Ronan Browne overdubbed his parts from his studio in Connemara. We initially performed the stage show at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, and then later on at Belladrum Festival in Beauly near Inverness in 2019. We had planned to stage it at several of the ruined castles associated with the Wolf over the summer of 2020, and still hope this could happen.

BS: In my introduction I said that Suns of Arqa had made more than thirty recordings across various formats. If you had to select one of those as your favourite, which would it be?

MW: Well, it’s around forty albums now and it is hard to say which is my favourite, as they have very different purposes, but the LP Seven which would later expand to become the CD Land of a Thousand Churches would be up there, as it covers so much ground. For pure musical meditation I would pick Kokoromochi , the late great Bansuri maestro Raghunath Seth joined us to record this one. You can hear both at sunsofarqa.bandcamp.com

BS: Michael, finally, I have read that after nearly four decades of surviving the dark forces of the music business the ​Suns of Arqa mission is now complete. Can that really be true?

MW: We will see what the future holds... but there is truly a need to bring back music as a sacred art form, or 'ceremonial innertainment' as I would call it. Keep checking the Suns of Arqa website.



My thanks go to Michael Wadada for joining me from locked down Scotland for this interview. The Wolf of Badenoch may not be your music. But whatever your personal tastes, the music the Suns of Arqa make is our music, because it embraces truly diverse cultures. The Wolf of Badenoch dares to be different, and it does that daring very well at a time when comfort zones and filter bubbles are rapidly leaching creativity out of art music.

Michael Wadada's thoughts on reaching younger audiences will not be music to the ears of classical purists. But his references to Tavener, Fauré, and the Proms cannot be ignored if classical music really wants to reach a new audience. Dub versions of Fauré's Requiem and Tavener's Funeral Ikos will represent Satan's music for many. But this quote from a book review by Robert Clairburne applies in more ways than one to The Wolf of Badenoch:

The kingdom of God may well be within us - but to truly know it, we must also contend against the kingdom of Satan that surrounds us.
* The CD and digital download of The Wolf of Badenoch are available from the Suns of Arqa website.
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