As my Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown music residency comes to its conclusion I thought I'd share a final playlist featuring some of my favourite classical composers, as they have been played on guitar. Prior to the 20th Century, very few of the 'great' classical composers composed for guitar. Two great 19th Century composers, Schubert and Berlioz, were guitarists, but they never composed anything for the instrument! So the music that follows is for the most part not written for guitar. Nothing much needs to be said about most of the composers on my list below, their legacies speak for themselves. I just write a few words about my interest in them and their relationship to the guitar.
Simply the greatest composer of all time, few would dispute that. The breadth of Johann Sebastian Bach's accomplishments is unlikely to ever be topped. Though he never composed for guitar, his music has been adapted very successfully for the instrument, especially solo guitar transcriptions of his Lute, Violin and Cello works. The Los Angeles Guitar Quartet take it a step further by transcribing his orchestral works like the Brandenburg Concertos. Their virtuosity and musicianship makes it sound like the piece was written for guitars!
Ludwig Van Beethoven
Perhaps the greatest innovator in classical music history, Beethoven's music is as legendary as his personality. Everyone knows his famous opening to his Fifth Symphony, whether that be in its original version or the 70's disco version! His Ode to Joy in the 9th Symphony, Für Elise and Moonlight Sonata are equally famous. He never composed for guitar and there are far less arrangements of his music for guitar than there are of Bach's. Nonetheless, a few interesting arrangements exist, including an astonishing 5th Symphony by a young Japanese guitar orchestra and the Egmont Overture, played beautifully by the Texas Guitar Quartet.
I would have Anton Bruckner next on this list, but I can't find any good guitar arrangements of his music. So we skip on to French composer Debussy, sometimes described as the father of modern music. His impressionistic tone poems are sensual masterpieces of orchestral sound, quite different to any orchestral music that came before him. His piano works and chamber pieces are equally important. Another composer who didn't compose for the guitar, but some of his music works beautifully on guitar, such as his famous Claire de Lune, especially when played by Julian Bream and John Williams.
Debussy's compatriot tends to be less acclaimed, although I prefer more of Ravel's music. I think he was a lot more innovative than given credit for. When I was a student at the DIT Conservatory of Music in Dublin I was in the college guitar ensemble. We played a great arrangement of Ravel's suite Ma Mere L'oye which I always enjoyed. A few years ago I arranged Ravel's famous Bolero for my Irish Memory Orchestra, I included a guitar in it as it lent the piece a more authentic Spanish flavour. Ravel never wrote for guitar, which is odd, given he was Basque and loved flamenco music!
It took me a while to appreciate the music of Finland's greatest composer Sibelius. Eventually I got to like him so much I named my dog after him! On first listen his music might sound like 19th Century Romantic music, but delve deeper into his music, especially his symphonies, and you'll hear it is very distinct and visionary. He sometimes makes time and space seem to stand still, yet move at the same time! He is the first composer on this list who actually wrote something for guitar, although it is just one minor work, a Shakespearean song for Baritone and Guitar called Come Away Death'. His works aren't often arranged for guitar, but Finnish guitarist Timo Kaakkolammi made a very nice arrangement of the slow movement of the 3rd Symphony. In this arrangement the almost minimalist sound of mature Sibelius really comes through.
One of the great musical revolutionaries, Stravinsky changed the world of classical music with his wild orchestral masterpiece The Rite of Spring. The first time I heard this live was in an incredible 2001 performance by the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland under Gerhard Markson. The music blew me away! Stravinsky only once composed for guitar, in his rarely played Four Russian Songs for mezzo, flute, harp & guitar (1954). Several attempts have been made to arrange his orchestral music for guitars. Generally they aren't hugely successful because Stravinsky's orchestrations are so colourful and detailed. The Seattle Guitar Trio made a damn good attempt at The Rite of Spring though. Perhaps most impressive though is Japanese guitarist Kazuhito Yamashita's amazing arrangement of The Firebird Suite.
One of the most tormented composers in music history, Dmitri Shostakovich lived under almost constant fear for his life in Stalin's Russia after he was denounced publicly. He outlived Stalin and had his reputation redeemed, yet his demons, cynicism and insecurities stayed with him to his grave and are heard in his music. His symphonies and string quartets are among the finest in the classical repertoire. I've seen some astonishing performances of them, including a really memorable performance of his 11th Symphony in London's Barbican under Valery Gergiev. When it comes to composing for guitar he is slightly more prolific than those composers already mentioned. There are small guitar parts in his nostalgic Suite No. 1 for Jazz Orchestra and Suite for Variety Orchestra. Some decent attempts have been made at arranging some of his music onto the guitar. I've arranged of one of his piano pieces but never played it in concert.
Now I skip forward in time a bit, although not too much, what I am doing is skipping an entire generation of classical music which generally leaves me cold. Modern classical music in the mid-20th century was dominated by composers of atonal and twelve-tone music. It got really extreme by the 1950's with the idea oftotal serialism, which is more maths than music. The music really alienated audiences and modern classical music almost died a death. Then in the '60's young American composers started rebelling against this essentially European trend and stripped music to its bare, tonal, essentials to create a hypnotic music of repetition often labelled 'minimalism'. Chief among these 'minimalists' was Philip Glass. He is now perhaps the most famous living composer of classical music, though he remains controversial. Some people really can't stand his music, they find it boring and too repetitious. I disagree though, in his best works he is really inventive and never repeats himself exactly. Indeed a lot of these pieces are quite rhythmically complex. I arranged several of his string quartets for guitar quartet nearly 20 years ago when I was in the Dublin Guitar Quartet. Mr. Glass liked the arrangements so much he signed the DGQ to his label. I wasn't in the quartet anymore at this time, but I did once get to join them in playing the arrangements in Mr. Glass' presence. It was great to meet the man and I found him to be very, very nice indeed. He has composed very little for the guitar, but I really enjoy his use of an almost 'surf guitar' sound in the piece Osamu's Theme from his soundtrack to the film Mishima.
It seems unlikely that two of the most influential composers of the 20th Century might have worked together in a furniture-moving company before they became famous, but that is the truth about Glass and his fellow minimalist pioneer Steve Reich. For a time in the 1960's they played each other's music in ensembles and toured Europe in 1971. Then, for reasons never explained, they fell out, only to reconcile many years later. Of all the composers in this list, no one has composed more important guitar music than Steve Reich. His 1987 masterpiece Electric Counterpoint was composed for jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and is now considered one of the great works for guitar ensemble. He also uses guitars in his works2x5 and Nagoya Guitars. Reich's music has influenced me quite a bit and you can hear hints of his pulsing music in a few of my pieces, including my latest work Dun Laoghaire Guitars.
Being named after a famous American president can't be easy for a young composer with ambition, but that didn't stop John Adams rising to become America's most performed living orchestral and opera composer. I first discovered Adams' music on a compilation of minimalist music. It included his looping orchestral pieces The Chairman Dances and Shaker Loops. There was a time in my mid 20's when I considered Adams my favourite composer and some of my compositions from that period are strongly influenced by him. I very briefly met him in September 2001 after a concert in London. When I was leaving the concert at one point I looked behind and there he was strolling purposefully behind. I took the opportunity to say a quick hello and to tell him I'd recently sent in a guitar duo arrangement of his piano piece China Gates to his publisher. He nodded and said, 'Oh yes, they mentioned that to me, is that you? I think that will work very nicely'. That came just before the European premiere of his symphonic piece Naive and Sentimental Music, which features a beautiful extended guitar solo in its second movement. Five days after that uplifting experience the infamous 9/11 attacks changed the world forever. Though Adams has never composed a solo guitar work, he has used electric and acoustic guitars quite a bit in works like Scratchband, El Nino and his recent opera Girls of the Golden West. Scratchband contains a fiendishly difficult guitar part which switches between funky acoustic strumming to wild Zappa-esque electric guitar sounds.
Addendum - Why are my favourite classical composers all white men?
Though there are hundreds of thousands of composers of classical music, only a very small number of these get lifted to the status of 'great composers'. In the majority of cases the composers are deserving of this status, yet there are also some very overlooked composers. Nonetheless when it comes to my list of favourite classical composers I had to go with those composers who I return to again and again for listening pleasure and artistic inspiration. My list is governed purely on this principle, as a result my top ten composers are all white men. In the context of classical music that is pretty normal though, google any top 10 list of classical composers made by classical music critics and they'll all be white men! Even a top 100 list like the one at this link https://digitaldreamdoor.com/pages/best-classic-comp.html contains just one composer who isn't a white man!
Nonetheless most people, including me, could do with expanding their classical music listening habits beyond white male composers. With that in mind I've done separate playlists featuring composers I admire who are not white men. I'd be lying if I said any of these composers were in my top ten, nonetheless they are brilliant classical music composers and, frankly, it'd be much better for the health of classical music if they and others like them featured more often in concerts, rather than just hearing Mozart, Brahms and Mahler all the time! Yes, play Bach, Beethoven and Brahms, but why not pair them with Boulanger, Buckley and Björk?!
Hildegard Von Bingen
The medieval Saint Hildegard Von Bingen has an unusual place in music history as she is considered the greatest composer of her era. No other female composer has come close to being elevated to this status by the musical literati in subsequent eras. Her choral music is performed as much as any male composer of the medieval era. Her music is monodic and religious, if that's your kind of thing you will love her music. Being honest, medieval choral music is not my favourite kind of music, so I don't listen to her music very often. In the right context though it can be really beautiful to hear.
Had Lili Boulanger not passed away tragically aged 24 she may have developed into one of France's most important composers. She was the first female composer to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, when she was only 19 and she then landed a publishing contract with Ricordi. The small amount of music she left behind is exquisitely composed and hints at a composer who could have matched Debussy and Ravel had fate allowed her to. Her music is as distinctively different to Debussy and Ravel as those leading men of French impressionist music are to each other. Her last work, the symphonic poemD'un matin de printemps is a perfect concert opener, joyous and sumptuously scored. A darker orchestral poem D'un soir triste is a lushly and virtuosically orchestrated masterpiece. Magnifique!
Though mainly associated with developing the jazz big band, Duke Ellington was also a composer of classical orchestra works. I saw the National Symphony Orchestra of Ireland perform his fantastic piece Harlem under conductor William Eddins in 2003 and wondered why the piece wasn't played more often. I haven't seen it programmed since! Generally The Duke's orchestral works are sadly neglected in the symphonic concert hall. His last work Three Black Kings deserves more hearings as does the ambitious suite Black, Brown and Beige.
Fela Sowande is considered the first major classical composer from Africa. His fine orchestral and melodic composing skills are clearly heard in his most recorded work African Suite. Unfortunately I know little of his music beyond that work as it remains largely unpublished. He did receive an MBE though in his lifetime and held prestigious teaching positions in the USA, so he gained more official recognition than any other African composer. HIs music is due a renaissance.
Japanese 20th Century master Toru Takemitsu was probably the first Asian composer to achieve wide acceptance within Western classical music circles. His music can be a challenging listen as a large part of his output comes from the atonal, modernist mid-20th century aesthetic. In his later years his music became more sensual and almost tonal. He's often been described as a Japanese Debussy. This is clearly heard in his later works like Dreamtime, although I detect a hint of Debussy's successor Messiaen in there too. Whilst it's easy to dismiss him as an imitator of French composers, his originality and place in history lies in the way he fused these modern French influences with Japanese culture. Several of his works, including Eclipse and November Steps, use traditional Japanese instruments. This fusion of Asian instruments within Western classical music was very unusual and ground-breaking then. He also composed some of the most significant classical guitar music of the 20th century, some of which is strangely beautiful.
Like Duke Ellington, Ravi Shankar is more associated with his non-classical music, nonetheless the Indian sitar master left behind a legacy of important compositions that fit within the western classical tradition. His collaboration with Philip Glass Passages, is a wonderful fusion of Carnatic music and New York minimalism. His sitar concertos are exhilarating and ground-breaking. I've also enjoyed performing his flute and guitar work L'Aube Enchantee with Aisling Agnew. It is one of the most significant works ever composed for classical flute and guitar.
From the 1960's to the present day, New York has developed into the world's centre for progressive, new classical music. One of the most important composers from this scene is the extraordinary Meredith Monk. She has created a repertoire of music unlike any other composer before her, based primarily on experimental vocal textures. In the wrong hands such techniques can either come across as pretentious or unintentionally funny, but Monk is different. Listen to Dolmen Music and enter a hypnotic world of vocalisations that sounds at once utterly modern and like a forgotten ancient music.
In Linda Buckley I feel like I have a kindred spirit in the Irish composition scene. Her music is nothing like mine, yet we share a liking for tonal/modal music and Irish traditional music. We both also occasionally compose dissonant music, so our music tends to work well together in concert. Her beautiful song-cycle O Iochtar Mara was written for the sean nós singer Iarla O'Lionaird to sing with the Vanbrugh String Quartet and I think this is the best work that has been composed for Iarla. Linda works often with electronics and you can hear her masterfully merge electronics with bowed Double Bass on the haunting Sheancheann. Her masterpiece though, in my opinion, is the orchestral work Chiyo, an ethereal study of orchestral textures. One of the best new orchestral works I've heard in the past 20 years. More orchestras need to play it!
Jane O'Leary was born in the USA, yet moved to Ireland in the 1970's where she established herself as one of Ireland's foremost modern composers. She founded Ireland's first contemporary classical ensemble, Concorde in the 1970's and they are still going strong today. I first came to know Jane's music through her Four Pieces for Guitar. Subsequently Concorde performed my music and Jane was my PhD Supervisor. I've heard her music many times over the years and I've always admired her commitment to discovering new sounds and instrumental techniques. Though she composes in a very different style to me, we have a mutual respect and friendship that I value a lot. For her 70th birthday I composed a short string quartet piece called 70 Bars for Jane, which is based on her Four Pieces for Guitar.
A choice that might surprise some, but I think Björk deserves consideration as an essentially 'classical' composer. No less than the renowned soprano Renée Fleming agrees with me, as she has recently taken to performing Björk's music as 'art songs' with orchestras. All over Björk's output there are references to modern classical music and her work is as original and innovative as any modern 'classical' composer. She even famously interviewed the avant-garde composer Stockhausen. Her biggest claim to being a modern classical genius is her 2004 album Medúlla, which is essentially a large experimental composition for voices in several movements, not too far removed from Meredith Monk. Medúlla was later turned into an opera. In years to come Björk's music will be part of the classical canon. I'm sure of that!
In a previous blog post I mentioned how influential Andy Summers, from The Police, was to me. This post is about a group of guitarists who could be classified in the same category as him, 'textural' guitarists. They are more interested in finding the right sound for a song than showing off with virtuoso solos, often layering guitars to create dreamy soundscapes. The heyday of textural guitar playing was in the 1980's when effects pedals like chorus, flanger, reverb and delay helped these guitarists define a new kind of rock and pop guitar world. Bass players were also hugely important to these kind of songs, some even being more like lead guitarists. I start though with The Beach Boys, because it was on their classic 1966 album 'Pet Sounds' that the concept of textured, multi-layered guitars probably originated.
The Beach Boys (with the Wrecking Crew)
The Beach Boys' driving force Brian Wilson wrote out most of the parts of 'Pet Sounds' for the legendary session musician collective 'The Wrecking Crew' to read in studio. The Wrecking Crew included such guitar legends as Glen Campbell, Barney Kessel and Carol Kaye. They play the beautiful textured guitars on songs like 'You Still Believe in Me' , 'I Just Wasn't Made for these Times' and 'Caroline, No'. Whist guitars are not very prominent on 'Pet Sounds', if you listen closely you'll notice there are chiming, textured guitars all over the album. In that, 'Pet Sounds' became a blueprint for a new way of constructing pop songs with layered guitars. My wife and I saw Brian Wilson and his amazing band perform 'Pet Sounds' at Galway Arts Festival in 2017. It was a very special, joyous night that brought a few tears to my eyes!
Roxy Music (Phil Manzanera)
I include Roxy Music here mainly for one album, 1983's 'Avalon'. Phil Manzanera's textured guitar playing on this album is masterfully constructed. Early Roxy Music doesn't appeal to me much, it's really their later period music that I enjoy, especially songs like 'Avalon', 'More Than This' and 'True to Life' where Manzanera shines in a very understated way. Put on headphones and listen to how he layers multiple guitars on these tracks. I suspect Manzanera was influenced by Andy Summers on 'Avalon' as he played in quite a different way on previous Roxy Music albums, and by 1983 The Police were the biggest band in the world. Manzanera has toured in the band of Dave Gilmour from Pink Floyd. Bringing things full circle, Gilmour stood in Manzanera's shoes at Live Aid when he played with Roxy Music singer Bryan Ferry.
New Order/Joy Division (Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook & Gillian Gilbert)
Peter Hook couldn't be more aptly named as his bass lines were often the main instrumental 'hook' of the songs of Joy Division and New Order. Playing a six-string bass, he is more like a lead guitarist than a bassist. Alongside guitarist/singer Bernard Sumner, Hooky created some of the greatest guitar-based music of the late 70's and 80's. With New Order's other two, Gillian Gilbert and Stephen Morris, they pioneered a style of electronic dance music with guitars that is hugely influential to this day. I'd known their hit songs throughout the 80's and became a huge New Order fan by the mid 90's. Then I started exploring the music of Joy Division, the band New Order came out of after the death of Ian Curtis. In Joy Division they invented a new kind of alternative guitar music, some of which sounds to me like it influenced grunge. In New Order Sumner, Hook and Gilbert produce some magnificent textures on their guitar-based songs, with a mix of single line melodies, arpeggios and funky chord progressions.
In the late 2000's I contacted New Order's manager to see if they might be interested in an idea I had to orchestrate their music. To my surprise they replied and a meeting was arranged between Bernard Sumner, the manager and I. I met them in Manchester before a concert where one of my classical pieces was being performed. I found Bernard to be a lovely, humble fella with a great knowledge of music. As we chatted he mentioned references to Ennio Morricone and Prokofiev in his music. Ultimately it never led to anything, but it was fantastic to chat with one of my music heroes. The only regret I have from the day is that I missed a chance to have a photo taken with him. He stayed around for the classical gig and came up to me afterwards where I was chatting with the soloist. After a few pleasantries a photographer took me and the soloist aside, probably oblivious to who Bernard was! I should've got him into the photo, but I didn't want to burden him. Bernard left soon after and that was the last I ever saw of him...!
Big Country (Stuart Adamson, Bruce Watson & Tony Butler)
Big Country were huge in the 80's, famed for their very Scottish take on guitar rock. Using a device called an E-Bow, along with reverb, chorus, distortion and delay effects, guitarists Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson made their guitars sound like bagpipes, whilst bassist Tony Butler laid down some great grooves with master drummer Mark Brzezicki. I love their debut album 'The Crossing' which has some fantastic textured guitar playing. I saw them live a few times, the last time being just before Stuart Adamson's tragic suicide. At one gig I caught a drumstick that Mark threw into the crowd. He looked disappointed when I caught it, I think he was aiming it at someone in particular. I didn't care though and still have the drumstick! They were a fantastic live band and I cherish the times I saw them at the Olympia in Dublin.
The Smiths (Johnny Marr)
Smiths' guitarist Johnny Marr is perhaps the ultimate anti-guitar hero as he rarely does guitar solos. The solos he does are textural sound sculptures. He was a very unusual guitar hero in the 80's, layering jangly, effects-laden guitars on classic tracks like 'William it was Really Nothing', 'Ask' and 'How Soon is Now'. After The Smiths he did some great session work with bands including The The (Beaten Generation) and Talking Heads (Nothing But Flowers). He also formed a supergroup in the 90's with New Order's Bernard Sumner called 'Electronic'. I've always loved their song 'Get the Message' and Marr's guitar playing on it is beautifully simple.
The Cocteau Twins (Robin Guthrie & Simon Raymonde)
The Cocteau Twins were a magical, ethereal Scottish band who created some of the most distinctive music of the 80's and 90's. Firmly independent, they pioneered the 'Dream Pop' sound that gained increasing popularity into the 2010's with groups like Beach House. Central to the 'Dream Pop' sound is the multi-layered, heavily effects-laden guitar textures of Robin Guthrie. Bassist Simon Raymonde added some great bass counterpoint to Guthrie's guitar, in a style influenced, like so many 80's bassists, by Peter Hook. I can't leave the Cocteau Twins without mentioning their extraordinary vocalist Liz Fraser, who has been called 'The Voice of God'. Though The Cocteau Twins was her main band, she's best known for singing 'Teardrop' with Massive Attack and lending her otherworldly voice to the Lord of the Rings soundtrack. Fraser's voice is at its most stunning though on The Cocteau Twins 1990 album 'Heaven or Las Vegas', the title track of which I once used as my ring-tone! Guthrie and Raymonde are at their textured best here, on an album that sounds like nothing else on earth.
Simple Minds (Charlie Burchill and Derek Forbes)
Though they are best known as a stadium-filling 80's band who once rivalled U2 in popularity, prior to that Simple Minds were quite an odd, experimental New Wave band. Their early albums feature some of the strangest pop songs of the 80's. Their 1982 masterpiece 'New Gold Dream' was their commercial breakthrough, it sees the band reach a perfect point between experimentalism and accessibility. Guitarist Charlie Burchill is clearly influenced by Andy Summers on this album, nevertheless he developed his own take on Summers' compressed, chorused, echoing guitar sound and in doing so influenced The Edge. Bassist Derek Forbes' funky style was quite distinctive at the time and he is considered one of the best rock bassists of the era. I kinda met Charlie Burchill once. I was recording an album with my band D.F.F. in Peter Gabriel's amazing residential 'Real World Studios', one of the best experiences of my life! At Real World, anyone who is working there gets their meals cooked by an in-house chef as part of the deal. So there's a dining room there where people congregate for delicious food. One day I was heading towards the door, looking at the floor, when I nearly walked into someone else heading the same way. I looked up and said "sorry" and so did the other person, who happened to be Charlie Burchill. It only dawned on me it was him after he'd gone through the door and sat at a table with someone he was working with there. I didn't have the nerve to go up to him and tell him I admired his guitar playing. I was in the same dining room a few times that week, and never uttered a word! The band Kaiser Chiefs were there too and chatted a little with the D.F.F. members. I don't feel right interrupting people who are minding their own business, whether famous or not, as a result I've maybe missed out on chatting with some very interesting folks!
U2 (The Edge & Adam Clayton)
I've an admission to make, I think U2 are past their sell-by date. However I did go through a long enough period of listening to them and learning how to play a lot of The Edge's textured guitar parts. The thing about The Edge is what he plays is technically quite simple, yet no one else can play it like him. He's one of those rare guitarists who has found a sound that is uniquely his own. I once saw his guitar tech saying that even he couldn't sound like The Edge when he played through the exact same set-up with the same guitars! My favourite U2 album by a long way is 1984's Unforgettable Fire, I think this is the peak of The Edge's textured guitar work, no doubt helped along by the production team of Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois. 'A Sort of Homecoming' and the epic title track are highlights. Adam Clayton's bass playing is great on this album too, very melodic and, like almost all 80's pop bassists, definitely influenced by Peter Hook. U2 were big Joy Division fans and sat in on some Joy Division recording sessions. I was once in the same room as The Edge, at a Culture Ireland reception at the Irish Consulate in New York. It would have been easy enough to go up and say hello to him there as it was quite a private event. However, you guessed it, I couldn't get it together to go up and say hello!
R.E.M. (Peter Buck and Mike Mills)
Whilst R.E.M. really hit the big time in the 90's, it is their 80's output of sophisticated jangle guitar pop that interests me. Guitarist Peter Buck created some of the best guitar music of the 80's alongside bassist Mike Mills, drummer Bill Berry and charismatic frontman Michael Stipe. I particularly like their debut 1983 album 'Murmur' where Buck really shines and Mills' bass lines pop out to the fore too. To me their crowning achievement though is the 1986 song 'Cuyahoga', which resonates so much today with its opening line 'Let's put our heads together and start a new country up' and its themes of environmental pollution and racial discrimination. People sometimes forget or don't realise these were huge issues in the 80's. I was taught about global warming in school! There was a lot of activism then which made a lot of changes, making city smog and CFC's things of the past, in Europe at least. If it wasn't for activist voices like R.E.M. the world would be in an even worse situation that it is! Pop bands could really make a difference back then by spreading these messages in their songs. I'm not sure the same is true today. I don't think many people are making records like these anymore. If they are, I'm not hearing them! R.E.M. ended the 80's with the poptastic environmental album 'Green', a classic.
The Cure (Robert Smith, Porl Thompson and Simon Gallup)
In the 80's and early 90's you really couldn't say that you liked The Cure AND Iron Maiden. Goths and Rockers were fierce enemies! As a confirmed rocker I had to hide the fact that I liked The Cure. I never cared for The Cure's image, but beneath the wild hair and gothic makeup Robert Smith and his cohorts created some beautiful pop music, somewhere between the Dream Pop of the Cocteau Twins and New Order's indie guitar tracks. There's some gorgeous textured guitars on tracks like 'Pictures of You', 'Lullaby' and 'High', where the influence of Peter Hook looms heavily. Peter Hook dislikes The Cure because he thinks they blatantly ripped New Order off, listening to thisclever mashup, you can understand why. The bass line and drum beat are almost exactly the same!
The Go-Betweens (Grant McLennan & Robert Forster)
The Go-Betweens are one of those bands the critics and musicians love, but the general public don't know much about. They never had any huge hits, even in their native Australia. Their only mainstream success came when the opening chords of 'Streets of Your Town' got sampled for a big 90's hit dance song 'Just the Way You Are' by Milky. They are one of the great cult bands of the 80's. Their records feature some sublime guitar textures played by their singer/songwriting duo Robert Forster and the late Grant McLennan. 'Cattle and Cane' is one of the best 'lost' tracks of the '80's, with its odd time signature propelled by Lindy Morrison's great drumming. 'Bachelor Kisses' is one of those songs you might have heard on the radio in the '80's but never saw on Top of the Pops. It was a radio hit, not a chart hit. 'Head Full of Steam' is another 'almost hit' that probably would've been a hit if Lloyd Cole sang it! The Go-Betweens may not have had any hit singles, but they reformed in the 2000s and toured in bigger venues then they'd ever done before. I saw them at a sold out Barbican Theatre in London and The Olympia in Dublin. Truth be told, maybe the reason they never made it so big is because they were a bit dull live, they didn't recreate the majesty of their studio sound. Sadly, their reunion didn't last very long, Grant McClennan died of a heart attack aged just 48. He was a very talented songwriter, singer and guitarist, the quieter one of the two in the band, but on balance, I prefer his songs and voice. RIP.
The Sundays (David Gavurin)
Most of the textural guitarists above came to the fore in the 80's, The Sundays formed in the 80's, but their 3 albums all came out in the 90's. Their sound lies somewhere between The Smiths and Cocteau Twins, with Harriet Wheeler's fantastic voice complimented perfectly by her husband David Gavurin's textured guitars, which owe as much to Robin Guthrie as they do to Johnny Marr. In this way Gavurin is an interesting example of how a guitarist can merge the styles of other guitarists to create their own sound. Their most famous song is the haunting 'Here's Where the Story Ends', but not in their version, in a bland 1998 cover by 90's dance band Tin Tin Out. To me, their debut album 'Reading, Writing and Arithmetic' and follow up 'Blind' are two of the best albums of the 90's. The Sunday's last album, 1997's 'Static and Silence' was aptly named as they haven't released any music since then, Wheeler and Gavurin focused instead on raising their children. They must be due a comeback soon though!
Addendum - Dave's textural guitars
The influence of these textural guitarists on my own music is at times subtle, other times blatant. D.F.F songs like 'Beauty Becomes You', 'Stone Walls', 'Skin to the Bone' and 'Lullaby' are firmly in a dream pop/jangle pop mode. Less obvious perhaps is the influence of Dream Pop on my Sean Nós Opera 'Mná Brian Boru', but the song 'Be Binn's Prophecy' was composed under the dual influence of The Cocteau Twins and traditional Irish music. There are also textural guitar soundscapes in my Symphonies and in my Winter Variations solo electric guitar album.
The piece I'm composing at the moment 'Dun Laoghaire Guitars', definitely has textural guitar moments, particularly towards the end where there are multiple guitar lines layering up and up towards the climax.
At the peak of my heavy metal teen years I remember once telling my Mum, "I hate jazz!". A few years later I heard Django Reinhardt and changed my mind. Jazz is the kind of music that takes a while to understand. Those who take the time to explore the genre usually end up loving it. It is such a vast genre though that if you are exposed to the wrong kind of jazz, you may be put off. I think that's what must've happened me. Some jazz is very ego-driven, where endless loud sax solos seem to go on forever without much reference to the tune they are supposed to be playing! I still hate that kind of jazz. There are other kinds of jazz that I love though. Here are some of the jazz guitarists that have inspired me to learn something about the genre. I'm by no means a jazz guitarist, however I've learnt a lot from observing these guitarists.
One day as a teenager, whilst visiting my Dad's family home, I browsed through the vinyl collection there and the album cover that stood out was a smartly dressed, moustached gentleman with, what was to me at the time, an unusual looking guitar. It was Louis Stewart's classic 'Out on his Own' solo album. I asked my Aunt Katy about it, she told me it was a jazz album and I immediately lost interest! A few years later I asked her if I could borrow it. I listened and marvelled at the musicality and virtuosity of this Irish guitar genius. That began a lifelong admiration for Louis' music which led me to see him many times in concert and also attend several masterclasses with him, including two wonderful weeks in 2000 and 2001 at the West Clare Jazz School in Kilbaha. There I got learn from him, and join him and a group of other guitarists on stage as part of a jazz guitar orchestra, playing some of Louis' beautiful orchestrations. Louis was a legend in his own lifetime, his sense of humour and storytelling were as good as his playing. He had a lifetime of stories from his times playing with legends like Benny Goodman, Ronnie Scott and Stephané Grappelli. Louis should be way more famous, I've seen many jazz guitarists over the years, none were as good as Louis at his peak. I was really sad when he passed away in 2016. I miss him, he's irreplaceable.
Before I listened to Louis' music I was introduced to the Parisian Swing of Django Reinhardt and Stephané Grappelli by Ciaran Swift. This was the first time I enjoyed any kind of jazz. Ciaran's enthusiasm for Django led us to jam some Parisian Swing together, such as the beautiful Django composition 'Nuages'. I got a few Django CDs and learnt to really appreciate his beautiful tone and amazing dexterity. He famously played solos with just two fingers in his fretting hand due to an injury from a fire. He could do with two fingers what most guitarists can't do with four! Though the style he and Grappelli played is associated with Paris, he was from a Belgian Gypsy family, so the style is also known as Gypsy jazz. 'Nuages' is a ballad, but he could really burn the fretboard too. Check out his modernist composition 'Rhythm Futur' for proof!
Wes Montgomery was one of the most influential guitarists of all time, a jazz guitar pioneer with a truly unique style. Whilst most guitarists pluck strings either with a plectrum or fingerstyle (with a combination of thumb and fingers), Montgomery played exclusively using the flesh of his thumb. He had a distinctive way of building solos, starting with single notes, then into octaves and ending with the complex art of chordal solos, where single lines give way to chords played quickly one after another. He composed some great tunes, now jazz standards, such as "Four on Six" and "Far Wes". He had a very diverse output, including recording Beatles songs and an album with classical musicians called 'Fusion'.
Antonio Carlos Jobim, with Hélio Delmiro and Oscar Castro-Neves
One of Brazil's greatest composers, Antonio Carlos Jobim was the most famous 'Bossa Nova' composer. His music was a Brazilian style of jazz that became hugely popular in the '60's following his hit composition 'The Girl From Ipanema'. When I discovered this music I got really hooked into the guitar style. The guitar is mainly used as a backing instrument in bossa nova, but the syncopated rhythms and chord changes opened a new world of harmony and rhythm to me. Jobim really hit the big time in 1967 when Frank Sinatra came knocking, resulting in the chill-out album par excellence 'Francis Albert Sinatra & Antonio Carlos Jobim'. There are occasionally some great electric guitar parts in Jobim's records, such as those played by Hélio Delmiro on my favourite Bossa Nova album 'Elis and Tom', which Jobim recorded with Elis Regina, an extraordinary vocalist who died tragically young. I usually play a few Jobim tunes in solo concerts.
The bossa nova boom opened the world up to some virtuoso Brazilian guitarists who developed a really intricate hybrid between bossa nova, jazz and classical guitar. The best of these was a genius named Baden Powell. One of Brazil's greatest ever guitarists, he was also a wonderful composer. I've been playing his composition 'Deve Ser Amor' for many years, after first hearing it on an album by classical guitarist Gerald Garcia. He is one of a rare breed of musicians whose music is played by jazz, classical and pop musicians. His song 'Samba Triste' was a big hit. His innovative approach to guitar is demonstrated in 'Berimbau', an imitation of a brazilian folk instrument and his quirky 'Choro para Metronome'. As well as playing his own compositions, Powell peppered his albums and shows with jazz standards and classical music by composers like Bach and Albinoni. A one-of-a-kind maverick, Powell inspired the great classical guitarist Roland Dyens.
In the late 80's a satellite channel called 'Super Channel' became available on Irish cable TV. By the early 90's it was showing an eclectic programme called 'Talkin' Jazz'. It was like MTV for jazz and became regular late night viewing for me. One of the musicians often featured on it was jazz fusion maestro Pat Metheny. His brand of jazz was, to me at least, as unusual as his hair! His band featured synthesizers, Latin percussion, scat singing and his own unique guitar style, which included occasional use of a guitar synthesizer. When I first heard it I couldn't figure out whether I liked it or thought it was a bit naff. Eventually though Metheny won me over when I borrowed a couple of tapes from the library called 'Works' and 'Letter from Home'. 'Works' opens with the gorgeous, hypnotic track 'Sueno Con Mexico' which shows Metheny's melodic gifts at their best. To me this is a perfect example of how a jazz musician can create a great piece of original music without resorting to epic pyrotechnical solos. Metheny can shred with the best of them though, as demonstrated on the kaleidoscopic 'Have You Heard'. I picked the track 'It's For You' as it's one of the best examples I know of how Metheny manages to straddle the line between naff-ness and genius! On first listen I found the combination of folky guitar strums and new-agey synth sounds a bit cheesy, however as the track developed I couldn't help but be drawn into it. My musical taste-buds tell me I shouldn't like it, but once the guitar solo kicks in after 4 minutes I can't resist! Outside of his jazz fusion Metheny has the street-cred of collaborating with musicians as diverse as Brad Meldhau, Joni Mitchell, Steve Reich and David Bowie, with whom he wrote the classic hit 'This is Not America'. Metheny's keyboardist Lyle Mays, who was a vital part of Metheny's sound, sadly passed away earlier this year. RIP.
Paco DeLucia, Larry Coryell, Al DiMeola and John McLaughlin
Another 'Talkin' Jazz' staple was live performances from a guitar trio called 'The Meeting of the Spirits' featuring flamenco legend Paco DeLucia alongside jazz axemen Larry Coryell and John McLaughlin. Their performances, from a 1980 concert, showed me a new side of jazz that was a guitar extravaganza. Al DiMeola replaced Coryell in the trio soon after that concert. He is on the trio's first album 'Friday Night in San Francisco'. The title track of their 1983 album 'Passion, Grace and Fire' is a high point in flamenco/jazz fusion. Ciaran Swift and I spent many's the hour jamming out 'Mediterranean Sundance', trying desperately to match the lightning speed of this extraordinary trio. We both had a preference for Paco DeLucia, whose flamenco roots gave the trio a distinctive Spanish take on jazz. Lately though I've come to really enjoy Larry Coryell's playing and tone. Coryell and DeLucia passed away in recent years.
Perhaps the only jazz guitarist to make it onto MTV playing solo guitar, Tuck Andress made a name for himself in the late 80's/early 90's in a duo alongside his wife, vocalist Patti Cathcart. They followed Miles Davis' inclination to turn pop songs of the 80's into jazz standards, like Cyndi Lauper's 'Time After Time'. Andress had solo success with his percussive cover of Michael Jackson's 'Man in the Mirror'. No one played guitar like Andress back then, so he featured often in guitar magazines and on TV. Nowadays there are tons of guitarists imitating his percussive style, yet few of them are in his league, still it's easy to forget how innovative he was when he came out. I got a transcription of his version of 'Man in the Mirror' from a magazine back then and had a go at learning it. I can't remember it anymore, but it was fun to learn.
Not long after the 'Talkin' Jazz' days I left school to go to the famous 'Rock School' in Ballyfermot. Though we were all supposed to be there to learn how to be rock stars I ended up learning more about jazz thanks to the guitar teacher there, Hugh Buckley. Hugh is probably Ireland's finest living jazz guitarist, ever since Louis Stewart passed away. He's forged a diverse career, in the process playing with legends like Van Morrison and The Dubliners' Ronnie Drew (He produced Ronnie's final album, of jazz standards). Hugh gave me my first lessons in jazz and really helped expand my knowledge of harmony and guitar chords. I've played with him a few times, most notably in the Cosmopolitan Guitar Quartet and the 2008 Trad Connections Tour, which also included Ciaran Swift. Hugh is such a jazz master I leave the jazz solos to him whenever we play together! I've always enjoyed Hugh's compositions too, especially 'When Wes Was', 'Miro, Miro on the Wall' and 'J.W.', dedicated to the memory of brilliant drummer John Wadham. I used to regularly go to jazz gigs at JJ Smyths bar in Dublin's Aungier St. Hugh had a residency there in a great band with Wadham, pianist Myles Drennan, bassist Dave Fleming and Hugh's cousin Richie on sax. JJ's was where my real jazz education took place. It was going there that helped me gain an understanding of the genre as a listener. I'm still trying to understand how to play it!
New York is the world's jazz hotspot. The first time I was going there, in 1998, I asked Hugh for tips of where to find good jazz. He told me to go to 'Smalls', an aptly named underground jazz club in Greenwich Village. Back then it wasn't even a bar, just a music club. You could go to the nearby off-licence and bring in a few bottles instead. I'll never forget my first night in Smalls where I got to hear some of New York's best upcoming talent jamming away til the early hours. That year I saw a group of young musicians led by sax player Mark Turner and guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel. Barely known back then, nowadays they are jazz superstars. On a more recent trip to New York, perhaps 2009 or 2010, I went into Smalls to see the Norwegian guitarist Lage Lund on the recommendation of a jazz-loving friend. Lund is at the forefront of 'Nordic Jazz' and he is the most distinctive musician I've heard among the younger generation of jazz musicians. When I saw him in Smalls he stood out from the testosterone fuelled musicians who were occupying the stage with him that night. He has a really interesting approach to harmony and an angular soloing style that is always tasteful.
I was sad to see Smalls had changed a lot in just over 10 years though. It now had a bar and, Lund aside, the spirit had changed from co-operative jamming to competitive soloing. I didn't like the vibe so much there anymore and last time I went along, in 2014, there was an obnoxious door-man and an exorbitant cover charge, so I didn't bother going in. Back in '98 it was just $5 and a nice relaxed attitude at the door! Luckily my Irish Memory Orchestra colleague Neil Yates had alerted me to a place just down the road called 'Fat Cats' where it was $5 entry and there is a vibe not unlike the vibe Smalls had in the 90's. If you're ever in New York looking for some great jazz in a relaxed setting, go to Fat Cats!
These are the main jazz guitarists I've listened to over the years, there's lots more to recommend, people I should listen to more myself! Here's a few of them - Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd, George Benson, Jim Hall, Lenny Breau, Charlie Christian, Lee Retinour, Pat Martino, Kenny Burrell, Grant Green, Barney Kessel, Martin Taylor, Freddie Green & Ireland's Mike Nielsen.
Addendum 1 - Women in jazz guitar
There's no denying the fact that jazz guitar is a very male dominated domain. Guitar playing in general has always been male-dominated. Whilst there is a growing number of world-class female classical guitarists, jazz guitar seems to remain almost completely male dominated. Things might be different if it weren't for the tragic death of Emily Remler. She seems largely forgotten now, however In the '80's she was a really emerging jazz talent who recorded with Larry Coryell and bossa nova legend Astrud Gilberto among others. Her style was heavily influenced by Wes Montgomery which she acknowledged in this wonderful quote. "I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I'm a 50-year-old, heavy-set black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery!" Things were really looking up for her by 1985 when she won guitarist of the year in the Down Beat magazine poll. Tragically she died of heart failure in 1990 whilst on tour in Australia, aged just 32. Like many jazz legends before her, she was a victim of a heroin addiction. I only heard of her very recently, so I can't say she is a guitar hero of mine, but I imagine she could very well be had she lived long enough to build on the international acclaim she was accumulating by the time of her passing.
Prior to Emily Remler, the most notable female jazz guitarist was Mary Ford, duo partner to the legendary Les Paul. Their recordings together in the 1950's were really groundbreaking for their use of overdubbed guitars and vocals. Whilst Ford mainly played rhythm guitar to her husband's virtuoso lead, Ford's place in jazz history is assured as a fine guitarist and wonderful vocalist. A real pioneer in music.
Other female jazz guitarists of note include Mary Osborne, Mimi Fox, Sheryl Bailey, Brazilian singer Joyce and Leni Stern, who I saw on my first visit to New York in 1998.
Addendum 2 - Dave's jazz forays
I don't consider myself a jazz musician at all, however I have written some jazzy songs and compositions, which jazz musicians have played with me. Examples include the songs 'Woodlands' and 'Harvest Do', (as recorded by D.F.F.) and 'Kilbaha Jazz', a jazz meets Irish trad piece that is part of 'The Clare Concerto'. Kilbaha Jazz is dedicated to Louis Stewart and I'm glad I got the chance to tell him I wrote a tune in his honour before he passed away. My album 'Winter Variations' is also somewhat in the realms of jazz, seeing as it is an hour-long improvisation around the chord A Major 9!
Some of the best guitarists I've ever seen or heard are/were from Africa. There are a huge variety of guitar styles across the African continent. In this blog post I explain a bit about some of these styles and some of the great musicians from Africa who have influenced me. Some of their music is on the playlists below. If your knowledge of the music of Africa begins and ends with Paul Simon's Graceland album, this blog post may open your ears to some amazing new music!
1. Franco, Michelino & Simaro from TPOK Jazz (DR Congo)
Congolese legend Franco Luambo Makiadi was one of the greatest musicians to come from Africa. From the 1950's until his death in 1989 he led the magnificent band TPOK Jazz to produce a legacy that no other band in Africa, or arguably anywhere, can rival. Franco recorded over 3000 songs, composing over 1000 of these, with the rest composed by other TPOK Jazz members. Many of these songs are over 10 minutes long and each contains an ecstatic instrumental climax called a sebene where the guitars chime out in glorious counterpoint. OK Jazz was an incredible band with many members through its history. At its peak in the late 70's and 80's It operated like a football team with musicians and singers substituting for others depending on the song that was being played. Franco was known as 'The Sorcerer of the Guitar' and his distinctive style has been very influential to me. Among the many great guitarists to pass through the ranks of OK Jazz my favourite is probably Michelino who is seen playing lead guitar in the Youtube clip of the song 'Kamikaze'. Franco is beside him, cutting an imposing figure whilst the other guitarist is Simaro, a wonderful composer who was Franco's right-hand man and played the rhythm guitar parts. Tracks like 'Coupe du Monde' and 'Tu es Méchante' showcase the infectious, multi-layered guitar sound of Franco and TPOK Jazz, my favourite band in the world!
2. Jean Bosco Mwenda (DR Congo)
I first heard of Jean Bosco Mwenda through a recording by classical guitarist Timothy Walker of Mwenda's beautiful guitar piece 'Masanga'. Mwenda developed an intricate acoustic guitar finger-picking style that was hugely influential, likely influencing Franco and his colleagues. I don't know much about Mwenda, other than he his regarded as one of the pioneers of Congolese guitar playing and he sang beautifully to his intricate accompaniments. Famous classical guitarist John Williams has also recorded 'Masanga', although he can't get the rhythm and feel quite like Mwenda!
3. Ephraim Karimaura with Thomas Mapfumo (Zimbabwe)
Thomas Mapfumo is probably Zimbabwe's most famous musician, a legend in Africa, he now lives in exile in the USA, after years of disputes with the Zimbabwean government. He was jailed by both the white colonial government of Ian Smith and Robert Mugabe, whom he once supported in the struggle for independence. In the 1970's Mapfumo developed a music style called 'Chimurenga', meaning 'struggle'. It was the soundtrack to Zimbabwean independence. Guitarists like Jonah Sithole and Joshua Dube developed a special guitar style to go with Mapfumo's new sound. They mute the strings to imitate the sound of the traditional 'mbira', what some Western musicologists might call a 'thumb piano'. I've been listening to Mapfumo's music for many years, since first discovering it randomly in the World Music section of the Ilac Centre Library in Dublin! I particularly like his albums 'Hondo' and 'Vahnu Vatema', which feature the beautiful guitar playing of Ephraim Karimaura. In 2000 I composed a piece in Mapfumo's honour called 'Chimurenga', which has been recorded by the Dublin Guitar Quartet. I've seen Mapfumo and his amazing band The Blacks Unlimited twice, Great nights of music!
4. Djelimady Tounkara and Salif Keita (Mali)
Mali's greatest band is probably the Super Rail Band, which features the incredible guitarist Djelimady Tounkara. Originally known as the Rail Band in the 70's, the group has fostered many brilliant musicians including Salif Keita and Mory Kante, who both went on to successful international solo careers. Tounkara's guitar sets the Super Rail Band apart, he is one of the greatest guitar virtuosos from Africa. His style takes influences from Malian traditional instruments like the Kora and Balafon. Tounkara and the Super Rail Band played the 2007 Festival of World Cultures in Dun Laoghaire and I was lucky enough to be there for that briiiant concert. I've also had the pleasure of seeing Salif Keita in concert twice, most recently this year on his retirement tour. Now 70, his golden voice is as good as it ever was.
5. Jonah Sithole (Zimbabwe)
As mentioned before, Jonath Sithole pioneered the Chimurenga guitar sound during his time playing with Thomas Mapfumo. In the 1980's he started a solo career which brought him success and some international releases. I bought one of his CDs about 15 years ago when I lived in London. I got it at a great shop called Sterns African Music Centre, which unfortunately no longer exists other than as an online store. They used to have a café and lots of CDs to browse through that you couldn't get anywhere else. The digital streaming age ended Stern's viability. Strangely enough, Jonah Sithole's music isn't available on Spotify or other streaming services, but some fans have put his music up on Youtube. A great guitarist and his own albums are very enjoyable, in a similar style to Thomas Mapfumo.
6. Souza Vangu with Youlou Mabiala (Congo-Brazzaville)
Youlou Mabiala is a singer and composer from Congo-Brazzaville, a country beside DR Congo. He was a member of Franco's TPOK Jazz for some time, and he is Franco's son-in-law having married one of Franco's daughters. He became a solo star in the late 70's and 80's, producing some great albums with his band 'Orchestre Kamikaze', named after the song 'Kamikaze' which he composed. Orchestra Kamikaze's lead guitarist was a man called Souza Vangu, also from Congo-Brazzaville. His lead playing on the track 'Walimeya' is some of the most uplifting guitar playing I've ever heard!
7. Beniko Popolipo, Zamwangana & Jimmy Yaba of Zaiko Langa-Langa (DR Congo)
Zaiko Langa Langa come from the generation after Franco and TPOK Jazz, they developed the styles known as 'soukous' and 'rumba rock', which are generally a bit faster than the music Franco and TPOK Jazz played. The guitarists who have played with Zaiko Langa Langa over the years generally have to be able to play very fast! They are one of the most influential bands to come from Africa and their members included the late Papa Wemba, who became an international star, signed to Peter Gabriel's Real World label. I haven't listened to a huge amount of their music, I don't find it as good as Franco and TPOK Jazz. However there is a great energy to some of their music from the 70's and 80's, like the song 'Antalia'.
8. Ali Farka Touré (Mali)
One of the best known musicians from Africa is the late Malian guitarist Ali Fark Touré. He gained fame through his collaborations with artists like American slide guitarist Ry Cooder and kora player Toumani Diabate. He is also featured in Martin Scorcese's documentary about the roots of the Blues, 'Feels like Going Home', where the music he played is called 'Desert Blues' and identified as the origins of the blues. Touré played in Dublin in the early 2000s and I intended to go, but it sold out fast so I missed out. I did eventually get to see him playing in London's Barbican Centre in a magical duo concert with Toumani Diabaté.
9. Niwel Tsumbu (DR Congo/Ireland)
Niwel Tsumbu is from DR Congo but has been living in Ireland for many years. Niwel is simply the best all-round guitarist I know. He can play anything! His own style seems to be a mix of Congolese styles, flamenco, jazz and contemporary music. I've worked with Niwel many times, he is a member of my ensembles D.F.F. and the Irish Memory Orchestra and in 2014 I composed a piece called Joy for Niwel and I to play with the Crash Ensemble. That piece is like a mix between Congolese Rumba and New York minimalism! Niwel has been putting some fantastic clips on youtube recently explaining various guitar styles. A recent video surprised me as he explained how the Open G tuning, that I use for Irish trad, is a tuning used in the Congo many years ago!
10. DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra (Tanzania)
In the early 2000s, with the advent of blogging, a treasure trove of rare African records were uploaded to blogs like World Service. These were records that were mostly unavailable commercially, so it was fantastic to be able to hear all this music for the first time, as most of it was unknown outside of Africa. It was on one of these blogs I discovered the Tanzanian band DDC Mlimani Park Orchestra. I can't find a lot of info about them, but it seems they were Tanzania's most popular band for many years. When you hear a track like 'Edita' that's not surprising. Towards the end of the song it seems to my ears that there are four electric guitars, which is unusual, as it is more common for these larger bands to have three guitarists. But it could be that one of the guitarists is so good they sound like two guitarists playing at once!
11. Western Jazz Band (Tanzania)
Another Tanzanian band I know little about is Western Jazz Band. I discovered their music through the beautiful song 'Rosa' on a compilation CD I bought many years ago called 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa'. There are indeed beautiful songs on this album, though they aren't necessarily 'the most beautiful' songs of Africa! I think they missed out on ten thousand or so other beautiful songs in compiling this album! An interesting aspect, to me, of the song 'Rosa' is that it has occasional odd rhythmic beat structures where a beat seems to go missing every now and again. I love the guitar playing on this beautiful record, I don't know who the guitarist is though.
12. D.O. Misiani (Tanzania/Kenya)
Also on 'The Most Beautiful Songs of Africa' is an artist called D.O. Misiani and his band Shirati Jazz. From what I've read Daniel O. Misiani was one of the most important band leaders in Africa during his heyday. His songs were important political and social songs that got him in trouble with the authorities from time to time. The style of music he pioneered is called 'Benga', and the album 'Benga Blast' is a great example of this style, which is a bit more pared down than the larger African 'orchestras'. I particularly like the way that the songs sometimes break down to just the rhythm guitar and drums, so you can hear the intricacy of these guitar parts that are usually in the background. Misiani passed away a few years ago.
13. The Indestructible Beat of Soweto (South Africa)
Lots of people refer to Paul Simon's 'Graceland' album as being influenced by 'African' music, the truth though is that it is influenced by music styles purely from South Africa, like Township Jive and Palm Wine. Prior to 'Graceland' an album called 'The Indestructible Beat of Soweto' came out and proved hugely influential in the West. I got this album on tape in the 90's, not sure where it is anymore, I may have worn it out! There's lots of great guitar-based tracks on the album and I particularly like the tracks by Amaswazi Emvelo and Johnson Mkhalali. I don't know anything about these artists to be honest, I just enjoy the guitar sounds and distinctive vocals. Part of my composition 'The Clare Concerto' is influenced by this kind of music, 'Quilty Township Jive' mixes ideas from Irish trad and South African Township Jive and is dedicated to the Irish Memory Orchestra's South African conductor Bjorn Bantock.
There are so many other great bands and solo artists from across Africa, some more of which I've added to the Spotify playlist. This blog post only scratches the surface of the jewels to be found when you start looking for guitar music from Africa. I hope this post inspires you to discover some of this amazing music!