Quaint ramblings and occasional reflections of a journeying Aussie musician...

27 March 2006


Wow, has it really been a whole week since I wrote last? When my friends ask me how it's all going, I enjoy tellling them that it's madness, because it usually is, but it's not usually quite as busy as it has been this last week, or indeed in this one just started. Tonight is gig four of six in five days, something which hasn't happened for a while...plus the teaching, which thankfully is in it's last week before three weeks off (can't wait).....PLUS my silly deskjob which enables me to rant and rave at y'all like this....PLUS the search for a new housemate.....DOUBLEPLUS a little musical project on the side which reaches some sort of zenith at the end of this week. I'm waiting to see how this one turns out, but if it does then it will result in a whole other musical adventure. If it does come off, then to add to the runaround which I'm in the thick of at the moment, it will be a new musical experience, indeed one which I have some reservation about, but at the same time am working diligently towards completing. Funny old business, this....
Anyhoo, on little sleep and growing exhaustion, I decided to burn off another precious free night last night and venture down to one of London's better venues, having been prompted by a friend currently in town from Melbs, a great singer here for a vocal competition. Tonight's gig was for the winner and finalists of the competition, and the grapevine yielded to me earlier in the week that the Oz muso mafia struck again (three singers no less reaching the finals), so this was definitely a hang worth hanging at.
The place I was travelling to totally lives up to all the cliches....I had to catch a bus, change for the tube, and then walk for 20 mins down an industrial back lane to an un-signposted metal grill off the street. As you peer down a yawning open brick stairwell lit by one yellow light, you push a buzzer (sometimes twice or three times) until you hear the sound and a guy sticks his head around at the bottom of the stairs to let you in.
And this is the real doozy...you get to the bottom of the stairs and there's two doors, one which leads directly to the back of the piano on to the 'stage' (on the floor), and one which leads into the mixing desk room/coat room/cash register room. I found myself bustled into holding a door open for numerous grey-haired couples who had pre-booked, before being remembered and shown through the full room to a table.
Okay, so I'm all for this music being viewed by a discerning, selective audience, but I gotta say I'm feeling a touch alienated here!
On the way, brushed past abovementioned friend...kiss and hug...see you later on....can't drink here without eating, and in a moment of weakness was duped by the pushy Kiwi waitress into ordering a main instead of just a starter, which of course wasn't the case last time (sigh) but I guess I can afford it. Most of the first set later I am presented with something I paid eight quid for which wasn't as good as I could have made myself. At least the wine was quick I suppose. Strange vibe from this girl all night - it's her turf, and I daren't mess with that!
The early survey of the room upon being seated registered a large number of what I correctly guessed to be Phillipinos. Asian people are something of a minority in this town, so to see two table loads in a Jazz club was pretty unusual. Friend gets up to perform and tells us all that it was a Phillipino guy who won the competition! and at first I'm surprised, but then, I realised it kind of figures - cue yet another one of Mike's lengthy reminiscences (wavy vision, harp music ensues)....
For those of you who might not have known, I spent September 04 to January 05 aboard the good ship MS Zuiderdam, weekly touring various ports in the Caribbean. It was a professional engagement, playing piano, doing what I love most to do in the world and getting to travel as a result, and despite my reservations about the whole ordeal...er, I mean experience, there were parts of it that were quite amazing.
It was a ship, and so of course there was quite a hierarchy involved - captain at the top, usually from the Antipodes or Europe, then officers, largely Dutch, then crew and us musos, usually from Canada/US/Oz...and then the two largest groups on board were the Indonesians (hotel staff) and Phillipinos (bar staff). Goes without saying of course that the hierarchy continued in terms of pay.....certain days we would be skimming across the glassy, waveless fields of the Doldrums, but the boat would still be rocking around becuase the stabilisers were off, which would conserve fuel. Why? Word on the ship was that if the captain saved fuel by the time we got back to home port then he received some stupid $US10,000 bonus, to accompany what he already must have been getting for lunching in the ports and giving the odd command to steer a ferry of oldies around the equatorial baby pool of the Americas.
Let's drop way down the pay scale to the Indonesians and the Phillipinos. These guys were working twelve hours a day, six or seven days a week, sometimes for half and less of what I was getting sitting around drinking myself into a stupor every night in the officers bar playing guest shows three (sometimes two) times a week for US$350 (which any professional muso will tell you is not much).
And yet the Phillipinos were some of the most good-natured, fun-loving people I met on the whole thing, with this amazing musicality and passion I hadn't quite seen before. In the first two months of the contract I played solo piano in one of the bars, and Jesus was one of the local waiters. So one quiet night he ditches his tray, walks straight up to me, and we end up doing 'Lately' (Stevie Wonder), with him belting out from his heart, at nobody! Extraordinary!
About every three weeks, despite working long hours, these guys would get together the traditional costumes and dances and put on the Philipino crew show. Musically quite dodgy, but they were so into it. They'd split up the program between bamboo dancing and belting out these huge passionate aria-like ballads! showing a musicality far greater than some of my fellow musicians. Harking back to another ethnic group I've had some musical dealings with over the years, I'm guessing it was the Latino in them.
So snapping back to the reality of where I was last night, this guy who won the competition, he was all that! Totally into every word and phrase, a crooner from way back.
A word must be said here for the Indonesians on board the ship as well. Presumably on the same or possibly a lower pay scale than the Philipinos, it came time for the Christmas concert, which involved four different choirs assembled from the different countries on the ship, and due to some technical fault in the raising stage platform, I was the sole accompanist, for everybody!
Most of the Indo's on board were obviously Muslim, but the Christian minority on board got a choir together.....undoubtedly the best musical experience I had on the high seas was staying up late with these guys, backstage after the main rehersal, running through their two part arrangement of my favourite christmas carol, 'O Holy Night'. They sang their hearts out.
True enough, I hadn't slept in a week, and was totally disillusioned with my fellow band members and the whole thing, but after they left I stayed up for another two hours working on my accompaniment. It felt like the right thing to do, something I could actually put my time and energy into that I would get something out of.
And so the concert came together, with choirs from the Dutch (bloody horrible, couldn't sing to save their lives), American/Canadian/Australian (all mushed up into one), Philipino, and my faves, the Indonesians, all accompanied by Your Humble Correspondent on the Steinway. The majority of passengers on that week were Jewish, who (word had it) would ditch the mainland that time of year in droves to escape Christmas. Presumably they weren't out there in the darkness, so I suppose the concert was put on for the remaining masses of white-haired Floridian retirees, you know, to show the oldies that the world really was a ethnically harmonic, brotherly-loving place after all.

Yeah, right.

Coming back in from that extraordinary tangent, the Philipino comp winner was great, and so was Friend! I hadn't heard her in a long time, but I knew she'd still have the goods and she did...ripped the roof off of the place!
Whole thing was accompanied by this jumpy looking piano guy with great stage presence and charisma, accompanied by two silver haired veterans (you know, guys who look like to do the gig they've had to take time off a busy schedule of making those little ships that stand up inside glass bottles on your mantlepiece! But then of course I think, is that me in 40 years!?). Got to hear the other two Aussie finalists as well, a bloke who's good mates with Uncle Dave and this extraordinary young singer from Sydney, currently living in New York.
The whole night had been truckloads of showbiz, especially from Phillipino winner guy, and I'm up for all that, but this girl got up and just sang the song. The song just...happened, no big 'sell', and because of that, it actually drew my attention into her and her performance so much more.
Great stuff, and gorgeous to hang with after - others were great to talk with too, as well as another friend who dropped by who I knew would be there - lots of fun had by all.

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