The African Connection: A New Departure For John Williams

John Williams and Francis Bebey
John Williams and Francis Bebey. Photo by Gil Gilbert.
By Colin Cooper | From the May & June 2001 issues of Classical Guitar

It is not at all usual for non-African musicians to make a success of African music. Like Chinese, Indian and Japanese music and Spanish flamenco, it’s something we tend to leave to those who know most about it, that is the musicians who live there. Nevertheless, white musicians have successfully tackled jazz; flamenco is widely performed outside Andalusia, and attempts have been made, with varying success, to work in the music idioms of those other countries.

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It is therefore not too surprising that a leading classical guitarist should tum to African music, with its vast array of instruments—some of them highly com­plex—and the fascination of its interlocking and criss­crossing rhythms. The nylon-strung “classical” guitar as we know it has found its way into this musical culture, as it has into many others, even if it has not achieved the predominant position it enjoys in South America.

Nevertheless, the classical guitar’s place in African music is a very distinct one, and it was this and John Williams’ involvement with the musical forms that constituted the main subject of our conversation. His work in this new (for him) area culminates in an international tour beginning in mid-May and extend­ing to the last week in June of this year. A CD will be issued by Sony (title: The Magic Box), and the group’s line-up will be: John Williams, classical guitar; John Etheridge, steel-string guitar; Paul Clarvis (acoustic drums), Richard Harvey (whistles, accordion etc.) and Chris Laurence (double-bass).

John Williams: It’s difficult to give one simple answer to the question, how did I get so interested in not only African music but African guitar music, that it led to a whole project—the recording, the tour, and a group based round it? There was an accumulation of interests that gradually converged and persuaded me—or trapped me! Francis Bebey wrote an amazing book (African Music: A People’s Art) about 30 years ago; I met him in Paris about 20 years ago, through Robert Vidal, but although I had his record and a couple of pieces of his music, I never got to know him until three or four years ago.

What I’d noticed was that a lot of the African music I listened to had the guitar in it. For example, from Senegal or Mali. It was basically kora, the harp-lute, but the classical guitar was playing with it. I didn’t really take the use of the guitar as being of any particular relevance, but then I picked up a record called The Moon and the Banana Tree, which is from Madagascar: ten or twelve guitarists in different styles, electric, pizzicato, bass, solo, voice and guitar, acoustic steel-strung, Spanish guitar—all these different techniques.

I was absolutely amazed. Madagascar’s cultural identity may be separate from African, although it’s influenced by Africa. I thought, well this is interesting. Then Sony European’s classical boss, Jean­Hugues Allard, asked if I had any interest in doing a record of African music. So my first reaction was, “There isn’t enough, it’s a kind of crossover experiment, it could be a bit commercial, but I’ll look into it.” We followed up a couple of ideas, and it didn’t grab me. I thought, this is stretching it a bit, I don’t quite see where the classical guitar fits in.

However, in doing that, Jean-Hugues and I went to Paris—quite independently of my previous meeting with Francis Bebey—and I saw Francis Bebey again. I got talking to him and got to know him much better than I had 20 years ago. I spent hours in his apartment, chatting about various things—not just guitar playing, but African music generally. And he was adamant that the guitar is the most popular instrument in Africa. He reeled off a whole lot of examples. I got really interested, and I thought, well, I must follow this up, there really is something here after all. So I said to Jean-Hugues Allard, “Look, funnily enough, I’ve changed my mind. I’m not so skeptical about this idea as I was at first. But I’ve got to do it in my own way, totally from the point of view of the guitar and my own contacts there, and not to do with a kind of crossover experiment. And it’s going to take time. It might take three years. I’m not going to be hurried into it for a release in six months’ time, I’m going to do it in my own time. And in the meantime I’m not going to do anything else. Because this is really interesting; it’s fascinating, and I’m learning while I’m doing it. So, sorry, but no records yet!”

I’d just done the Schubert/Giuliani, and last year they did a compilation with three new tracks on it, “Classic Williams: The Romance of the Guitar.” As a popular compilation it was done extremely well, but the idea was to fill a gap while working on the African project.

So, that’s the main thread. Through the sugges­tion of Sony, it led to taking up the acquaintance I already had with Francis Bebey and then learning more. Bebey gave me more of his music. I had a stack of recordings anyway, but one particular compilation, which had a lot of guitar music includ­ing guitar with his group and guitar with him singing, I didn’t have. He wrote out one or two pieces and sent me the copies.

At that time—I’m going back now two or three years—I didn’t have anything clear in my mind, I was just interested in the whole subject. I was inter­ested in music that could be described as more or less traditional, not necessarily going back hun­dreds of years but traditional in the sense of a living part of African musical development of the last, say, hundred years. Music in Africa is not traditionally an entertainment, but a celebration of the experi­ence of people’s lives, their ancestors and villages. I was interested in the continuity of that now, because times are changing. You’ve got the influences of, let’s say, “foreign” music jazz, pop music and so-called “world music,” taking the very general sense of the word, and it’s all influencing African music. It’s happening everywhere, as we know. I had long discussions with Leo (Brouwer), because of the Yoruba tradition in Cuba, about Afro-Cuban music in the more compositional sense, and about writing me something and what instrumentation it could be for—the guitar and what other instruments?—and I had a few conversations with Kevin Volans, who is a South African composer. He’s written a lot of African-influenced music, with keyboard and electronic instruments in African tuning, not recycling but re-creating a lot of the traditional ideas in a contemporary format. The more I was going into it, the more I couldn’t see how either Kevin Volans or Leo could quite fit into what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to push them too much—though I did do a lot of persuading with Leo, who is always so busy.

In the meantime I was carrying on my ideas on how to get repertoire together, and at the same time I was getting really keen—as I’ve always had a group—on the idea of having not just African guitar music but having it as an ensemble thing. It’s such fun, playing in an ensemble, and because of the rhythmic, melodic and harmonic complexity of the way things all interrelate, African music can be best expressed in a group. The amount of material that is either mainly guitar or can be adapted with guitar is endless. So I wasn’t reliant on getting anything from Leo or Kevin Volans. Basically, that initial involvement I had seen didn’t work out and wouldn’t have worked, because what I’ve ended up with is mostly a very traditional sort of music.

One of the interesting things that Francis Bebey told me was that the Portuguese took the guitar to the very first African colonies in the late 15th century before they ever took it to South America. We’re talking about the early forms of the guitar, the little soprano lute or whatever guitar they were playing then, the pre-baroque popular instrument. Africa before South America! I did some research—this is not directly from Francis Bebey, although I discussed it on the phone with him a few months ago when I was writing some notes—and, apart from it being a fact, an interesting question that flows from that is, Why did the guitar not become more a part of earlier traditional African music? Why was the guitar not embraced like it was in South America? The guitar more or less came to dominate the characteristics of all South American music. It got into Andean music, it got into Brazilian music, it got into the Caribbean. All in different ways, but it became a lynch-pin of the harmony, of the whole feel of it. But why not in Africa?

The well-established tradition of percussion?

JW: No! Absolutely not! This is a fallacy about African music. The reason is actually the contrary to that. South America had only percussion and wind instruments before the arrival of the plucked strings brought by the Portuguese. The South Americans had no plucked strings of any sort. Africa, if you look at Francis Bebey’s book, is full of harp-lutes, zither-lutes, bowed strings, you count them. Dozens of them, all integrated in different ways with wind instruments, with drumming instruments, in all parts of Africa. Given that a country, or a village, or a tribal area has its music totally ingrained in its daily life, they already have these instruments, totally locked into how they express their whole day-to-day living, including the past and the ancestors, the future of the spirits, all that. What would a European instrument like the guitar be doing there? Nothing. Nothing! It has nothing to contribute at all.

It’s contrary to the usual belief. It’s only a cultural conditioning that we westerners have had until the last 50 years that all African music is drumming. It’s absolutely ridiculous. We note that because the drumming of, in particular, West Africa, is so amazingly strong and so complex that a lot of attention has—rightly—been given to it. But it’s tended to overshadow all the wind, the flutes, all the different wind instruments of everywhere else.


Among other instruments is the mbira (also called the sanza) in Cameroon, which is a thumb piano.

(Here I was treated to a hands-on demonstration of the various African instruments in John Williams’s possession. They include several versions of the thumb-piano, where thin metal strips are attached by one end to a resonator and tuned, and played apoyando with the thumb.—CC.)

JW: Francis Bebey himself plays a smaller version of this, with metal bars. In Zimbabwe they have huge gourds, where the strips are set inside. Then there are the xylophones, or balafons, of various sizes, pitches and names, and all the harps and flutes. I recommend Francis Bebey’s book, published 30 years ago but still in print (African Music: A People’s Art). It’s difficult for me to give a comprehensive list of African instruments. It really is endless, you know. Talking about Africa, we use the word as a generalisaion, rather like “South America,” but the difference between Andean music and Brazilian is the same as what you’re going to get between, say, Zimbabwe and West Africa, or whatever.

Then you’ve got all the influences from the last hundred years. For instance, on the West Coast of Africa, particularly Cameroon, you have a lot of what is described as “coastal music,” music that has come with trade and entertainment and bars. It’s kind of traditional. A lot of people, when they hear some of the pieces say, “Oh, that doesn’t sound African, that sounds Caribbean.”

The reaction to the concert at the Academy (John Williams’ recital at the Royal Academy of music in June 2000, part of the EGTA celebration that year—see CG, October 2000) was interesting. I played a few pieces by Bebey, and the CG reviewer said that they “had more of a calypso feel to them than the raw pulsations of West African music.” It was a lovely comment, nicely meant, but rather patronising. This neo-colonial thing about drumming and Africa is a little bit like all Spanish music being passionate flamenco, forgetting the beautiful tunes of Galicia and other regions. And that’s what Africa is. It’s not all drumming. Sometimes people think it sounds Caribbean. And where did Caribbean music come from? It came from the coastal regions of West Africa, brought by the slaves. And the rhythms and cross-rhythms in Venezuelan harp and guitar music—they don’t traditionally come from South American drumming. They come from stringed instruments. And the style, as you can tell, doesn’t come from the Spanish guitar style of playing, it comes from a harp style of playing, from the West African kora. In the guitar music of Lauro, even when it’s not Seis par derecho, you can still feel it’s that style.

We’re going back hundreds of years here, to the influence of the West African slaves who helped create a new culture.

This passage of music from the West Coast of Africa across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and South America was something that completely missed out northern Europe and the growing harmonic tradition there…

JW: Absolutely. It was interesting, talking to Francis Bebey about the origins of the guitar. What’s happened is that in the last 150 years, what we now call the modern “Spanish guitar” what shall we call it, the “fully developed model”?—has been back either through the acoustic steel­strung instrument in popular music, or the ordinary Spanish guitar that Francis Bebey took up when he was a kid in the 1930s. He fell in love with the recordings of Segovia. Someone in his family or village in Cameroon had the early recordings, and Bebey was totally brought up on the classical gut-strung guitar. But there are other traditions of guitar playing which go back to the late 19th century. They’re not traditional in the sense of Africa 500 years ago, but they’re traditional in the sense that they’ve become a part of recent tradition in African music.

There are a few tunes that Tim Walker had from early days when he first came over here from South Africa, in the ‘60s. I got chatting to him about those—the project was already quite advanced—and thought I’d have a bash at arranging them. Which I’ve done. The Township Kwela is one of Tim’s pieces which he published as a solo years ago and which I always loved anyway. Also he said, did I know Masanga, by Bosco? So, thanks to Tim I’ve got that! He had a copy of it that had been taken from a Hugh Tracey collection back in the 50s and 60s. Jean Bosco Mwenda was a sort of African blues singer/guitarist from Zaire. I used a capo at the fifth fret, because he played it that way. Later in life, Bosco himself played it lower down, in G, in the first position, slower and a bit different.

One thing led to another, but Madagascar, Francis Bebey, Masanga and a few other things gave me a very solid guitar base for the repertoire. I amplified that with various ideas of my own, using rhythms, traditional tunes, taking one or two things off records like traditional kora music. I’ve done an arrangement of the South African National Anthem, Nkosi sikelel’i, which was originally the African National Congress anthem. The African Children’s Choir sing that on the record. We got them to sing the verse in the original language. We will do an instrumental version for the concerts.

Francis Bebey composed a new piece for us, with him playing the thumb piano, the sanza, and singing in his mother tongue. We will do the instrumental version.

There are five of us. An enormous amount of thought went into how the group would work just within itself, instrumentally and also for this music. And, obviously, who was going to be in it. A lot of ideas were changed, but I stuck with my first idea, which was to have the steel-strung guitar and the nylon-strung guitar together. I had quite a lot of experience of that in Sky, the old group of years ago, and I’ve always thought that it sounded really good. Ben Verdery does that often in the ‘States with a pal of his. Then of course it was a question of who and how it would work. I didn’t know him very well at the time, but about three years ago I met John Etheridge. I took the bull by the horns and phoned him up and asked if he was interested in this as a project. He was very interested, and we’ve worked together since then.

In a way that was the lynch-pin of the idea. It was kind of guitar based, whatever else we did. I decided very early on that we had to have acoustic string bass. Generally, in African and world music, they tend to use an electric bass guitar all the time, which I don’t think works well because African music predominantly has an acoustic feel to it. I’m not saying that all the pop groups could do anything else other than what they do. They need to have the kind of sound they do because it’s already a mixed crossover thing when you’ve got African pop music. But if you’re trying to be more traditional in the sense of the sound, it has to be acoustic.

I discussed all this with Francis Bebey, and he was always saying, “It has to be acoustic.” The irony is that when he plays with his own family and his own group, he uses an electric bass guitar! I don’t quite have the courage to tell him I don’t think it’s as good as a string bass.

I’ve always had in my various groups—John Williams and Friends, for instance—Chris Laurence playing string bass. He’s a great bass player. Chris does now mostly jazz, but in fact he was principal bass in the Academy of St. Martins in the Fields for many years. He’s unusual in the sense of being a proper bass player who’s also a great jazz player. There’s hardly anyone who does both.

Again, the drums are acoustic. I’d never worked individually with Paul Clarvis, but I knew that he was absolutely terrific. Very wide-ranging in his interests, a real expert on world music and acoustic drumming, whether it’s Middle Eastern, Turkish, Indian or African. He has a real enthusiasm and interest in it, and I thought he’d be perfect. We don’t want to just copy African traditional music. Why copy? You might as well listen to the original thing and not five white guys from North London. (After one successful take, for guitar, drums and bass, Paul Clarvis had remarked “Not bad for three white fellas from North London!”)

Then there was the question of wind instruments. There was only one choice for me, Richard Harvey. I’ve worked with him so much in the past, in JW and Friends, and he’s an absolute genius of a wind player. And he’s not only a good wind player. It’s very dangerous when you say that someone can play a number of instruments; you think that if he can play them all, he must be the “master of none.” Munrow used to say of Richard that he was “it” when it came to recorder players. So there was no question there. Richard’s additional advantage is that he plays clarinet, which was his instrument at college, bass clarinet, any kind of whistle. He’s spending a lot of time in South-East Asia now, particularly Thailand, giving concerts with Hucky Eichelmann and writing film music. They’ve a duo together, and he plays anything that’s got wind in it. Traditional Thai instruments, piano accordion… And if you need an extra guitar or an extra mandolin, Richard can do it. Piano accordion is a basic part of Malagasy music; their great popular traditional hero in Madagascar is Rossy. The Island of Ghosts is the name of his CD, and it’s music that Rossy wrote, played, sang and produced for an Anglia Television Survival programme on Madagascar.

So, the piano accordion is important. And if there’s a bit of keyboard playing, anything, Richard can do it. That’s where he’s at home. He used to be like this in our old group. He had a table on the stage with about 20 wind instruments and God-knows-what. He came to the studio with bags of them: ocarinas, bass recorders, whatever. That’s the group. Five of us, apart from the African Children’s Choir and Francis Bebey singing and playing his own song. There’s a little side detail: one of the tracks, a wonderful piece that I fell in love with very early on, is by the Malagasy musician Rossy, played on the valiha, which is a sort of bamboo harp. It’s a big cylinder of bamboo and the strings are around it, all the way down. It’s an ingenious thing. Traditionally—this is going back before modern technology—they used to slice strands of bamboo down the side, soak them in water so that they shrank, and then they’d stick little bits of wood to make little bridges. The strands acted as strings. It was very, very quiet, but nowadays of course they’ve developed it into an instrument where they use actual strings fastened down the bamboo. It has a magical sound.

This particular piece is called Maki, which is the Malagasy word for the lemur, the small mammal that is common in Madagascar. It had a lovely feeling of lemurs; you can imagine them swinging and dancing in the trees. Rossy had obviously written it on this instrument, which is like a very high harp or kora in sound. I wanted to get this on the guitar, but I can’t get high enough. And when I play it low, it sounds too much like a guitar. So I thought, well, I’ve never done it before, but I’ll have a go at it on a requinto. After all, it’s the kind of John Etheridge–sound that the Venezuelan harp has. African sounds tend to be very sparkly and high, very bright and optimistic. I wanted to get that quality.

To be honest, I’ve never been a great fan of requintos in ensemble. I never thought that high guitars, even in quartets, are wholly successful. There something tight and unyielding about them. As a colour, it’s great in a quartet, but it shouldn’t be used melodically, because there’s not enough expression in it. I found it with a few requintos I tried, then I suddenly thought of the little guitar I had of Martin Fleeson’s. He’d made it for his kids, and he’d given it to me. I’ve always had it as a spare guitar hanging on the wall. I put the top five guitar strings on strings two to six, and from Brian Cohen I got a selection of top strings, lute strings I believe they are, for the top string. It’s the most fantastic sound! Unbelievable! It was just what I wanted for the Rossy piece.

I also have three cellos and a double-bass, all bowed. There are only three chords, F, G, C, that sort of thing, but it’s a wonderfully rich quality.

The infiltration of the classical guitar into African music is a fascinating subject. John Williams’s new record may well do something to stimulate the reverse process. Composers such as Timothy Walker and Charles Camilleri have already introduced African elements into their music, and the sheer virality of African music, quite apart from the “passionate drumming” of popular perception should ensure that there will be a lot more to follow.

About the general effect of one style upon another; John Williams drew my attention to the work being done by Professor John Griffiths, of Melbourne University, who has made a special study of the sociological history of Spanish music and the influences that have brought about changes, particularly from the 12th to the 15th centuries.

JW: One of his topics is the introduction into Spanish music of our modern technique on the vihuela, at the moment in the 16th century when the choral, polyphonic style was introduced into instrumental music. Before that, you had the dances, and you had basically a monodic style, played on the vihuela and on the other instruments. Then the polyphonic influence of composers of that period—Palestrina, Victoria—invaded the instrumental music, and the instrumental techniques had to change from the finger/thumb and strumming technique to what is now our modern guitar technique, in order to be able to play the polyphonic music.

This was not a digression, but something integral to what we had been discussing earlier; not only the way the guitar was changing African music, but the way African music was changing the way the guitar was played there. In the course of fingering a short passage of Senegalese music, John Williams had discovered a remarkably simple technique involving the thumb and the middle finger only, whereas the application of classical guitar technique as it is universally taught and under­stood would only have complicated it needlessly. More than that, the simple way imposed a rhythm of its own on the phrase. Classical guitar technique as it is generally taught would not have revealed that.

Perhaps it is too soon to think about appointing African guitar teachers in our music colleges, but as African music gains a stronger hold on our musical awareness—which it certainly will, if the influence of South American guitar music is anything to go by—we are going to have to take another look at our guitar techniques in order to find answers to the new questions posed by this unfamiliar music. John Williams, talking about this particular phrase, put it succinctly: “It’s the perfect example, a simple arpeggio, sweet and lovely. But you can’t play it properly with our classical technique. It’s got no rhythm, and it’s very awkward. The answer is not difficult. Anyone could do it. It’s just an approach.”

With the contribution from Francis Bebey, the African’s Children’s Choir, the piece by Timothy Walker, the rhythmic urgency of the kwela and the makossa, a hint or two of the pentatonic and some echoes of the Caribbean, the record has an enormous appeal. Among its many delights are three short griot tunes, put together to form one piece. In some ways the African griots have affinities with the medieval troubadours. They have a story­telling role, passing down a family’s history from generation to generation, typically in accompanied song. These particular examples were originally played on the kora, a harplike instrument with two rows of strings played with both hands, one hand to a row. On the record it is played with steel-strung acoustic guitar and nylon-strung classical a persuasive combination of tone colours that will delight many and surprise more than a few. Even the dyed-in-the-wool neo-colonials, who are no doubt opposed to mixed marriages, will have to admit that there is a lot more to African music than drumming.

In releasing some of the heady aromas of its rich and varied melodic tradition, John Williams has revealed an enormous number of further possibilities for the guitar and for those who listen to it.