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Field Recording On An African Island

Hidden Treasures By Ian Brennan

Field Recording On An African Island

Recording music in remote locations can be challenging — and before you can record it, you have to find it!

It took four flights and a dose of food poisoning to reach the small island in the Indian Ocean. Moheli is a nation with no army, only police. Women regularly don thick mud-masks for sunblock, and fishermen go out in hand-made, one-person canoes to return home with hauls of lobster. The few roads are lined with cars that have been stripped of all but the body, and there's a trash-filled beach mere metres from the Presidential palace.

In every 'corner' of this planet, if you can find people, you can find music. No location is without a wealth of creativity. But locating it in a place such as this can be genuinely challenging, and you must put in the work to find the strongest performers. They're very rarely to be found via the Internet. Believe me, I've tried, and wish it was that easy! Usually, you must take a leap of faith — get your feet on the ground, and start talking with local people. Sadly, on this occasion, we were informed that the last living player of the ndzumara (a double-reed pipe, or primitive oboe) had died recently, the sound of the instrument ostensibly lost forever. But we managed to uncover some other leads, and, as is often the case, we found the strongest artists 'hidden' behind other, similar artists who'd achieved more fame.

To reach the artists that were first recommended to us — an elderly trio of mandolin, oud, and violin — we hazarded a 30-mile drive on the main road. That may seem a short distance, but the journey took three hours due to the potholes. We even experienced a head-on collision while we took a break, standing in the rain, as a teenage driver with faulty brakes careered into our lane and then into our vehicle. Not having had a seatbelt on, he was carried away, limp and unconscious, by other drivers, his car clumsily pushed to the side to allow the sole transit artery to be reopened post-haste. We were left to wonder how severe the teenager's fate was — thankfully, we learned later that he had survived.

On arrival, we found the trio, hospitable and regal, accompanied by a drummer who played with the snare upside-down before being corrected by his bandmates. Sadly, their watered-down Tarab music just didn't hold up. But a slick and successful man named Hassain led us to another non-musician named Hassain and he, in turn, connected us with a musician who was quite good. Finally, that musician introduced us to his friend and mentor, Soubi — and he (and his partner, Mmadi) turned out to be the real deal. As I said, finding the best local talent can take some effort!

I'd rather make a feature of the atmosphere than end up with an overly sanitised recording. So if a noise is interfering, I'll be sure to mic it.

Location, Location, Location!

Once you've sourced the talent, there comes the question of where best to record, and that again can take some experimentation — one needs be resourceful. For this...

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Published May 2020