Giving up all the way to New York Guitar Festival

It’s 2016. I’m at Heathrow right now, flying back to South Africa having enjoyed my fourth visit to New York in just three years. But, this visit was very different.

The story of this year’s trip to New York begins in 2011. I had released my ninth album called The Sound of Water, which felt to me like the way I’d always wanted to play. (My album of guitar arrangements of kora music, One Night on Earth: Music from the Strings of Mali, would come later, in 2013.) The album launch was held at a small theatre in a small fishing village south of Cape Town. It was not the best place for a launch. But, funds were low and this place did have special significance.

A lot of effort went into the promotion and launch of that album. Booking the gig meant finding a venue; making posters and asking a guy to walk around town (literally) sticking them up in shops (the town or city council made it impossible to for independent artists to stick things on lampposts); sending out mailers to newspapers and fans (no, social media wasn’t massive then); and then sitting and waiting before the start of the launch hoping you’d make enough to cover expenses.

About 120 people came. It was a good evening. But that was it. All went quiet. I thought right there and then: this is hardly a fun way to live, it’s not a job, not a way to make playing feel like a full blown flow of epic joy. Ha!

By the following year – 2012 – I decided not to book gigs anymore. I just gave up. I thought, if the world wants to hear me play, the world can damn well ask me to play. And if not, I’d get the message. I can play on the porch. Fuck it.

Nevertheless, there were murmurs from people that my next album should have some of those kora pieces I sometimes played. Next album?? Yeah right. For what?

Eventually, I did record an album with kora pieces. And earlier this year, I travelled to Mali because Toumani Diabaté, whose music I transcribed for guitar and recorded, asked me to come. Imagine. I’d never even seen the guy play live, next thing he hears me play his music on a record and he says, ‘come and play in Bamako; I’m organizing a festival.’

As I said earlier in this post, this is my fourth visit to New York in three years. The first three visits were wonderful, but this one was different. You can play in New York and feel like a drop of water in the Cahora Bassa dam. You can have a great time, find an appreciative and knowledgeable audience that knows what you’re doing, how it fits in, and be able to locate you immediately within a larger context. But, you’re also fully aware that the next time you come you will have to start all over.

Not this time. I came to New York to play at the annual New York Guitar Festival. In my first performance I finished a four-part bill with some of America’s finest guitarists, where I was introduced to a capacity audience by New York’s guru of public radio — John Schaefer — at WNYC’s dedicated performance space. The performance was streamed live. Two days later Schaefer introduced me again, this time at The Cloisters, part of the biggest museum in North America, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I performed under a renaissance crucifix. The room was packed, wtih many more waiting outside. My last appearance was at the Festival’s Academy program, where I was interviewed before an audience by the fabulous Banning Eyre, whose book In Griot Time first introduced me to stories of musical life in Mali.

So that was the New York Guitar Festival! I found my way here after a long convoluted journey that had me recording an album and sending a copyof it to, among others, a guy named David Spelman who, in 2012, thought it wasn't shit.

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I’m back in Cape Town, home for just over a week before another trip for another performance, this time a collaboration. The guitarist I will play with is someone I remember listening to closely for the first time in 1996. We had a listening lab at the University of Cape Town. I’d taken a vinyl from behind the counter with two versions of the same piece (probably Bach), performed by John Williams and Julian Bream. Scrutiny. In two weeks I will be on stage at Kings Place in London with John playing my arrangements of Toumani’s music, this time for two guitars.

So yes, I this journey began with me giving up. But, while I giving up I recorded that album, which made its way into the world and yes, I did end up playing on a porch, but the porch was on a farm called Shakori Hills and I was giving a lesson to two guitarists from around there, North Carolina, just a few days before a pickup, a banjo player and a couple of trains would land me in that massive city of New York, where under the auspices of The New York Guitar Festival my performances would, just maybe, be more than just a drop of water in a dam far, far away in the south of Africa.

Who would have thought?


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