The implementation of sensible Public Health Policies has always been an uphill battle and the battle never seems to end. The American novelist Sinclair Lewis in his 1925 novel Arrowsmith explored the issues that faced a young idealistic physician in pursuing an ethical career in medicine. In that era American main stream physicians resented Public Health policies that, in their view, threatened to interfere with their ability to make a living. In the course of the novel Lewis describes many aspects of medical training, medical practice, scientific research, scientific fraud, medical ethics, public health, and of personal/professional conflicts that are still relevant today. Thankfully the discussion seems to have moved on and in this modern era the medical professions support evidence based scientific Public Health Policies. Yet despite the over whelming evidence in support of  mass immunization there are continuing efforts to undermine the logic, efficacy and efficiency of modern day programs.  In the past children were at risk from any number of infectious diseases. Modern immunization programs and Public Health policies and initiatives have largely made a significant number of those risks things of the past. Yet we seem to have forgotten that in our life time and in our parent’s life times Diphtheria, Whooping Cough, Tetanus, Smallpox and Polio and a whole host of infectious disease that were very real problems have now been brought  under control by public health initiatives. We are in awe of the spectacular achievements of modern medical and surgical technology and we seem to forget the less dramatic efforts of the quiet revolution in hygiene, sanitation and public health that are the real medical achievments of the past century.

 One of the casualties of the internet era is the devaluation of the “expert”. Even such august bodies as the CDC (Centre for Disease Control) seem to rate less credibility than the opinion of non-expert  celebrities. At the risk of calling upon the non-expert opinion of a celebrity I suggest that the viewing of the attached video by John Oliver is a worth while exercise in getting a balanced view of the battle over immunization. I also think it is an indictment of the current state of affairs that the programs of comedic social commentators like John Oliver , Stephen Colbert and John Stewart  are more likely to be factual than the “alternate facts” perpetuated by certain politicians.

PS. The Novel Arrowsmith has been compared with The Citadel published by British novelist A.J. Cronin in 1937. The Citadel also deals with the life experiences of a young idealistic doctor who tries to challenge and improve the existing system of medical practice.


Octave Mandolin or Irish Bouzouki?

Recently I had some discussions with friends about Octave Mandolins and Irish Bouzoukis. Here are some points that were kicked around.

Octave Mandolin or Irish Bouzouki?

They are very similar but in reality with either instrument you end up with a different sound. If you are a fiddle player or mandolin player you might lean in the direction of an Octave Mandolin. As the name implies the Octave Mandolin is tuned like a mandolin (G D A E  low to high unison strings) but an octave lower. The neck length (scale length) is way shorter (maybe around 22″ depending on the builder) than the Irish Bouzouki and that gives the instrument the tight punchy sound of a mandolin. Now, possibly, with strings you have two options on the Octave Mandolin. Mandolins, Mandolas and Banjos tend to use loop end strings that are in my opinion  (1) are fiddly and a pain in the ass when changing strings and (2) loop ends limit options in the choice of strings you may want to use. So if you can find an Octave Mandolin that uses ball end strings like a steel string guitar that would be a wiser choice. I would avoid loop end strings like poison. Ball end strings gives you a greater choice in the availability and variety of strings you may want to use.  Of course there are other considerations with custom instruments that are dependent  on how much you actually want to spend. Do you want a flat top or carved top? what tone woods are you looking for, etc?. You are more likely to find an off the shelf Octave Mandolin than an Irish Bouzouki. Octave Mandolins have some favor with bluegrass musicians so in North America you may have a better chance of finding one.

Irish Bouzouki

There are lots of options for Irish Bouzoukis as well. The scale length is usually around the 24-25″ but again that depends on the builder. The longer scale length tends to give a “looser” sound that an octave mandolin. A really long scale length adds a significant amount of sustain to the sound. There are more tuning options that can be used (eg. GDAE, GDAD, ADAD low to high).  The bouzouki can be strung in unison like the mandolin or the bass strings can be tuned in octaves like a 12 string guitar. That is just personal choice. With the octave strings (my preference) you can get a nice droning effect that is particularly suited to Celtic tunes. The disadvantage with octave strings is a compensated bridge to take into account the different gauges of strings  is pretty well a must to achieve good intonation. Particularly when using a capo. Of course ball end strings is the way to go. Also do you want flat top? carved top? and what tone woods would you want to select?

The Greek Bouzouki is in a completely different bag with wildly different construction methods,  tuning, playing style etc. Still there are some Celtic musicians, Alec Fin comes to mind,  who uses the Greek instrument.

Although I play an arch top Fylde from Britain you don’t have to go all that way to get a good bouzouki. Lawrence Nyberg on Hornby Island builds superb instruments that he ships all over the world. His instruments will cost significant dollars (around $4000 +) but it is the old story – you get what you pay for.    check out his excellent web site for images, options and sound bites. I can recommend Lawrence without any reservations. He is very professional in his approach and his products are top class. I had him build me a five string Cittern (tuned DGDAD) with a Headway bridge pickup installed (in retrospect I would stick with K&K contact pickups). After some initial discussions about the specifications I wanted I placed a deposit in August of the year. He contacted me in February the following year for some additional funds and I paid it out at the end of May and the instrument it was in my hands in early June. A couple of years later I had a problem with the bridge and after very brief discussions with Lawrence I had a luthier up in the Crows Nest pass build me a new bridge and invoice Lawrence for the cost of the replacement. There  was no hassle or problems. The job was done and Lawrence absorbed the cost. If I had the funds I would get Lawrence to build me an Irish Bouzouki with octave bass strings. It was a pleasure to deal with some one who was so thoroughly professional and I would do it again in a heart beat.


YouTube Picks (#10) – Another Way to Play Guitar

The Blues as a musical influence has been around for well over 100 years.It is the basic ingredient of Ragtime, Early Jazz, Country Blues, Bluegrass, Swing, Bebop, Modern Jazz, Rhythm and Blues, Soul and Classic Rock and just about any contemporary music genre you may care to mention. The internet is flush with blues based performers and performances and “how to ” videos. In the academic world of universities and Colleges, out side the specifically Classical realm, the programs are are dominated by Jazz and pop based curriculums with strong blues components. This has been going on for so long and it is so ingrained in our musical psyche that we often forget there are other musical genres and ways of playing music. Guitarists are not immune to this way of thinking. Every guitar player wants to be a “rock star”. Yet, in the vein of the old saying, “There are more than one way to skin a cat” one could also say “there are more than one way to play guitar”. Here is another way.

While the western pop/rock world was going on its particular musical way during the post WWII era there were things happening in “darkest Africa”. Particularly in the Congo. “The guitar rich pop music of the Congo in Central Africa has had more impact around the continent than any other Afro-pop genre. Beginning in the late 1940s, bands in Brazzaville and Kinshasa – cities that face each other across the Congo River – began fusing Cuban music with local sounds ” (Banning Eyre). It is kind of ironic in a way. African music had a profound influence on the music of Cuba in the development of Son montuno (Son) , Salsa etc. Cuba has returned the favor by heavily influencing musicians of the Congo in the development of Soukous, kwassa-kwassa and Rumba Rock. The Three-Two Clave Rhythm from Cuba is central to the understanding of the pop music of the Congo.  Once established as a style the music of the Congo has had no problem in crossing ethnic and national boundaries with its powerful dance rhythms and before too long in 1970s and 1980s  Soukous  became the disco music of Africa.

To get the ball rolling here is Don Keller doing a cover of a popular Kanda Bongo Man / Diblo Dibala tune (Sai) that clearly demonstrates the driving repetitive rhythm of the Soukous  guitar style. Don is playing the lead over a pre-recorded rhythm section.

The thing that I immediately notice is the “up feeling” of the music. Blues at its heart is victims music and as a result there is a certain “downer” sentiment and feel in the music. Soukous is not “cry in your beer”  music. It is telling you to get up there and dance.

So how does it work? Here is a short demo video that shows just how two guitars in lock step can play poly rhythmic patterns and end up sounding like three or more guitars at once. The music is simple three chord stuff that sounds amazingly complex with an unbelievable grove. The demonstration video  is in the key of A major and the chord progressions are simple I – IV – I – V ( A major – D major – A major – E major).

So when you add bass guitar, drums, percussion, horn section and vocals you get something like this recording of Amilo, Amilo by the African super star Rocherleau Tabu Ley.

From time to time between the vocal verses there are freewheeling guitar sections called Sebene that features the cascading interplay between the guitars. As I said the mood is infectious and the groove is unmatched in any other genre of music.

For those interested in the style there is a mountain of material on YouTube. I can also recommend Banning Eyre’s publication Africa – Your Passport to a New World of Music. It is published by Alfred Music in their Guitar Atlas Series. In it Banning explores a number of African guitar styles including Palm Wine Pickers, Highlife and JuJu, Soukous, music of the Griots, Malian Blues, South African Zulu and Mbaqanga, Zimbabwe Rhumba and Mbira and the Music of Madagascar. This slim volume also includes lots of musical examples both in print and on the enclosed CD.

For those with a more academic frame of mind there is the hard cover volume Rhumba on the River – A History of the Popular Music of the Two Congos   by Gary Stewart. Equatorial Africa was a center for the slave trade in earlier times and towards the end of the nineteenth century a scene of massive genocidal mayhem. The Congas have a tortured history and if one is interested in the historical background of the region I can also recommend Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost and of course Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

I would like to thank Shayne Rodrigues for the conversation we had last Monday at the Stemwinder Bar and Grill. Although the conversation was mostly about a Blues Cruise that he embarked on recently the conversation also meandered into the realms of Paul Simon’s Graceland and of African music in general.


A YouTube Pick (# 5) – Martin Simpson

Tommy Emmanuel is a monster acoustic guitar player and in the past I have reviewed some of his You Tube performances – Tommy Emmanuel. His forte seems to be in the country / pop arena and while that is fine there is a whole world of music and many guitar players that never make it to the front page of the “show bis” press. The one guitar player that immediately comes to mind is Martin Simpson. Martin celebrated his 60th birthday recently so he Martin Simpson 2.has been around a long time. He first came to my attention when he performed several times at the Studio Stage Door in Cranbrook. That was many years ago in the late 90’s and I have been hooked on his music ever since. He is not a pop musician. His music has a lot more substance than that. He started out in the traditional music scene in Britain and for a significant period of time he was the accompanist for June Tabor (who can forget their version of Richard Thompson’s Strange Affair). Martin has always been a restless individual traveling the world. He was a resident in North America for a number of years before returning to Britain. He plays music from all across the musical spectrum. His emphasis has always been on music with a solid traditional basis. His guitar and banjo playing has always been noted for spectacular precision and beautiful sound. I think that is what really set him apart from most other performers. He has a natural acoustic sound that your average acoustic guitarist would absolutely die for. I know a lot of people don’t care for his singing but I find his voice is more than appropriate for the material he performs. In fact I rather like it. So the attached You Tube video below is basically an interview in which Martin takes the opportunity to display and review the instruments that are part of his professional arsenal. It is interesting to note that he is not particularly interested in vintage instruments. He is a great believer in modern instruments and, with the exception of only one Martin guitar, all his instruments are modern instruments hand crafted by some of the top luthiers of today. I am of the same mind. Why spend thousands and thousands of dollars on instruments whose value has been inflated by the collectors who may only want to hang the guitar on the wall? Isn’t it better to spend $5,000 – $10,00  on a superbly crafted modern instrument that can only improve with age. Martin also takes the opportunity to demonstrate his technique, tunings and approach to music. The side trip into how he prepares his nails is also of interest. For British Columbians his recent acquisition of a hand crafted Romero Banjo (27 minutes into the video) should give us some sense of pride in that a local luthier has proven to be more than note worthy on the international scene …… Romero handcrafted custom instruments . So here he is – Martin Simpson, his instruments, superb sound and technique. Enjoy………………………

and here is a bonus of June Tabor and Martin Simpson performing Richard Thompson’s Strange Affair. Written by the Sufi poet Si Fudul al-Hawari, translated and set to music by Richard Thompson.