Culture Vultures

My son (BJW) and I have had on going discussions for many years about when is it appropriate to plunder another culture. My son is now in his late thirties and works for an authentication software company. The job requires a significant amount of travel that exposes him to many different cultural mixes. So the discussion continues. This is a recent email exchange that kicked off with the following:

BJW: “The home of the blues is ……….. of course Finland” and the attached link

My (RW) response: “A reasonable cover but why do they bother? That stuff has been done to death over the past 50 years. She’s not black, she not a share cropper, she’s not oppressed, except perhaps as a woman,  and has no cultural connection to the material. And, besides, its has all been done before. Finland and Scandanavia have a great musical heritage (check out VARTTINA in the link below). After all Finland gave the world the great classical composer Jean Sibelius.  I have a problem when artists step outside their true cultural envelope. Brazilian musicians doing heavy metal, rap and hip-hop; Canadian musicians with great technical skill doing bluegrass and singing about Kentucky in fake down home accents. What a waste of talent. For myself I am very careful, even in the Celtic bag, to avoid being fake Irish. There are enough common songs and tunes that have spread across the Anglo/ Celtic world that it is not too much of a problem, and on top of that, there is a huge reservoir of down east fiddle tunes. Most of my material is deeply rooted in my Canadian / Australian / Irish / Scottish heritage.

(If I was Finnish why would I bother with hand me down blues interpretations)

BJW: .yeeeeah. I mean I get what you’re saying in terms of people doing the musical equivalent of dressing up in blackface. However, I don’t think anyone can see the world in strict terms of who “should” do particular varieties of music. All art is derivative. While I agree that I’m not too fond of people dressing themselves up in other cultures, you have to remember the old Clark Terry adage: Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate. Without the co-opting of jazz, we would not have the blues; without the co-opting of blues, we would not have rock. Without the co-opting of African drum / beat centric music, we would not have the drum/percussion centric drive behind rap. Without the co-opting of Irish / Celtic music, you would not have bluegrass. Every new generation of music steals from the old, as with all art. People steal it because it speaks to them, and then they make it their own.

In a global community, what does it mean to be a part of a “true cultural envelope”? The tribes are global. Examples:

  • I went to a club in Korea on one of my last trips – one of the top electronic music clubs in the world. The part that was most interesting was that the musical and cultural touchstones were identical in Korea to the ones I’d seen in Germany (where much of electronic music started with the avant-garde minimalist electronic music of Kraftwerk), England (which perfected the “house” brand of electronic music popular in the 1990s), and even the raves in the US and Canada. Were these people outside their “true cultural envelope”? I’d argue they weren’t – it just so happened that their true “cultural envelope” spans continents and language.
  • Yesterday, while we were in the “Christmas in the park” in San Jose, there were a bunch of teenagers in cosplay – dressed up as characters from a cartoon. A cartoon from Japan.
  • A buddy of mine was in India a while ago, in Goa. He went out to a bar with some of his Indian co-workers, and they were trading stories about where they grew up. When he mentioned Canada, they asked if he knew “Robin Sparkles” – a fictitious Canadian character on the American series “How I met your mother”, popular with a particular tribe of nerds. This is a show that isn’t even broadcast in India.
  • On my last trip to Korea, I ended up at a bar in Gangnam. I was tired of Korean food, so I picked a German brewhaus. Picture it: I’m a Canadian, born in Australia, working for an American company, drinking an English beer, in the German-style beerhaus, in Seoul. Oh, and then I have a call after that beer to sync with my Armenian and Indian development teams.
Cultural envelope is irrelevant. It’s like asking scientists to not bother being aware of other areas outside of their discipline that may have cross over benefits. Watson and Crick were successful specifically because of their experience across biology, physics, and chemistry. They beat the woman working on the problem of the form of DNA in terms of pure X-ray crystallography specifically because of their divergence from their “cultural envelope”. If there’s one thing nature has taught us, it’s that to simply continue to color within the lines is to stagnate. If DNA were a perfect replication process, we would have no evolution.  ……. Such is the same with music.
RW: I am a great believer in the benefits of cultural mixing. It is how new styles and musical adventures come about. That’s why I am constantly trying to pull other stuff into my own musical mix trying to create something that I can own. I just get a bit disheartened when musicians are incapable of recognizing their own and adding it to the mix. There seems to be an assumption that if its ours it can’t be worth anything.
 I have a friend who is a  musician with great musical chops in rock, country and bluegrass. A few years back he pulled together a cover band and I went along to hear it. After the performance he asked me what I thought and I gave him what he wanted to hear …. they were good and, truly they were good. But privately I thought “why bother, it had all been done before and done much better”. I am dying to hear what he could really do if he stepped out of the box..

I have another young friend at the moment who is into Nick Drake, who along with Michael Hedges, in my opinion are grossly over rated. Nick Drake wasn’t a success in his day simply because, in my mind, his music was uninteresting. So this young friend is busy trying to replicate Nick Drake’s recorded material. Once again, what’s the point. No matter how much time and effort he puts into the music it can never be as good (or as mediocre) as the original. He is not Nick Drake.  I would encourage him to, by all means experiment, with the open C tunings etc but come up with something that is original and something that he can  own. Which brings me back to the Finnish girl playing the blues …… What’s the point?

ps. Of course I disagree with your sentiments that  the cultural envelope is irrelevant. It is the basic building block of who you are and no matter how much you try you can’t really escape it. It is baggage, for good or ill, that always goes with you.”


Because it is my blog I have the last word. I really believe in that  old Clark Terry adage  (one of the great jazz trumpeter soloist of the past 60 years): Imitate, Assimilate, Innovate. The problem as I see it is that there is a lot of attempted imitation, some assimilation and not too much innovation. The current state of Rock is a case in point   ….. has there been anything truly new since the days of “Classic Rock” ?



Kitchen Party at the Heid Out – “The lads are back”

The Kitchen Party at the Heidout, hosted by Angus MacDonald and Angus Liedtke, Sunday December 21, 2014, 5pm.

 HeadersAngus MacDonald (fiddle) and Angus Liedtke (vocals, guitar, harmonica) are two young Cranbrook musicians who, in the fall, headed down east to  Angus MacDonaldHolland College in Prince Edward island. Their quest was for more education and work related skills for a career in music and business. Naturally at Christmas they wanted to be back here it town to celebrate the season amongst friends and family. Part of the planned celebrations was a Angus Liedtke KITCHEN PARTY at the Heidout in Cranbrook. That was just an excuse to gather together their musical friends and have some fun. The night was kicked off by LEATHER BRITCHES (Angus MacDonald – fiddle; Will Nicholson – guitar and Rod Wilson – Irish Bouzouki) reprising some of their standard repertoire that included The Dr Shaw Set, and The Graduation Set.  Angus Liedtke had spent the last four months polishing his song writing skills and judging from his first set it has been time well spent . What a Sorrow  – a song about an old couple who lived in the woods and one day the wife dies and the old man has to bury her and deal with his grief; Pack of Cigarettes – a friend’s experience with heartbreak; You gave it your Best – a song about Louis Riel that started out as a song writing challenge by a friend.  From there on the music just flowed from  Steven Knowles (guitar and vocals), Blake Nowicki (electric guitar and vocals) and Justice Jones (guitar and vocals).

Steven Knowles    Blake Nowicki   Justice Jones

Angus Mac and Angus L were not the only lads back in town. Young country musician Connor Foote has been away for a while and he was back in town to hook up with his his musical compadre Clayton Parsons. They played  a bracket of tunes from the good ol’ days in their band Gold Creek. Clayton had recently turned his hand to building guitars and now has also started playing the dobro (such a sweet sound).

Connor Foote   Clayton Parsons  Connor Foote

After the young lads it was time for the “old” guys to add some of their solo performances to the evening. Tom Bungay, (guitar and vocals) pulled some songs from his immense standard repertoire; Mark Casey (guitar and vocals) obliged with some songs that included a special request for a Kinks song. Rod Wilson (cittern and vocals) obliges with some new tunes fresh from the press (so to speak) that included the Malachi Set (Malachi / Bondi Junction / The Heid Out), some older tunes (The Train Set – Come by Chance / The Train Stops Here / Sad Arrival on the Orient Express) and for good measure and old Irish ballad The Nightingale.

Tom Bungay    Mark Casey    Tom Bungay

The two hosts returned to the stage to round out the evening. Angus Liedtke cruised though one song, Dressed in Red, in an imaginative Mexican scenario with his girlfriend before finishing up his set with with Hearts of Fire and This Old Bed (an ode to high school days in Cranbrook). Angus MacDonald set the place on fire with a bracket of extended tunes that he has gleaned from the traditional music sessions in PEI. The first set included Gordon Duncan’s Tune / Christy Crowley’s / Superfly; the second set Marie Hughes Jig (from Tim Chaisson) / Dan Collins Farther’s Jig / Don MacKinnon’s Reel / and a reel from Brenda Stubbert. The not too gentle rhythmic stamp of feet that accompanied this bracket of tunes was a real joy to hear.

Here are the money shots from the evening – Angus MacDonald and Mark Casey.Angus MacDonald

 Mark CaseyAngus MacDonald

Before he leaves town Angus MacDonald will be back with more down east fiddle music with Leather Britches at the Heid Out on January 9, 2015 6:30 pm.



102. The Stage

As promised Leather Britches returned to the Heid Out on January 9, 2015, 6:30 – 9:30 pm for some more down- east fiddle music prior to Angus MacDonald’s return to PEI for the spring semester at Holland College. Here a couple of images of William Nicholson and Angus from the evening:

202a. Will Nicholson306. Angus MacDonald@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@

A Breath of Fresh Air – the SOK Celtic Christmas Rehearsal

A Celtic Christmas –  A Winter’s Ramble with Harpist and Singer Keri Lynn Zwicker : The rehearsal at the Key City Theatre, Saturday December 6, 2014 12-1:30 pm. Orchestra plus guestsI have always felt that there was something missing from Christmas. In recent years my attendance at a Winter Solstice celebration in Vancouver gave me pause to think but I was still unable to arrive at a conclusion. At the Symphony of the Kootenays (SOK) rehearsal on Saturday it finally clicked. When the Bodhran (the Irish Frame drum) roared into life within a rousing Celtic tune I had an epiphany. What has been missing all these years is the essential pagan element of the season’s celebration. The season has been diluted and polluted with so much tinsel town garbage over the years that we have forgotten, that despite the Christian overlay, from the beginning of time the Winter Solstice (Christmas) is essentially  a pagan festival. The SOK, Harpist Keri Lynn Zwicker and the Bodhran player Nathan McCavana restored some of that essential pagan essence to the music of the season. Sure, it was Christmas music but with a primordial pagan pulse that gives new life and vitality to a musical landscape that,  over the years, has become kinda blah. After all, how many times can we listen to I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas and still be emotionally stirred? Here are some images from the rehearsal.

216. Keri Lynn Zwicker318. Nathan McCavanaWendy Herbison - Concert Master  Viola   Beth Thomson Jeff Faragher               Wendy Herbison - Concert MasterBeth Thomson       Liz Tremblay Keri Lynn Zwicker470a.   Sven Heyde   432. Jeff Faragher    Shirley Wright    Keri Lynn Zwicker Beth Thomson Percussion - Sven Heyde and Courtney Crawford  480.   Ben SmithThe Trio   Aurora SmithBass Bass Keri Lynn Zwicker    Jeff in the trio    Keri Lynn Zwicker

and now for the essential pagan element : THE BODHRAN – here is the wikipedia entry:









“The bodhrán (/ˈbɔrɑːn/[1] or /ˈbrɑːn/; plural bodhráns) is an Irish frame drum ranging from 25 to 65 cm (10″ to 26″) in diameter, with most drums measuring 35 to 45 cm (14″ to 18″). The sides of the drum are 9 to 20 cm (3½” to 8″) deep. A goatskin head is tacked to one side (synthetic heads or other animal skins are sometimes used). The other side is open-ended for one hand to be placed against the inside of the drum head to control the pitch and timbre. One or two crossbars, sometimes removable, may be inside the frame, but this is increasingly rare on modern instruments. Some professional modern bodhráns integrate mechanical tuning systems similar to those used on drums found in drum kits. It is usually with a hex key that the bodhrán skins are tightened or loosened depending on the atmospheric conditions.” Frame drums are found all over the world and the wikipedia articles goes on to list around 40 different regional variations. Nathan’s Bodhran is a little different fron the traditional in that it is tear dropped shaped. Like a lot of modern players,  Nathan uses “bamboo bundles” as a beater. He also uses a small condenser clip-on microphone to re-enforce the sound (after all he is competing with a symphony orchestra). Also note the black “electrical tape” trim around the top. This is used to reduced unwanted overtones.

316. Nathan McCavana
















The final pagan bonus in the rehearsal and one that may not have made it to the actual concert was Nathan’s rousing rendition of THE POGUES  The Fairy Tale of New York with its classic line “And the bells are ringing out for Christmas Day”   – a far cry from I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas: