THE EP: "BUSH TELEGRAPH"
Web 2.0 Attention-Deficit Summary for the Reading-Impaired:
Inspiration behind song – cowhide drum – acoustic guitar – communication system – God – six-string banjo – glass Coke bottle – recording the song – technology.
I can’t bring myself to listen to the radio in my car anymore.
Commercial radio around the world died a death ages ago, and satellite stations have largely saved the day, but it’ll never really be what it was. In South Africa, though, people who like the idea of radio are given the illusion of choice via online stations or pay-per-view TV subscriptions. Sirius and Xfm are hopefully only one fat tender away.
Nevertheless, I occasionally eject a CD (who even does that anymore?!) and listen to the only national purveyor of pop music on SA radio stations, just to see how the other half lives, and if things have gotten any better. I usually switch between 4 or 5 stations and then punch the dial to ‘off’ in enraged despair.
It’s gotten worse.
Somewhere near the end of 2012 I caught the tail end of a nameless song by some nameless hipster band on the way home after the early-morning school-run, and the tempo of the song got me beating a certain rhythm on the steering wheel and wondering how it would sound reimagined with just handclaps and my trusty big hand-made cowhide Zulu drum.
I had no song in mind. No melody, no chords, no title, no theme, not even a vague hint. Just a tempo and a groove.
Needless to say, the rest of the day was a tunnel-visioned experiment in ‘something-from-nothing’, armed only with an iMac, Pro Tools, a cowhide drum, a microphone and an acoustic guitar. The rhythm you hear on the opening bars of what has become the song called “Bush Telegraph” inspired everything that followed.
First came the acoustic guitar part, then the gradual hint of a melody, that jagged, staccato monotone that follows the guitar rhythm. Things don’t often happen spontaneously when you’ve been writing and recording your whole life; you tend to get a little bit predictable and create in a certain, specified way, so it’s good when you approach songwriting from an oblique angle. You’re making room for something unexpected.
In this case, a song like “Bush Telegraph” would never have happened without the drum part. It just wouldn’t have occurred to me.
After recording the acoustic guitar part, I threw everything acoustic I had in the room at the demo: a ukulele, a mandolin, a 12-string acoustic, hand-held percussion, even a new toy, a Fender Rustler 6-string banjo. It slowly began to make sense not to have any electric instruments on this song. Just for the hell of it. In the end I had to have a Fender bass on it, but that’s it. I played in a cymbal-free drum part, compressed the hell out of it, and then went looking for lyrics.
I keep song-titles hanging around. They can usually kick-start something when a theme or an angle is needed. Over the years I’ve collected way more potential song-titles than I’ll ever be able to write, but it’s a good habit that I couldn’t stop if I tried. I’d had “Bush Telegraph” on a list for at least three years, and at the end of last year it seemed its time had come.
A “bush telegraph” has been defined as a ‘means of communication between primitive peoples over large areas, as by drum beat’. Another definition has it as a ‘system used by undeveloped societies in remote regions for communication over long distances, such as drum sounds, word-of-mouth relay or smoke signals’.
Picture North American aboriginals, Australasian aboriginals or southern African Ngunis using home-made drums and smoky fires to warn distant relatives that whitey has just set a leather-booted foot on the beach and you’ve got the general idea.
Despite my best attempts, I’m not a religious person. ‘Spiritually-philosophically-curious’, maybe, or even ‘metaphysically- inclined’, but not ‘religious’ in the traditional sense of what that means.
Now that the dust of my ambush by mainstream Christianity has settled I can once again embark on a quest for a sustainable idea of God. Atheism’s too easy and, strangely, too certain. Humanity’s ongoing pursuit of some kind of contact with ‘God’, no matter how sophisticated we like to think that pursuit has become, is uniquely illustrated by the ‘bush telegraph’ concept: stranded, unsophisticated savages cobbling together some kind of system of communication with an unseen benevolence, possessed of an implacably un-quashable conviction that despite all evidence to the contrary, we have not been abandoned.
That’s the heart of “Bush Telegraph”: ‘home-made drums and satellites, antennae thrust into the night, that’s me waving high on a hill, you’ll make contact, I know you will’. Using all means of communication, even something as primitive as rock ‘n roll, to establish a connection with God.
The studio recording of the song was equally adventurous. I approached my talented friend Brent Quinton to record me while I ran around the studio strumming, clapping, shouting and hitting things. He good-naturedly went along for the ride, although one eyebrow remained raised for most of the sessions.
I can cover all the bases (no pun intended) in a studio except drums, so I called in another talented and generous friend of mine, Andy Turrell, all 8’7’’ of him. Andy is an accomplished guitar and pedal steel player, and happens to be equally adept on a drum kit, so I got him to help me clap, beat the living daylights out of the Zulu cowhide drum and play a drum kit that consisted of only a kick drum, a snare and one tom. No cymbals, only two microphones. He was as good-naturedly tolerant as Brent.
For some deeply-disturbing reason, my most favourite part of making records is adding percussion tracks. I can’t quite figure out why, and I don’t really want to.
For “Bush Telegraph”, after clapping and shaking tambourines, the spirit of “Hey Let’s Try This” settled and I put a glass Coke bottle and a cowbell side by side on a carpet and pretended I was at the demo sessions for “Off The Wall”. (If you’ve heard the demo for “Don’t’ Stop Til You Get Enough” you’ll know what I’m referring to). Brent stuck a mic on it, and that’s what you hear going on from the end of the first chorus.
So there you have it. The genesis of “Bush Telegraph”, from beating a steering wheel in rush-hour traffic to a shining, gleaming hand-crafted collection of ones and zero’s.
Technology played a crucial role in both the unusual origin of the song and its recording, but the elements used in the final version you hear are hand-made, human things: drums and shakers and stringed instruments and human voices. I like that; technology as a means and not an end.
Will “Bush Telegraph” get played on the radio?
Does that even matter?
There was a time when musicians and songwriters relied heavily on radio airplay. Sure, it would help, but it’s not the object of the exercise. The object is to make contact and connect.
Listen to "Bush Telegraph" on Soundcloud here: https://soundcloud.com/johnelliscoza/bush-telegraph-radio-mix
Buy the Bush Telegraph EP on the SA iTunes store here: https://itunes.apple.com/za/album/bush-telegraph-ep/id683000874
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