Category Archives: music

Sampling the sounds at sea

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Sound check

20th Century American writer, Henry Beston, once said that ‘the three great elemental sounds in nature are the sound of rain, the sound of wind in a primeval wood, and the sound of outer ocean on a beach.

But what about getting away from the beach and actually being out in the outer ocean? Maybe he never had the opportunity to check out the sounds associated with sailing across the vast South Pacific Sea. During my three-week journey from Galapagos to Tahiti I certainly had the time to get familiar with the noises of the middle of nowhere.

Back sometime in the reign of the Romans, poet Virgil uttered that ‘every sound alarms’. Totatlly out of context, I hear him on a literal level, because although this quote is more usually linked to discussions of guilty conscience and such like, sounds – and unknown sounds in particular – seem to put me on high alert.

The creaks and thuds and squeaks of the boom as the wind grabs the mainsail and rattles her about were initially unsettling, but now I tune out, to some extent. Below deck clunks and bashes as waves whack the bottom of the boat are sometimes so strong that they physically jump me in my bed and send a shock through my body. These sounds, in forte, are so linked to motion that their impact is accentuated. I feel each thing that I hear. Their sound is fully imprinted.

Gentler overtones include the flutter and ripple of the sail when the wind blows a different directional gust, whilst the whoosh of water rushing out of the back of the boat gives a sense of momentum and is the constant soundtrack to our voyage. It’s too light a sound to be the baseline but it’s there, always; a practised concerto with a limited melody.

Bursts of laughter and conversation colour the piece and add a choral element, whilst the daily generator eruption provides some guttural oomph. Indoor fans and the random hum of the sumps in action add some sound fuzz and grate and purr to the score.  We need some electronics in there. Let’s make this rich and big and keep it real. This isn’t a fairytale with a twinkly, tinkly track list.

In some respects our boat and time at sea are part of an expressionist orchestral piece, dissonant yet full of life. And we’re not talking vivace here, please, this is a sailing overture created by the universe, our great conductor, our maestro, and the tempo is far more lento than we’d like at times. Lento yet full of awkward dissonance; gentle with some heart tightening explosions.

As I conclude this post, I think back to Beston’s comments and realise that the sounds I’ve experienced out at sea are the result of interactions between humankind and nature, and not just elemental forces working alone. In terms of elemental forces out at sea, the sound of night-time silence has to be the strongest, a loud sound accompanied by a full, sparkling sky.

But no! Of course, that silence isn’t true! I’ve obviously tuned out the gentle water rush as we slice through the sea, onwards to French Polynesia and the upcoming reality of real life. The tricks of sound and of the mind. Who knows any more what is actual or imagined out here. Does it even matter?

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Why you should skip the tourist bar and head straight for a peña instead

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Trad play

After a night out in a pretty nondescript club where the only thing unusual was a stabbing on the dance floor, I was more than happy to sample something a little more… more typically Bolivian, I guess.

My friend Max suggested a peña. ‘It’s a place for traditional music’, he said. Did I fancy it? Sure! Of course! Something different, something local. Finally.

Me and a little posse of travellers made our way along a side street in La Paz and down some stairs into the belly of a building where musicians sang and played woodwind and percussion whilst groups of friends clustered around tables, chatting, drinking and welcoming in a Friday night.

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Candlelit moodiness and music

Ojo de Agua didn’t fit with Frommer’s comments about peñas tending to be very touristy. We were pretty much the only tourists in there, and it was obvious. So we split up and mixed and merged.

By candlelight I drank te con te, a hot alcoholic drink, and chatted and danced with locals. Pan pipes, accelerating beats and spinning around and around after too many shots of warm, alcoholic tea made me deliciously dizzy.

As the music wound down, we all climbed back up and out of this high ceilinged, lightly populated dance hall and back into the cold, cold chill of La Paz. Early evening fumes had lifted and the streets were surprisingly quiet for a city on the brink of a wild weekend.

The evening finished further away from the centre in a softly lit bar bursting with Bolivians and the smell of cigarette smoke and rising heat from a huddled collective of bodies. People bent in to hear near whispers, orders were murmured at the bar. A man perched on a stool crooned away, finishing songs with a dramatic burst of strummed chords, claps and whoops exploding after the final slap.

I may have missed out on the salt flats eco rave but this low-key night out was a cosy little moment in the great city of La Paz and a lovely little reintroduction to a social drink and dance after far too long on antibiotics.

As the only tourists in both places, it was also a teeny taste of the real La Paz.

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Attempted murder on the dance floor

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Party people in La Paz (photo: Carl Maybry©)

It was gone 03:30am, I was totally sober and one of a few people in the Azul nightclub in La Paz not revved up on alcohol or cocaine. Tiredness was giving me that dazed, drunken effect but I felt pretty damn good that I was still holding up.

I became an artist, decorating friends’ faces with UV paint. In turn, my face was painted in yellows and pinks, covering some of the black stamps from another creative burst earlier in the evening. I chatted and laughed, I swigged water and I danced shamelessly to bad music on the teeny dance floor.

And then I saw it: pools of bright red blood covering the ground by my feet, fainter towards the bar where people had unknowingly stumbled through, streaking and smearing the place in the colour of danger. Splodges of UV paint shone out in between.

And the crowd continued to dance.

I’d somehow missed the disturbance on the dance floor. A stabbing, some local guy told me, two Bolivians. I couldn’t see how someone could have survived that much blood loss. But was it really blood? It was so bright.

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Starting to notice the blood

Bar staff eventually started to mop up and the revellers were encouraged to leave. And there again, trails of blood, coagulating on the stairs and on the pavement.

We waited for a taxi. A few of us were hushed in disbelief. People continued to spill out of the club. Some stood in the pools of blood, oblivious. I stopped a few. If they didn’t care about the stabbing, maybe they’d care about their shoes? And would the blood not need to remain as it was for police evidence?

A man came out of the Azul nightclub and started to pour a clear liquid over the blood on the pavement. He scrubbed away with a stiff brush, pushing a watery, bloody mix onto the road. Before long, little remained. No police showed up.

A few days later I discovered that the man had survived. This was the same time that some of the partiers who had been there that night finally realised that someone had actually been stabbed.

Three times, I told them, did you not see all the blood? Too off their heads. But for me, sober, I saw it and I felt it raw and it stuck like something from a movie still. And I wished it were just all a movie or a figment of my imagination but no, this was real life touching on the only certainty of death.

The papers didn’t report it, from what I managed to gather, and the police seemed to ignore it. I discovered that a tourist had also been involved in a minor way.  But that about the main guy? Despite the double stabbing, he got lucky and was recuperating in hospital. Life wasn’t done with him just yet.

People told me that La Paz, like many a city, has a dangerous, crazy side, but to see it up close on my first night? What a reality check.

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What’s with the late night karaoke bars?

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Karaoke, baby. Just sing!

I hate karaoke but South America loves it. A slight conflict of interests, a potential deal breaker in our relationship. So when other travellers that I met in Sucre suggested that karaoke bars were the after bar choice, I can’t say that I was delighted. Hanging out with them, sure, but the singing? Really?

Ever since I was a thirteen year old girl thrown on stage with new holiday friends to sing a song I didn’t know, I have been scarred. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun came out as

Girls just Need To Have Singing Lessons,

or in my case,

Girls Just Need to Have Access to Modern Music and Listen To the Radio And The Top 40 (and Not Get Brought Up On Simon and Garfunkle, The Beatles and Beethoven) So That They Can Fit in With Other Normal Teenagers.

It’s only now that I’m grateful for the musical education of my childhood (which went beyond the aforementioned) but at the time it was crippling. I had a lot of catching up to do. Whilst I’d never be cool, I could at least work towards fitting in.

So now here I was in Sucre, a beautiful South American city sitting at an altitude of 2,750m and composed of colonial and neoclassical buildings, Bolivia’s judicial capital and a Unesco Cultural Heritage site. Somewhere, then, that I should be broadening my understanding of the country’s history and traditions.

But oh no! Instead I found myself with a great bunch of other travellers playing dice games in bars with locals and indulging in a few too many mojitos and tequila shots as evenings pushed on into early mornings. Capirinhas and coke flowed freely, propping people up for nights in the bars and the clubs… and the karaoke bars.

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Oh no! Tequila makes an appearance

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Pit stop for cow heart kebabs

Each time I ended up in Vitrolas Karaoke & Discoteque, I searched the song list for a good while. Maybe, just maybe there would be something that would jump out at me, where I’d think hell yeah, I know it so well, it’s the right pitch for my voice, I can get up and sing and not make a total tit of myself, but it never happened. Maybe I should have joined the coke crew. All I really needed was some courage. Some people had it in natural abundance. Not me, in relation to karaoke in any case.

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The terrible trio take to the stage. Not terrible singers, just terrible trouble. In a fun way.

And then after the karaoke bars I would dash back through a quiet, daybreak Sucre, back to my hostel and into a room of sleeping strangers that I knew I’d never meet because they’d pack up and leave before I awoke.

Too soon it would be midday; I’d get up and over brunch greet fellow partiers only just returning from continued hedonism. ‘Are you heading out tonight?’ they’d ask before disappearing off for some sleep. ‘Nah, need a break’, I’d say, but then night would arrive and peer pressure kicked in. Not that I tried very hard to fight it.

My will to go wild and have fun was strong, but my body wasn’t having it. It didn’t take long.

I crashed and burned.

So Sucre, time to see what else you have to offer. I sure love singing, whether it be in the shower, dancing about in my house or with friends around a campfire, but karaoke, save me the heartache.

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The typical gringo bars in Sucre include Joy Ride, Florins and the Amsterdam Bar (all with good WiFi), which also all serve (pricy) food – like pastel de quinoa – and regularly host cinema screenings. I spent a good few evenings in Biblio Café Classico to catch up with a friend who, following a midnight session dancing on the bar, had landed himself a job there.

Clubwise, I only got to Mooy, which cost $15b. entry for females and 20b for males. Saturday night drinks there started at 18Bs. for a caipirinha and 14Bs. for a bottle of beer. In Mooy the crowd was predominantly Bolivian and the music a Western-South American mix. And the oft visited karaoke bar Vitrolas Karaoke & Discoteque is an underground, under populated place fronted by a wild man with long, rock star hair and a well-rehearsed singing voice. Maybe he used to be a rock star after all?! The crowd in there was a real mix of locals and gringos. Friday nights were busiest.

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One weekend in Byron? Here’s what you could do.

Friday: drinks and dancing

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Night time buskers in Byron

Arrive into Byron Bay, NSW, Australia late afternoon, get showered and ready for a night out. Start off in The Rails listening to a live band, but don’t make it too late, they’re done by 10:00pm.

If you want some $2 bubbly, head towards LALA LAND and pick up a promotional wristband on the way. If it’s still smelling a bit funky, you may want to move on pretty quickly. Pop into the Hotel Great Northern for a boogie with a mixed crowd or head over to Woody’s Surf Shack, a cool little place in the square next to Woolworths. ‘Woody’s is full of eighteen year olds’ said one older guy in The Northern, ‘this place is a bit of a better mix’.

If you’re still keen to party to some bad music, wander over to Cocomangas or dance on the tables at Cheeky Monkeys with hoards of horny backpackers. Ensure that you get in before 02:00am lockout and last drinks. ‘Cheeky Monkeys’, said Canadian Aaron, ‘is the place to pick up girls’. Thanks Aaron.

By 03:00am everything is pretty much done, so after you’ve joined the queues at Hot Bread Kitchen, enjoy munching your pastry whilst watching some impromptu beat box busking.

Saturday: walks, surfing and crafts

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The Pass, Byron Bay, NSW

After a breakfast coffee (because everywhere here does coffee), recover from any bad head symptoms by taking a walk around Cape Byron, the most easterly point in Australia, and up to the Lighthouse,. A good place to watch sunrise, apparently.

Get back to Byron and rent yourself a surfboard, run down to the Pass and jump into warm waters. Take a surf lesson if you need, but otherwise just join the crowds as they try to catch waves and wobble up to their feet.

Keep an eye out for sharks. ‘Aren’t you worried about being eaten?’ an old boy asked me one day. ‘Nope’, I said, ‘there are so many people out there, I’d be lucky if they picked me’. Relax post surf in tree shade up in the park that runs above Byron main beach.

After grabbing an early bite in town, head over to the Railway Park between 5:00pm and 9:00pm for the weekly Artisans Market where you can pick up some locally crafted gifts for family and friends.

Finish off the day by hanging out with friends on the grassy areas by the beach. Make some new friends: foreigners, locals, musicians, creative types, crazy types and the odd I’ve-taken-too-many-drugs-in-my-life types.

Sunday: markets and music

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Beating the crowds to the Byron Bay Market, Byron Bay, NSW

If you’ve timed your trip at the beginning of the month, you could visit the cheery affair of the Byron Markets. Enjoy the bright colours, the pretty outfits of floaty summer dresses, strappy sandals and funky sunglasses and sunhats, the tie-dye and hippy prints scattered about the place.

Brunch on a Mexican breakfast burrito ($10) or a pizza slice ($3.50) or a couple of wholemeal spinach, feta and macadamia rolls ($3). Or, go healthy with raw food options or frozen fruit bars ($3). And organic coffee. Kinda healthy.

If you’re entertaining kids, there’s a bouncy castle slide, balloon shaping stilt walkers and a man with a fiddling, dancing cat puppet. I wondered if the guy ever got bored of holding a puppet all day. He seemed content, a little zoned out.

Otherwise, listen out for musicians, particularly the guitar duo where a guy with great bone structure sings smoothly in Spanish. Choose whether to stand around with others, bop along with the kids, dance freely with the liberated hippy or to simply fall in love with the piercing blueness of the singer’s eyes. Later in the day, join in the drum circle jam session or dance along to the hypnotic rhythms.

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Sunday reggae and dancing at the Beach (not Fyah Walk!)

Move back into the town and head to the Beach Hotel for the Sunday afternoon live music sessions. Drink a cold schooner of Coopers and, together with a totally diverse crowd (old, young, pregnant, babies, kids, rastas, surfers, skaters, preppy boys and girls and travellers), dance the weekend out of your system to the likes of local reggaemeisters Fyah Walk.

Finish off your stay with a trip down Bay Street to get some food from one of the takeout places, such as Fishmongers where the tender BBQ  baby octopus and the vegetable tempura are both pretty special. Find a spot on or by the beach and enjoy your dinner as the sun sets over a faintly misted ocean.

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Music, magic and the Festival of Lights

Every year, New Plymouth in New Zealand hosts the Festival of Lights for over a month during the summer period where bands play each night and the park is transformed into a magical place full of colour and light. Ferns swish in the breeze, people row on the lake under a rising full moon and kids play in a floodlit playground under the presence and sound of a scary, snoring giant.

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Boating on the lake in Pukeura Park, New Plymouth

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Scary, sleeping, snoring giant in Pukeura Park, New Plymouth

Together with a couple of friends, I was on my way to see the Brazilian inspired band, Zamba Flam, play with Brazilian guest musicians. Clearly still unable to let go of my ongoing romance with South America, my time in New Zealand coincidentally has often seemed to lead me back to Latin experiences. I’m not complaining. A couple of beers in our rucksacks and some plastic bags to protect our bums from the damp ground, this was a cheap evening of free entertainment with a relaxed, summertime atmosphere.

Along the walk down into the park, the plants and trees along the pathway were coloured with pink and blue and green and yellow lighting. The waterfall went through changes of projected colour sequences, and people posed for photographs and parents chatted to other parents whilst their kids manically bounced around, excitement for being up way past their bedtime. The sweetness of summer holidays.

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Lights at Pukeura Park

 The band started their bossa nova rhythms accompanied by the low, silky voice of Alda Rezende. Groups of friends and families gathered around in clusters, clapping politely and chatting quietly in between songs. Couples cuddled in closely and a few uninhibited souls danced and swayed freely to the beat.

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Music in Pukeura Park

By 10:00pm it was over, but there was one more thing that I really wanted to see: the glow worms. We walked by fabricated, oversized and UV lit flowers, and then tiptoed our way down a pitch dark pathway, voices to a whisper.

And suddenly I saw the earthy bank twinkling with little lights. Further along it was even denser, these little worms shining out lights so bright that I questioned whether they were in fact real or yet another part of the fictional, fantasy world created by this festival.

Back through the fernery, again drizzled with colour and light and magic, and we headed out of the park and back to normality under the gaze of the man on the moon. A midsummer night’s dream? Yes, it sure felt like it.

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A midsummer night's dream?

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The cold and calm of Cuenca

Sunday afternoons in Cuenca are not unlike Sunday afternoons in other parts of Ecuador: pretty dead. The other thing that struck me on my arrival in Cuenca was the cold: chilly, damp cold that made the streets seem even more ghostlike.

Staying in Casa Sol (not to be confused with La Casa Sol), an unsigned family home-cum-hostel was a fair choice, where a private room and breakfast cost $7. There were no other guests (this increasingly seems to be the story as my travels progress and I move away from the big cities and out of the high tourist season). Casa Sol was a big, old house, cold and quiet and ideally situated within a few blocks of the Catedral de la Inmaculada Concepción.

As dusk approached, I wandered the cobbled streets close to the hostel, passed closed shops and restaurants and tiled street signs towards the main plaza of Parque Calderón and the cathedral, it’s blue domes and structure lit up against the incoming darkness. Here, there was some more life. A few eateries still had their doors open – creperies and pizzarias and heledarias and places serving comida tipico – and well-dressed Ecuadorians supped on Locro de Papas and humitas and… spaghetti bolognaise.

In the park opposite the cathedral a group of young musicians struck up some tuneful music – percussion, guitar, recorder and flute-like instruments – headed by an animated, blonde-haired guy who sang and clapped, bouncing around in a tracksuit and woolly hat pulled down firmly over his ears. Show over, money was collected with a smile and thanks and a dramatic flourish of the hat.

Monday morning brought with it an increased bustle as the working week began, but despite the open shop fronts and a tenfold increase in people treading the pavements, Cuenca remained organised, serene, dignified.

The small market two blocks from the cathedral was ready for business but felt spacious and digestible (compared to the likes of Otavalo’s Saturday markets). Unfortunately, Mama Kinua in the Casa de Mujer was shut. I had hoped to eat there to find out about the non-profit organisation whilst feasting on some nutritious food, but no such luck this time. Although no tasty quinoa, I did finally try the sticky, foamy pink goo sold by street traders and served up in an ice-cream cone. It wasn’t as sweet as I expected, or as dense, just a bit empty, full of nothing. It’s not something I’m craving to eat again.

Back at the hostel, I was feeling the cold and as night approached I piled on the layers and for the first time since being in Ecuador, out came the cosy hat. The rain started to pour and, despite Cuenca’s beauty and delicate appeal, the weather impacted my mood and I felt a bit lost and lonely and in need of something more than architectural wonder. Time to move on.

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Search me, señorita

Esmeraldas is a dangerous province, so it is rumoured, but it is also supposedly a vibrant place with a cultural scene unique to the rest of Ecuador. Inhabited largely by a black community who brought their own style of music and dancing to Ecuador when they were shipped over from Africa to be slaves to the Spanish settlers, the people and places of Esmeraldas are said to exude friendliness and rhythm and a laid back attitude. I was all for it. And the dangers? Drugs and muggings and all that fun stuff.

Not realising that we could have taken a bus directly from the new town, me and my traveling companions ended up heading a half hour away to the south terminal – Quitumbe – only to discover that there were just two buses per day to our first destination, Atacames, and the next one was in over eight hours. We ended up going to Esmeraldas city instead ($7, 7hrs 30mins). It wasn’t the happiest prospect with all the guides and available information suggesting to avoid the place if at all possible.

Although the journey was increasingly hot and humid (not helped by a broken air conditioning system ), we were treated to the film Air Force 1 in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Good practise. Stops were all too regular as people came on and off, more often than not to try and sell their wares, but also on two occasions the police came on board with video cameras and scanned the entire bus.

When we were pulled over a third time by the police I was starting to get tired and frustrated, but this time it was a full on roadside search and everyone had to disembark. Split into women and men, the police then chose a few people on each side to search. All of my travelling group were searched and questioned, very few Ecuadorians were. The guys got a full on pat down and groping, whereas I got off lightly with a much more civilised interrogation from a female officer: where was I from? Why was I in Ecuador? I had to show my ID and my bag was searched. It wasn’t the most pleasant event of my life, but it was okay. I guess it’s designed to catch drug traffickers and scare tourists from getting involved in those activities.

Talking to other travellers, roadside searches and videoing seems commonplace in Ecuador, especially near borders and en route to notoriously dodgy areas, such as Esmeraldas.

To be fair, we didn’t really give Esmeraldas a chance. I prefer to make my own mind up about a place, but arriving late at night meant we decided to just get on with it and move on to Atacames right away. Despite having gone midnight, the woman running the Chill Inn near Atacames beachfront was really welcoming and it was a matter of minutes before we had all taken cold showers and crashed out.

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