Thursday, 19 November 2015

Leopard skin, sneakers and great pop songs

So there I was sweating in the Camden Palace moshpit, dancing to someone whose name is Mahlathini Nezintombi Zomgqashiyo. Oh, and he groaned. So far, so obscure. But it’s one of the top five gigs I’ve ever been to. It was 1989. And this morning I realised that I feel so grateful that I got to see this band. 
Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens
Obscure? I’m here to tell you that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were totally funky and danceable, with wonderful, joyful pop songs.

Try this one for size: Melodi Yala 

They were one of the first bands introduced to me by Charlie Gillett (see previous blog). If Paul Simon encouraged the world to listen to South African music - and I still love Graceland - then a much bigger influence for me were Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens and other bands.

If you don't know where to start, try the three Indestructible beat of Soweto albums. Here's a link to information about volume one. Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens featured heavily on these albums. 

It was the late 80s and all this was being played against a backdrop of Apartheid coming to and end. Some preferred the bullet. These musicians preferred the penny-whistle. Oh, and the guitar. Because these were really accessible pop songs. And here's my Spotify 'best of' playlist.

But I maintain that Mahlathini and the Mahotella Queens were nothing without each other. Here was a strange man groaning away wearing a chief's regalia on stage – a leopard skin over his chest, fur armlets and leggings, a skirt of animal tails and beads around his head; with three women who danced around in huge red circular Zulu hats, skirts of leather and beadwork, leotards and sneakers. 

And when Mahlathini died in 1999, that synergy died too. I'm sure the Queens are amazing on their own and they still tour. 

It's just that I got to see the Real McCoy. I'll never forget being at that gig, staggered that so many other people loved them, and were singing along: "This music is produced from the same pot, the same pot. Everybody knows". 

The style of music is called Mbaqanga. But if you're not bothered about that, then at least do give them a go. And I hope you, like me, start tapping your toes and feeling good the moment their songs start. 

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Subbuteo - Milan in my bedroom

My eldest loves to Xbox; my youngest his iPad.

I had it worse. Forty years ago, I became completely obsessed with Subbuteo.

1970s Subbuteo, with the unrealistic nets, balls and players
Some great goals flew in; some amazing saves were made; and the woodwork (well, plastic) was pinged by the ball on many occasions. 

But did I take this all too far? Well the conditions had to be just right. The ball was as tall as the players, so I remember buying a smaller ball to make it more realistic. Because obviously, people standing on plastic moulds with their arms dangling down by their sides; well, that was really realistic, wasn't it? 

That wasn't the manufacturers' fault. But what was inexcusable was adding an extra line a few centimetres from the penalty box. You could only shoot from within this line. That wasn't realistic at all. 

However, the first Subbuteo sets came onto the market in 1947, so my expectation of 'reality' has to be placed in the context of a post-war rationale. No flashy long-range shots allowed. Austerity football. And the line stuck. You can see why: a kick from a player had power. I could have shot from my sister's room and it would have gone all the way in. 

And talking about my sister, I was beside myself when she kneeled on my goalpost. And then ecstatic when I realised that she'd clipped of the bottom of the post and now the goals were flush with the ground; just like real goalposts. So I sawed off the bottom bits of the other goal. I also had to have the nets drape down, not taut like the manufacturers made them. What did they know? I had the San Siro stadium, Milan, in my bedroom. The ball nestled in the net beautifully when it flew in. 

It was all about realism. Occasionally I'd do like my sis and inadvertently kneel on a player. No problem. I had glue. But, once dried, the players would invariably sink into the glue and end up being much shorter than the other players. Again; no problem. One such sinkee was in claret and blue strip. So, he was the diminutive Billy Bonds for West Ham and the tiny Brian Little for Aston Villa.

And I have to admit to sometimes dragging the ball, rather than flicking it. I enjoyed cheating, with no one judging me. 

Because the thing is, I can hardly remember playing Subbuteo with anyone else. No; this was a solitary activity. I played entire tournaments, rigged games so that my preferred team would win and put real snow on the pitch when it snowed outside (it was a good excuse to use the orange ball). Always with commentary. From me. I was totally on my own. 

I remember my dad having a quiet word with me in about 1978, suggesting that I'd probably become a bit too old for this. And I listened to him. But I'll never regret my obsession - or the broken plastic. Now - where's the electronic device?