So I am sitting late at night in a hotel in the Gulf. It is not necessarily a great hotel. It is hot and steamy about 30°C and I am sitting at a riggety little table alongside the pool. I have just flown in from the UK. The sweet, oddly resonant smell of the shisha drifts across the water but I am drinking an ice cold beer, watching the condensation run down the outside of the glass cooling my fingers.
I look around. A desert moon filters down through a hazy hot Sunday night between the tall, oddly shaped buildings: one looking like it’s busting out of corsets; another like the stretched neck of a pepperpot; another an index finger of truculent misanthropy bearing the baleful title of an international bank.
Closer to, a blue neon light stretches a few metres along the top of the glass outer wall of the International buffet, where a few desperate individuals make their choices from semi-warm, stainless steel buckets of Italian, Lebanese, Chinese, Indian and Arabic food.
Low shoulder height plastic shrubbery surrounds me, some of which glows vibrant blue and the others, violent lilac. A silent huge television screen by the pool seems to alternate between showing a rerun of a long forgotten Premier league match and a wildlife programme showing the very graphic reconstruction of swimmers being torn to pieces by hungry sharks.
I note my Dutch beer is a Japanese glass in a country whose religion forbids consumption of alcohol.
Welcome I think to the spendthrift, flotsam and jetsam of global culture turning up everywhere wherever the wind blows. Is this the way it will go? I once ate a meal in a traditional Gulf restaurant complete with wooden dhow in the window, served fish by a Sri Lankan waiter in local dress whilst being serenaded by Mexican mariachi band consisting of Filipino musicians costumed appropriately
It strikes me as I ponder my half empty glass, if we not careful we will end up with a world-wide mush of barely understood cultural references and artefacts. It is hard in some parts of the world to find much clue as to where you are. I remember Hong Kong in the old days, when a visit there would begin with a startling unexpected landing as the plane flew between the skyscrapers to arrive at the old airport on a runway that seemed to be hurtling you back out to sea, Hong Kong was then a world away from London: a vibrant dishevelled place where you looked to buy made-to-fit suits in an hour or two, electronics of dubious parentage, dried fish, chicken feet; visiting markets full of cotton clothes and buckets of eels, a place where everything was gloriously, badly translated. Now you land at an antiseptic highly efficient magnificent airport where you are sped in a wonderfully efficient train to a land of shopping malls - indistinguishable from those in the US, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and many more - where you are helped to exercise your credit card - once again wondrously efficiently.
And I am thinking. All this mess is not increasing cultural diversity but decreasing it to it all becomes superficial and fake – like those God-awful international fake-Irish pubs with their Guinness steak pies and mass produced pictures of the old country. As far from the real deal of the Matt Malloy’s in Westport as you can get. And with decrease, everything gradually becomes… Uninteresting.
The best of places honour and embrace multi-culturalism AND respect and care their indigenous cultures as a living thing. If we don't do both and just focus on the indigenous and the traditional a kind of listless entropy sets in resulting in basically tedious repetition. If on the hand we kind of gallop away on a kind of vigorous nod to as many different cultures as we can think or we think will appeal to our customers then we end up with the superficial, tacky and the meaningless. Which I decide is what I am sitting amongst on hot desert night!
But it’s no good being smug and seeing this is all about nouveau riche foreigners trying to ape others.
As England is a guilty of this latter failure, unable to acknowledge much of its own indigenous culture - at least from what I see as a songwriter and musician. On my million channel tv I will find quite easily Scottish, Welsh and Irish channels and programmes celebrating local music old and new but I would search long and probably in vain for something exploring English music in the same way. The BBC manages a magnificent 1 hour a week on ‘folk music’ and that represents all music from these Isles. Don’t get me wrong BBC 6 does provide great new music but that is not the same thing. You need to nurture and look after the source, the well from which the cool waters of authenticity inspiration and story are drawn. Maybe the problem is that institutions: the BBC, the media, the public schools, education are generally outstandingly ignorant around English culture. They may be more in tune in terms of literature and theatre but I despair of the images of people singing with fingers in their ears and blokes leaping about in white pyjamas with bells around their legs and hankies in their hands which are sneeringly drawn whenever the subject of English folk music is raised. (Morris Dancing historically comes from very specific localities and was unheard of elsewhere). Indigenous music in England is largely being forgotten by those who with power with the consequent loss of relevance and interest. But it is not being lost completely without a fight. There are some hopeful signs of dogged resistance from people almost subversively challenge this trend.
Except perhaps for the unsung heroes like Mark Holdsworth who potters about the waterways of England in his narrowboat, inviting local songwriters to come on board and record a couple of songs which he then posts on Facebook and the other internet hangouts – not traditional songs about ploughboys, miners and fishermen but songs written out of the living experience of local people. Or new singers like Blair Dunlop who music embraces the tradition he grew up in and write songs about window shopping for Porsche in London. Or Kathryn Tickell - who uses her fame and influence as a great Northumbrian piper to promote the music and the musicians of the north east not just in terms of performances but through education and work with younger people.And as the I drain the last drop of beer from my glass and consider the offer of a burger in French bread with feta cheese on the menu I can’t help thinking that they are the resistance heroes battling against the world drifting to where culturally most things have lost their roots, their meaning and their connection.
So I order another beer and abandoning the exotic burger I raise my glass to them
For more information on The Narrowboat Sessions click here
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