Aya my old friend

I’m sharing some music I’ve been making during quarantine, it’s very different from my usual shares. In a way, it’s a cycle closing or restarting, and technically still bagpipes.

It might not be news that I’ve tried many different psychoactive substances over the years. What might be news is that I credit an Ayahuasca (Aya) experience with very significant life changing event. That episode is one of a few that have sliced my life into separate sections. I can clearly inhabit my mind before and after, with my after mind being a much healthier and relaxed version of my before mind. The critical change, in my case, was a new capacity to accept and welcome things that are beyond my control, and things that don’t match my idealisations.

When I was living at SPCC, my mind became increasingly busy with the distance between an idealised community in my head and the realised community I lived in, and it caused me significant emotional pain. While in most aspects of life I’ve always had significant resilience, I wasn’t, until my Aya trip, very resilient to things not being the way I wanted them, or wanted them to be. I would blame myself and punish myself internally, while developing toxic relationships with others around me. This toxicity came from a constant presence of the ideal next to lived experiences, and constant comparison between my idealised relationships and each actual relationship. I also projected and demanded from others things that weren’t communicated, and were attached to these idealisations. I wasn’t aware of any of this, but my overall emotional life suffered from it to the point where my own life was at risk, and made me question whether my life was worth anything at all.

It was a hopeless low point, but my practical guardian angels stepped in. I decided to order Aya from an online shop and brewed it myself, along with my own synthesis of DMT (it’s very easy to synthesise). I fasted and took enzyme inhibitors along with the brew, and had someone checking on me while it happened.

My version of the brew was absolutely horrible in taste. I went through a very intense purge, with lots of vomiting and a very full bucket in the end. I passed out after, and while I had no visions, I had lots of varying sensations in my body, and fell asleep. After coming back, I entered a weird state (that now I understand is called integration). I was somewhere else for about a week. During that time, my appetite completely changed—I stopped being able to eat any meat. Some people in the community said I still looked high. I probably still was. But what came from this first practical visit was an incredible peace, voiced internally as ‘everything will be okay’. An acceptance of what we were building and how it was not necessarily what I wanted it to be. That by giving up the control I obsessed so much about, things would still work out, and it was okay that they didn’t match what I wanted in the first place. My role in this process shouldn’t be tied to my own existence and self-worth either. This was a new thought entirely, having grown up putting all my worth into everything I built and how perfectly I could do it. Over time this helped me heal those internal processes that made me miserable. Unfortunately for my personal relationships, it took much longer, but my toxicity also decreased over time, which tied with being more accepting and tolerant with my partners.

Fast forward to the beginning of 2020, and maybe 12 years after my first Aya experience. The pandemic had hit, festivals got cancelled, gigs got cancelled. Several impacting things were hitting my life in succession, but by now my acceptance to change was high and I was shielded by an autonomy built over the years. It wasn’t the first big change I faced, and all my loved ones were okay. Things would be okay. One thought during this time bubbled up: I should do Aya again. I suppose coming from a moment of intense change, with whole cycles ending, was bringing back thoughts of other times I experienced intense change.

It was by accident in conversation during these first few months of the year that I mentioned to a friend of a friend that I was thinking of doing it again. He had contacts and put me in touch with local shamans. While it’s easy to frame things as happening for a reason, my general outlook is that things are always happening, we just pay attention when we are looking for them (see inattentional blindness or the invisible gorilla test). While the rationalisations are different, both require action: if you are given an opportunity to do something you’ve been thinking of doing, it’s generally a good idea to take any opportunity you can get. It’s your choice whether you see it as fate, god or luck.

The last time I did Aya I didn’t have a shaman, and overall resisted the idea, since my belief (or lack of belief) system generally resists a lot of the language these spiritual guides usually employ. Since this was a new year and the only opportunity to access something that is illegal in Australia, I decided to do it with as much of an open mind as I could. It was a retreat in the mountains, and I went there with that friend, camping outside a nice country house surrounded by bush.

We arrived early, and people trickled in. There was no particular welcoming or introduction done to me, which I found interesting. Usually intentional communities and events have a host, or a guide, that would be welcoming people. Instead it seemed like everyone knew each other, and I had to walk around introducing myself to others. I’m not particularly outgoing in these settings, so I didn’t do much and just sat around listening and chatting to various people. One thing that stood out to me was that a lot of them had particular language and expressions they used that seemed to be shared. These are expressions that involve general new age terms, or spirituality, and articulate a lot of what goes on socially as ‘energy’ or ‘sacred’ or ‘divine’, and of course, ‘mother’, ‘grandmother’ or ‘medicine’ for Aya. Another thing I noticed was how mono-cultural it was. Attendees were mainly Australian white-passing. There were no South Americans at the event, and only maybe 4 out of 20 attendees not being white-passing (3 middle-eastern and myself). Usually for me this is a huge red flag when it comes to sacred indigenous events, since sacred knowledge is often co-opted and capitalised on by coloniser-background people. This process of co-opting is often done unconsciously—the impulse to acknowledge and respect indigenous ownership isn’t part of a coloniser-background’s upbringing. I know that in my case it took me a while to develop that sense of respect and acknowledgement.

Despite the introduction and my scepticism, I was impressed that backgrounds were not policed at all. Usually in all-white environments there is policing and questioning. In this case, everyone was locked in their own personal development processes and were not interested in anyone else in particular. I suppose that’s a natural side-effect of psychedelics, since they are intrinsically motivated, and while promoting feelings of connectedness to others and the world, they are fundamentally internal.

Among the things I found myself instinctively rejecting was the use of instruments that aren’t from white Australia, such as nylon stringed instruments, didgeridoo (which I find absolutely disrespectful but there was an acknowledgement of that), and a mix of new age and South American spiritual music.

Everyone had a bucket, lots of blankets and pillows, and was ready for lift-off. In the group, there were all kinds of reasons to do a visit, and overall it wouldn’t be appropriate of me to share any but my own.

I went to the gathering with several basic questions around my current life, my relationships, my past, my potential futures. But at the same time I went in open to whatever came from it, since this was a new way of doing Aya, and the setting itself was new to me. I accepted the idea that this confluence of factors leading me to being there was enough to let things unfold.

We all sat in a circle, and each walked up to an altar full of shaman trinkets, said ‘cheers’ in Quechua, then drank. My first cup was fantastic. The brew tasted was so much better than the one I did, and with an almost 2 day long fast, it landed in my stomach with lots of comfort. I felt some effects straight away, but they were mild, and I curled up and relaxed wrapped up in my blankets. When time came to have another cup, I went to the altar. My second cup hit strongly and I went into total dissolution and began experiencing visions. The sessions are guided by music, and music here plays a very strong role in guiding the trip but also in grounding what can quickly turn into very painful experiences.

In my case, some songs in Spanish guided me deeply to visions with lots of colours, visions of celebration and dancing. Some songs, especially in English, brought me back to the room, and overall, my trip was peaceful, with no questions or answers. I also felt very intense photo-sensitivity, slow motion, and travel from and to the ‘spirit’ world. Spirit world for me is really just the generative space inside our mind when it loops itself back into perception. I lucid dream, and find it easy to generate colour images in my head, so visions feel not only natural but an extension of that process. In a way I think I didn’t approach the trip with any preconception or intent, which then let me to aimless psychedelic visions. Once the ceremony was over I felt great, as new, with a beautiful trip and not much to tell apart from what I had seen.

The next day in the morning I had diarrhoea which is a side effect of not puking the previous night. I had had spasms but decided to sleep on it. It had to come out some way. Aya purges are absolutely disgusting in what they bring, since they carry residue from the digestive tract along. Despite that, I had a cruisy day, did short bush walks and rested in the sun for hours. I had no particular desire to share what I had seen. I think overall having a critical mind is a barrier to a lot of psychedelics. It makes a lot of the hallucinations harder to access, especially when compared to what some attendees were describing. Once the evening came, I was excited to visit the realm again, no fear and complete openness. I went for a cup and the shaman gave me a lot of brew, a lot more than before. Once it hit I immediately went into a hole, with tremendous muscle pain all over my body, and and absolutely horrible experience. Songs and music would take me to very painful places, and I had no visions at all, just the constant feeling of being beat up for no reason. I had no photo-sensitivity either, and when the session ended I wasn’t ready at all. I stayed between worlds for hours after, but had no pain. I also puked this time, an ooze that wasn’t what went in, again due to the brew dragging other things along. By the end there was food and I had dinner, and the pain had disappeared. I went to sleep confused, with no answers and feeling like I had been punished for something I didn’t know I had done.

The next morning we all had breakfast and began ‘integration’. This is when ideas received from the spirit world are slowly matched with the real world, by talking or doing activities. The group did a very long breathing exercise that causes hallucinations due to over-oxygenation of the body. While the technique worked on me, I experienced mild effects, but it did help in processing the evenings, and some words arrived in my mind to explain what had happened: duty, purpose, responsibility.

Anyone that knows me would know these words are already something I’ve had in me for a long time. Why would a brew cause me to arrive at those words? I articulated it in the group session as a realignment of my sense of duty, as a punishment by Aya for not fulfilling my duties as a friend, partner, son, community member. In practise the understanding I got is still ongoing, but relates to (I think) a trend I found in myself the last few years of pretending I’m more a victim than I am, since having become part of a society (Australian society) that not only values victimhood, but also has a threshold for trauma and suffering that’s much lower than the one I experienced growing up. In a way I let these ideas shape me into believing not only that I had trauma more serious than I do, but that my attitude towards my own burdens had become ridiculous and weak, considering the general strength I’ve always had to face adversity. My duty then was to acknowledge that that strength exists, and understand it as a motivator for action in the world I live in.

I saw so much pain in other people this weekend, a lot stemming from what I’d call minds needing calibration. A stable functioning psyche is hard to arrive at, a mind free of triggers and meme-viral infections. Keeping all those complex systems in order is so hard that for many people it is a daily struggle. Intense childhood trauma, violent or obsessive thoughts, insecurities. I understood that Aya was telling me I had been commiserating. Pretending I was in the same boat as other people in incredibly difficult and unstable places mentally, with no other way of regaining control other than psychedelics and spirituality. My duty then became apparent, that having a stable mind that’s well anchored to the real world, but that can travel to the spirit world as well is a helpful thing to offer to anyone in these situations, and that being present, listening, offering help with no judgement, and creating spaces of peace and acknowledgement, were indeed things I ought to be doing, and had instead given in to self-aggrandising victimisation.

I was so terrified I made sure my friends knew where I was going in case I never came back from this trip, but I’m glad I came back as myself, as more myself in fact. It’s not clear yet if this is the only realisation, if there are others, or if I might change my opinion entirely on what happened. Integration takes time for me. It’s however clear that Aya is a great teacher, and that of all the psychedelics it has been the one that has caused the biggest transformations and realisations in me.

While for me the spirit world is contained inside our own neuron jelly and isn’t a separate dimension in a physical sense, it can’t be denied that it is vast, and visiting it is a beautiful and blissful experience that is often overlooked by science-minded folk. One of the great things about the spirit world is that if you are a godless being, the gods of creation you meet in the spirit world are nothing but nature itself, ancestors, and expressions of the incredible regularity of our world, and the mysteries at the edges of our knowledge. In the spirit world we can visit every concept as an experience in itself. Visit our own cells, talk to stars and dead relatives. These are powerful tools to unpack the real world, and open a dialog with our own biases, preconceptions, insecurities, fears. They also reveal the structures upon which our own subjectivity is built, and often in dialogue, how the differences between individual subjective experiences, while distant, have some universal common grounds. And having access to all these via a vomit-inducing tea is well worth it.

Healing cultural loss through music at Ethno Australia

I first learned about Ethno at age thirty, via a trad musician from Ireland I was learning tunes from. Looking it up was disappointing—the age limit was thirty. For another three years I wrote it off and a missed opportunity. It was only after a young Australian musician encouraged me that I decided to apply anyway.

If you haven’t heard of Ethno, it varies considerably from country to country, but the basic idea is gathering musicians in a camp for a week and come up with music together. Each musician shares music from their culture, then music gets arranged and in some cases performed.

My first Australian Ethno was in 2017 and the process was way easier than I expected. I sent them a few video links of my playing, and bought the (moderately pricey) ticket. That was the process in Australia, and since I’ve only done Ethno in Australia, I can’t do any comparative analysis.

For both I brought my gaitas and offered a few tunes. In both, after playing both Galega and Sanabresa, everyone loved the sound of Sanabresa, so I ended up doing music with those pipes both times. In a lot of ways bringing such a controversial instrument to Ethno is interesting in itself. By presenting different gaitas to people from all over the world that had never heard them, they had no cultural bias whatsoever, and picked the Bb gaita Sanabresa sound (my chanter is actually from Torres Vedras, and is a contemporary instrument).

My experience in 2017 was mixed. I was there with a partner and we spent a lot of time together, which subtracted from time with other people. There were a lot of musicians from the Pacific (Rotuma / Solomon Islands) along with a few first nations Australian people. Among the foreigners there were Swedes, myself, and a few Israeli. The general workflow was early breakfast, rehearse and share tunes all day, then have dinner and camp. There is a big emphasis on first nations culture and it was a great experience for me to learn about local peoples, and learn a bit of language. We did a lot of original songs (more on that later) and very few tunes. This was mainly because we had a lot more percussion, guitars and singers than we had melody players. In my case, I offered a few different tunes from both Portugal and Spain, and everyone decided to work on ‘Fandango Asturiano’. Again, ironically, not a Portuguese tune, and on a contemporary chanter.

After rehearsing for one whole week, we went on to perform at Mullum Festival. Performing was great fun, and we played for packed audiences and got amazing feedback. One of the shows, one old man an his daughter came over to ask about my instrument—turns out he was basque. Small world. I think my first ethno was a big shock in a lot of ways. In learning about other cultures directly, by spending time together making music. It also came at a time I was feeling insecure about my musical progress. By then I’d been playing gaita in Australia mostly by myself. Being in a supportive environment where people enjoyed what I play and wanted to do something with it was great for me. It also helped me understand the processes and tools of songwriting and arranging a lot better, which was a blind spot in most of my music training.

I came back with a lot more energy and motivation, and started pushing harder towards having successful musical projects. I started The Last Aurochs, and joined Celtic Tones. Considering both projects have grown considerably in two years, I’d say Ethno 2017 was one of the catalysts for taking music a bit more seriously in my life.

Fast forward to this year, and I joined Ethno again. I applied through the same process, but this time already knew some organisers. I booked Ethno while still with the same partner, but we broke up a month before Ethno started. I was at an emotional low point, but luckily my other partner took good care of me, and being at Ethno by myself was a completely different experience.

The first thing I noticed was that this year’s group was slightly more organised, and full of young and talented song writers. One of the things that has to be understood about doing something like Ethno in Australia, is that Australia has had genocide of its first nations consistently for 200 years, and even the past century cultures were still being decimated. This means some of the young indigenous artists at Ethno have limited knowledge of their own culture because it was wiped out. This means they can’t share songs easily, and often have to write their own while they reconnect and heal their connection to the land, their language, and with the country that oppressed them for generations. The songs I learn from a Kamilaroi singer, a Bundjalung singer, or a Kabi-Kabi singer are contemporary. Reinvented, often original, meant to be heard and shared with the world in traditional language, but for less traditional ears. You might hear reggae, blues, pop, folk. You might hear lyrics about Jesus, about love or about slavery, but always meant for modern ears. This is very unusual for an Ethno event, but also what makes Ethno Australia such a healing event for those involved.

Traditional music is an interesting medium in itself. We are used to playing tunes that are passed on to us for no particular reason other than being part of some kind of tradition. But the idea of tradition is in itself already meaningless, and often completely fabricated along with ideas stolen from Nationalism, Stalinism, Essentialism or even crazy theories around genetics. Take my own music for example, a modern chanter with no historical precedent, made in Torres Vedras, a bagpipe I got from my grandpa that didn’t make any sound, music from a region of Spain I never lived in. Yet we reinvented our piping tradition to keep it alive, and that means completely ignoring its historical context (which effectively killed it), and replacing it with an aspirational version of our past, usually to validate our own identity (aspirational or not). A historical pastiche, optimised to survive in modern environments by appealing to nostalgia and historical fable. Calling bagpipes Celtic has no historical relevance, yet they are absolutely part of Celtic identity. It becomes pretty obvious we aren’t talking about tradition in the sense of a historical lineage that is unbroken and a snapshot of the past. Most tradition happening at Ethno is exactly the same kind of pastiche and nostalgia. It’s identity building via music, and with it, solidifying boundaries between peoples according to where they were born.

There’s no way the past can be revisited. We have to recount it in the present, and having aspirational versions of our own culture allows us to believe we can be better than we were, that better worlds can be built. It’s especially useful if personal challenges exist. Culture is always there to give anyone a set of values and beliefs, and that is incredibly helpful when we feel lost. Even myself, despite spending my life abroad, travelling and mixing with other cultures, will go to the ‘Portuguese culture’ well for water. Language, music, values, ideas. I find myself shaped by them a lot more when I have to define myself in relation to others. Ethno is exactly that, with simultaneously demanding everyone to define themselves geographically and culturally, while also demanding one single, unified music production as the final result. And yet, somehow, it works. One of the reasons might be because approaching others from a place of rooted belonging (‘I am from this place, and I speak this language’) means everyone has to start from geography and approach everyone as a traveller going into a foreign land. When we are in that mindset, curiosity, exploration, respect, they all come naturally. Another reason might be that the idea in itself will only attract specific kinds of world musicians—those that aren’t completely absorbed by their own culture and want to interact and learn from other cultures.

This year my song choice was again not exactly something we’d call ‘Portuguese’. I brought ‘Alvorada Sanabresa’, which, like the name indicates, probably comes from Sanabria, which isn’t in Portugal at all. But again, if after offering many different tunes, that’s the one that resonated with the group, why not. And why not turn it into a mad circus-like arrangement like we did? Tradition is evolution (so said the chanter makers). It’s still worth it to do weird things with forgotten instruments, than it is letting them disappear.

Overall, I found my second ethno incredibly healing because these ideas around identity deepened. I had been trying to find fresh ways to look at my music, and had been playing the same music over and over again. Ethno gave me new genres, new languages and new music to learn, and with it, I came back to my own music with a renewed look.

I also understood that music has a role in healing us from genocide, violence, aggression. Not in that it has cures, but that is has in it the tools for self discovery and acceptance of oneself, by interacting purely within our own emotions and feelings. Somewhere in the boundary between body and spirit, making us move, telling us things we can’t put into words but understand. Things about our own self love, our own identity and relationship to our roots. And, of course, the tremendous fun of being in the moment.

My trip to Europe to pick up instruments

Featured today is the Galician piper I did a two day workshop with.

Last year I quit my job and went travelling for close to two months. I saw a few doors opening music-wise and decided it was time to try it. Every year I pick a couple of things I want to do and pick them as the next year battle. I doesn’t have to be in any particular time of the year, it just happens. This time, I picked doing more music and doing less office work. It worked. It was also during that year that I put in orders for more instruments. Two gaitas and a flute.

One of the interesting things about the trad instrument world is that it resists industrialisation. Since it’s a low demand market, it relies entirely on pre-industrial manufacture, and on craftspeople, artisans, and luthiers, and with it, on their own personal take on instruments. Gaita is one of these, with nowhere near enough demand for an industrialised, standardised version. Instead, there are a few standardised gaitas, and a few makers that do their own personal take on them.

My first gaita was given to me by my grandpa, but I had to get new chanters from the makers I knew then. This was fresh out of the standardisation process for the instrument, and I got two chanters that are a snapshot of that moment in time: one in C copying Galician concert pitch chanters, and one in Bb which was a chanter developed entirely in the centre of the country by two craftsmen. They based themselves entirely on tone and came up with a diatonic chanter that has a minor scale instead of a major scale. This happens often in bagpipes and other wind instruments without keys: makers will make the holes according to a specific diatonic scale, and rely on cross-fingering for chromatics.

Over time, and as I progressed in my gaita practise (along with playing more and more flute), I started hitting the limits of the instrument, namely, dynamics, range and volume. It was around this time that I contacted makers and ask for some help working on new chanters and bagpipes. This turned out to be fairly difficult. The makers I used to work with were resistant to some of my ideas, so I contacted a maker in Australia instead, who was happy to work on a design with me (to be fair, a very close design to his usual one). I also contacted a maker in the north of Portugal for a couple of new sets of bagpipes. As my flute use increased professionally, I also contacted a maker in France that makes inexpensive keyed flutes and ordered a 6-keyed wooden flute.

One of the side effects of relying on craftspeople for instruments is that there is a long wait between the order and the instrument being delivered. In my case, I waited for some bagpipes close to two years, one of them about three months, and the flute took closer to half a year.

Waiting this long for an instrument means if your musical practise changes and evolves, by the time the instruments arrive, you might’ve already changed styles, or be looking for something else. In my case, I was lucky enough that I was still looking for similar things than when I ordered my instruments. Once all of them were done, I set out to visit the makers and collect the instruments.

I love travelling, but prefer to have excuses to visit small towns, people, and places that have little to do with what stereotypical trips would encourage. This trip, my excuse was to visit and pick up instruments. My first trip was to Porto and Maia, in the north of Portugal. There I picked up a two-octave C chanter and a traditional sounding A chanter. My request was that I could tune the drones enough to change keys, usually between C -> D or A -> B. Since my C set had an extra drone in G, tuning it down to F was also something I asked. That would unlock many extra keys while keeping the drone on.

The maker delivered most of what I requested, with an extra drone in high G (which I love but for the wrong reasons). One of the challenges is that the single reed used for drones can’t cope with so many tonal changes, so I had to do a lot of work around it. Right now I can have a drone in C, D, G, F and high G. Having two drones at the same time on the other hand is proving to be a bit hard, since the valve system changes the tuning once 2 drones are on at the same time. This isn’t an issue with tap systems since the air path isn’t shared.

After picking up my new gaitas, I visited a local traditional music school and took a workshop with a great Galician piper. I’d even risk saying a revolutionary one. It was a bit intimidating to be at that workshop, since all players there were either former teachers of mine, or the top pipers in Portugal, playing in a lot of traditional local bands. The workshop focused on a new method this piper developed that allows musicians to do two whole octaves on any gaita chanter, after preparing the reed and adjusting intonation. This was an absolute shock for everyone. We also learned how to do dynamics, pauses, adjust volume, adjust tuning using rubber bands. An absolutely groundbreaking workshop that left us all back at the beginner stage of our instruments. I had accepted that gaitas had only one octave range, no dynamics and no pauses, entirely out of respect to the authority of my teachers. After the workshop I felt that my understanding of the instrument had completely changed. Unfortunately, that also means that my expectations for my new chanter were misguided—it wasn’t the chanter that had to change, it was my playing.

After seeing the teacher doing two octaves on a traditional chanter, it became clear to me that it wasn’t the chanter at all, and that gaita (and in a way, bagpiping) has been misguided for decades. Seeing our instructor play dynamics, pauses, classical and contemporary pieces along with traditional pieces, made me understand, yet again, that usually the instrument is only part of the constraint, and the superstition and ritual around it is just as limiting. Gaita interpretation possibilities in Portugal were trapped and were now being set free, and the best pipers in the country were part of it. Interestingly enough, Galicia’s traditions have solidified so much more that this instructor has little reception across the border due to his unorthodox approach. He said Portuguese piping had potential to be the new grounds for evolution of the instrument. Yet again, being backwards and underdeveloped can have its benefits, and I hope I witnessed a turning point in our own tradition.

After this mind blowing experience, I went on another trip to pick up another instrument, this time a wooden flute from a maker in Brittany. I flew to Nantes and stayed with a great host using CouchSurfing. They had great advice, a nice place, and great travel stories. I went to visit the maker in a small town near Bégard. So small, in fact, there are no door numbers. There I was welcomed by the maker. A reserved man in a gorgeous country house. The flute is spectacular, a lot better than I expected. I took my old flute to show him, and he tried it out. It was indeed terrible. Ironically, the cold humid weather made my old flute sound great, except for the higher octave which remained terrible. I asked the maker to play his biniou as well. I didn’t expect that much volume, it was great. He served us some home made (non-alcoholic) cider, and we chatted a bit, including the sad news about Grinter.

I made the point, that a maker’s material knowledge dies with them if they don’t take apprentices. I don’t think most of them care. Unfortunately, that will always mean traditional instruments have high variance, are often inconsistent, and are victim to fad and superstition. Just like with gaitas, my old flute sounded great at the hands of great flute players, with their complaints, of course, but the tone was more in the hands and breath than in the instrument itself. I think it’s an old pattern, to blame the instrument when we simply haven’t been practising enough. Blaming the tone on the flute when it’s actually the player, mainly, the reason why tones are so distinctive.

After that great drive into Brittany and a short visit to the coast, we returned to catch our flights. In my case, I had some spare time so my host invited me to perform at an alternative school near Nantes. I did three short performances in front of three classes of children between 5 and 12. It was absolutely beautiful, with the kids dancing an an-dro I played from Brittany. Most of their questions related to how I made a living, and about their own lives (they are very young after all).

This musical trip, in a way, is my way out of a world obsessed with travelling experiences that look more and more the same. I travelled for music and sound, and to meet makers, play their instruments. I’ll be returning to Australia with new instruments, but more importantly, with a lot of new stories and sounds in my head.

Here are some headless photos of me picking these up.

A trip to Yulara and the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara freehold

This post has no music, just a couple of photos from my trip.

Last week I got to spend some time visiting ‘the rock’, Uluṟu, in the Northern Territory. It is a sacred site for indigenous peoples so I won’t discuss it too much.

I found free accommodation in a town called Yulara, which is a private resort-owned village. It’s a somewhat surreal place where thousands of people come to stay temporarily and spend on average $7000 a week. Needless to say I didn’t spend nearly as much money.

My free accommodation was in the staff housing, which means I got to see the ‘underbelly’ of Yulara, with lots of underpaid overworked backpackers. In one of the resident’s words, it was like a labour camp. Considering most of the workers there make close to minimum wage. It made me wonder where the money goes. They get paid a low wage, then all costs (rent, shopping, etc) are fed back to the resort, which owns everything.

The day I arrived we did a quick sunset trip to Kata Tjuṯa, which I learned about that day. My stay was fun but uneventful as the town itself has little to offer apart from drinking. There are bars, restaurants and hotel facilities, but the cultural centre is too far for someone traveling on foot like myself.

One thing I always wanted to do was to visit Uluṟu, but do so with an indigenous person. I don’t think it’s appropriate to visit any indigenous sites without consent from the traditional owners. We researched and in Yulara there’s only one tour led by the local Ananu people and, more specifically, the Uluru family. We signed up and went on an incredible trip into aboriginal freehold land.

The first thing we learned was that we were now invited by the Uluru family to enter Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara freehold. I didn’t know what a freehold was, but was impressed by how it came about. The incredible strength of the community in getting recognition, but also in how the community has developed a balance between western and traditional ways.

Our tour 4WD went on a massive dirt road trip and we got to this incredible landscape.

All the dots in abstract aboriginal art started to make sense. Apart from the walk, we got to learn a lot from our guide. He shared a lot of knowledge about the area, but also some pretty tragic stuff around what tourists do to sacred sites.

Uluru itself is a sacred site and the traditional owners ask everyone to not climb. The resort, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to care as much, since their pamphlets have the indigenous request right next to instructions on how to climb. Pretty bad. Also pretty bad was that the water hole, used by indigenous people for millennia for their own survival, is now poisoned due to too many tourists peeing and shitting on top of Uluru. This made me very sad and very angry. Our guide was a bit more pragmatic. Since the Uluru climb is being closed soon, he said that maybe his grandkids will be able to drink it. It’s a very different mindset to think that far into the future.

The landscape was absolutely stunning. There was no sign of any human being anywhere, and we got to see the sunset in the desert. Absolutely unforgettable.

The next day we went for a long walk in Kata Tjuṯa. Again, an incredible landscape, but this time, without an indigenous guide, it was much harder to understand what the meaning of the place was. On our way back we did get to see an eagle hunt a snake right in front of us, which was incredible.

We went to Uluru the next day. While our guide was perfectly fine in terms of respect and understanding of indigenous culture, we couldn’t find an indigenous guide to take us that day. Seeing sunset at Uluru is a mix of beautiful scenery and a tourist shit show. There are helicopters flying, traffic everywhere, drunk tourists (not great when the nearby community is dry). Hilarious as well is that there is a blimp going up and down the whole time. A pristine landscape with a giant white branded balloon going up and down. I guess it’s a bucket list item. It is very upsetting to see what tourism does to places. I’m happy that I got to get off the beaten track with my friends.

One thing that surprised me was how green it was. I expected red, but the bush colours were vibrant greens, reds and yellows. Absolutely incredible. We also caught a massive thunderstorm and some rain, which I didn’t expect.

Perhaps ironically, lightning from the storm hit that giant blimp and it exploded on our last night there. The local peoples couldn’t help but laugh. Looks like even the clouds didn’t like that blimp. A bit of bush justice.

Woodfordia 2017/2018

One of my highlights for this year—Linsey Pollak and Lizzie O’Keefe’s work Dangerous Song I missed last year but saw this year

I’m not a fan of New Year’s Eve in Sydney. The city gets super crowded, too many travelers ticking off their bucket lists and way too much FOMO.

This year I did the sessions again (see my last post). This time, our camping spot was amazing so I got to sleep a lot more. No Tai-Chi for me! I wanted to see mainly trad and world and got to see nice gigs, but this year the trad line-up wasn’t as strong. Well, apart from Martin Hayes, but I saw him recently in Orkney, and fiddle players seem to get a lot more out of his gigs than I do.

One of my favourites ended up being the Brisbane Tabla school. They did a special gig where they explained the tabla dialect (vowels and consonants to describe rhythms). The teacher would then voice a sequence and students would repeat it. Nice improvisation, a great flute player accompanying. It stood out, at least for me.

The sessions felt much weaker this year, with some of the great players from the area not coming along this year. I also went to a few Scottish sessions, which is great fun. My favourite session ended up being an impromptu gathering after the session bar had closed, led by the members of Sásta. Amazing energy and relentless playing. One of the best thigs for me was having Scottish cello players at an Irish session. It gave it such a great depth.

My main highlight was a repeat show from last year by Linsey Pollak and Lizzie O’Keefe, Dangerous Song. The show is a dark box with a video projector, with the artists lit inside this box, making them appear as ghostly figures behind the projection. The projection itself was a collection of amazing footage of reef animals. Linsey was playing an electronic sax and modulating real animal sounds, which makes this piece even more haunting. Some times funny, some times sad. This was part of a general protest sub-theme at Woodford this year against the Adani megamine which will make yet another massive wound on this amazing part of the world. This show was, at least for me, beyond comparison at the festival. The work is incredible and worth the listen / purchase / support.

I enjoyed this year’s ceremony a lot more, since it was mainly about over exploitation of natural resources, industrial labour life and worker insurrection. The whole theme seemed a bit revolutionary in theme, with workers smelting their tools in the end and making peace with the ‘creatures’ that I imagine represent natural beings and resources.

The rest of the festival was a combination of resting, playing music and complaining about the weather, which was humid and stormy this year, so more like a steam and less like last year’s bake.

Woodford is still a favourite for me and can’t wait for the next one. This year I also got a nice surprise: dried out cow skulls. But more on that later. For now a photo is enough.

Woodfordia 2016/2017

In honour of this year’s Woodford, I’m posting a Journal entry originally written on Jan 2nd 2017, anonymised.

I told A I wasn’t going. There was nothing particularly interesting in the line-up and I was looking forward to spend some time by myself and some time with her. But at B’s party (and C’s going away and D’s visit) C offered me a session musician ticket and I had to take it. It’d be the first time I’d get in at any festival as a musician. Sure, it’s a volunteering gig, but it also means I can make new connections that might help me getting similar or better gigs in the future. I bought my flight and told A, who was very disappointed. I apologised— but there was really no way I wouldn’t take a performer ticket for Woodford.

Woodford was nothing like last time. C’s guidance turned it into an unforgettable experience. We spent our days doing tai chi, yoga, dancing, seeing trad gigs and never once ran into any friction. Her darker moods hit us some times but never in a harsh way. The upside is far too good. I danced like I hadn’t danced in years—it’s like I was put in a time machine and reaquainted with my younger, more naive self. I think I value it more now. It was there all along, I just needed some encouragement.

Gig-wise my plan was to stick to trad. Andy Irvine, Sharon Shannon and FourWinds, maybe catch E and D’s gig. I was expecting Andy Irvine to be great, he was good, but somehow the energy wasn’t there. Maybe it was the blistering heat. From what I heard from F, his NYE gig wasn’t good either. Apparently he said something very political expecting a response, but got nothing, and things went sour after that. So much so when he was packing up he gave the audience the finger! It was so bad they had to call FourWinds to do CPR—F’s words—on the venue. We only got there when FourWinds were playing, so for us it was an amazing night of dancing and poetry. Sharon Shannon did not disappoint with amazing gigs back to back. Their show is very much a pop rock show with trad melodies, and she looked absolutely dreamy with her hair blowing in the wind made by the stage fans. They needed lots of them—coming from Ireland weather to 37 degrees Celsius has got to be very difficult. One of my disappointments with her gig was the lack of use of the bass buttons on her boxes, but that’s the trad Irish way.

My actual gig was just playing sessions, which sounds fairly easy. In practise it meant playing at least 5 hours every day, ending as late as 1 or 2am. I had lots of fun but it was hard to keep up—lots of veterans and many tunes I didn’t know. I didn’t start any sets for a few days to see what they played—and I’d stay I knew about 15%. The few tunes I started didn’t go that well. Some too fast (green mountain and monaghan twig), some too boring (cooley’s into drowsie maggie). Some were fantastic though—humours of tully crine, father kelly’s, what a blast. The slow session also went fairly well. One of the afternoons the slow Australian tunes session was on and the host was sick, so they asked me to teach an Australian tune. What a nightmare. I tried Last of the Litter, then Mirandum, then gave up. Some of the fiddle players had better options. Odd that I’d be asked to do that, of all people.

The opening and closing ceremonies were alright, but the closing ceremony, with its refugee undertones, felt far too self congratulatory. Happy beach people in one place, bombed boat people in the other. Somehow it was divine intervention that caused refugees—which I found very annoying. What was missing there was the happy beach people bombing the refugees first, then pretending to be nice people and welcoming (only a few skilled ones) back in. At least it would be more honest.

The fireworks were fantastic, and we went to bed early. Nothing like going to a festival and actually resting.

New theme and writing again

It’s been a while since I updated this site, for several different reasons.

Mainly, I’m posting again because I adjusted the template so it works on my phone (long overdue). I’m also looking to write more, but who knows.

Since my last post I’ve become self-employed (and my business is doing will so far), received my shodan (black belt) in Yoshinkan Aikido, started running a trad session in Sydney, and played several events as a musician.

The slow but steady increase in music playing has led me to a split schedule of programming and playing music regularly. In a week I’m now at two or three sessions, and the odd festival.

I’ve also taken up the concert flute (simple system, some times called Irish flute) and have been taking lessons. While I still play the pipes, the flute is much handier at a session is when I’m travelling.

My life has gotten significantly happier, with a steady but sparse stream of guests, love in all ways possible (and impossible), and I’ve become fully debt free. My move here has been a long trek uphill, but now I’m getting rewarded for my perseverance (or foolishness, hard to say).

I look forward to some easier, perhaps more lyrical posts, while I face this new way of living out my life.

Today’s tune is my homework. I’m fortunate enough to have caught great trad mentors lately.