Soundtrack of my life
Riddle’s food expert looks back at his musical upbringing
Article by Jonathan Phang
Music: “Vocal or instrumental sounds, combined in such a way as to produce beauty, or to form an expression of emotion”. Oxford English Dictionary
“It is cruel, you know, that music should be so beautiful. It has the beauty of loneliness and of pain: of strength and freedom. The beauty of disappointment and never-satisfied love. The cruel beauty of nature, and everlasting beauty of monotony”. Benjamin Britten
It is of great sadness to me that I have no musical ability. I can carry a note and love singing, but a page of written music may as well be Double Dutch for all the sense it makes to me.
Well, every jar has its lid, and hopefully I will find my vocation one day. My father was a wonderful jazz pianist and would play the piano every morning before work and every evening upon his return.
The legendary Guyanese jazz pianist and singer Mike McKenzie (who arrived in London in the early sixties to accompany Queenie Watts at her East End pub, the Iron Bridge Tavern, in Poplar) taught my father from an early age in Guyana with teacher and pupil remaining great friends until the end of their lives in London.
Mike went on to have residencies at The Savoy, The Empress Club and The Dorchester where he played, eventually from a wheelchair, until his death in 1999.
My dad loved to entertain and to meet new people. Music was his great icebreaker, he made friends at the West Indian Social Club in Earl’s Court, by playing and humming along to hits of the day that had people jumping out of their seats, dancing cheek to cheek and begging for more.
At home, the piano was very much my dad’s domain and perhaps it was this, and the ease with which he played, that made it so difficult for myself and my siblings to learn his beloved instrument. I tried very hard to learn the piano but understood nothing. My music teacher, Mrs Vyse, would despair at my inability and gave me an A for effort and an E for attainment in my school report. I gave up learning a week later and stopped showing any interest in my father’s hobby.
During my teen years, my father would play the piano to show off, to my private school friends and other people he wanted to impress. In order to prove that he was an accomplished, educated man and, “not some plantation worker fresh off a banana boat”. The nuances of his generous and profound actions were lost on me at the time and I felt embarrassed and aghast. Now, my heart bleeds for him, and I’d give anything to hear him play the piano one more time.
My mother on the other hand was tone deaf. Mum loved listening to Nat King Cole, Andy Williams and Frank Sinatra whilst ironing. My brother and I would snigger listening to her struggling to sing along. Sadly it didn’t stop her from trying…!
I was brought up listening to a combination of Reggae, Calypso and jazz. I discovered my love of classical music, show tunes, Kate Bush and Christmas carols all by myself and I loved who I was, at the times when I needed to discover myself through the solace and harmony of music.
One of my best friends, Edmund Butt is a composer for film and television. I love a lot of his work, particularly his scores for Afterlife, Mistresses, Garrow’s Law, True North and Yellowstone Park. Watching him work and listening to his thought process, whilst he is writing, is an awe-inspiring experience. The idea that Ed will read a script, sit in front of blank paper, jot down symbols (whilst hearing pitch perfect notes and chords in his head simultaneously) that compliment moving images, in order to steer the narrative of a script without distracting the viewer is utterly incredible to me.
For something that is so important to me, I am a little ashamed of my ignorance on the subject. I know what I like – and I truly love what I like. I have never obsessed about musicians, but I do obsess about certain pieces of music and songs, particularly ones that I discover myself.
My bedrooms walls were never adorned with posters of bands and I never go to concerts (I hate crowds and loud music). I find the radio distracting and I don’t really care who is in and who is out.
Although I have met the Rolling Stones several times, I can’t tell you all their names and I never liked the fab four.
At dinner, one night in the early nineties, Bob Geldof brought a friend over to our table. Eventually, I asked the stranger what he did for a living. He ignored the question. Finished his drink and left.
Bob looked at me, and asked. “Where is it you are from exactly?”
“Hounslow. Why?” I replied.
“He’s Bono from U2!” said Bob.
“Well, would you have known who it was if I’d brought over Stephen Sondheim?” I riposted.
Rather like food, music attacks the senses and takes one right back to the place where one first heard it – mentally and emotionally. I have deliberated about what my eight choices of records may be if I am ever invited on to Dessert Islands Discs, and wonder if my life story can be précised into eight songs like the seven phases of man plus an extra one for good measure. They change regularly depending on the day and my mood, but I feel sure that my choice may include 1960’s reggae, Bob Dylan, Barbara Dickson, Kate Bush, John Rutter, Faure, Michael Feinstein, Paul Mealor, Kathleen Ferrier, Elgar and something from the English Hymnal. I have also given lots of thought to what music I want played at my funeral and will use music and its pathos with maximum dramatic effect, to ensure that there will not be a dry eye in the house.
The soundtrack of my life is punctuated, with an eclectic and varied mixture of musical styles that I unapologetically jump between. I love lyrics as much as I love melody and love sacred harmony even more. My only prerequisite for listening to a piece of music is that I must feel moved by it. And to be able to hear the words…