SKIN (2017)

Uke takes a backseat in this new collection of original tunes, mostly-instrumental music influenced by my love of African & AfroCuban rhythms.  Danceable organic grooves, hypnotic atmospheres, driven by traditional percussion and a spirit of renewal.

New Skin – Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Mya Moe ukulele, electric guitars, cello bass, keyboard, cajon, dun dun, lizard sticks, shaker, Tibetan bell, agogo bell)

Shedding skin has always been an apt analogy for transformation throughout my life, winding snakewise through the years as I peel back the layers of my psyche and deepen my understanding of this strange experience I call ‘me’.  Certainly as apt as the map that reads my personality as Year of the Snake.  This new collection of music began, unconsciously, with the need to shed yet another layer, and so the themes of SKIN emerged.

This album is a step away from ukulele as the focus, and back to my percussion & rhythm roots.  Seven tracks are brand new, four are earlier unreleased recordings, and five are new works created from earlier rhythm recordings.  As I deepened into its process, I found myself on an inner anthropological / archaeological exploration of my creative past, transforming old into new forms, in order to invoke the fresh skin (more on this later).

As usual, because I wouldn’t get this music done otherwise, I’ve played all the instruments on the album.  I added FX to some of the instruments, and a bit of digital snip-and-tuck in some parts, but all the sounds happened organically in my loungeroom (generally with great urgency before the kids got home from school!). The instruments on SKIN are: Dun dun, djembe, kpanlogo, cajon, jungle kit, tambour, agogo bell, log drum, darabuka, talking drum, kashishi, gourd shaker, lagerfone, lizard sticks, balafon, tibetan bells, cello bass, ukuleles (acoustic & electrified), electric guitar, balalaika, electric plank slide, kemenche, 12-string mandolin, saz, strumstick, jawharp, keyboards & vocals.

I know I’m just a white honky and my skills are feeble, but I have always loved the rhythms of Africa, and by obvious extension Brazil & Cuba, so my meagre offerings here come from a place of sincere respect & celebration.   For instance, South African urban styles like Afrobeat, highlife and the Soweto sound, have variously inspired tracks like New Skin and Stripes An Spots (imagine zebras & giraffes strolling shantytown streets in their best fancy outfits ….skins people wear to identify themselves):

Stripes An Spots – Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Acoustic & electrified Bruko uke, electric guitar, cello bass, djembe, kick drum, cajon)

The awesome & legendary ELECTRIC PLANK, made by Lotus (age 11)

I have always been drawn to raw hand-made instruments improvised from recycled and minimal materials, and the attitude that you can find music in anything that resonates, and this is the spirit that often drives my musical process.  I use whatever instruments are at hand, and often make “traditional” sounds in non-traditional ways.  This time I’ve treated the uke sound to give it a sharper quality on some tracks, and likewise the (usually) Russian balalaika features, as its thin treble attack is so similar to a lot of African improvised instruments.  In the opening track I Say You Say I just wanted to capture the raw driving energy of improvised village instruments created as rhythm machines.  It features balalaika, the electric plank, and a very delapidated old 12-string mandolin:

I Say You Say –  Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Kick drum, tambour, agogo bell, log drum, 12-string mandolin, electric plank slide, balalaika, vocs)

On other tracks, such as New Skin and The Long Walk And What We Found, I’ve taken more care (including hours of painstaking editing) to create a smoother AfroJazz-tinged sound and a more conversational dynamic between the instruments:

The Long Walk And What We Found – Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Bruko uke, cello bass, electric guitar, kick drum, cajon, piano, egg shaker, kpanlogo, djembe, talking drum)

The plaintively hypnotic desert blues stylings of North Africa can be heard in tracks such as Crocodile Awhile:

Crocodile Awhile – Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Bruko uke , tremolo guitar, electric plank slide, cello bass, kemenche, kick drum, tambour, lagerfone, kpanlogo, djembe)

Rhythm Collision performing Welcome, written by Bradfield Dumpleton © 2006.  Video © Nic & Fiona Meredith 2011.

Several of the tracks grew from previous recordings I made years ago of some Afro & Latin-inspired drum compositions. I had written the pieces while teaching percussion & leading two community drumming groups in Cygnet, Tasmania, from 2007 – 2011: Rhythm Collision (all-kids group) and the Drummin’ Mummas (all-women group).  For SKIN, I dug these drums-only recordings out of my archive and added other instruments over them, making new skins for the old skins, as with this AfroCuban-flavoured piece The Hyena:

The Hyena – Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Electric guitars, cello bass, jungle kit (dun dun, kpanlogo, djembe), agogo bell, lizard sticks, tambour).  Original drum rhythm composed in 2008 & recorded in 2010.

Some personal mythology behind this project:

Drawings & paintings © Bradfield Dumpleton
Shaman Rebirth 1 © Bradfield Dumpleton 1992

2016 was a really difficult year emotionally and psychologically, for myself, my partner Heidi and our immediate family.  It was a year of relentless external forces grinding at our lives, one problem after another with no time to catch breath, restore our energy reserves or integrate the huge impacts these events were having on us.  It felt like trial by fire – Heidi & I were running on adrenaline much of the time, emotionally & psychologically exhausted, always bracing for the next “attack”.  Our relationships were tested to the edges as were our creative problem-solving skills.  Yet as we hammered & burned our way through each layer of intensity, we also felt indestructible faith in our ability to keep going.  Tempered steel, I think is the term.

Usually I don’t bother celebrating the “new year” – a miserable experience at 14 provided the early epiphany that it’s just another day – so I’ve always viewed the notion of a “new year” as merely a psychological coping mechanism humans have developed to convince themselves their lives will magically become different overnight.  In the case of this new year though, I clearly needed said coping mechanism, because I wanted to bludgeon 2016 to death, incinerate its mangled corpse in an unholy inferno and bury any ashen remains deeply and permanently out of mind.  I needed a sense of change, of newness to look towards, I needed a ritual… was time to shed skin.

I’d been revisiting some early Fela Kuti afrobeat albums, with his utterly irresistible grooves and messages of defiance in the face of oppressive forces.  The legacy & influence of African rhythm has been at the core of my love of music since I was a child, and after the deliberately loose and shambolic sounds of the PIGBOX recordings, I felt I wanted to create something smoother on the ears and more groove-based.  I had a simple uke riff gestating in my head all summer, and finally in Jan 2017 snatched some time to explore it in a recording.  The result was the track New Skin, and it became a statement to myself that I was leaving the previous year behind and deliberately entering a new phase.

Tomb (detail) © Bradfield Dumpleton 2009, guache on canson paper

Recording New Skin opened me up to keyboards, an instrument I can’t play & never imagined I would want to.  My 6-yr old stepson Leo has an old Yamaha PSR74 he likes to derange occasionally, so I mucked around and discovered I could find a few simple blues organ cliches that fitted the pseudo-Afrobeat style of the track.

New Skin also reconnected me with my passion for African-styled grooves, and a stylistic theme for an album emerged.  I already had a few Afro-influenced pieces floating around, one-off recordings that had never really had a “home”, so I began digging out some old ideas from the archives.  The first choice was easy & close at hand: Transmogrification Blues from 2015 is a snakey funk-of-a-thing that grew out of a desert-blues riff I found on fellow musical explorationist Ross Douglas’ saz.  Not only did its title declare the theme, but this piece had also inspired me to start using my daughter’s cello as a bass, as well as the Electric Plank she created when she was 11 for the gritty slide guitar parts, and marked a new phase in my home recording adventures.

Transmogrification Blues – Bradfield Dumpleton 2015. (Saz, cello, shaker, dundun, cajon, electric plank slide)

Coincidentally (really?),  I had also unpacked the big old ZOOM MRS-1608 multitrack digital recording desk I used to record on before I switched to laptop.  There’s over a decade’s worth of recordings there, and I’d been putting off the process of manually transferring all the data to disc for future editing on laptop.  Anyway, that’s when I discovered a bunch of recordings that didn’t sound half-bad & were from my more “tribal” years, so fitted the musical theme I had in mind, as well as the themes of ritual, invocation & personal transformation through deliberate creative intent.

Shaman © Bradfield Dumpleton 1992

It was exciting & inspirational to revisit these artefacts of  my creative past, to review one’s early art with the benefit of personal insight and greater technical skill.  I reconnected with my personal mythologies of the time, the shamanic self I’d been initiated into during the 90s and expressed outwardly, before depression moved in and I needed those skills for deeper psychological work.

I’d bought the ZOOM recording desk through a Festivals Australia grant in 2004, as I was directing the Bruny Island Kids Artzone Festival at the time and needed recording equipment to prepare Dancing The Bruny SeeDragon, a community dance/song/drumming performance event featured at the festival.  One of the first recordings I made on the ZOOM desk was Sula Sula, a kind of African lullaby that opened the performance, a song of the sea & an invocation to the spirit of the SeeDragon.  Here’s a pic of the glorious Bruny SeeDragon (designed by myself & the students of Bruny PS) as it danced its way down to Adventure Bay Beach at the performance finale:

The recording is unchanged on SKIN, except for adding an extra vocal harmony part & a recording of the waves out the front of our house.

Sula Sula – Bradfield Dumpleton 2004  (Rhythm loop, waves, vocals).  Adapted from original recording made in 2004 for the Bruny Island community arts project Dancing The Bruny SeeDragon.

Back in Melbourne during the New Age 90s, preceding my move to Tassie, I was deeply immersed in personal transformation, exploring psychology through shamanic practice & creatively through my art & music.  This was when I attended two separate intensives of the TA KE TI NA  rhythm process facilitated by its originator, master drummer & shaman Reinhard Flatischler. This kicked open my journey into rhythm & percussion as a neurological experience, and its historical uses in trance states & community ritual. During this time I composed & performed a series of community singing events called Living Mandalas, layered rhythmic chants & synchronised movement that groups of people could experience together as a collective pulse.  Hoom Sha was one of these compositions, and for SKIN I’ve used some atmospheric uke & keyboard FX to give it a more hypnotic texture.

Hoom Sha (Healer’s Chant) – Bradfield Dumpleton 2017 (Dun dun, kashishi, djembe, cello bass, vocs, Cordoba ukulele, keyboards).  Original drum rhythm composed in 2008 & recorded in 2010.

Two other recordings are in their original form: The Sun Is My Orange Juice!,  was a sparkly little noodle on a delightful 3-stringed instrument I used to own called a strumstick, accompanied by balafon.  Feather was originally composed in 2009 then recorded as a 10 minute version in 2015 as the soundtrack for a short film documenting the thINK Drawing Festival I ran in Kingston, Tas that year.  I’ve trimmed it into a shorter version for the album.

The last 2 tracks on the album, Cowherd and Junglebrain, were also chronologically the last pieces I worked on – I thought I’d completed the selection but these two ideas kept asserting themselves.  Cowherd was a very spontaneous collage, a soundscape that grew from a random kalimba loop my younger son Fen & I made once with a borrowed loop pedal.  I pinched a bit of the electric plank slide from Crocodile Awhile and when I added FX it began to sound like the cows that moo from across the river here.  A bit of modified vocal pinched from Hoom Sha seemed to complete the atmosphere.  Junglebrain was once a signature drumming piece I performed with Rhythm Collision & other groups I taught, and was one of the earlier rhythm recordings I unearthed.  For this version I fiddled with FX on the drums to give them a different edge & added some cranky synth bass on the keyboard, then iced the concoction with an old file of spacey electronic texture my oldest son Cooper Bowman had created one visit.  It was Coop’s birthday when I edited Junglebrain and he was in my thoughts as I worked, so weaving some of him into the mix was an expression of love & remembering his birth.   Coop creates electronic music & one of his projects, Roman Nails, has a kind of minimalist techno aesthetic that organically inspired the blunt minimalism of the Junglebrain mix. The result was quite different from the rest of the album, a kind of lo-fi tribal banger.

Creating my album art is as important to me as making the music, an integral dimension of the recording’s personality.  In keeping with my archaeological process of cannibalising my creative past,  I turned to my stash of textural photos & scans of my “cave art” from the 90s.

I started with an old photo of crocodile skin I’d taken at Melbourne zoo, and tried to reference the look of old vinyl album covers from Africa in the 70s.  Of course my online research led me down a deliciously slippery slope of ethnomusical discovery into the historical roots of urban African dance music.  My music collection has now swelled like the belly of an African Python after swallowing an antelope.

Cockroach Man (detail) © Bradfield Dumpleton 1993, guache on paper

My “cave art” in the 90s was a series of drawings, paintings & sculptures through which I explored my psyche using mythology & symbol, both personal and universal.  The process of creating these works was intentionally transformative, a kind of biofeedback for my psychology, a tool for peeling back the layers of self, so of course it felt appropriate to include some of these images in the album art.  They help me remember the intuitive & primal, the raw & ancient in my consciousness.

The final element of the cover art process was looking at “skin” more literally, as a physical surface, the outer layer of things in nature, as texture and erosion.  As with my inner inspections, in photography I’ve always been drawn to detail, the remarkable & beautiful patterns in surfaces when taken out of context and abstracted, so again I raided my stash & assembled some favourites.  At my age, thoughts of mortality and the weathering of the self are ever-present, and sifting through these photos was also a sifting of these thoughts.

Texture photos © Bradfield Dumpleton

My creative processes are always inseparable from every other aspect of my life, each feeds the other, even the most mundane “commercial” jobs involve relationships, interactions and cause for reflection.  Making this album has been an incredibly rich personal walkabout into my creative history, my Dreaming, and into the vast collective Dreaming of African music, and ultimately the process has led me back to the beauty of life.  Which was really the intention I set for myself at the start of all this.  Destination, no map.

This entire experience has been all the richer and more quietly profound thanks to my incredible partner Heidi, who has supported this process from the start, allowing it full breathing space, understanding the importance of the walkabout, the mapless surrender, knowing how necessary these freefalls into the unknown are for my well-being.  I often struggle with feeling that my need to create is an indulgence & a luxury, especially within a relationship.  No-one else has ever so wholeheartedly recognised, trusted & so generously encouraged me in my creative process.  Heidi, and the many small stories of our life together, are woven delicately through this whole document, with love.