How The Green Door All-Stars built a metaphorical stage between Glasgow, Ghana and Belize with their collaborative compilation, 'Youth Stand Up!'
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“It resulted in a few interesting inversions through the process of collaboration across Glasgow, Ghana and Belize”, Green Door Studio’s Emily MacLaren explains over e-mail. She’s talking me through the different musical practises which converged through the Youth Stand Up! project she masterminded from her base in Scotland’s second city. Producing the album was, to put it lightly, an ambitious task that meant drawing together a recording process stretched across three continents into one coherent whole. With the first ideas for tracks taking life in the Glasgow studio she runs before being built upon in Belize, followed by Ghana, meant that “a rhythm would start in one country, and then the musicians in the next country would hear it ‘upside-down’ (which, of course, wasn’t upside down to them) and place the on beat on what was the off beat etc., completely flipping the song around.”
The first seeds of the project were sown when Emily, along with fellow Green Door engineer Stuart Evans and Ollie and Laurie Pitt of Glasgow’s freewheeling party six-piece Golden Teacher, received a grant to study drumming in Ghana’s capital, Accra. A visit to Tafi Atome’s monkey sanctuary meant an encounter with its Borborbor drumming group that left a lasting impression. “We joked at the time that we should make a record with them one day,” she says.
Two years after that, MacLaren and Evans received another grant to study drumming, this time at the Lebeha Drumming Institute in Belize where they practise Garifuna music, a descendent of West African drumming as well as Central African, Island Carib, and Arawak roots. It was then, she explains, “that we started to seriously think about how we could do some kind of a collaborative project between the young people who came to the drumming workshops we offered at Green Door (taught by Laurie and Ollie from Golden Teacher) and the youth groups from Tafi Atome and Lebeha.” Though Ollie explained to me over the phone how he and Laurie themselves benefited from the studio’s wide-ranging courses which they were able to go on as unemployed musicians, MacLaren says that this was the first time their initiatives had gone beyond the confines of Glasgow.
Nonetheless, a fund set up for the Commonwealth Games supporting collaboration between Commonwealth countries - which includes both Ghana and Belize - opened up the perfect opportunity to realise the collaboration that MacLaren had begun to envision. Connecting the groups was a way to open up new opportunities for the contingents abroad while also initiating dialogues between musical styles that had long been an interest of hers. “I’m not one for modern record production which makes everything perfect and quantized and stripped of any communication of humanity,” she explains, “so I really like a lot of the ‘60s/’70s garage compilations from West Africa - like Analog Africa’s African ‘Scream Contest' - and traditional West African drumming which is simultaneously hypnotic and disorienting since there’s not really a ‘1.’”
Like all the previous releases on the Autonomous Africa label, founded by Optimo’s Keith McIvor (who was MacLaren’s Glasgow connection), the project is not-for-profit, whereby in this instance the money from the record will go back into supporting the studios that were set up in each of the locations in the making of the album. Several fundraisers in Glasgow were held ahead of the trips to purchase equipment and, although they had to contend with flooding, near-electrocution, unexpected import duties (along with “the perpetual sound of goats crying in the background in Ghana”), they were able to set them up with a view to establishing long-term community hubs to be supported by the future proceeds from the album.
Ollie went into how an important part of the project was showing that “you can [record] with a fairly simple setup and make quite a polished-sounding track pretty easily”. He was involved in the Belize leg of the project (with bandmate Cassie Ojie tagging in for Ghana) and over a 45-minute chat, we spoke about his own connection to West African music and how the project was a way to offer a more free-flowing approach to music for people who might be accustomed to a more structured way of doing things.
Could you give a bit of an outline of the way you worked in Belize?
Ollie Pitt: "For me, a really important part of the project is... the record at the end is one bit of it, it's a product of what the whole thing was, but it was also to do these workshops. We did a whole load of fundraising and got funding so that basically all the recording equipment we took, we could leave in both places. So that kind of dictated what we could take to an extent. Obviously we couldn't kit out a full studio, 'cause the whole thing was kind of on a shoestring. So it was a fairly rudimentary recording setup.
So we'd set up this stuff and just kind of let kids have a go. The best way to teach the basics of the recording process is just to let people make music and then record it, 'cause it's kind of obvious. If you're trying to explain how to use a compressor, it's totally abstract, but if they wanna make a rap track and you record the whole thing, you can then show them how to get this to sound like this. So it was really just to go through the whole process and let people try out whatever they wanted, in a whole bunch of instruments that they wouldn't normally have any access to. And the record was kind of a by-product of this whole thing but it's nice that it ended up being a great bunch of music as well."
When you were in the studio, was it a case of them wanting to play more modern music that they'd been listening to?
Ollie Pitt: "So I think, at the beginning, we were always asking people to bring in a track or something inspiring to get an idea of what things they like. I think, a lot of them, because they do the drumming group they kind of presume that you want them to do that kind of music. Whereas we were trying to be as open as possible and not in any way dictate what kind of music they wanted to make. It was a real mix: some of them listened to traditional songs, others lots of dancehall and ragga, a lot of Jamaican influence in terms of what kids seemed to be listening to in both places.
I think, for a lot of them, their experience of music will either be the traditional drumming, which is very structured, being taught these very old traditions. They might do some music classes in school, which again will probably be quite traditional, learning how to use an instrument really well. Whereas we were trying to kind of go with a different approach, like, "Don't worry if you can or can't play something really well. Don't feel shy. If you just wanna rap, just go for it, it's fine." And that's one of the good things about working with kids, is that once they're past the shyness barrier, they don't have too many inhibitions about trying anything.
It was really just a chance to just mess around with a bunch of stuff and not feel too precious about it. Try some things out, learn that the recording process is actually not too difficult. You can do it with a fairly simple setup and make quite a polished-sounding track pretty easily, which I think is pretty exciting for everyone involved."
And what prompted your own interest in West African music, prior to going to both Ghana and Belize?
Ollie Pitt: "It’s been from when Laurie joined a free music school run by York City Council, to do a West African drumming group. At the time he was probably about eight, so that was probably my first gig experience, seeing him play. And they were actually a really amazing group, the guy who taught it was just so committed to it, and he actually took the whole group to Ghana when they were all really young. So I think ever since that. We just ended up with a whole load of Ghanaian CDs. I think, also, being interested in dance music, I've always found it interesting because, for me, West African drumming is just dance music. And it's so obvious how what is played in clubs here just kind of comes from that originally, in terms of rhythms and everything, it's just music that I've always been really interested in.
I'm always drawn to the more traditional pieces. You get so much more of the fusion stuff, where the influence of Western music is far bigger. Especially when we were in Ghana and trying to filter out the stuff that's more like what you can get here. It ended up just being like, everywhere we went, being in a tape shop like, "Have you got anything with no guitars and no keyboards on it?" And that was usually the easiest way to find what we were looking for. By the time you found the CD you were looking for they'd say, "Why do you want to listen to this? It's old fashioned, this is funeral music." It's just that their funerals sound like great parties."
So your involvement in this project made a lot of sense, in terms of your interests.
Ollie Pitt: "Yeah and just that link between traditional West African drumming and the Belize drumming, which is obviously its own thing, but it came from the slave trade and the settlers who lived there. So their music is based around similar traditions but has had the influence of different Spanish and British colonisers. But it's still got that, and comes from the same place.
The link between those traditional forms and modern dance music, for me, there's so much interesting crossover than just taking an edit of a little bit of Ghanaian drumming and sticking a straight kick drum under it, which is what a lot of supposedly African-influenced dance music that is released by European or American producers is. [There is] all of the funkiness and far more polyrhythmic rhythms and different time signatures that doesn't come out so much in Western dance music, but is such amazing music to dance to.
I think letting these kids, who play that stuff in a traditional context. have a go at using a drum machine or something to give that kind of sound, or a bit more emphasis to one of the beats or something, it kind of made sense."
How does that compare to the way you work in Golden Teacher, in terms of writing and recording?
Ollie Pitt: "We basically just improvise in the studio until something's sounding good, then record a chunk, edit it down afterwards. But we'll record it all on tape so we'll just kind of have a big chunk of improvised stuff. And do vocals afterwards, as an overdub. And then we'll kind of do loads and loads of different mixes of it and pick out the best one or edit two of them together or something. That's a very different process, we don't really do any multitracking at all.
Our process is similar in a way, in that it's nice that there's not too much agreed intention of what it is we're trying to do. It's not like, "We wanna make a techno track and you're gonna play drums and you're gonna do this." We just try and keep it as open as possible so anyone can kind of pull it in whatever direction they want. That kind of freedom to not feel precious about it is always what makes the most interesting tracks.
Like with someone who'd never really played keyboards before and just laid down a really amazing rhythmic part that they might normally do on a drum or something, and suddenly they're like, "Oh shit, I'm actually great at keyboards in a very weird, specific way."
The Green Door Project's collaborative compilation with musicians from Belize and Ghana, 'Youth Stand Up!' is available now on Autonomous Africa (buy).