Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Don't Bring on the Dancing Girls

Vicki Butterfly: actually rather good
One surprisingly underexploited development of the wave of burlesque swamping the capital is the idea of a variety show combining the high-end stripping with music, comedy, magic, whatever. I can only think of about three such nights—we played one at the Marquee Club before it went belly-up after one outing—but we've performed a few times at another and we seem to go down well. I guess there is much of the camp cabaret about The Furbelows, so perhaps such environments are our natural home.

Tickets at this event are notionally £10 and there always seem to be quite a few bodies in there, so I recently broached the delicate subject of payment. The promoter spluttered indignantly (or I imagine he did, as this was all conducted in the Modern Way via email) pointing out how he had all these expenses to cover and few punters paid full price and he often lost money on the whole thing. I'm sure this is all true, but I was struck by the fact that the very first reason he gave for not being able to pay us was the cost of paying the headline burlesque performers, and the others too if they'd had to travel.

So it's important to pay the strippers but inconceivable that one might pay anything to a band of four or five musicians?

I don't know if this is based on convention, assumption or financial value—if you can show that the audience is basically there for the tassels and not the tunes, then fair enough, I suppose—but it seems very strange to me. Is this just another example of how we've mutated into a society that expects music to be free? Admittedly there is no burlesque equivalent to MP3 downloads (well, apart from videos, I guess), so live performance is de rigeur—but then they've been saying for years that music is now all about live performance and that's where the money is. Is it? Where's mine?

I guess to each his/her own, but I'm going to go out on a limb here: I've sat through a lot of burlesque dance acts in the last few years and most of them have been crap. Some of these ladies can't even move in time to music, so don't even score as dancers. There have been a couple of exceptions—Vicki Butterfly (see photo) really knows what she'd doing and has some impressive costumes—and some are saved by the wit of the premise. But the majority just seem to be banking on our being thrilled by the fact that they are taking their clothes off for us.* I'm convinced that most are actually doing it for themselves, as confidence-boosting exercises, and often I'll notice that their audience is mostly other women, presumably there for moral support. Which is all well and good—except when they get paid and I don't. (I'm reminded of the scene in Spinal Tap where they see the billboard outside their gig advertising 'Spinal Tap and puppet show'.)

Or perhaps we need to work out a 'Making Your Mind Up'-style garment ripping routine. Then we can charge promoters if we promise not to do it.

(*Maybe I'm over-rationalising this, but it always seems a bit odd when a performer does a routine, ending up in her knickers and a couple of pasties, then comes back later in the evening and does another one. I mean—we've seen her with no clothes on now, so where's the suspense?)

Monday, 13 September 2010

A whole new instrument?

I was ambling along London's South Bank yesterday, which was more than usually busy because of the Thames Festival, and came across a knot of people. From the centre came music, a bit like a steel drum or gamelan. Elbowing small children out of the way to get to the front I found a young, earnestly bearded chap playing something that resembled a cross between a turtle shell and two woks welded together to form a giant lentil. He was tapping it rapidly with his fingers, picking out different notes by striking different spots on the upper domed surface. The resulting sound is actually much purer and smoother than a steel drum—like a bell but also a bit like a harp—and has a dreamy resonance the mesmerising qualities of which were evident by the crowd of slack-jawed onlookers, veritable moths to his flame.

Afterwards I asked him what the instrument was called and he said it was a "hang". That had a sort of south-east Asian ring to it that made sense. I asked him where indeed it came from and he replied, "Switzerland".

Now if you're trying to get your head around the image of an alpine goatherd picking his way through the edelweiss with a small UFO on his back, on his way to steel band practice, think again. There is nothing traditional about the hang—it was invented in 2007 by a company called PANart. As far as I can tell it's basically a steel drum but with the enclosed space forming a Helmholtz resonator (the same principle as when you blow across the top of a bottle). I gather the metal has been nitrided, a hardening that I guess must affect its musical qualities.

Check out this video and you will never look at the pots and pans in your kitchen the same way again.