Kim Sanders — a Casual Conversation with Anthony Linden Jones


Alt=AJ Summary

November 2013 saw the passing of one of the pioneers of ‘world music’ in Australia – a multi-instrumentalist, multi-linguist and collector of stories and gaida jokes, Kim’s list of achievements is extensive. The list of his associates features stars of many national musical firmaments. He performed with people from every continent except Antarctica and featured as a performer of traditional and improvised musics on stage, screen and radio around the world. I met with Kim in February of 2013, soon after a highly successful performance of his collective Kim Sanders and Friends at Sydney’s Camelot Lounge. AJ

AJ: How did you get involved in performing ‘world music’?

KS: I studied Philosophy and was just beginning to play music, saxophone, with a blues band down the pub. So, I got my degree out of the way, then I worked for a while, got enough bread then travelled overseas. Going to Mali was the plan, but I picked up Hep C on the way — got pretty sick. So I wound up not going on the musical tour until ’84. Never made it to Mali — I stayed closer to the coast, mostly in Gambia. To cut a long story short, I was sick, the dreaded lurgy, but one day I went down to the markets and there were these musicians playing there. I thought they said “We’ve got a horn section. Why don’t you come and play, on soprano sax or something”, and I thought yeah that sounds really good, so . . . But of course, the French they spoke was the equivalent of Jamaican English — it wasn’t exactly the same as I had learnt in school. So it eventually turned out that I was the horn section. But that was fine, you know. At that stage, I was just going to go with the flow, and whatever happened happened.

AJ: So moving into playing non-Western music came about from your extensive travels?

KS: No, I’d been interested in non-Western music for years, Hindustani classical music (Ravi Shankar, Ali Akbar Khan), Turkish — Okay Temiz, he’s a fantastic percussionist. Then I fell in with some local Turks in the Turkish Cultural Association. My partner Linda is into Bulgarian and nearby dancing with a dance group called Sedenka. I learned a lot from their music. So I ended up going [to Bulgaria]. It was after that trip that I really became serious about music. I’ve been [to Indonesia] many times since the mid ‘90s, since I’ve been working with Sawung Jabo, an Indonesian musician of repute. He was a rock n roll mega star in the late ‘80s — a stadium-sized rock star, but also a cultural activist. He also knew a lot about traditional music, masked dance and gamelan. All of his contacts are in Java, so since then mostly I’ve been in Java on tours with various bands — been to Sumatra a couple of times, and the occasional gig in Bali. I just can’t bring myself to go there anymore unless I have to, it’s just too awful!

AJ: In the 1980s, the West really took a bigger interest in non-Western music . . . the ‘world music’ phenomenon. . .

KS: Yes, that was starting to happen . . . not so much in Australia of course — we were a long way behind. Even now, In the First World countries, it is referred to as ‘music of other places’, but it is filtered through the music industry. Fed through the machine, it comes out very glossy and smooth — an awful lot of plastic shit. Most of the ‘world music’ radio DJs don’t know the difference. There are many ‘world music’ bands or ‘gypsy’ bands . . . they haven’t actually met any gypsies — they learnt their stuff from a CD in their own lounge room! A lot of the music is really dumbed down.

AJ: People miss out on the ritual of learning music?

KS: Not just the ritual, but simply the time. Like in Indian music, you have invest the time in learning and performance. You have to play the intro, the rubato, the alap which shows you the rag. Now they just do the edited highlights — 3 minutes to do that instead of an hour. Same as everything else, it is simplified and shortened — because people here don’t have the knowledge.

AJ: Do you think that audiences are more aware now?

KS: No, it seems to have gone downhill — totally plastic land. People in Australia are so ignorant about music. In India, when people play the alap, the audience know the rag and they understand what you are doing. In Turkey, if you are at party, they don’t have a CD playing. Somebody takes the baglama down off the wall and starts playing — not a professional baglama player, just an ordinary guy at the party. And people join in, they know the words of the songs, and they can clap in 9/8 — Australians can’t clap in 4/4! And it’s a respect thing — I find this travelling to Indonesia and Turkey, both. In Australia, you say to someone you are a musician and they say “Ah yeah, what is your real job?”. Whereas, in Turkey and Indonesia, they say “Ahh, you’re a musician, let me carry your bags for you!”. Education here is generally not oriented towards serious study of any kind of world music, with some exceptions. The majority of gigs go to Western Classical Music, which is by definition the “most refined kind of music.” That is where the money goes. I had a job at the Opera House, they were doing these kiddies’ programs. So I told them I would work something up — I had a few ideas. I went along to a rehearsal, and I asked the percussionist to play in 9/8, and I was going to do an improvised solo on the ney. It just wasn’t happening. He was playing in 9/8, but it was like a drum machine. We came to midday and broke, and I asked him if he could stay around so we could run through it a bit. He said “Oh no, no. I can read!”. Whenever I had bands, if the stuff’s not together in rehearsal, you keep going until it is, unless you have to go to your mother’s funeral or something. This clocking on and clocking off — of course, the gig was awful. I was trying to play his part for him while I was doing the improvisation — a bit of a struggle and not much fun.

There was another one . . . I can’t remember the name of the orchestra, but a flute player wanted to borrow one of my neys. There was a part that they wanted to do, about 16 bars on the ney. It would have been a waste of time. . . just the assumption that in this simple, primitive kind of music you can just pick up the instrument. I said “No, after two weeks you would be still struggling to get a sound out of it!” — it’s arrogance! But they’re the ones that get the bread! What about all those people who have spent the last 30 years learning to play these instruments properly? They don’t get the gig!

AJ: I guess you are not too impressed with the hybridisation of world musics which started in the 1980s?

KS: If you are going to combine different musics, you have to know both your source musics really well, as far as I’m concerned. Then you’re entitled to . . . if all you want to do is sell some CDs, well that is part of the dumbing down. It really gives me the shits. “It doesn’t matter, it’s only primitive music.”

AJ: What recordings have you done in recent times?

KS: I’ve been working on some recording with Peter Kennard — he has a small studio up in the Blue Mountains, where he lives — lots of overdubs, so I could play ney, kaval and mey on the same track — a bit of experimentation.

AJ: So you haven’t used multitracking much before?

KS: No, I like the magic of live improvisation. But sometimes you need the multitracking, especially for film work — you’ve got to have a click track. But just for my own pure enjoyment, I prefer to play with good improvising musicians who I have been playing with for 10 years. Magical things do happen.

AJ: You have done a bit of film?

KS: I’ve never got into composing a whole score. That’s a full-time job, and you’ve got to be in that circuit and push yourself, and you gotta have all the latest gear . . . I didn’t go down that path. but sometimes people want either to compose a short piece of music, or else bits and pieces from a film. If I could just dissuade people not to writing music that you can’t play . . . It’s hard, because . . . I did a gig for a film with Robert de Niro called Killer Elite . . . and of course, being a film, they were running late . . . that’s the name of the game. I had written this thing that I send to people when they ask me to do stuff — the characteristics of the instruments, “this instrument can play in these keys, and I can play these notes, but not that note because it’s a real bugger to get . . .” that range, the characteristics, and blah blah. . . despite being too busy, of course. So, they give me this stuff which just can’t be done, you know. Plus, I’m not the world’s greatest reader. When you play 15 instruments, it gets a bit confusing, doing double transpositions while you’re sight reading . . .

AJ: You started off improvising in a blues and jazz context. How did that work when you started playing other musics?

KS: Well, there’s jazz, and there’s jazz, you know. If you’re talking about running chord changes, then it’s a different ball game. But if you’re talking about modal jazz . . . well, the blues is really a makam. It’s not just a 12-bar thing — it uses the scale and bends between notes, and there are certain characteristic phrases.

AJ: Is there a freedom in blues or jazz that you don’t find playing non-Western music? Or really, either way. Is there a strictness in one that you don’t find in the other?

KS: Depending on the type of jazz, you might have to conform to certain notes or chords, and in Turkish music you have to play the approved notes and the approved phrases or else they will say “That’s wrong, that’s not sabâ makam, that’s some other related makam that has this in it and this in it.” Extremely pedantic, Turkish classical musicians — all kinds of classical musicians. They’re all really up themselves. (Laughs).

AJ: How does a non-Turkish musician engage with playing the music — were they accepting? Did you feel you had to change completely to that mode of thinking?

KS: Yes, certainly with the classical music. With folk music, that’s a different thing. You find some guy and hang out, or pick his brains, or have some formal lessons or whatever. But with the classical musicians, they are like “Don’t worry. You would never be able to do this.” Arrogant . . . I saw a teacher about getting some lessons at the Conservatorium in Istanbul. He said “Play me something.” So I did, and he said “Ahh that’s f***ing awful”, “Yes, I know, that’s why I want a f***ing lesson!” Eventually, I found Neyzen Ahmet Kaya, a great guy. And he was prepared to let me to a certain extent direct the lesson. You often get the classical guy who does the standard spiel, blah blah blah. And it’s like “Yeah, I already know that. That’s not what I’m interested in now, I’ll look at that later. Right now, I want to know how you do the trill with this finger or with this finger.” Ahmet was good because he’s got enough respect for my skill and knowledge to enable me to ask questions. The lesson is more or less a collaboration between him and me, which is just what you need because your visa runs out in three weeks. The guru method is fine if you’ve got 10 years to sit around at the feet of the guru while he plays the makam 10,000 times, then after that you know it. But my visa runs out in three weeks, so I’ve gotta do it this other way. I get him to play, and I record it, and I take stuff down in my book.

The Turks have this concept called ‘tarzanca’, which the French don’t have. ‘Ca’ means, ‘in the manner of’, so I would be speaking in the manner of Tarzan — “Me want it!”, “Where station?”. But they understand, and try to help. They’re very helpful — they’ll go out of their way half a mile to show you where the bus stop is.

AJ: When you perform a set which includes music from the West Indies, India, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria . . . how do you manage that in your head?

KS: You just listen to a lot of stuff. You have your little Discman, or whatever. When you travel around, having music wherever you go. Whenever you’re waiting for a train, or anything. Playing it and playing it, listening and listening. You just need to listen! Instead of all those years at the feet of the guru, you have to do it while you’re waiting for the train or sitting on a bus for 8 hours. That’s the main thing. People would say “Oh well, it’s hard. All this travelling, all these problems you have, the language problems . . . but at least there is the common language of music!”. There’s no common language of music! You get a Macedonian and a Chilean, they haven’t got anything musical in common at all! They could be willing to put in a bit of effort, and if they’re interested they will hook up with some people from that place, or whatever, and find something. Again, that’s part of the attitude to world music. “Let’s all get together and play ‘world music’!” We could play the ‘lowest common denominator’ sort of music, but I’m not interested in that. The only cultural constant in music I have found is the ubiquitousness of the shitty wedding trio! The synth with the cheesy strings patch . . . everywhere you go, they’ve got that! But apart from that, there’s no common language.

AJ: I was talking with Linda Marr a couple of years ago . . . When there’s a world music concert on with different cultural groups performing as a means of bringing cultures together, she was saying the common experience was that when the Indian group was performing the Indian audience would come in, sit down and watch. The group would finish and the audience would stand up and leave. When the Tongan group was on, and so on. So, people were not engaging with other cultures, or weren’t so willing perhaps as people from outside the culture (‘anglo’ people) . . .

KS: No, well it’s better now than it used to be. It used to be seriously like that, but now there are ‘wogs’ who are listening to other ‘wogs’, which is great. In Australia, amongst the younger generation they are a lot more open now. Linsey Pollack and I used to play in the park next to St Stephens church in Newtown, for a couple of years in a row. We used to go down there on Sunday afternoons and play mostly Macedonian music. The word sort of spread. Macedonians would come from Wollongong and Newcastle. It was great, but mostly it was the old guys. The attitude amongst the younger people was “Oh God, there’s grandpa standing with that silly bagpipe. Someone stop him or he’ll embarrass us. We want the doof!”. But in the last few years, it’s come around again. Younger people, like in their 20s, are suddenly realising that this music is really incredibly interesting — fantastic rhythms , and blah blah blah.

AJ: So, diasporic communities, looking with fondness back to their homelands, even the younger people . . . ?

KS: Well, I think it’s skipping a generation, I can understand that, you know. First generation, they’ve escaped from some shitty experience, wherever it might be, and they want to be modern, young, groovy, and blah blah, you know. The next generation begins to look at things more objectively and say “Well, that’s interesting tuning”, or “That’s quite a good singer”, or whatever. That’s true for all the other groups.

AJ: You’re talking about Macedonian people coming when you were playing mostly Macedonian music, were you also playing other stuff at the same time? Where they engaging with that?

KS: Not so much then . . . not at that particular event. Just occasionally, I might play some Hungarian, or whatever, but mostly it turned out to be a Macedonian thing. But just in general, there are Turks around with a wider viewpoint, and Macedonians, . . . so it’s a lot better than it used to be. It used to be that the only people involved in this sort of multiculturalism were the anglos — there was a few of them, but not terribly many, mostly from a folk music background. They were a lot more interested than people from other backgrounds.

AJ: Growing up in Australia, a monoculture with little ‘salt and pepper’ seasonings . . .

KS: Especially in music. In Australia, we don’t have ‘chops with three veg’ for dinner every night any more. We have all these other kinds of foods. But music-wise, basically we are still having the ‘chops with three veg’. It is very hard to earn a living in Australia as a musician unless you fit into one of the proper categories. If you don’t fit into a proper category, then it’s hard. Plus, there are many musicians from Turkey and Bulgaria and so on who would love to come over here and play, but it is so expensive. Plus, it’s the ‘tyranny of distance’ within Australia. Very hard to get together a tour when the only places you can play is Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth. It is the same distance as from Istanbul to London. Between Istanbul and London there are at least 50 gigs you could do, so it’s feasible to do a tour. As far as musical culture goes here, it’s a cultural wasteland.

AJ: Have you done many festivals in Australia?

KS: Yep, but . . . the trouble with festivals in Australia, they think that you need more of everything. All these acts all in different venues, all clashing with one another. . . they don’t allow time for a proper sound check. Festivals would be much better off having half the number of bands, and do it properly, you know. Have that band next year. I’d much prefer to play every second year and have a decent sound check and a decent mixed set so you can settle into it, than play this stupid “more, more, more, quick, quick, quick, running late, no time for a sound check”. The funniest thing, talking about sound, was when they were building the casino [in Sydney]. Apparently, part of the contract was that they had to put on entertainment for the citizens, you know. So they had this big tin shed down there, and I got the gig — they paid us a decent fee. So I was setting up and the sound guy came along. I introduced myself and said “Well we’ve got a few instruments here that you might not have come across before” and I started giving him a few quick bits of information. And he stopped me, saying “Now listen mate, you don’t have to tell me how to do my job.” “I wasn’t trying to tell you how to do your job — just giving you some information that might be useful to you”. He said “Listen mate, I’ve done Barnesy!”. And I immediately knew that there wasn’t in fact any point in saying any more.

AJ: You haven’t been traveling much lately with your illness?

KS: I just did a trial trip to a festival in Sumatra. Basically, I didn’t do anything but play and sleep. Just took it really careful, with the probability that I would have to drop everything and come home. I’ll try and keep going, play as much as I can. I probably won’t be going to Turkey anymore, which is sad. Indonesia might be . . . something might be happening. I’ll just have to take it easy — do the gigs and rest up. The travelling takes it out of you, especially in Indonesia because it’s so chaotic. But it’s good for me because, being an Australian over there, I’m not responsible for anything — so, if the sound hasn’t arrived yet and the gig is due to start in 5 minutes, well it’s not my responsibility. I’ll just go “Oh, whatever happens”, I’ll just sit around, have another cup of tea. Whereas here I’d be rushing around like a chook without a head — that is exhausting! But on the other hand, in Indonesia just getting around is exhausting. Anyway . . . . not ready to give up yet — keep trucking! I’ll just keep trying to find good musicians to play with, push back the boundaries, just play as much as I can — I can do that now. I reckon I’ve paid me dues!

AJ: Just in finishing, can we have a gaida joke?

KS: How long does it take to tune a gaida? Nobody knows!

A lot of those jokes are applicable to different instruments, any particular instrument that you hate. But I like the jokes that are specific to an instrument.

Interviewed by

Anthony Linden Jones. Entered on Knowledge Base 6 March 2014.

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