Solid Shenai

Solid Shenai.

FOUND myself talking to John Martyn over the phone this week. I still don’t know why. They phoned me up and said the interview’s cancelled, can you do it over the phone?

What interview?

Mind you, my memory is so bad at the moment I even forget what I have just said. Mind you my memory is so bad at the moment I even forget what I have just said. What interview?

I got this biography on John through the post together with a cryptic note from Kate of Island saying “see you for the (something illegible) at 6.0 p.m. September 17” I dismissed it as another boring press reception with free booze and groupies and all that. In fact the missing word was Interview. That’s what interview. John seems a nice guy I mean, I only talked to hint over the phone, but he said his grandmother had just died at the dentist so he had to be away early. I’ve got his last album, Solid Air, and I kept It because although I couldn’t honestly stand it his guitar work Is interesting and I felt It would stand a few more listenings. The new one is called Inside Out and I haven’t heard it yet, but John says if I didn’t like the last one I certainly won’t like this one.

Solid ShenaiNevertheless, he does have this amazing line-up. It includes Danny Thompson, who now performs with him in concert and Steve Winwood. I asked him where he got his guitar style from and he said proudly that he invented it, which figures.

“I started out playing folk and then country blues and other things. It’s just an amalgam. I’ve had no training. It’s all earoles and fingers.”

That’s what I like to hear about. A man who plays guitar with his earoles. John has only been playing for seven years, he’s now 25, and in that time he has made seven records. How did he come to start recording?

“Somebody asked me if I’d like to make a record. It was pure fluke really. I was the first white man on Island.”

He uses Yamaha and Martin acoustic guitars and a Gibson Les Paul for the electric work. Which does he prefer I wanted to know, electric or acoustic? I was hoping to get him into a discussion of the relative merits but he wouldn’t be drawn.

“I don’t prefer either. They’re just two different Instruments. I also play alto sax and the Shehnai. ”

Oh yes? “Yes.”

Now I reckon I know just about every instrument there is but I’ve honestly never heard of the Shehnai. I’m not even sure I’ve spelt It right. It seems it has a sound like a double tracked oboe.

“I just always fancied playing it after hearing a guy called Bismillah Khan”.

The mind boggleth. John says it has like three oboe reeds stuck together on a wooden pipe like a bagpipe chanter with a brass bell at the end that gives resonance. Oh I see what it is now. It’s one of those things snake charmers use. You play in the mode that the bell is tuned to. So if the bell is tuned to bong, says John, you play it in the key of bong and if you want to play in the key of bing or bang you have to go out and buy another Shen… Sehn…  Shenh . . . what he said. Anyway, John isn’t playing too much of it on his tour, because he says that apart from the occasional poop he is not good enough. The trick, I should have told him, is not to suck when the snake sticks its head in the hell.

The new album, he says, is Freer or even freer – how the duce do you spell frier? – freeer than Solid Air and more jazz influenced. In truth, the last album was good and I still have it, which says something for it. On the new one he has used people like Remi Kebaka, that well known drummer and kamikaze pilot, Chris Wood, Bobby Key and the tabla play Kesh Fathie (Old Fathie to his mates).

Danny and John are now into using Echoplexes which means lots of interesting sounds that I shall be able to examine more closely when I get my free copy of the album (hint hint).

Record Mirror
13 October 1973