Category Archives: Media

How to Learn to Play the Guitar

Learning to play a musical instrument can be one of the most rewarding pastimes a person can pursue. Among the myriad of instruments to choose from, none is more popular and accessible in Western culture than the guitar. The best method to learning to play the guitar is to secure formal lessons from a qualified and experienced instructor. The following points can be used along with such lessons or in place of them until such lessons can be obtained.

Acquire a Quality Instrument
The most vital aspect to learning to play any instrument is to have regular access to it. Fortunately guitars are very accessible and can be obtained at affordable prices from retail stores, pawn shops, and private sellers. Due to the nature of being a stringed and fretted instrument it is important to pick up a quality guitar. Learning the guitar is an experience that causes a certain amount of discomfort in the hands and fingertips for beginners. A poorly manufactured or damaged guitar can make the learning process even more discomforting and discouraging; making it more likely that beginners will give up the process before they experience any improvement. For this reason it is vital to have a quality guitar. These can be acquired brand new for as little as $100 at retail.

Acquire Educational Material
Educational material can be acquired at nearly any music store that deals in guitars, or from the internet. Many of these come in the form of books, some also contain audio disks, or DVDs. What a beginner is looking for is material that explains all the basics: the names of the different parts of the guitar, names and numbering of strings, fingers, tuning, and general care. It should naturally also contain examples of several open chords, barre chords, and at least a few progressions, and scales. If the material also contains examples of well known classic tunes, consider it a bonus.

Learn Chords
The foundation of guitar playing is rhythm, and chords are essential to playing rhythm guitar. The easiest chords to learn for a beginner are A, E, and then D. Any quality beginner material should contain these chords as well as many others. The internet is also full of many helpful sites that give this information away for free.

Learn Progressions
Progressions are a series of chords in a specific key that form the basis of songs. Many popular tunes are built upon progressions with as few as three chords. One such progression consists of the above mentioned chords, A, D, and E. This progression can then be built upon with other chords to create even more complex tunes. Understanding progressions is invaluable to learning to play or write songs.

       

Learn Scales and Theory
Music theory is vitally important to the process of actually understanding how and why music works. This includes how chords are formed, how progressions are made, and how melodies function. At the outset of learning music theory, one needs to learn scales.

Practice, Practice, Practice
“Practice” seems like an obvious bit of advice for anyone looking to increase their abilities, but one might be surprised just how many people expect to become the next Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton overnight. It’s just not going to happen like that. Practice at least one hour every day. Begin each practice session by warming up with something familiar. Once you are warmed up and in the musical state of mind, move into something new, or something you are still learning. You will certainly see improvement.

Jam with Other Players
Fortunately for new guitarists, their chosen instrument is so popular that other guitarists are typically abundant in any town. When looking to learn or improve your skills as a player, nothing can replace the experience gained by jamming with other players. It doesn’t necessarily matter if these players are more experienced than you, although that certainly helps. Even a guitarist with twenty years experience can learn something from a newbie with less than a year of playing. This is because playing music is such a personal experience that we all bring ourselves into the process, find our own licks, tricks, and techniques. We all have our own style, and even with limited experience we can actually wind up teaching our instructors, or learning from our students.

Once you’ve been playing regularly for six to twelve months with consistent practice you’ll start to become fairly proficient in the fundamentals. You should be able to play through a handful of songs, and should have some strong riffs and leads down. From here forward you’ll be progressing toward a level of proficiency that or maybe even join or start one of your own. Many great guitarists began working professionally without much more time behind them.

Happy playing!


Solo: A Star Wars Story Review

Solo: A Star Wars Story opened this month and everyone who has seen it has an opinion about it. Here is mine.

BEWARE: Here be minor spoilers!

I’ve heard multiple detractors say no one wanted this movie, that Han Solo is not a particularly popular character. It seems these critics consider The Clone Wars cartoon series as the standard by which they measure their appreciation for the Star Wars universe.

To be clear, I saw the original Star Wars when it was just called STAR WARS (no episode IV or subtitle) in the theater when I was three years old. Han Solo is my favorite character in the entire Star Wars universe. I have always wanted a Han Solo focused back-story in a spin-off since before the prequels were released, so I was eager for this film to be produced, released and to be sitting, popcorn in hand in a dark theater hoping they didn’t screw it up. I love the Star Wars universe, but I think the Skywalker/Vader, Jedi/Sith, Rebellion/Empire storyline is kind of played out, and I’d like to see explorations into other storylines, lineages and professions. The universe has so much to offer, why get bogged down with one family? Solo, I think was a good first step in that direction.

Like many Star Wars fans, I had a lot of concerns about this movie. Reports of production problems with fired directors, harsh criticism of the cast’s acting abilities and the need for scene reshoots were so dismal that I was genuinely concerned this movie would be a total disaster. I was confident however; if Episode I, The Phantom Menace didn’t ruin the franchise we’d survive any misfortune that might befall us with Solo.

I was worried that Alden Ehrenreich couldn’t pull off the character of Han Solo. Han’s persona is so entrenched with Harrison Ford’s depiction it makes for some rather large shoes to fill. Similarly, I was concerned that Lando Calrissian couldn’t be duplicated by Donald Glover or anyone else. Billy Dee Williams IS Lando, after all. Those worries were assuaged, I’m glad to say. Both actors did great jobs depicting their roles. I didn’t have any trouble believing Ehrenreich was Solo, and Glover’s Lando was spot on.

Solo is essentially a space western, and like a good western it’s all based around a train heist. It delivers the scenes and answers to questions we’ve had for four decades such as how Han found his way into the smuggling racket. We learn Han’s origins as an orphan, forced to steal to survive in the shadowy underworld of Corellia. We see Han acquire his surname almost like a mobster’s nickname because he is a loner; none of this “House of Solo” nobility from the now (thankfully) de-canonized Legends which I always thought detracted from his roguish nature.

Criticism

The movie did have a few drawbacks. I thought the first ten minutes on Corellia were a bit cartoony, but that didn’t really diminish the story. I would have liked to see a closer friendship and working relationship between Han and Lando before Han obtained the Millennium Falcon, and I would like to have seen him win the ship in a different manner than as depicted, but alas the writers and producers didn’t call me and ask for my pre-production opinions on the matter. Similarly, the initial meeting between Han and Chewbacca didn’t go exactly as I had imagined it, but it was one of the best scenes in the movie. The Kessle Run is something I always envisioned taking place much differently and at a time well into Han’s career as a smuggler rather than at the beginning, but the way it was depicted worked just fine.

A major disappointment in the film comes when the chief of Enfys Nest who gave our protagonists such trouble during the train heist, killing two of the major supporting characters turns out to be a teenage girl leading the incubation of the Rebellion. It’s not a particularly compelling plot twist, and it’s not very believable. It’s all too much Wesley Crusher for me, and it ruins an adversary with a lot of potential. Besides, she was responsible for the deaths of two of Tobias Beckett’s (Woody Harrelson) friends and rather endearing characters, and it’s never even addressed.

The worst character in the movie is without a doubt Lando’s droid L3-37 who is a rather accurate portrayal of the bothersome and trollish sjws she was modeled after. She added a level of cringe reminiscent of, but not as severe as Jar Jar Binks. I could have done without her character altogether and was glad when she was removed from further screen time.

         

Other reviewers have complained that Ehrenreich’s Solo was not as dark or grumpy as Ford’s, and that’s true. It’s what I would expect. This is a Han Solo who is a good ten years younger than Ford’s initial introduction of the character. This Solo is just entering a life of smuggling and piracy that would without a doubt offer plenty of opportunities for the disillusioning experiences that would turn the cocky and ambitious twenty-something year old Solo into the more selfish, and cynical thirty-something year old Solo we meet at the Cantina on Tatooine in Episode IV. Time and experience, especially in crime syndicates can change a man.

Solo is a good movie. Not a great movie, but the only Star Wars movie that comes close to being great since The Empire Strikes Back was Rogue One. It’s going to continue to be hard to measure any new Star Wars flicks up next to the originals. There will never be another Star Wars at that level, but Solo was a fun ride nonetheless. It was better than the prequels and the follow-ups so far, and I think well deserving of a place in the Star Wars canon.


Lojah on the Musician’s Guild

I was recently a guest on the Musician’s Guild, a great internet show run by Richard Dunlavy and Darryl Oehmsen in Pensacola, Florida where they discuss the local music scene and promote the various players and performers in it.

In this episode 5 of the series I was honored to be a guest on the show where I played a few tunes, talked about my musical upbringing and how and why I came to use the moniker Lojah for my music.








Dr. John: Under a Hoodoo Moon, Review

The funky bluesman Mac Rebennack, otherwise known by his stage name Dr. John is a much-honored part of the cultural fabric that is 20th and 21st century New Orleans.  His autobiography Under a Hoodoo Moon chronicles Rebennack’s life from his time as a child coming of age in The Big Easy, through a young struggling musician’s career, and eventually building a legacy as one of America’s most treasured musical icons.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is written in a loose manner with a bit of Rebennack’s New Orleans vernacular, giving it a sense of authenticity and the playfulness that is characteristic of funk music in general and New Orleans music specifically.  The book for the most part follows a linear path, but it repeatedly backtracks to cover stories that Rebennack decided were more relevant at a later point in time. In some cases this seems like a less efficient method, but it does not detract from the overall presentation.

At times Rebennack’s story seems to focus more on the development of his career, business associations, projects and the politics surrounding the music industry, without any emphasis on the personal, philosophical, emotional and inspirational experiences that contributed to the making of the man.  Then he very candidly writes about his struggle with heroin addiction that plagued him for thirty years until he finally kicked it in 1989, but not before doing a stint in Louisiana “Angola” State Penitentiary.  In his writings, it seems Dr. John tended to compartmentalize his professional activities from his more illicit affairs. He introduces the reader to an assortment of characters, hustlers, and junkies along with the musicians he calls family.

In his early days, Rebennack paid the bills by gigging with racially integrated bands at a point in American history when such groups were technically outlawed, and by working as a session musician for countless popular acts. He paints a picture of a golden era of New Orleans music in the 1950s and early 60s before the musicians unions caused so many problems which drove national recording acts to take their business to other cities such as Memphis and Los Angeles.

In 1965, after Rebennack was released from prison, with the music scene dead in New Orleans he too set out for the west coast.  In California he made contact with several colleagues from back home and began working as a session musician with many of the top acts of the day.  These included The Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Sonny and Cher, the O’Jays, Frank Zappa, and Iron Butterfly just to name a few. Dr. John offers some interesting and often humorous observations about some of these acts and his experiences working with them.

During his tenure in Hollywood Rebennack created and adopted the persona of Dr. John, a New Orleans hoodoo medicine man from the 1860s and recorded his ground-breaking Gris Gris album. This is a point in the story where more strictness toward a linear narrative would have improved upon this biography.

Though Dr. John rose to fame on the popularity of Gris Gris with all its voodoo and hoodoo imagery, there is very little in the first two-thirds of the book about his experiences with those traditions.  Up until this point what is mentioned amounts to a brief reference to making goofer dust, a companion burning a black candle to curse the police during a drug score, and more humorously a brief description of a joint ritual in California with another musician who practiced Aleister Crowley styled ceremonial magic in order to curse a producer who had screwed them both in a deal.  It’s not until chapter nine, well after he covers the recording of Gris Gris that Dr. John goes into any detail about his personal connection to a Voodoo temple, and his investment in a voodoo curio shop in New Orleans which really inspired the album.

Under a Hoodoo Moon is a great read, and also provides a fair bit of ethnographic gems covering the roots of the New Orleans musical tradition. He describes his first experiences with the Black Indian Tribes, Mardi Gras Krewes that competed for marching routes during the annual Mardi Gras festivities and pioneered second-line drumming that gives New Orleans music much of its uniqueness.  He also dedicates a significant chunk near the end of the book to speaking nostalgically and reverentially about his time playing with Professor Longhair, the New Orleans pianist who had more influence upon him than anyone else.

I enjoyed reading every page.

          


Pong to Pokemon, the Evolution of Electronic Gaming Opening Night!

Tonight I attended opening night of a brand new exhibit at the Bullock Texas State History Museum in Austin; Pong to Pokemon, the Evolution of Electronic Gaming.


Just as the name suggests it was a pretty neat walk through the history of video games from the earliest home terminal, Pong through the decades’ most popular video and computer games.  There were exhibits of everything from Atari and Activision games like Pitfall and E.T. the Extraterrestrial that I spent so many hours of my youth playing.



There were even really early games like Zork, and the Oregon Trail and of course, Pong.
There were arcade games like Pac-man, and Street Fighter, Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros., Sega games like Sonic the Hedgehog and many more.  A lot of these games were actually interactive and you could play them as they were designed.
The only thing missing as I could tell was anything to do with Pokemon Go, though I may have just missed it even though I pretty thoroughly explored the exhibit.
 Check out the video below!

 



Finnegan’s Wake, a Glance at Irish Mysticism through Lyrical Satire

 

Finnegan’s Wake is amongst my favorite traditional Irish songs and it has been a staple of the Irish balladeer’s repertoire since the middle of the 19th century. Over the past several decades it has been covered by great and legendary Irish bands like The Clancy Brothers & Tommy Makem, The Dubliners, the Pogues, and most recently the Massachusetts-based Dropkick Murphys.  However, like much of Irish lyrical tradition stretching back to the ancient bards “Finnegan’s Wake” is in reality a work of deep esoteric value cleverly disguised as a silly drinking song that only the initiated were likely to fully comprehend.

At Face Value

The story tells of Tim Finnegan, a poor construction worker with a love for the liquor who drank a bit too much before work one morning, fell from a ladder, broke his skull and died. Upon the eve of his wake his friends and relatives arrive at his home to mourn him.  Biddy O’Brien begins crying loudly and is essentially told to shut up by one Paddy McGee.

Once Maggie O’Connor gets involved in the exchange telling Biddy she’s wrong, Biddy punches her in the mouth, leaving her ‘sprawling on the floor.”  Then all Hell breaks loose as the entire house becomes engaged in a brawl “woman to woman and man to man,” brandishing their shillelaghs, the classical Irish club.

A bottle of whiskey is thrown across the room, just barely missing Mickey Maloney, and instead landing on Tim Finnegan’s bed with the whiskey scattering all over his body. At that point Tim revives and “rises from the bed,” and delivers the punch line of the ballad; “Whittle your whiskey around like blazes, Thanum an Dhul![1] Do you think I’m dead?”

 

The Mystery Unveiled

While this ballad is typically considered a comical drinking song, it actually gives us a glimpse into an old Irish and western mystical tradition.

Tim Finnegan is a construction-worker. Although this was a common vocation amongst Irishmen throughout the 19th century, there is much more being said here than meets the eye, or ear.  As the lyrics clearly tell us “to rise in the world he carried a hod.” A hod is a tool used for carrying bricks and mortar, telling us that Mr. Finnegan was, in fact a mason. Since no later than 1717 AD the repository for esoteric wisdom in Western countries has been the order of Free and Accepted Masons who trace their historic origins to the medieval stone masons guilds, and from there symbolically to the ancient builders of Greek, Egyptian and Israelite temples.

Let us also take note that Tim Finnegan carries his hod “to rise in the world.” In Freemasonry, it is said that a candidate is “raised” to the degree of a Master Mason. Freemasonry also makes use of the symbolism of death and resurrection through the allegory of the architect Hiram Abiff.

Architecture, construction work and craftsmanship have been metaphors for mystical knowledge going back thousands of years. In ancient Irish mythology the three brothers Luchta, Goibniu, and Credne are known as the Trí Dée Dána (the three gods of art).  Each represented the respective trades of carpentry, blacksmithing, and silver-smithing, and they crafted the weapons which the Tuatha Dé Danann (Irish ancestor gods) used to conquer the Fomorians (Irish beings of chaos and darkness).

In ancient Egypt, the god Ptah was the patron of craftsmen and architects, and he was closely associated as an aspect of the dying and resurrecting god Osiris.  Both of these deities were incorporated by the Greeks into the god Dionysus, well known as a patron of wine and spirits.  It is more than coincidence that Jesus of Nazareth, perhaps the most well-known dying and resurrecting god is often cited as having been a carpenter before he began his spiritual mission and he, much like his forebears also had an affinity toward life-giving and preserving drink.

A further look at the lyrics of this ballad reveals that at the wake of Finnegan they placed a gallon of whiskey at his feet and a barrel of porter at his head. This sentiment is echoed in the Irish ballad “Jug of Punch” in which the balladeer requests upon his death “just lay me down in my native peat with a jug of punch at my head and feet.”  This is a particularly Irish rendition of the tradition found amongst the world’s cultures of making sacramental offerings to the dead.  The making and pouring of libations is well documented in European traditions.

As mentioned previously, Jesus, Osiris and Dionysus are not only associated with death and resurrection, they are all three also closely associated with drinking rituals. Amongst other things, Dionysus is a god of wine. Osiris is said to have taught the world the art of brewing.  Jesus turned water into wine. Similarly, the Irish craftsman-god Goibniu also brewed the beer of immortality.

The English word whiskey is derived from the Irish Gaelic uisce beatha which translates as “the waters of life.” So when the whiskey scatters across the corpse of Tim Finnegan, it literally, magically and sacramentally imbues him with life; a spiritual conception which stretches back through centuries of esoteric tradition.

Conclusion

The dying and resurrecting god is not just a rhetorical device for dramatic affect. To ancient civilizations death and rebirth are symbolic of the annual cycle, the dying and rebirth of the summertime, the growing season and of the sun, so often symbolic of divinity. This symbolism has been revised, reincorporated and redistributed as a multitude of myths, legends and doctrines throughout the world in order to teach each civilization or cult’s particular perspective on the meaning of creation.

A creator god’s primary attribute is creativity, and this trait has been imitated through the creative works of humans whom are believed to be made in the divine image. Art, music, agriculture and most especially architecture has long been associated metaphorically if not literally with godliness, and enlightenment.
Finnegan’s Wake is far more than just another drinking song. It is a humorous retelling of an ancient initiation myth.  Tim Finnegan is not just a drunk construction worker who died and came back to life.  He is the personification of the mystery of the dying and resurrecting god represented in the form of Irish lyrical satire.

[1]d’anam ‘on Diabhal. a common curse: your soul to the Devil, from the Irish D’anam don Diabhal


Mento Music: Reggae’s Granddaddy

Mento music is a little known style of folk music and dance native to the island of Jamaica that saw its commercial peak in the 1950s.  Sometimes called Jamaican Calypso, it is closely related to that Trinidadian musical form.

Mento bands usually consist of small groups of musicians. Acoustic guitar, fifes, maracas, and the rumba box are all typical elements in the musical production. Banjo however, seems to be central in traditional Mento. Particularly rural groups often featured hand-made instruments such as the bamboo clarinet and saxophone.

A unique style of music, mento is the lineal forebear of reggae, and like blues it is a blend of European folk musics, especially of British Isles and Spanish influence along with many elements of traditional West African music.  For reasons that are more intricate than this blog-post is prepared to delve into, Trinidadian Calypso was more marketable than Jamaican Mento, and by the middle of the 20th century it had become the music of the Caribbean.

After Calypso lost its commercial appeal record companies decided to make jazz the new music of the Caribbean and began importing jazz musicians into the islands.  Jazz didn’t take root like they had hoped but this injection of fresh blood mixed with the rootsy sound of the Jamaican shanty towns and the new sounds coming from the United States over short-wave radio resulted in the creation of Ska.

           

Below is my cover of “Miss Constance,” a traditional Mento tune available for download here.


Imbas Fire

I got fire in the head!

Imbas on the inside, so red!

A cauldron of poetic frenzy brewing the content of the universe

Translating, melding it down, an inspired stew-in-verse

More than a measure of grammar, meter and rhyme

Through head, heart and gut, universal space and time

Twisting like a whirlpool spinning mastery of words

Spitting reddening satire – the kind that really burns

But it’s just prophecy in motion, the wisdom of a bard

Passing judgments with clarity till you know who you are!

(This poem was originally written in 2004 as a final exam for an undergraduate anthropology class. – I got an A. – I was looking through some old writings and it just felt relevant again.)

Katy Perry’s New Music Video for “Chained to the Rhythm” Gave Me PTSD

I just watched Katy Perry’s new video “Chained to the Rhythm.” And I think it just gave me PTSD.



I suppose there’s a bit of a message in this video. It seems to be a commentary on American excess and distraction with entertainment and I guess how that’s killing us.

In the end it just made me think about dying by being launched from medieval siege weaponry. Watch the video below for the full story.




Tyla J. Pallas, One Creative Dog

Few artists have had as much of an influence on me as Tyla J. Pallas.  It wouldn’t be too far of a stretch to say that I learned to sing by listening to this man.

I first discovered Tyla when I saw an ad for his band the Dog’s D’Amour and their album release In the Dynamite Jet Saloon in Hit Parader Magazine in 1988.  I acquired the album through some means after that, and was fairly pleased by the record.  Though you couldn’t tell by looking at the album cover, the Dogs D’Amour were doing something in strong contrast to all the other hard rock bands that were making a name in the mid and late 80s.  The songwriting was a striking and refreshing twist on the blues-infused rock and roll pioneered by classic bands such like the Rolling Stones, and Aerosmith.

On top of guitarist Jo Dog’s phenomenal slide guitar work on In the Dynamite Jet Saloon, Tyla’s gritty, bourbon-wrecked vocals defined the sound and personality of the Dogs D’Amour.  His fluctuation between growling, mumbling, and quirky melodic deliveries helped create a dynamic and distinct sound.  As the primary songwriter, Tyla’s lyrical approach was infused with the dark poeticism of Charles Bukoski, romantic and desperate.  It was quite a departure from the party-anthem bands that defined the decade.  Tunes like the ballad “How Come It Never Rains” and the acoustic “Billy Two Rivers” stand out the most.

While Dynamite Jet Saloon is a great album, it was only a couple years later when a friend moved to my hometown from England and brought with him the follow up and mostly acoustic albums Errol Flynn and A Graveyard of Empty Bottles that I really became the die-hard fan I still am to this day.  These albums were amazingly written. Everything that was good about Dynamite Jest Saloon was doubled-down on and made great. To me, these albums are what the Dogs D’Amour were all about.

The Dog’s D’Amour, A Graveyard of Empty Bottles, 1989

Each song on those records is so good it’s difficult to shine a light on any of them over the others, but “Comfort of the Devil” and “Ballad of Jack” probably stand out the most. Both exemplify the mixed styles of blues-rock and country with a distinctly recognizable English interpretation that defined the Dogs.  Not only did these acoustically dominated albums convince me of the viability of the approach in an era defined by electric guitar, it reacquainted me with my native County and Western music and put a mark on my musical delivery that is still with me to this day.

    

 

Second to the music, or course were the album covers featuring Tyla’s distinctive artwork, mostly paintings.  They were personal interpretations of the band in a style that was a mix of naïve and almost comic art, and expressionism.  As an aspiring singer and visual artist myself, I found this approach inspiring..

Over the years since these early Dog days, Tyla has produced a host of solo projects and collaborations, while his artistic abilities have developed into a well-crafted, distinct and recognizable style that is the natural visual counterpart to the wicked western blues rock that is Tyla’s legacy.

The Dog’s D’Amour, Errol Flynn, 1989