20 November 2013

Ban the Band

Almost exactly two years ago I posted a plea on this blog for people to stop misusing the word ‘Song’.  Such is the power of this blog that not only do people still glibly go around applying it to any piece of music, but even one of the international examination boards now uses the word to describe pieces of purely instrumental music. 

Continuing, therefore, the November habit of flogging dead horses and hammering my head against a solid wall, I now have another word which I am pleading with the world to stop misusing before it loses its value.  That word is ‘Band’, and, in particular when it is prefixed by the word ‘Live’.
In my murky past I spent more time than I care to confess in various Malaysian bars not so much sampling the drink – gassy beer and ice cold spirits don’t do it for me, I’m afraid – as relishing the live music supplied by a seemingly endless array of young people from the Philippines who combined unbelievable musical gifts with even more unbelievable good looks.  Combos of four or five could make, not so much passable copies of the great hits of the day, as ingenious adaptations of them which usually sounded every bit as convincing as the originals.  Wedged firmly in my memory is one particular group who sung in one of the more seedy Kuching hotels.  It comprised four mouth-wateringly attractive females happily alternating between drums, bass guitar, lead guitar and saxophone, while a single man kept it all under control from a piano with an electronic keyboard placed on top for special effects.  Sadly a misguided belief that Malaysian musical talent was on a par with that of the Philippines, saw the sudden expulsion of these Filipino bands by the Immigration authorities, and I well remember travelling with some friends to some ghastly dive deep in the Klang Valley where one of the few remaining Filipino groups was still, somehow, performing legally.  Five talented men and a single female singer performed with such polish and professionalism it was well worth both the drive and the hideous surroundings to hear and them.  I remember sitting chatting to the singer over a horrendously over-priced miniature of sugar-laden orange liquid.  She frequently referred affectionately to her male co-performers as “my band boys”.

Note the plural.
Marriage and a life of superficial respectability has kept me away from seedy hotel lounges and bars over the past 20 years or so, but recent visits during extended examining tours, have shocked me to the core.  “Live Band Nightly” is a sign I see everywhere, but it is invariably a blatant lie.  Such things just don’t exist anymore; certainly not in my experience.  What these so-called “Live Bands” comprise is a desultory female, minimally bound in something slightly more adhesive and less opaque than cling film, grinding away soundlessly, occasionally uttering incomprehensible vocalisations down a microphone, while a single, bored looking male sits at an electronic keyboard and provides the music.  Not, I add, by playing anything, but by controlling switches and pressing buttons.

It first came to my attention a few years back in a Hong Kong hotel where, sitting with a view of the performers, I suddenly became aware that the sound being made bore no relation at all with the movements of the man’s fingers.  Indeed, whenever one of the bar staff came over to him with a request slip passed on from some customers, he would take the paper, turn away from his keyboard, read it, and then rifle through a large stock of floppy disks in a case behind him.  He would then return to the machine, finish the song (we can use that word in this context), and then, while the singer muttered something incoherent into the microphone (bar singers these days appear to be supplementing their income from a day job working the public address systems of supermarkets) he would take out one floppy disk, put in the other, and keep pressing a button until the required song popped up on the screen in front of him.
It may be large hard drives and USB sticks today, but that’s what happens in so-called “Live Bands”; the machine provides the music, while the “band boy” merely operates the machine.  At a hotel lounge in Penang, I watched a band boy, looking the part in trilby hat and waistcoat, moving his hands and his head so energetically I was convinced he must be playing.  Unfortunately when his phone rang mid-song, he immediately stopped the actions, answered the phone, and I realised he was simply miming to the machine.  An almost farcical band performs in one of the hotels in Kota Kinabalu where, anxious to feel he is doing something, the band boy does actually run his hands up and down the keyboard.  Unfortunately, he once failed to switch the sound off and it was painfully obvious he had no idea what the true function of the keys was, and the conflict between the pre-set sound and his mindless meanderings was horrible to behold.  I still quake at the memory of the Tawau band boy who left his machine on automatic pilot throughout his 20 minute break, and we heard a non-stop tonic dominant sequence which, on his return, he merely jerked up a couple of keys and sped up to start of the first song of the new set. Harry’s Bar along Singapore’s Boat Quay is the ultimate disaster zone for music.  Some years back they threw out one of the truly great jazz bands of Asia (Christy Smith’s ChromaZone) in favour of a computer machine and occasional singer.  I haven’t darkened the doors of a Harry’s since – and I hope none of you does either.  If they are that disrespectful of what goes into our ears, how can we trust them to show any respect for what goes into our stomachs?

Yet, this private karaoke – for that is what it is – is laughingly advertised wherever it appears as a “Live Band”.  I would pursue the matter through legal channels - surely there has to be some kind of Trade’s Descriptions’’ legislation in south east Asia – but it might involve me having to go and listen to more of these foul fiends, and frankly, the prospect of witnessing yet another “Live Band” is too much for my beleaguered sensitivities.
I would be on rocky ground anyway, for what is a band, live or otherwise?  That fount of all musical wisdom, Groves Dictionary of Music and Musicians, hedges its bets with the wonderful cop-put phrase, “The word ‘band’ has many applications in music”, but the somewhat less scholarly Oxford Companion to Music is less cautious and defines it as “a body of instrumental players”.  Forgetting that modern bands don’t have instruments (merely computer generated sounds), this would seem to confirm that you cannot have a band of one.  However, language is always changing.  Just today we learn that the Oxford English Dictionary has listed “Selfy” as the Word of the Year (a nice alternative to “self-portrait” since it has overtones of the word selfish; which is what these irritating people are who insist on littering the internet with pictures of themselves gawping gormlessly at their mobile phone cameras) and I wonder how long it will be before the definition of ‘band’ becomes recognised as  “A computer operator facilitating the transmission of musical sounds”.

Let’s hope hell freezes over first.

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