Monthly Archives: March 2010

Interview with… William Barton

William Barton doesn’t just play the didgeridoo; he makes it sing like the kookaburra, he makes it hop like a kangaroo, he makes it dance like a hip-hop artiste, he makes it scratch like it was a DJ’s turntable.

The talented young didgeridoo player — considered one of Australia’s finest — was in Chennai recently for a special concert, ‘Songlines of Australia’, as part of his tour of India (including a performance at the Hockey World Cup in Delhi), organised by the Australia-India Council.

The concert might have been in the plush environs of the Asiana Hotel, but for an all-too-brief half-an-hour, Barton transported the audience to the rugged Australian bush, conjuring a vivid soundscape of its bird songs and of the wind rustling through its trees.

“The didgeridoo captures the raw resonance of the Australian outback through its deep tones,” he said during an interview earlier in the evening (there was plenty of time to spare since the concert started nearly two hours late). “It’s the branch of a tree that comes alive when you put your breath into it.”

The instrument has been an integral part of ceremonies of the native tribes of Australia for centuries, accompanying the ‘song man’ as he sang the ‘dream-time story’, the Aboriginal legends of the seasons and rituals. Barton carried on this storytelling tradition of the instrument during the performance, telling tales through the didgeridoo, and of the didgeridoo.

He told old-world stories by recreating the sounds of dingo dogs and kookaburras and of ‘papa, mama and baby joey kangaroos’ hopping (his free hand ‘animating’ the sounds with lively finger actions). And then, he segued seamlessly into very contemporary stories of hip-hop dancers (his fingers doing a little dance on the side) and an amazingly-creative piece on a ‘Hitchhiker’s Nightmare’, where the didgeridoo mimics the sound of vehicles whizzing by the hapless hitchhiker as he walks on and on and on…

“Songlines (the song-style of a particular family group) interconnected the different tribes in the old days; in the modern context, these songlines can connect us to the Western world,” said Barton, who has collaborated with jazz, heavy metal, hip hop, rock ‘n roll artistes as well as a number of the world’s leading philharmonic orchestras, and performed at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. “I’m passionate about connecting the world through the universal language of music.”

His own musical influences growing up in Mount Isa, Queensland, included everything from opera (his mother was a self-taught singer) to AC/DC (like any other head-banging teenage Aussie boy). But the greatest influence was his uncle, an elder of the Waanyi, Lardil and Kalkadunga tribes, who taught him to play the didgeridoo at the age of seven. He died when Barton was just 11, but his legacy lives on with the young man in his music, and in the 60-year-old didgeridoo that he keeps with him.

“In traditional law, when an elder passes away, his didgeridoo is broken up, but they let me keep it as a special case,” Barton said. “I don’t usually travel with it because it’s getting old, but I take it to special gigs — out on the Australian bush, to Carnegie Hall, the London Philharmonic, and now to India — so the history is captured in it.”

He told other traditional stories too — of how he learnt to make his own didgeridoo from his father, for instance: “The didgeridoo is hollowed out naturally by termites, so you go out into the bush, find the tree you need, cut it, remove the bark, then make a mouthpiece from beeswax — after tapping out the termites first, of course!”

And his music said the rest, as he played on the electric guitar (his ‘second musical voice’) and the didgeridoo simultaneously, heavy metal riffs and soulful intros somehow merging perfectly with the deep-throated percussive notes of the didgeridoo. Fusion with Indian music is up next on his to-do list, but we’ll have to wait until next time to hear him tell those stories.


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Article: To each his own (Interview with Mark Billingham and China Mieville)

A crime writer who’s also a stand-up comic; a fantasy fiction writer who’s also a left-wing political activist. Put them both together in a room and what do you get? A rapid-fire, roller coaster conversation on everything from avant-garde fiction to rakshasas and assorted monsters, the induction ceremony to Agatha Christie’s Detection Club to falling anvils in Tom & Jerry cartoons.

Best-selling crime novelist Mark Billingham and fantasy fiction writer China (his parents were hippies and named him after a popular Cockney slang term, in case you were wondering) Mieville from the U.K. were recently in Chennai as part of British Council’s Lit Sutra initiative. Lively, opinionated and articulate, the two quite literally talked up a storm, first during an interview at the British council and then again at the public event at Landmark.

At first glance, it would appear that they wouldn’t have much in common, but Billingham and Mieville quickly proved that to be untrue. Both exuded self-admittedly geeky enthusiasm for their particular genres of fiction, and a love (and a staunch fight-unto-death loyalty) for genre fiction in general.

Mark, for instance, said he was a ‘crazy collector’ of first edition American crime fiction, and took to interviewing writers and doing book reviews just so he could get free copies. “Seriously,” he said, straight-faced, “it was costing me a fortune. After a couple of years of that, I decided to try my hand at writing one myself.”

Giving up on the idea of a ‘comic-crime novel’ (“It’s rubbish”) the TV actor turned stand-up comic turned novelist created what would end up becoming his most famous character  – the country-music loving, world-weary D. I. Tom Thorne – in his very first novel Sleepyhead. “Crime writers use exactly the same tricks as comedians – the way the punchline is revealed is the same way a key piece of information, a clue, for instance, is revealed in a crime novel,” he said. “It’s all about timing.”

Mieville, on the other hand, quite simply never outgrew his childhood love for monsters, aliens and witches. “People often ask ‘what got you into it?’ and my answer to them is, ‘what got you out of it?’” he said, adding with a laugh, “I’m just more rigorous than they were.”

The two-time recipient of both the Arthur C. Clarke Award and British Fantasy Award admits to ‘cheerfully philistine piracy’ of mythologies the world over to create his awesome array of weird creatures, such as the half-man half-bird Garuda in Perdido Street Station. “Anglo-American fantasy draws on certain creatures – elves, dwarves and dragons – but what I wanted to do is take creatures from other mythologies, deliberately not concerning myself with their mythic resonance, and do something new with them,” he said.

At some point, the chat about their work – the filming of Billingham’s Thorne novels for TV, for instance, or how Mieville’s strong political leanings influence his writing – segued into a passionate discussion on how ‘despised’ genre fiction was amongst some readers in the U.S. and the U.K.

“There’s this general sense of literary fiction being ‘real fiction’ versus all the rest,” said Mieville.

“The problem is that literary fiction is judged by its very best, while genre fiction is judged by its very worst,” added Billingham. “It just isn’t a fair fight.”

Mieville, in fact, loves genre fiction so much that he once rashly claimed he wanted to write a book in every genre. “I blame the Internet – you say something once and it’s never forgotten,” he said ruefully. “But I am fascinated by the protocols of the different genres.”

That’s why for his latest book, a crime novel but set in his fantastical universe, The City and the city, he ensured that he was ‘absolutely faithful’ to the protocols of a police procedural. A crime novel without those protocols, according to Billingham, would be like a Western without a horse, a gun or a cowboy hat.

“In that sense, crime novels haven’t changed that much since Sherlock Holmes – detectives who have problems with booze, music and can’t seem to form relationships,” said Billingham. “But the protocols have changed in other ways, of course – back in the 1920s there were some preposterous rules such as ‘there can be only one secret passage’ and ‘no Chinamen’!”

This lively discussion spilled into the Landmark event, ‘Thrill of the Unknown’ with ease. Co-ordinator Shreekumar Varma simply had to sit back and watch as the two took off on another freewheeling –and very funny– chat on novels of the future (“Remixed-novels will become the norm.”— Mieville), the perils of too much research and nitpicking readers (“It’s a novel, not a train timetable.” – Billingham), a running joke on their dislike for Jeffrey Archer’s books, and much more, with plenty of time devoted to audience interaction.

After all, as they said at the interview, they were here for a conversation with Indian readers. And boy, what a conversation it was.


You can read excerpts from Mark Billingham’s latest novel From the dead and China Mieville’s latest Kraken on Lit Sutra’s blog:


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