from Folk Roots No. 202 (Vol. 21 No. 10) April 2000, pp. 38-43.

Get Saz Appeal

From punk rock to bloke rock via a swarthe of the great bands of our time.  Ian Anderson unravels the unlikely tale of Lu Edmonds:  have cümbüs, will travel...

So what do punk pranksters The Damned, world music godfathers 3 Mustaphas 3, Leeds art-folkrockers the Mekons, bhangra pioneers Alaap, Ewan's independent daughter Kirsty Maccoll, Tuvan stars Yat-Kha, John Lydon's '80s outfit PiL, The Waterboys, Shriekback and Billy Bragg's Blokes have in common?  Well, they are among the bands who crop up on the scrawled CV of the man they call Uncle, otherwise Lu Edmonds, that I'm staring at.  From punk rock to the roots and back in two action-packed decades, you might say -- and bound to be an interesting tale.  So I sat Lu down at last autumn's Berlin Womex and prised it out of him.

The first name and dates on the Edmonds list are The Damned 1977/78, but he surely didn't pick up an instrument and walk fully fledged into a performing punk rock band.  In our 1999 Critics Poll we asked people to nominate the record that changed their life.  Was there a point where he realised there was more than electric guitars and punk rock bands?  Pre-history?

"When I was small, the Golden Gate Quartet was a real think.  My granny really liked them.  And then when the Beatles came that was totally mind-blowing -- at the time I was in South America.  A thing that changed my life there was a red clear vinyl record of Venezuelan folk music -- absolutely beautiful songs, harps and everything, and I really liked that.  I suppose looking back, there was a lot of Cuban stuff."

"I had a couple of friends in school, and my brother played.  It was really pick up the guitar and bash and bash and bash and bash.  And then I went on the building sites in London -- bash, bash, bash, bash, except this time concrete -- and saved up money to buy amps.  There was an idea of putting a band together with a friend, and it went here and there and basically I went out of London at a critical point.  I'd just moved back, with a guitar, and stayed with a girlfriend who had a place, and thought 'What am I going to do?'.  And I scanned through Melody Maker one day:  'Interesting guitarist wanted.  Into Damned, MC5 and Stooges.'  I thought 'two out of three's not bad' and I went down and it was The Damned, goddamn it!"

What was the Kirsty MacColl connection -- live or on records?

"Both.  We did studio stuff and then went on what was for her a very difficult tour around Ireland, the ballrooms, because she had a very bad case of stage fright -- around 1980.  We had Terry Woods playing with us.  It was a really bizarre bunch, with muggins here on the guitar.  We did the ballrooms, from Lochrae to Letterkenny, all the way down to Cashel, Limerick, Dublin.  Frank Murray was tour managing it, who was the Pogues manager later, and before that he was Thin Lizzy's tour manager, so it was really Irish.  It was great.  We went to Strand Hill with Planxty's manager who ran a pub and who put the gig on there."

We progress a bit further down the time line.  He moved to Szegerely, or Szegerely moved to him (I never really got any sense out of anybody as to how the 3 Mustaphas 3 coalesced).  Would that be the first time he played something other than guitar in a live band?  How did he find himself the owner of things like a saz or a cümbüs?

"As any fule kno, anyone who has a guitar and tries to tune it will find themselves chasing their tail.  For your non-musical readers, if you tune a guitar so the E sounds really great, the moment you play a G, the B will sound sharp, and this is because of the imponderables of the badly tempered piano by J.S. Bach, and I could never tune my guitar.  I used to agonise and wonder why and I found out that it's impossible to tune guitars, and I started to become more and more interested in ancient instruments.  Egyptian wall paintings also had guitars on them, except they looked different, and [unconventional composer] Harry Partch was put in front of my face by a very good friend of mine called Bill Hodgkinson who is now up an alp in Switzerland.  He opened me to these two subversive thoughts:  that there is something beyond and behind the guitar, and ever since then I suppose I've been doing both, in both directions, and I suppose sideways to some extent."

"This really coalesced in a Mustaphic way in 1986, when I was at a loose end and somebody said, 'Why don't you go to Istanbul?  Here's an address, a place where you can buy sazes.'  And now, 15 or 16 visits later I'm now the very sick owner of maybe 10 cümbüses.  I make my own necks, and carve them myself, and I have a few people we all get together and it's like a laboratory with all the body parts, and wood shavings all over the floor.  There are three bodies, and there are six necks, and I've added three more necks and I interchange them as well.  And so you get out of playing guitars which have these metal frets, which are alright up to a point.  The Turks have got this very sweet way of making these wire frets -- three times round the thing and a little knot which doesn't really bother you.  So once you've got that it's moveable frets, so not only are you tuning your guitar but you can also tune the frets, you can slant them this way or that.  Here's some free information for guitarists out there:  all major notes should be 16 percent flat, and all minor notes should be 16 percent sharp.  Minor and major should actually be 31.5 percent nearer to each other, and if you go right inside there, that is the blue note, that everyone knows about.  So once you know that, you start finding out that there's lots of other places on the neck where you have more blue notes, and this is what people like, note that are in between the notes."

"The cümbüs is basically a spun-aluminum cooking pot with an alloy rim, and you've got a 9-inch skin on it (it's very strange how British imperial measurements have survived the fall of Suez!).  And there's a three-footed bridge that's just floating on the skin, a lot higher than a banjo bridge.  And then you've got a twelve-string tailpiece which goes over the bridge and up the neck and attaches.  But the neck is attached only by a bolt.  It's like on a fulcrum -- there's nothing between the neck and the body.  There's no bar, nothing.  You adjust the action by tightening or loosening the bolt, which is very handy.  And you just whip it apart and put all your socks and pants in the body, and then you can travel with it!  It's very practical.  It's fretless, and because of that it's hard to play, because the moment you put your fingers slightly off it you know about it."

"There's quite an interesting story about it as told to me by the grandson of Zeynel Abidin.  He was some kind of major industrialist at the time of Atattürk, and Atattürk was getting drunk one night and moaning how there was no such thing as a proper Turkish instrument, and all they had were borrowings from the West and the Arabic or the Persian.  So off went Zeynel Abidin, who probably had a cooking pot factory or something, and he spun something together and produced this thing and brought it round a few nights later, with a musician who obviously knew his chops.  Atattürk got sozzled to the appropriate degree and this guy brought the musician on and said 'Here you go.  This is a Turkish instrument.  I invented it three days ago.'  Atattürk liked it so much he said 'I'll call this cümbüs' which in Turkish means 'knees-up', 'jolly time'.  And after that the family of Abidin took the name 'Cümbüs', so they were named by Atattürk, which was a pretty big deal in Turkey."

"In the end people realised that this was a very cheap instrument, and all the people would actually prefer to play an oud, so only what they called the Romans, otherwise the Gypsy people, the Roma in Istanbul, really took to this in a big way.  Word has it that the original ones were made of copper so there was a big problem because the Gypsies, when they get a bit poor, they just go down to the scrapyard and trade in their cümbüs to get a bit of money."

So why would I have found a shop full of the things in Athens, when it's such a Turkish instrument?

"Really until recently, the cümbüs was only favoured by the Roma in Istanbul, the Gypsy diaspora, and also in Kosovo and Macedonia.  Now in the last 15 to 20 years, there's been this turn in Greece, probably coming from Nikos Papazoglou and that album Revenge of the Gypsies where suddenly Greeks stopped being very, very Greek Greek, and started looking beyond their borders.  A lot of the cümbüses do go where there are Gypsy communities, and there are sazes everywhere in Greece now.  The funny thing is if you go to the Greek museum of ethnological music just underneath the Acropolis -- I went there the other day and I was absolutely stunned because they had these wonderful old bouzoukis and baglamas and sazes, and the thing is there's no difference between them."

"Right now, if you see a bouzouki in a Greek restaurant, it's a big-bellied thing with a long neck and eight strings -- it used to have six strings.  It's tuned like the top four strings of a guitar but a tone down.  It's got metal frets; it's got that Neapolitan-mandolin-but-bigger sort of sound.  A saz, on the other hand, is again a big-bellied thing but it's more teardrop shaped.  The neck's much thinner.  It's got wire plastic frets which you can move around.  It's got pegs at the end and it's got microtonal frets -- 17 or 18 frets in the octave.  The strings are very close to the board, they're much floppier, it's a longer scale and it's much 'bzoingier'.  There are six, maybe seven strings, all double chords unless you triple up on one of them.  But in Turkey there are any amount of tunings you can use."

"These two instruments now are very distinct and they're only joined in Lebanon by the bozok, which was played by Matar Mohamet, who was a virtuoso.  His was made for him by Armenian luthiers in Beirut, and is incredible.  I've played it.  It's one of the greatest instruments I've ever laid my mitts on.  It's the construction of a Greek bouzouki with six strings, but he's taken the middle one out so there are only four, and the frets are of the Turkish design but with much thicker wire so you can really bend and do vibrato on it.  So in a very odd way that is where the saz and bouzouki are joined.  It's only in Lebanon.  But if you go back 100 years and see all the proto-sazes and the proto-bozoks you cannot tell the difference between them!  The bridges, the constructions.  Nowadays on a saz there will be no holes on the front.  In the old days there were holes."

We talk about how the bouzouki has become an Irish traditional instrument since the days of Johnny Moynihan and Andy Irvine, and how at any time in the history of a country, particularly islands, a single sailor could have turned up with an instrument and had a fantastic efect on the tradition of that country, but 300 years later you'd never know, because it was never recorded.  It's only because the bouzouki in Ireland has happened in the last 40 years that we know who did it.

And so to the Mekons...  how did that connection come about?  "Well I have to cite a Mr Jim Chapman in this, a fine upstanding citizen of the management community.  It was at the time of the miners' strike, and there were all these benefits he wanted to put together.  He always loved The Mekons and knew them., and he just wanted to get a rhythm section, as we called it then, bass and drums.  He got Steve Goulding of Graham Parker & The Rumour and many other bands, and he said 'Lu, you can play bass, can't you?' and I said 'If you can find me one...'  We just went into a studio and we cut Fear & Whisky and then did all these gigs, featuring at some point Dick Taylor of The Pretty Things, which was great.  He'd just turn up on the same basis as Lol Coxhill played with The Damned -- just turn up, it'd be 50 quid.  The basic hardcore band were John Langford, Sally Timms, Tom Greenhalgh and John Gill was there."

John Gill, who'd been working as a studio engineer for Bill Leader, was the one who'd turned the Mekons on to English country dance music.  I regret that I never managed to get a copy of the Mekons' The English Dancing Master.  Tom Greenhalgh once told me the last copies were dumped on a tip somewhere.  A terrible sin.

Three weeks in the Waterboys?

"Again, Jim Chapman got me into that.  I was playing with Mike Scott, and we were doing all these TV things.  I played on the record This Is The Sea and we did these rehearsals at like 187 decibels, and Mike Scott -- what a singer!  He actually met me when I was in The Damned.  He was 15, and he came and interviewed the band in Edinburgh.  I vaguely remembered him as being this very intense young chap.  Afterwards, I thought, well 187 decibels equals deaf, but that was a very good thing."

And then Shriekback.  The first and only time I ever saw Shriekback was a mind-blowing set they'd done at the previous Berlin Womex about five years earlier than this conversation.  I still have no idea if that's what Shriekback always did, or whether that's what it had evolved into at that point.

"It was always very intense, and it was about grooves and it was about energies, words and lots of things."

At which point I totally phase Lu by suggesting that he's been in an awful lot of groups that might once have been described as 'Art School Bands', in following if not in origin.  This clearly leaves him bewildered...

"Have I?  No, Shriekback, never.  PiL?  The Mekons, certainly.  The Mustaphas?  I never thought of this.  It's a pretty disturbing thought.  Nothing wrong with art I suppose.  Without art where would you be?  Dancing!  I think that bands like Fluke, sort of techno bands, they cite Shriekback as a real seminal influence in techno, house and that sort of stuff.  It's true.  In '82 and '81 there was Dave Allen from The Gang of Four, and Barry Andrews from XTC...  Were Gang of Four an art school band?  They were!  XTC were Swindon beer yobs, I'm sorry...  Yes, OK.  You've got me worried now..."

What the hell was PiL like to work in?

"It was revelatory.  It was John Lydon on the vocals, I was playing guitar and at times, often increasingly to my chagrin, keyboards.  Then we had Bruce Smith on the drums, who's with The Slits, and we had Allan Dias, who was from Connecticut, playing bass, and he was playing with Dawson [Miller, another Mustapha by another name] on various things.  And then there was John McGeoch of the Banshees and Magazine on the guitar and bits of keyboard as well.  It was the time when Lydon had just recorded Album with Bill Laswell and a whole host of great illuminati of super-great musicians of the planet, like Sakamoto and Ginger Baker, and Steve Vai, and anyone who actually doesn't like Steve Vai and thinks all that heavy metal stuff's rubbish should actually listen to this record.  That is really incredible playing, and if you pushed him I think Steve Vai would admit that was the best record he ever made.  There was a single that came out, Rise, and then they basically just pulled a whole bunch of people off the street, on word of mouth, for the band."

"We were headhunted.  It's funny, but after a year we just went 'Let's have a band and everyone gets equal splits', and that went on for a bit more.  But then I developed this extraordinary tinnitus, and I thought 'I'm gonna die' and I left the band.  And then I found out that I wasn't gonna die, so I just moved my frets, and that's when I became very, very acoustic.  But during PiL it was fascinating.  We went to Brazil, we went to all these places.  We did stadium tours backing INX.  It was a very interesting experience of the famous level of playing -- premier league -- without actually it having anything to do with me."

You could have gone to the bar in the interval without anyone recognising you...

"Well, actually I once fell off the stage, and no-one noticed!  It was quite scary because it was an eight-foot drop, in front of 20,000 people, and it was the first number, after my first chord, and I just went -- aaargh!  And I managed not to land on 20 people or die, and I kept playing!  I was between two huge hefty people, and they lifted me up, and threw me back on stage.  I got really frightened then, and for the next six numbers I was by my amp with my knees shaking -- 'what the fuck happened there!?'  At the end we had to go to the front, to the apron, and the audience cheered and I suddenly realised that they didn't think I was a prat, that they thought it was something I did every night.  Then I went offstage -- this is where I knew that this maybe wasn't the band for me -- and I said 'Wow that was too much' and they said 'Did you?'  Then my technician came in and said 'Where were you?' and he still didn't believe me.  And I said 'I fell off stage' and he went 'Oh, you did, did you?'."

How long were you in Alaap?  "I was in Alaap for three hours.  Basically, I tried to get Alaap to come to Berlin to do a festival, and I had to go and get all their passports.  I went to Southall on a Sunday morning and not all of them were there.  And they said 'Don't worry, we'll go to the gig, and we'll get them there.'  So we got to the gig and not all of them were there.  They set up, and it was for a big Sikh wedding, and it was quite incredible.  There was a bottle of gin, a bottle of whisky, a bottle of vodka and a bottle of brandy on every table, for like 600 people.  And eventually everybody turned up and started setting up, and I said 'Can I get the passports now?  I just want to get the details.'  And they were going 'Just wait a bit' and I thought 'what's going on here?'"

"They all set up and I started counting them, and I said 'You're one short, aren't you?  So where's your bass player?'  Inder was on the desk.  So I said, 'Well, I'll mix the band' and they said 'No, Inder's got to mix the band', and they supposed they'd just have to play without a bass.  So they went backstage and got all their uniforms on and I said 'Look, Inder, let me mix the band', and they said 'No, we've got a better idea.  You play bass.'  It was about a minute to go.  So I was at the side of the stage, behind the stack, and the guitarist faced me and did all these chords and I had to follow him.  Some of these chord sequences were very complicated, and three hours later my brain boiled.  I came offstage and said 'Some of those chord sequences were very complicated' and they were going 'Why?  They were all very simple.  Oh -- he was just trying to impress you!'  But we got through that, and I tour managed them in Germany for a very happy three days, and they were lovely, a great bunch."

Somewhere before Yat-Kha, which is on my list for '94, you must have started going to very cold places.

"I met Albert at the proto-Womex in 1992, and I tried to get Yat-Kha involved.  The last gig that I did with PiL was in Tallin, Estonia, where I met Nick Grakhov, the president of the Sverdlovsk Rock Club, and he knew all these people.  After that Albert went to Sverdlovsk and hung out in the big Glasnost punk explosion of the Siberian summers of '88, '89, and '90.  That's where he did his first recording.  And he was telling me about these Siberian bands:  Cholbon, probably one of the greatest bands of the last 20 years.  They're from Yakutia -- incredible band!  Like New Order times ten.  I saw them eventually in Hong Kong some years later.  Still great."

"I met Albert here in Berlin.  After that he was helped by Global Music Centre, Helsinki.  There were two or three festivals who actually saw Yat-Kha and put a punt on it and brought Albert over.  It slowly built up and there came a point where Shriekback were playing with Transglobal Underground, Jah Wobble and Wimme the joiker at Womad, Helsinki, which was the first internet-cast world music festival, we'd like to think, as organised by Chris Lewis.  And we all played together.  And we all stayed in the GMC."

Could you work out who was playing in which band?  "It got more complicated after.  But at that point we recorded Yenisei Punk which I think is the first record that ever came out in the West, of Yat-Kha, and I kind of helped them out because I did the engineering and playing.  I actually played the gigs.  The year after, Borkowsky Akbar [Womex, Piranha Records] booked a tour of Germany with Shriekback and Yat-Kha, and the audience went berserk.  It was a great bill!"

"We played all together.  Everyone on the stage together.  It was really good.  Vey interesting.  They're still very wigged-out.  Albert, if he had more means, the means of production, he'd really do a lot of stuff, because he's very prolific.  And I really wish one day I'll get to the point where I can afford to get him a little eight-track, and set him up in Tuva.  So since then I was going to Tuva and back, and to Yakutsk, and doing these gigs, and in Hong Kong, being their agent and their manager, and playing the bass -- cümbüs -- in this case."

Bass cümbüs?

"It actually sounds very good.  I play that with Lol Coxhill.  We do these little duets."

Ah yes, jazz sax man Lol Coxhill.  It was through him I first heard the expression 'I'm just off to play some squeaky-bonky music'.  I never knew it was really called that until then.  So after all this, I suggest, going on tour with Billy Bragg & The Blokes must be like going on a Butlin's holiday...

"Yeah.  How can I put this?  It's no trouble.  It's an absolute dream.  Everyone plays together.  It all works together.  Lap steel and cümbüs, and Hammond organ playing Woody Guthrie songs, and it works.  Ben Mandelson put it together, but yet again, Jim Chapman returns.  He rang me up as I was making Dalai Beldiri, Yat-Kha's latest, in Finland and he said 'Help.  Wilco won't do the tour.'  And I said 'I can't talk now because I'm in the middle of a record, talk to Ben Mandelson'.  And two or three days later Ben phoned and said 'I've decided to get the Shriekback rhythm section'.  Simon Edwards and Martyn Barker were from Shriekback, and before that Simon was in Fairground Attraction.  Martyn's foreer been in Shriekback, and he plays a lot with Sarah Jane Morris, the jazz singer.  So 60 percent of Shriekback are in The Blokes."

So the Bloke have a quarter of the Mustaphas, three-fifths of Shriekback...

"Simon was also in Mambo Dunya with me and Isfahani Mustapha, and in a different thing with Justin Adams...  [Jah Wobble/Natacha Atlas sideman, contributor of Lo'Jo tales to our last issue]  We've been trying to work out -- there's Justin Adams, me and Ben; maybe there's more British guitarists, but we've all got ouds and sazes and stuff.  How many others have?  Maybe others have too.  Everything I've done I've always felt in total isolation, and seeing Justin Adams playing was 'Oh, one of us', and meeting Ben was like that."

"Then we added Ian McLagan.  He'd got in touch with Billy about a song he'd written, and they met an they got on.  Billy's always loved The Faces and The Small Faces.  So for him it's a dream.  He's been in recording studios for years, getting the Hammond out and asking 'Can you play like Ian McLagan?'  Hence, The Blokes."

A suitable case for a Pete Frame Family Forest, by the sound of it.  So has Lu got other things on the boil, or is this enough at the moment?

"I've been very interested, since 1991, in this trail of 'what are we doing here?'  We're musicians surrounded by all these bits of technology that make this record business work.  There's this 'market' -- I didn't think about a market when I picked my first guitar up.  The more I try and manage Yat-Kha, and produce records, the more I wonder about things like the Internet and all the technology, so I'm doing a lot of that as well.  Not just Internet, but things like wide-band; mobile meets Internet meets this; what's this going to do, and how do creative people make sure the creation is rewarded and not just scotched by the sharks?"

But won't it just be like drivers and mechanics, split into people who make the music and the people who deal with whatever the technology is?

"But if you're a musician you don't want to get a car mechanic to design your guitar.  So that's the situation at the moment -- the car mechanics are designing the guitars.  You really want to get the guitarists to talk to the car mechanics and say, well maybe there is a way that you can have less sump oil on the neck!"

With this thought we stagger off on our separate ways, Lu -- it must be said -- scratching his head and muttering "art school bands...?"

And as we went to press, a new Shriekback CD turned up in the mails...

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