Tuning Up At Dawn, by Tomas Graves

Poetry, music and madness on Majorca
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The Independent Culture

Taking as his text the Mediterranean formula "noise plus light equals life", Tomas Graves applies his stethoscope to Spain's pulse to give a grassroots view of Hispanic popular culture. Born and bred in Deia, on Majorca's mountainous north coast, he seems to have lived through his ears from the start, relishing the natural acoustics of his craggy habitat and studying his compatriots' aural obsessions like a connoisseur.

Taking as his text the Mediterranean formula "noise plus light equals life", Tomas Graves applies his stethoscope to Spain's pulse to give a grassroots view of Hispanic popular culture. Born and bred in Deia, on Majorca's mountainous north coast, he seems to have lived through his ears from the start, relishing the natural acoustics of his craggy habitat and studying his compatriots' aural obsessions like a connoisseur.

Graves traces Spanish musicians' addiction to "reverb" to their fascination with wells, and to the bogey-woman supposed to live at the bottom of every well - whom peasants used to induce their children not to lean dangerously far over. He points out that the sing-song tune by which Spanish children learn their tables, capital cities and the Ten Commandments is also tune in which the El Gordo lottery results are announced.

But Tomas Graves is a mongrel Spaniard. As the youngest child of Robert Graves, he was brought up in a household where, as he puts it, music was silver but silence was golden. His father liked Fifties jazz - Cecil Taylor and John Coltrane - but only in its place. Young Tomas grew up hearing "Polly put the kettle on" as "Polly put the catalogue": it was that sort of house.

Though Robert inhabits the periphery of Tomas's s world, this is also a book about him, and his rages, and his unnerving succession of "muses". Much of his children's energies were spent placating him. Their annual ritual was a play staged as a comic counterpoint to whatever great literary work he was engaged in. Tomas recounts their laborious construction of a Greek theatre as a birthday surprise: its inaugural show was attended by the British Consul, the mayor of Deia, the owners of Time magazine, plus sundry British and Spanish poets.

One of the cement-mixers for that edifice was the musician Robert Wyatt. Indeed, the first half of this book is also an oblique chronicle of British pop at the most interesting point in its trajectory, as Soft Machine and Jimi Hendrix made waves. Tomas himself - proudly described by his father to Spike Milligan as "a cool poet [who] handles a guitar well" - had a classical grounding, and has spent his life playing in a variety of bands. One of Graves's visitors was the great musicologist Alan Lomax, and it's clear Tomas has carried on his torch, making field recordings of folk styles, and studying arcane Majorcan instruments.

Deia in the Fifties and Sixties was a proper artists' colony, but Graves charts its decline into a theme park. His book's strength lies in its clear-eyed observation, and in its ranging far beyond parochial confines to characterise both the island and its outpost, Tangier. We hang out with Paul Bowles, and go deep into a Majorcan gypsy community, absorbing bags of rustic lore along the way.

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