Inspiration and Composition:
Never expected: It was never in my mind to write so many odd meter songs. In fact, even after working on odd meters a lot, I never much loved how they sounded or felt. So, it was really strange for me when they started coming out in my writing. “Hmm that’s an interesting vamp, let me fool with that for awhile” and then later I’m surprised that it’s in 7, or 5, or 11. I never set out to play odd meter music but for some reason my writing went into it, and then I’ve been trying to catch my playing up ever since.
For instance, “Halfrica” was a strumming pattern first that flip-flopped around: the first downbeat was a down stroke and the next was an upstroke, and I stumbled around with it, and even wrote some kind of melody against it back in 2006. It never really gelled until some years later I worked out the arpeggiated triad pattern that forms the backbone: C G A- G, a bar of 7/8 followed by a bar of 4/4. At that time I was feasting my ears on many different recordings of African guitar players from the seventies, so it was sort of in that vein. One eighth note short of normal, though… one eighth note is half a beat, so the title refers to “half a beat short + sort of African sounding = halfrica”.
The melody and harmony line fit on the guitar and I wrote it all at the same time, trying to capture some sort of village celebration vibe. The A section works in a kind of call and response fashion: VAMP, Phrase 1, VAMP, Answer 1, VAMP. The B section never needed a melody and is just an extension of the triad pattern through some new changes, send-off style: G A- Bb C-.
For several years the song was a live staple for the band, and Marlon and Robby quickly became masters of the meter. They play circles around me on it and have fantastic discussions about different ways to feel the song. Some nights I would just try to stay on board the boat!
Making an arrangement for the horns was pretty easy since I already had a harmony line on guitar. I keep it fairly streamlined at first to let the song shine. Instead, I created a second page (the “Bonus Page”) of material to try out, including a cool pentatonic concept I had been practicing…
Myself included, most guitar players first learn the minor pentatonic scale. Everyone else starts with the major scale, but for us guitar players life begins at 1 b3 4 5 b7, two notes per string. I’ve often wondered at the long term effects of this… different synapses formed perhaps? Anyway, later in life I took this same concept and 2 notes per string patterns through other harmony, like 1 b3 4 b5 b7 for Min7b5 chords (see “Mushmouth”), or 1 3 #4 5 7 for lydian sounds. Even the major version had its appeal 1 3 4 5 7. I took a 4 note sequence of this, wrapped it around the meter of “Halfrica”, harmonized it in 6ths and 3rds, and this material became the horn line near the ending of the song.
Most importantly, I wanted to let Robby and Marlon shine on this track because they put so much magic into the tune. They are really doing some crazy crazy shit, but it never gets heavy or intrusive and the song still remains light. The hand drumming and tambourine intro sets the tone. Peter plays awesome fills during the A section, in between diving in with the other horns for the harmonized melody. After the B section send-off, the guitar solo features material pulled from a variant scale (1 3 4 5 b6 7) ending with the horns harmonizing the vamp melody. Marlon and Robby continue with some more black magic that I swell chords over. This opens into a beautiful freely flowing A section with Jacob playing through. Before returning to the hand drumming and tambourine vibe for the section we hit the A section and the line from the Bonus Page which makes for a nice tidy ending.
Post production, we put the horns through my pedal board for that magical swelling A section after the drum and bass solo. Also we shortened the guitar solo, which suffered in the original take at the moment when I attempted to cue the horns I was ending the solo. Funny how being in headphones, behind glass and twenty feet away from someone makes it hard to communicate.