Monday, November 21, 2011

recording at the studio

I went back to the recording studio on Saturday evening. Sula wanted me to lay down a few guitar tracks for the new Gal Level album that the Ogopa Butterfly label will be releasing soon. I was a little nervous about foraying into the world of R&B (do R&B songs even have guitars anymore? answer: apparently yes) but was up for spending a few hours playing the guitar and having someone actually listen.

I’ve been in plenty of North American recording studios before, but it was pretty interesting being in a Namibian studio. The record label’s impressively numerous industry awards are proudly displayed at the entrance. Sula's in-laws drifted in and out of the building, as did a number of other random folks. The building looks like any other house in Windhoek, with its yellow walls, red dirt lawn, and massive gate, but the interior has been transformed to suit the company’s needs. The dark recording booth looks somewhat has a homey DIY touch, with black cloths stapled over wall frames to absorb sound, little holes in the material letting in the daylight. Between the black cloth walls, though, are all sorts of recording equipment that I’d love to spend all day playing around with.

“Victor, will you close the gate before we get mugged?” Sula mutters. I want to ask him if this was a problem, given all the expensive sound equipment housed in the building.

I'm introduced to LG, an Angolan refugee, who will be working with me that day. I set up my guitar and LG plugs it in. He turns on the system and plays the song that I’m going to record on, a sweet slow ballad that kind of reminds me of Des’ree’s “Kissing You”. The computer is making a weird beeping sound but I try to ignore it. I pluck the strings, trying to come up with a decent guitar riff to suit the style, all while I’m chattering away to him, but LG seems like a quiet shy guy.

Victor drops by and hands me a bottle of water and a delicious carton of Oshikandela as hospitality.

“The computer keeps beeping,” I tell him.
“It’s got a virus,” Victor replies.
“Oh.” I turn to LG. “Did you know your computer has a virus?” I ask LG.
“He doesn’t speak English,” Victor tells me as he leaves. “He only speaks Portuguese.”

Oh. That would explain why he’s not replying to anything I say. He hasn’t understood a word I’ve been saying all this time.

The recording is therefore a pretty interesting experience, since I don’t speak Portuguese. We communicate mainly through music and sign language. When he wants me to play louder, he hits his fingers on the desk. When he wants me to try a particular melody, he sings it to me and I play it back to him. Once in a while, when the message is too complicated, he uses a program on his computer which works like Google Translate, typing in his messages and hitting the “traduzir” button. The messages always come out garbled (“You can finger pick know how”) but I get a basic idea of what he’s trying to say. Usually.

Meanwhile, the crazy computer continues to beep throughout the song. This is a little annoying, especially when you’re trying to follow the beat of the song and keep getting distracted by the beeps. Soon enough it becomes background noise and I’ve hammered out a few tracks. It takes a while. I have had thick guitar calluses on my fingertips since I was fourteen, but now I feel like my fingers just might start bleeding.

When I’ve finished recording the first song, LG plays around with a bunch of controls. I watch him transform my tracks, adding a touch of chorus, turning up the reverb, playing around with a bunch of effects, until we hear a rough idea of the final product. He’s managed to make my stuff sound awesome.

“That is so cool,” I tell him. I assume that he understands “cool.”

LG says something in Portuguese to me with the words “R&B” and “guitar” in it.

“I don’t usually play R&B,” I tell him. He wants me to try anyway. So I start playing a few bossa nova chords. He fiddles with some buttons and is soon writing a R&B beat on top of my riffs. It’s pretty neat. This is the first time I’ve jammed with someone on a computer. The beats are complicated, and it’s a challenge to keep up.

Afterwards LG pulls out his iPhone and plays a song. “Kizomba,” he tells me. I’ve heard of kizomba, a popular music genre from Angola, but have not had the chance to listen to it before. It sounds beautiful, a lovely blend of synths, synthetic beats, live instruments including guitar, and smooth crooning reverb-heavy R&B vocals. LG sings along

I realize that I understand the words. “This is in French,” I say in surprise.
“Yes,” he nodded.
“Do you speak French?”
“Francês? No. Português.”
Darn. That would have been a better way to communicate than sign language.

I reach for his keyboard and type into the program. Can I buy this CD in Namibia?

He looks at the screen. “Memory stick?” he says to me in English. In the old days, musicians would have swapped mix tapes, but today, you just fill up a USB key.

By this time, other people have come into the studio, including two girls I’ve never seen before. “LG, have you still not learned English yet?” one of the girls demands. LG slinks away before I have a chance to say good-bye and thanks for not making my guitar sound horrible. Not that he would have understood anyway.

By this time, I’ve received multiple texts from Andrew insisting that I must come out to a house party. After feeling puzzled at the change in his tone and vocabulary, I realize that it’s Leio and Pinehas both texting me from Andrew’s phone. Sula drops me off at the party, which is curiously the same place that we saw Rochon off at her good-bye party. There is an absurd amount of game meat to be cooked on the braai, and the largest bowl of pasta salad I have ever seen You could bathe a child in it. This makes me incredibly happy, and I stuff myself until my tummy hurts.

There’s a laptop at the party playing music, and somebody puts on the Facebook song, and everybody jumps up to dance. Man, I just love the way people dance in this country. We party until the neighbours close it down.

turning the dining room into a dancefloor

showing us how to do a dance that looks an awful lot like the macarena