Music

Alabaster dePlume's life-affirming outsider art

Alabaster dePlume's new album is a celebration of the power of music to help people overcome their difficulties with communication.

In his superb 2012 book How Music Works, David Byrne revealed that he has borderline Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism which can affect the way a person communicates. I tried to keep this in mind when I interviewed the former Talking Heads frontman for The Big Issue in a posh hotel in London in 2018 – a nerve-wracking encounter which commenced inauspiciously with one of my all-time heroes leaving me hanging as I reached to shake his hand.

Byrne scarcely made eye contact throughout our precisely 30-minute conversation, during which he fiddled with a cup, fidgeted in his chair and at one point – never an encouraging sign – yawned (in fairness it was his last interview of a long day). The whole thing felt like it hadn’t gone well, until I listened back to the audio, which gave a surprisingly contrasting impression. Byrne was engaged, alert, fizzing with a generosity of knowledge, ideas, opinions. Every bit the genius I’d looked forward to meeting. Body language can be deceiving.

I got to thinking about this because of a wonderful, life-affirming new album called To Cy & Lee: Instrumentals Vol. 1 by Alabaster dePlume (full disclosure – I help run Lost Map Records, one of the labels releasing the album). Specifically, what it teaches us about how music can benefit certain people to whom “normal” forms of communication and self-expression don’t always come naturally – whether because of a disorder or a learning disability, or because of simple social awkwardness. That’s a very broad bracket into which you could group everyone from Lou Reed (dyslexia) to Solange Knowles (ADHD) and Mozart (who experts are almost certain was autistic). You could even group in people who aren’t musicians as such.

Alabaster dePlume, real name Angus Fairbairn, is a London-based bandleader, composer, saxophonist, activist, orator and all-round cosmically righteous fellow who, back in his native Manchester, worked with Ordinary Lifestyles – a charity that supports people with disabilities to enjoy fulfilling lives. Cy Lewis and Lee ‘Shredder’ Bowman are two individuals whom Fairbairn helped learn to socialise better, through routines and rituals that included improvising a capella vocal melodies together – illogical, cathartic, whirling, twirling, wordless melodies, howled wildly and freely and defiantly into the ether for little other reason other than because it felt good and it felt right.

Fairbairn recorded some of these sessions on his phone, and used them as templates for fully-realised instrumental compositions, given warmth, spontaneity, colour and shade by a unique community of musicians surrounding him at London’s Total Refreshment Centre – including Dan ‘Danalogue’ Leavers from psych-jazz ensemble The Comet Is Coming and percussionist Sarathy Korwar. The results blend Japanese and Celtic folk, Ethio-jazz, movie soundtracks and much more to create something truly extraordinary. A tonic for troubling times, a soothing balm for the sting of a thorny age.

“Named in honour of my original collaborators,” Fairbairn writes in the liner notes, “the two men I was employed to support, who taught me the best things I know. Cy, a percussionist and un-guessable alto, sign-language inventor and chef, owned the car we drove around while chanting out what became some of the best of these melodies. Lee, the famous rascal, the great showman of villainy, hero of dissent and one of the bravest men I know, curated this material, even as it was written, through his personal requirements of what he found helpful, music-wise, to stay at least a little bit calm, in this world of demands, threats and madness.

“These tunes… are products of the times we had, while supporting each other through difficulties, and learning from one another, about courage, people and life. They’re an impression of what we found was needed, to exist, and a celebration of communication that’s free from the demands of words.”

All of which may help explain why To Cy & Lee is an album that seems to possess secret magic powers.

David Byrne chose to speak to The Big Issue over other publications back in 2018 because he was invited to discuss a subject close to his heart – his appreciation and patronage of what’s sometimes called “outsider art” (examples of which you can see published every week in The Big Issue’s Street Art section, which I curate). The embryonic melodies out of which grew To Cy & Lee are, I suppose, a sung form of “outsider art” – powerful, truthful, unfettered expressions of otherwise inexpressible humanity that help us to better understand and enjoy the full colour spectrum of our world.

To Cy & Lee – Instrumentals Volume 1 is released February 28 on Lost Map Records and International Anthem

alabasterdeplume.com

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