In this latest episode, I am talking to Will who is a long time resident of Tottenham and has lived such a creative inspiring life always guided by his love of music making. Will works with people / children around the world to make musical instruments from alternative resources. He is passionate about both bringing music making to everyone and the environment / upcycling. We even get to hear some sound bites!
Will's website: http://www.willembliss.co.uk/
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Hi, I'm Jamila and anybody everybody Tottenham is a bi monthly podcast, introducing the good people of Tottenham to you.
In today's episode I'm talking to will, I let him introduce himself. And it's quite interesting. We're kind of covering a story over ... - his life story over 50 years. And we're weaving in and out of Tottenham, and the things he does, and I think it's like, really nice to see how you don't have to have everything figured out and have to have a plan for all to be okay. In the end. I hope you enjoy this episode. Today on the pod. I've got will now I will actually let you explain well, how you would describe yourself?
Yes, well, I'm a musician, a composer, a musical instrument maker, a workshop leader. And I've always done everything I can through music, since I left school, and but I stopped touring as a musician about 12 years ago, I just sort of reached my limit of I didn't want to be at another festival, or in a dingy basement room full of smoke, or sitting in a van for six hours to go and play for an hour. And then six hours back, I just had enough of the peripheral things. But basically, yes, I've always been interested in sound in general. And although I learned the piano as a child, first was my first instrument.
Yeah, I was gonna ask which instruments are yours?
Yeah. So that was my first instrument. And I had an absolutely wonderful teacher. But after she left to go to America, I didn't find another teacher who was so wonderful. And so I didn't really like the next teacher. So I gave up playing the piano, in terms of learning, but I went on playing it and playing old pieces, but also making up pieces.
So what makes a good teacher because now you're a teacher, as well. So what was so wonderful about the first one that the other ones then didn't quite manage to capture,
she was a mixture of child and teacher led. So when it came to a new tune, I was at her house, and she had a whole library of music, one whole wall was all music books, and she would go out and pick out two or three music books. And she might play five or six tunes to me that she thought would challenge me a bit more. And I would say, Well, I really liked this one. Can we learn that one? She say yes. But this one has some more challenging things. What about this one? So we'd have a negotiation about which tune to learn. And also, she would have musical games where it wasn't about playing what was on the paper, but always What about, if I play this? What are you going to do, you know, very simple things and opening up the idea that people can just respond musically to just simple ideas. So she was she was really lovely, really lovely. Later on, I learned the trumpet. And I only learnt the trumpet because when we went to secondary school, we were asked, Has anybody got an instrument at home they would like to have lessons on and my father bought a trumpet from a cousin of mine. So it was just in the house and had been for a couple of years and I knew how to make basic sounds on it. But if it had been an oboe or a bassoon or a harp, or clarinet or anything, I would have said, I want to learn that. So it was just by that, that chance that I ended up playing the trumpet. I must say at this point that I've never been good at reading music. And what my piano (player did) teacher did was always play the piece to me. And then I would have an image of it in my head a sound image in my mind of what I was trying to achieve. And the notes would help me get there. I will use the notes but I'm not a sight reader and never have been.
Alright, so should we should we do your connection to Tottenham and then go back to your career?
Yes, that's fine.
So what is your connection to Tottenham? Because you seem to be a little bit on your way out of Tottenham.
Yeah, well, I moved to Tottenham, more than 30 years ago, maybe 34 years ago, and lived on Kitchener road off Phillip lane for maybe 10 to 15 years. I'm not. I'm terrible on dates and when things happen, but a good period of time there. And my son went to my son was born there, went to the local primary schools. And then we moved more to bounds green for a few years. And then when my wife and I split up, I moved to near White Hart Lane and Cambridge Road where I'm living now. I've been here for more than eight years. So it's sort of always been in Haringey,
What brought you to Tottenham in the first place. And what was it like 30 years ago?
Well, 30 years ago, West Green Road was amazing in that there were probably no maybe still I haven't been there for a while. But there seem to be eight barber shops within 100 meters. And it was the place where people hung out. We had really nice neighbors, an Indian family on one side and Afro Caribbean family on the other side. And we got on with them, and opposite us. I thought, Why have I moved to this house because for the first few nights, one of our neighbors had a cockerel, and it would start at four in the morning. And it would and that would set off an alsatian dog that would bark and they'd have this conversation through the night. And I wondered why have I moved here? But actually, I got used to it and
that cockerel survived? It didn't have an accident?
(laughs) Well, actually. Actually, it did pass away when my son was quite small. So after a few years, it reached its sell by date, obviously. Who knows if it went into a pot or a fox got it?
So how would you describe the changes and Tottenham over the time that you've been here?
Well, one of the biggest changes is to lordship recreation grounds, which was where I would go out and hang out with my son in the play area there when he was small. But then this was soon after the Broadwater Farm riots, and there was a little drop in center for kids there. And that got broken in through a ceiling skylight and set fire to and people said, otther parents said, Oh, we found needles in the sandpit from junkies and things like that, and hardly anybody, you will be in that vast lordship recreation ground, and you might see one other person on the far side, you know, and it was a very unused Park. And then, after I moved back here, eight or nine years ago, I cycle through there regularly on my way into town, that's my cycle route. So lovely beginning to my journey into town, there's a there's the new hub in the center of it, that, you know, is volunteers work in it. And there's a park users group, which has local residents, and even at nine or 10, at night, you'll see people in the park jogging, or sitting on benches being social, and during the, in the mornings, there's the Chinese women doing their walking, sometimes backwards, sometimes forwards, you know, and it is fully - it's really, really well used and loved. I think I think it's just great. You know, so that's a real change I like, you know,
like back back in the day, it used to have a lido, I'm still dreaming that the lido will come back.
Well, it's something I suggested to the user group a few years ago because I you know, having been to the one in London fields, that's in a tiny you know, that's a much smaller Park the area and down at the north end of it, there's plenty of room to have a lido it's gonna be it will be income in the summer for Haringey a, you know, maybe there will be sports for England grants for that sort of thing. It's a long way to go to - the Crouch End one, but all the good facilities are in the west of the borough. So we want some in the east of the borough, you know, it's like the schools.
Okay, so let's talk a little bit more about your musical history. So we were, we stopped at the learning of the trumpet. How was that teacher?
I had a very nice teacher, he kept on having sessions that he would be going to play, you know, so I was sort of left to my own resources quite a lot. But the head of music there was really, really keen on getting people just playing together in any format possible, and was very encouraging of people writing music, and if you got involved in the school opera, then you will get endless time off from it. Yeah all musical we did Guys and Dolls we did the penny opera by Weil, actually a French teacher wrote a Musical for the school he was a musician, guitar and flute player and him and a colleague who wrote the lyrics wrote this musical. And I just really enjoyed being with a gang of people that were sort of aiming to create something together and the the lead up and the excitement's about performing it and everything that for me was just really fun. And you got lots and lots of time off lessons in the week leading up to the first performance so that that was fun. And I also got did o level and a level music. During my a level music, I found out about the cockpit Theater, where they had a Music Lab, where they had some synthesizers, some very early synthesizers, and so I would during blank hours, I was allowed to go there and do lessons there take time out of geography a level and eventually I gave up geography a level to do more of that. In the end, that wasn't my future. I found I found my future in another way, which was after I left school. I didn't get into university I didn't apply to university only had two a levels.
What was your other one?
Well, I'm an oral learner. Yes, I'm an oral learner. And I memorize things pretty well. And I Yeah, pick up sounds quite well. And luckily, in our school, we learnt language without any reading for the first year. Yeah, it was all done through little slides, tape slide things where the whole class had to repeat what was happening in that slide. When the tape recorder said it. We won't go on too much about language. I enjoy speaking French. During lockdown. I tried to start learning Italian I got a fair bit down the line. But then, you know, the opening up happened.
Okay, so you didn't go to university? What did you do next?
I went to art school for a few months. But I didn't get on with the art teacher. So I left and I got a dead end job. As I saw it sort of just this will earn me some money, I was still living at home. But I got a job working in an antique shop in Chalk Farm. I was helping the picture framer, I was helping. And while I was there, I started looking into evening classes and found one that was about avant garde music. And I was into sort of, you know, edgy far out rock music at that point. And on and jazz, like, Miles Davis was getting into his electronic weird phase, which is weird and wonderful in my opinion. And I joined that. And it sort of led me into the sort of free improvisation instant composition area. And after about three classes, I just got asked to join various groups and started playing with people in pubs and art centers and things like this. Not really earning anything but after a few years, then I did start to get paid gigs in the free improvisation area and joined London musicians collective and did little tours and went even went to Europe a few times paid to go to play in Belgium and Holland. So this seemed good to me that you could just make it up as you went along. Each each gig was a total challenge, which was a, it's slightly competitive, as well as being cooperative. So there's a mixture of collective and cooperative and through that, people were trying to make weird, weird sounds on normal instruments trying to sort of push them to their extremes. And I just started thinking, Well, what about if you made instruments that made weird sounds? You know, what they the sounds they made. So I started experimenting with different instruments, but I didn't have many making skills. And I met someone who was at the London College of furniture, which unbelievably, being furniture, actually they made pianos there and harpsichords and they had, of course making woodwind instruments and string instruments. And so I went on a course making early woodwind instruments for two years. Not that I was that interested in early music, but it was more to gain skills.
What are woodwind instruments?
well they are instruments like flutes and recorders, and crumb horns, and clarinet It's an oboes and bassoons. All penning grizzles, bagpipes, all those woodwind instruments that you blow down I felt that was the they didn't have a brass instrument, the trumpet's a brass instrument and they didn't have that. But I went there for two years and did a diploma. I didn't start making instruments, then I sort of went down a different route, because during the time I was there, I got quite into politics. And one of the things I did was set up a band called The fallout marching band, which was an anti nuclear street protest band. That was all volunteers and people from the college where I was at the different courses joined it. So these were people from vastly different backgrounds. And when I first wanted to do this, I contacted everybody and said, Who wants to join this? I want to start this band, because the situation is pretty frightening. About 30 People responded and said, Yes, I want to join then it was like, Oh, my God, what are we going to play? What mu-? So my partner then, and I sort of arranged and wrote a few songs for the first rehearsal. And we always had that we had simple parts for people who didn't have much skill, more complicated parts for people have more skill, and the people who are at the highest level could just do what they wanted.
That was for free?
For free. That was for the cause. Probably in two years, I might have done 150 gigs. We did marches to Greenham Common from Cardiff that was four days playing on that we did from Faslane in Scotland, to Greenham Common. I that that took about six weeks, I was a week on a week off,
which years was that? that sounds so much fun.
sort of like 80, 81, 82, around the maybe late some, maybe 79. And we did there was a European one that went from Copenhagen to Paris. So it was pretty amazing band. So the drummers in that didn't really have any proper drums they could carry and I started making drums. I went off and spent six months in Senegal, and there I learned the balafon, which is the like a big xylophone with big Calabash hands underneath it, I brought one home. And then the first piece of work I got offered after I got back was to street theatre workshops with people who wanted to learn about doing street theater and music. And it was based It was sort of in Covent Garden for a performance in Covent garden. The workshops happened to be based in the Africa Center, which was just around the corner. And one of the groups that was playing there was a Ugandan group that played akadindas, which are special sort of xylophone, they have there. And one of the things we made for the procession that we were going to do to lead to the performance was a pram that had bits of wood that we found in skips turned into a xylophone. As you push one person was pushing it along, and one person was two people walking on either side of it playing from either side. And I realized that just using old scaffolding planks, you could make quite good sounds. Also I was being asked to go into schools and do rhythm workshops. But if you gave six kids cowbells, and six kids wood blocks and six kids triangles, the cacophony that was made, it was absolutely horrific. And I thought, well, if they each had a xylophone, or something similar, then that will be a much nicer sound. And not only could they play rhythms, they could play melodies. And so I started making a set of instruments using things you find in in Europe, in shops or thrown away. And so for instance, I made this thing I call a batonka which I'll play a little bit okay (plays instrument) so this is drainpipe tubes cut to different lengths fitted on through a frame. I made that as a base section, I have a xylophone which is all pentatonic. (plays instrument) So that's the wooden section. And then I would have a metalophone which I don't have one here which is using metal keys that ring much longer. So I'd have four different sound and the fourth sound is using slate as as the sound (plays instrument) and so these Were a sort of little gamelan ish type orchestra, I could take into schools to do workshops, actually, I found when my son was at school, his teacher told me that he had to teach all about the science of sound. And could I come into the class because I make instruments and teach the children. So I looked at what the curriculum was, and did some research and did that for his school. And then the Haringey Music Center said, Well, look, we'll send out a leaflet to all the schools and see if any others want it, because they thought it was a really good idea. And since then, since my son, who is now 30, was in year five, I've been going around schools all over North London, doing science of sound workshops, because I have this deeper knowledge of the subject than most teachers.
Do, you go to primary school, secondary schools or both?
primary schools, this is primary schools, but also that gets me into primary schools, and they see the instruments and I make playground instruments for schools, but also, the children can take part in making the playground instrument so they can choose the keys, and then I make the frames. And so there's the sort of extra bonus points there. Or I can go in and do a workshop in a day where they make a two octave xylophone, so that in a day the children can make from one class can make that in small groups working in small groups in a separate classroom. So this has sort of developed over the years, these workshops,
yeah, I like because I think there's a lot of cross curricular content, which is always like, close to my heart, you know, because you, you have the links to other cultures, you know, you can do a little bit of geography, you can do a bit of history, etc, with it as well,
well, and maths and DIY, you know, all that, you know, a lot of children don't really know how to measure or divide in half when you've measured something. And it's 56 centimeters, you know, which are the centimeters, which are the inches, etc, on a tape measure, how to cut, how to cut wood how to cut tubing, so that it's square all those things they learn, and they get a good result, something that really works, you know,and is in tune with the school instruments. So that's so it leaves a legacy, it doesn't just leave, you know, (I'm not) a lot of workshops I've done with other companies, they go in, kids make a mask or something that then just sort of, in six weeks time will be in the bin, basically. And the kids learn something, and they get something good out of it. But this I want, I leave this legacy. So this, this is the aim. And it also gives access. I was lucky, I'm from a middle class family, my parents paid for piano lessons, my parents were prepared to pay for trumpet lessons, etc, etc, I got support in following my interests. If there's instruments in the playground that kids can play, all the kids have access to them, obviously, not all the kids all the time. And there's many kids who have no access to instruments basically, or just in class time where it's ultra, ultra controlled, you know, so they have to do exactly what they're told. Otherwise, it's chaos. So this is a sort of like free time on an instrument to explore for themselves. So that's very much what I'm about.
And I've seen as well, like you've done some more work abroad (that you) that you travel to Ghana, and I don't know what the other country was on your website.
It's northern India, it's Ladakh. In the Himalayas, in northern India, I got invited by a play charity in the UK, to join some other people going to this school in Ladakh, where they built this amazing school, they had no play equipment. And this is a boarding school for the kids who live in the remote villages. And so they needed activities that are creative. So I went there twice. So I was there. I had a couple of graduate students from the Royal College of Music the second time and they helped me and we made flutes as well. So we had that sort of instrument Library and one of the teachers looking after it. Lots, we took over lots of recorders. And we made flutes that we measured that local bamboo flutes and found that the conduit tubing, plastic conduit tubing was the same diameter and so we measured the size of the holes and the placement and we made lots of flutes. So my early woodwind instrument making course came into its own. I could do that all with a Swiss army knife.
So how much would you say you're also inspired like when you travel to look at instruments in these other countries around the world?
Well, definitely, but also from the material world. You know the Gamelan instruments in Indonesia, I only went there recently, but I've been on had spent time learning gamelan at the South Bank, and they are amazing instruments and how people play together so fantastically. And it's such interesting music and but when I go to places like India, when I went to the school, I said, Look, what what have you got that's broken that I can use to make. So they had all these plastic chairs where the plastic had ripped apart and broken over the years, but they had the metal frames. So we cut up the metal frames, and made little chime bars that we've strung together. So we had two optive, stringed Metalla phones. So they had about there were about 40 chairs that were broken in a pile like that. And when I was in Ghana, there were broken tables that we used, and, you know, going into the local markets, what can we find that would be good and cheap for us to make instruments from? So, you know, we managed to find some old doors, some very old doors that we cut up. In Ghana, it's called multi kids Academy. And this wonderful woman, Mandy budge, or Amanda budge, she is a musician who set up a school there, which is an international school, but it's for all abilities. And so there are kids with learning difficulties, or some physical difficulties, but quite a lot of autistic and things like that. But there's also international kids from international agencies who the families work in. And so they call it multi kids Academy. So I had three teenagers there worked with me to make some xylophones for the school to have afterwards to play. And they were not the traditional Ghanaian xylophones. But the more of the Akadinda type from Uganda, but people can play on them. And I spent six weeks there. And that was wonderful for me. I love traveling, but I like being on the inside. So I don't like being a tourist or I can be a tourist at weekends and do the things that people do at weekends.
And what's next for you?
At the moment I'm readjusting my life in that I'm sort of 67 now. And I've started getting my pension. And I'm finding London too polluted to live in. And we were looking at moving to near Exeter, we found a small place there. So I'm sort of a bit in London and a bit down in Exeter at the moment. Yeah.
And what about travels, any any travels planned or just open to it?
Well, I sort of feel with climate change international travel by plane is a vast luxury for anybody. And I've traveled as a musician when I gave up touring, I measured the amount I traveled in the last two years and sort of both years, I've traveled twice around the world in planes. And so I feel I've I've done my bit - (phone rings) excuse me, I turn that off.
No problem. Sounds also very musical
It's xylophone sound (laughs) Yes. So my ideas for travel are to take the train to Europe with my bike in the winter and travel around the south of Europe in the winter with bikes and doing what you call woofing. Have you heard of woofing?
Yeah. Where you work on farms, on organic farms.
You work in the morning and the rest of the day off and doing things like that. And I did a bit of this in Sardinia. There, after working for a few days the guy found out what I did. And he he asked me to use some old doors from behind his farm to make a xylophone for the local squatted Art Center in Alghero. And so I spent the rest of my time making that for him.
For people now how could they support you? Are you still doing a little bit some workshops or some schools?
Yes, I am. I've been getting in touch with schools that I've been in before to say yes book me for your science of sound. These are good weeks to have me. So that's mainly for year four and five kids or if people are interested in having instruments made in their school by their kids are by me or for their playgrounds, then yeah, go to my website willembliss.co.uk Yeah, I'm always interested in doing new projects that involve making.
Because I saw one one path. Was it in Haringey? Where you did like a walk in the park and there was xylophone or
this isn't Haringey, this is it's sort of between here and watford, there is a big forest, the area forested area where there is a one kilometer arts walk and I made something we call the Xylo Fence. It's 120 Keys, keys of wood hanging as a sort of fence, but you can play it as music with your hands or stick off the floor as you walk along. You'll get pitch differences. (imitates noise), like I used to walk along, but besides wooden fences as a child going just grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr, I used to love doing that. But this these are tuned ones. Yeah, so is the Oxy Woods sculpture trail. That's where that is, which is fairly near carpenters Park.
Okay. Shall we move on to the top tip?
Yes. Well, I've mentioned already lordship recreation ground and the hub in lordship recreation ground does good food. There's a nice vibe there. There's table tennis, outdoor table tennis tables there which I love playing ping pong, and I love riding through that park on my way into town. I should mention that I'm also since I gave up touring I'm a cycling instructor in London, mainly working in Camden. So I teach people cycling and it's also a good place to to people cycling because there is the model cycling area, and the way you go up and down over the bumps, which is great fun as well. And the skateboarding area so I think all that's a really wonderful facility and a great place to hang out. Yes, in terms of listening to music. The last place I went to I really enjoyed hearing a klezmer band in jam in a jar in WoodGreen. I also really like the Kramel jazz, the Karamel Club, where they play a lot of jazz they have some really really good jazz players playing there. And I've always it's not too expensive. And there's of course the food and drink while you watching so what could be better listening to lovely music eating good food having good drink. Oh, so another top tip if I can add one in isn't quite in Tottenham, but his bikes for good causes is a good little bike shop on green lanes between WoodGreen and the North Circular.
Okay was lovely talking to you.
And you Jamila, very nice to meet you. And thank you.
I hope you forgive me that I left the mobile phone ringing in there, but I thought it was quite cute. And I will link wills website in the show notes. He's on Facebook where I'm not. So he doesn't really have any other social. But his website is really really good with lots of pictures, lots of explanations about what he does. So - another really good one, all the best!
I hope you enjoyed today's episode, learned something new, and let that Tottenham love grow. Take care. And until next time, bye ye
Transcribed by https://otter.ai