I called into the Auberge de Founex for a coffee and to read the news on my way to work last week. On the way out I spotted something on the wall that puzzled me. I took a photo to enable further investigation…
A Cagnomatic provides a means of organizing a cagnotte du bistro, a tradition that seems to be specific to parts of Switzerland. The word cagnotte can be variously translated as kitty, jackpot or nest egg. The Cagnomatic is used by a group of regular customers at a café or bistro to collectively save money over a fixed period of time towards a particular goal or occasion.
This post (in French) that I found on a blog published in Fribourg describes how it works. Here’s a translation:
The cagnotte, a veritable savings bank at the bistro, is a custom that dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The principle is simple. Each member of the cagnotte commits to depositing a monthly amount. He slides the note into his slot in the Cagnomatic. A committee, elected by the members, regularly records the deposits, puts the money in a bank account, and does the accounts. Once a year they hold a soirée de la cagnotte. The café owner pays for the first drink, followed by the distribution of the money saved and a celebratory supper among friends. Note that the money saved cannot be withdrawn in advance of the soirée.
The post goes on to say that the tradition is widespread in the historic centre of Fribourg, being present in at least seven cafés at that time. (The post was published in 2011.)
I asked my Swiss colleagues whether they had heard of a Cagnomatic and most had not. On seeing the photo some remembered seeing such machines in older Genevois cafés, but didn’t know what purpose they served. It’s reassuring that one can still stumble across local, somewhat secret traditions in our globalized world.
The most remarkable thing about the JVAL Openair festival is its setting. The stage is set up in the front yard of a large farmhouse in the foothills of the Jura, entirely surrounded by vineyards that roll down to the shores of Lake Geneva, with the Alps looming up on the other side. After darkness fell on the last night of the festival, a swarm of Chinese lanterns were released from another courtyard somewhere below, as lightning flashed through the clouds over the distant mountains.
In the warmth of the late evening, this spectacular natural light show almost made up for having waited through a terribly boring set from Belgian singer Kris Dane. He was accompanied by a string quartet, drums, percussion, bass, organ and a backing vocalist. Sadly, even allowing for the clear problems they were having with getting the audio mix right, his songs were not strong enough to hold the attention of the audience, who chattered noisily throughout the set.
(While waiting for him to arrive on stage I read through a profile on his website. Alarm bells started ringing when I read the following: “He also admits that he doesn’t have a library of great music and if he ever attends a concert he will leave after half an hour since he knows exactly where it’s going.” Indeed.)
Fortunately the final act of the night were his fellow Belgians Fùgù Mango, whose music was billed as “indie pop and afrobeat”. They immediately had the crowd hopping (possibly with relief) with their happy melodies and joy-filled performance. The four members – three of whom sang – were lined up along the front of the stage, with guitar, bass, keyboard, drums and a selection of percussion instruments. Their sound reminded me of both Foster the People (of Pumped Up Kicks fame) and a slightly poppier Yeasayer.
They played a very solid hour during which the energy levels never dropped. For an encore the two vocalists climbed down into the crowd, handing out a selection of shakers, to sing one final song with the audience on backing vocals. After the energy-sapping experience of Kris Dane before them, it was a warmly wonderful way to end the evening. I’d definitely like to see them live again.
I can’t find a live video that quite captures their energy, but here’s one nice performance from earlier this summer:
I should mention that the first act of the evening was Pandour, a pair of DJs from Fribourg. They were accompanied by a couple of guitarists, but their music – described as “deep orientalist and electro-acoustic” – wasn’t my cup of tea. I hesitate to be too critical, as I know that I don’t really “get” a lot of what is done by DJs like this. I found it all a bit boring, but there were definitely people there who were really into it.
I’ll definitely go to JVAL again in the years ahead. It’s a cool little festival and even the 1 out of 3 hit rate for me on Saturday was enough to make it worthwhile.
In hindsight, it almost looks like it was a master plan: spend two to three years each at different international organizations, building up the skills, experience and network I would need to launch a (hopefully!) successful communications consultancy. In reality, it was more like a Choose Your Own Adventure book, where deliberate decisions at specific moments in time have brought me to this weekend and the launch of THAT COMMS GUY.
I surprised myself last May when an afternoon of introspection brought me to the conclusion that the time is right for me to have a go at establishing myself as an independent communications consultant. The plan came together quite quickly once I made the decision (naturally with the full support of Nadine). Thus, as of October, I will reduce my hours and responsibilities at the Ecolint Alumni Office, enabling me to start taking on clients while retaining some guaranteed regular income. (I’m grateful to my boss for facilitating this.)
My high-level concept for this venture is to be the MacGyver of communications for non-profit organizations in the Geneva area. If you are unfamiliar with the aforementioned TV series, let me quote from the Wikipedia article (with some edits to adapt it to my situation):
“Resourceful and possessed of an encyclopedic knowledge of the physical sciencescommunications techniques, he solves complex problems by making things out of ordinary objects, along with his ever-present Swiss Army knifeIrish good humour. He prefers non-violentnon-expensive resolutions and prefers not to handle a gun.”
In practice I’m proposing services in three broad areas: writing and editing copy, event management, and community engagement strategies. I’m focusing on the Geneva region and on non-profit associations, which is not, of course, to say that I would turn down clients that don’t meet one or other of those criteria. However Switzerland’s higher costs make it unlikely that I’ll be a viable option for organizations based elsewhere, and with the majority of my experience having been in the non-profit sector, that’s where I’m hoping to carve out my niche.
My new website will be an important marketing tool for the business. I’ve created six WordPress-based sites before, but this is the first time I’ve worked with a premium (i.e. paid-for) theme. During the development phase I received lots of valuable comments from various friends and relations, which has helped me to bring it to a point where I’m happy to launch it publicly. Further feedback will be most welcome of course!
So, not a master plan, but definitely the result of a set of deliberate decisions, some professional, some personal. It was not pure chance that my switch from EAZA (in Amsterdam) back to the EBU (Geneva) in 2011 coincided with the birth of Robert, nor that I started my current job at Ecolint just as Declan was born in 2014. Robert starts school tomorrow, and it would be fair to say that this next significant milestone was not irrelevant in the decision to try to establish a more flexible professional arrangement.
It’s the end of the beginning for this new adventure. I’m looking forward to the challenge. And if you hear of an organization facing a communications-related challenge, don’t forget to recommend that comms guy, you know the one with that name you can never remember how to pronounce.
In May 2008 I spent a wonderful few days at the Listowel Writers’ Week, where my friend David and I had decided to join a series of songwriting workshops. Glen Hansard had originally been slated to lead the course, but being in unexpectedly high demand having won himself an Oscar, he pulled out a few weeks ahead of the event and handed the reins over to Freddie White. The latter is a fine guitarist and singer, but is not notable as a songwriter, so it didn’t result in the participants making great strides in that department. Nevertheless we had some memorable musical adventures, and if I hadn’t been there I would never have met Maeve Sweeney O’Connor.
Maeve was from Donegal and had joined the workshop to see whether she could scratch a persistent musical itch. She was someone who, as I recall, was always scribbling down potential lyrics. She played a bit of guitar, but hadn’t done a whole lot of songwriting. My most vivid memory of her in Listowel was during an afternoon song session in a pub, when she sang a beautiful unaccompanied version of Rufus Wainwright’s Vibrate.
Maeve Sweeney at Silverwood Studios, Wicklow, August 2008
I had been writing songs for a few years prior to my trip to Listowel. One that I was really excited about was a duet called Dear Liza, based on the famous children’s song about the hole in the bucket. I was planning to spend some time in a recording studio later that summer, but wasn’t confident I’d be able to include Dear Liza as didn’t have a female vocalist. I remember nervously asking Maeve if she’d let me play the song for her and perhaps have a go at the female part. She sang it perfectly almost instantly and we even recorded a rough demo version there and then (to which I later added some additional guitar lines).
I was thrilled when she agreed to travel down to Wicklow from Donegal when I was back in Ireland for the recording sessions in August. In the end she sang on every track that we recorded over those two days at Gavin Ralston’s Silverwood Studios. I’m very proud of those songs. Maeve’s vocal on Dear Liza is spot on. It has always reminded me of Briana Corrigan’s singing on The Beautiful South song A Little Time: strong and direct, but with buckets of passion. Maeve’s Donegal lilt adds a welcome measure of feistiness too.
Maeve died on 24 July 2016. I had been in touch with her on and off over the years, but – regrettably – not in recent times. I had sent her a note via Facebook in early July, just to say that I had been thinking of her and was pleased to see that her FB timeline suggested she was about and active. Just a few days later her husband Derek sent an email to say that she was in a hospice and had stage four bowel cancer. She died the following Sunday.
I didn’t know Maeve well, but we shared the intimate experience of making music together. She was a warm, caring person, hugely proud of her children and passionate about theatre and music. She was only 44 when she died.
I don’t think any of us needs reminding that life is short and fragile. (Once again my friend Iain Twigg comes to mind.) Maeve was the kind of person who would accept an invitation from someone she barely knew to drive half the length of Ireland and spend two days hanging around a recording studio to sing backing vocals on a few songs simply because it seemed like a fun and interesting thing to do. She was the kind of person who said, yes, let’s give it a go. I will think of her often.
We left the kids with Nadine’s parents in Leeds last Saturday night and took the train up to Newcastle where we met up with David (of Mulled fame) to catch Ben Folds in concert. I had seen him live twice previously and was blown away each time. Both occasions were before I started writing about gigs on this site, so I don’t have any details to refresh my memory, but I do know that he played his most popular songs. This time it was quite different.
yMusic is a New York-based ensemble with three string players and three wind/brass players. Ben Folds has been making music with them for the last while, presumably with a view to keeping things interesting for himself. And it’s interesting for his audience too, if not quite as entertaining as his usual solo or piano plus drums and bass shows.
I didn’t know any of the material that he has written for this collaboration with yMusic (on the album So There) and it didn’t make a lasting impression. (The only exception was the song I’m Not The Man, which has a really nice list-based ending: “I used to be my father’s son, I used to be number one, I used to be paper and pencil, I used to be endless potential” and so on.) But I enjoyed listening to and watching them. Folds sits in the middle behind an upright piano, so all you can see is his happy head and shoulders most of the time – a bit unnerving. The players in yMusic are clearly very talented and the arrangements were impressive.
The evening only really picked up when they started playing “the hits”. The older songs he played were probably chosen based on being ones that could work well with the additional instrumentation. Steven’s Last Night In Town was perfect in this regard (a bit more lively than the version below); Song For The Dumped worked in an odd way; and the encore of Not The Same, with no piano at all and lots of audience participation, was great.
Folds played three or four songs solo just ahead of the encore and while it was good to hear him perform them live, they were not among my favourites. They were seemingly based on audience requests and included Boxing and Lullaby.
The venue is pretty great, although I wouldn’t normally choose to see a pop/rock artist in a seated venue. I suppose it suited the line-up he was playing with, but it didn’t make for a good atmosphere.
I was happy to see him live again. He’s a truly great songwriter and I respect the fact that he wants to experiment a bit and change things up.
By the way, if you’ve never watched him doing his song Army live, with the audience singing the brass parts, it’s worth checking out… see below, from a live session he did for MySpace (!!) . David and I tried this in Mulligans of Geneva a couple of times and it worked pretty well. Great buzz!
P.S. On the journey up to Newcastle our train was overtaken by the Flying Scotsman pulling about 12 carriages. It was very cool seeing a steam engine up close like that. We got a chance to see it again at York station, which is where the photo below was taken.
I spent a couple of years working in Amsterdam for EAZA, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, as Communications and Membership Manager. Its Executive Director at the time was Lesley Dickie, a Scotswoman whose many passions included an obsession with the fossa, an obscure (to most people) carnivore from Madagascar. Lesley’s PhD focused on the fossa and she was, as she says herself, always “blathering on” about it to anyone who would listen.
I haven’t been doing much songwriting of late, but for some reason this challenge inspired me. I decided I would try to write a song about the fossa – Lesley’s involvement made that the obvious choice – and that I’d do it quickly. The end result came tumbling out more or less in one evening, following a couple of days tossing ideas around in my head. The last few songs that I’ve written have been a result of a commission of one sort or another: the geek song, Mairéad’s wedding song, David’s Twiggathon auction purchase, and the challenge I set myself to write a song for Declan.
I wrote and recorded Fuss About The Fossa at the end of May. As far as I can tell it’s the only song about the fossa, in English at least. It took a little longer to find the time to create a video to accompany it. (Sharing music on the web without any accompanying images is fighting a losing battle these days.) I’ve used a bunch of photos of fossa from Wikimedia and Flickr, all available under Creative Commons licenses*. There some really nice images but they are all of fossa in zoos; I would have liked to use some of the wonderful images of fossa in the wild that are available from Arkive, but I wasn’t sure about the usage rights.
I’m happy to have played my own small part in raising awareness of species conversation and the surprisingly interesting fossa. If you’re wondering what some of the lyrics below refer to specifically, read more on the relevant Wikipedia page.
Fuss About The Fossa
He’s the biggest beast on the island to the east of Africa so they say, Kinda like a cat, but there’s more to it than that, as you’re gonna find out today, He only feels good hanging out in the woods and keeping out of the way, But they’re felling the forest, so maybe tomorrow he’ll have no place to stay. Who’s gonna make a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.
Climbing through the branches, hoping for a chance to get jiggy with a lady friend, They’ve got very long tails but the fossa male has another impressive append…age,
Waiting around underneath the bough ’til he hears the lady yell, If he gets his way he’ll spend half a day making love ’til the painful end. Who’s gonna make a fuss about the fossa? He’s doing alright but it’s gonna get tougher, oh yeah.
He keeps the Malagasy beat, on his bear-like feet, Patrolling his patch and hoping he’ll catch some lemurs to eat, But if we don’t take care, and keep the forest there, The loss of our friend the fossa will be the result I swear.
We have music playing in the house constantly. Sometimes we just let the player (a now slightly dated but still functioning Logitech Squeezebox set-up) choose an album from our library at random or we might pick something to specifically match the mood or occasion. This means the boys – now 2 and 4.5 years – have been exposed to a wide range of pop, rock, indie, folk and a little classical and jazz already in their short lives.
It’s always interesting to observe what songs or artists seem to particularly grab their attention. If I were to pick a playlist of songs that have stuck in their heads and always elicit a singalong reaction, the Top 5 would be the following – which are all in the playlist embedded above:
Buffalo Soldier by Bob Marley
The Lights by Mull Historical Society
Meditation Song #2 by Cloud Control
Diane Young by Vampire Weekend
Ship to Wreck by Florence and the Machine
All five have catchy, repetitive refrains that are easy for the kids to sing along with and to remember. I’m not a huge fan of the Florence song (the playing of which usually involves the boys and their mother having a disco in the kitchen), but the first four are from artists and albums that I really like. It’s strange and fun to hear your four-year-old son absentmindedly singing a song by a reasonably obscure Scottish indie artist (Mull Historical Society) to himself while he puts his shoes on.
Of course we also have some music that’s specifically for kids. A friend (I forget who right now) gave us a great album called the Wheels On The Bus Go Round The World, that features versions of popular kids songs arranged in various world music styles. The Indian raga version of Incy Wincy Spider is great, and the variety of different styles means that it doesn’t start to grate too soon. (Another well-meaning friend gave us a collection of Beatles songs arranged for kids, but they were just terrible – syrupy synthesizers galore. And if I want to play the music of The Beatles for my kids I’ll just play…. The Beatles!)
That kids’ album lives in the car and is played from time to time – but not every time they ask. Sometimes it’s a case of “No, today we’re listening to Daddy’s music”; or “We’ll play the Wheels On The Bus on the way home”. And they seem to accept that. Music is so important to me that I think I’d go mad if I couldn’t listen to things that I like most of the time. (And you can’t imagine how happy I am that Let It Go from Frozen doesn’t seem to have had any impact on Robert…. or not yet at least.)
The artists listed above are by no means my favourites and not those that are on most often in the house, but those are the songs that have struck a chord with the boys. I’m looking forward to the day when they start coming home with the names of artists we haven’t heard of and introducing us to new music. Hopefully by exposing them to a reasonably wide range of music now they’ll keep an open mind in the future – and help us to keep an open mind too.
(In case you’re wondering why I’ve referred to “Dude Street” in the title, we live on Rue de la Dude!)
This Libertines performance was raucous (but not as raucous as I expected), messy (but not as messy as I expected) and a bit of a shambles at times (but not as shambolic as I expected). That said, every now and then – and just often enough to hold my interest – their magical melodies shone through and the whole became greater than the sum of its parts. It was worth wading through the swamp to get to those golden moments.
I’m only really familiar with their eponymous album from 2004, and so my highlights were definitely Can’t Stand Me Now, What Katie Did, The Man Who Would Be King and, part of the encore, Music When The Lights Go Out. As I listened to other tracks that I hadn’t heard before, whether newer or older material, I couldn’t help thinking of The Kinks. There’s a very English quality to their music, with lyrics that evoke, for me, life in London and the surrounding towns, and of course those jaunty hook-laden melodies (when the songs eventually come together). And then there’s the famously turbulent relationship between Carl Barât and Pete Doherty which also echoes that of the Davies brothers.
Neither of the lead vocalists looked in great shape, which didn’t surprise me given the stories of drugs and excess. Carl looked marginally more with it than Pete and seemed to be the one holding things together, along with a very steady (and presumably long-suffering) rhythm section. They were unsurprisingly at least 20 minutes late starting and were off stage for at least 10, maybe 15 minutes before the encore. Doesn’t show a whole lot of respect for their audience.
The venue in Thônex is really nice, if a little old-fashioned. There are great sight-lines to the stage and it’s a good size for an indie-rock gig like this, big enough to have a good party atmosphere, but small enough to feel intimate. (Superb organization by the local commune too, with problem-free parking right next to the venue. Very Swiss!)
The support act was Reverend and the Makers. I’d heard of them before, but didn’t know their music. They were definitely a cut above the average opening act, but that was to be expected given that they’ve been touring at a high level for many years, including with the likes of Oasis. They’re from Sheffield and at times you could imagine that the Arctic Monkeys as youngsters must have heard their music. Everything was upbeat and catchy, even if it didn’t quite convince me to buy an album. The lead singer reminded me of a cross between Guy Garvey (of Elbow) and the comedian Peter Kaye…or just every larger-than-life northern bloke you’ve ever met at a party. An excellent start to the evening, and definitely a much tighter performance than the main act.
Here’s the Libertines at last year’s Glastonbury Festival.
And here’s a song that was a top ten hit for Reverend and the Makers some years ago.
For more than a decade now GLAS – the Geneva Literary Aid Society – has been bringing theatre, music, poetry and prose to Geneva. I was at the first event in January 2005, when David Norris, a well-known Irish politician and gay rights activist, came to perform his one-man tribute to James Joyce.
Over the years since, GLAS has hosted more than 35 shows in Geneva, raising in excess of 80,000 CHF for a number of charities. Among my favourites were concerts by John Spillane, Luka Bloom, Moya Brennan and Maria Doyle Kennedy, a talk by journalist Robert Fisk, Conor McPherson’s play The Good Thief, and Ardal O’Hanlon’s stand-up comedy. (Glas is the Gaelic word for green; the organization was founded by an Irishman and most of its visiting acts have some connection with Ireland.)
I noticed recently that the GLAS website, which had at one stage been quite active, had been stripped back to nothing more than a feed from the Facebook page. I thought this was a pity, as it had built up such an impressive track record and deserved a better shop window. I helped the founder of GLAS, Denis McClean, to set up his mailing list in the early days; now that the kids are beyond the evening-consuming, sleepless night-inducing stage, I have the time and energy to get involved again. And so, late last year, I offered to create a new site and keep it updated as new shows are announced.
A shop window
The idea was to create a site that would give first time visitors an immediate impression of how active GLAS has been in the past, both in terms of the events staged and the charities supported. This will help to promote future shows and also, hopefully, can support efforts to identify much-needed sponsors.
Using WordPress is a no-brainer for projects like this. I picked the free version of a theme called Carton, as I was looking for one that used the Masonry layout. This automatically arranges blog posts into an attractive wall depending on the screen space available, which works really well where there is a featured image attached to each post. For GLAS it means the visitor gets a rich overview of what the organization does, while prioritizing the most recent post, which is where upcoming shows will be featured. It’s also fully responsive, so works well on smaller screens.
Screenshot of the new GLAS site, available at http://theglas.org.
Populating the site with information about past events didn’t take too long, as I could pull text from Facebook posts, the mailing list archives and, particularly useful for the earliest shows, the Wayback Machine on archive.org, a super-useful tool that has snapshots of websites on random dates in the web’s history. (It’s very easy to disappear down a rabbit hole of looking up what favourite sites looked like in their early days.)
For the more recent shows there are photos and even reviews available, but unfortunately for some of the earliest events information is scarce. Hopefully in time we’ll dig up photos of some of the earliest events to add to the site.
I hope and expect that GLAS will be around for many years to come. For an Irishman in Switzerland it’s been a welcome cultural link with home, and one that I’m happy to support in any way that I can. The fact that it helps people in great need, most recently supporting the Edith Wilkins Foundation in their work with street children in India, is the icing on the cake.
If you’re in the Geneva area, I strongly recommend that you join the GLAS mailing list. You can, naturally, do so via the website: theglas.org/contact
Fribourg’s Nouveau Monde is a very cool venue. The building is the town’s old railway station, with the bar in the main hall and the music venue in one of the wings. The room is a nice size, fitting only a few hundred people. There was a decent crowd for Shearwater, but it was far from full.
I drove up to Fribourg with my visiting brother-in-law for this Sunday night gig – it’s about an hour from home. It wasn’t ideal timing, but I’d been looking for an opportunity to catch them live for the past few years. Their 2012 album Animal Joy is one of my favourites of the last few years, and in particular the songs Animal Life and You As You Were.
Sadly they only played one song from that album in Fribourg. It was brilliant to hear it live and that alone made the journey worthwhile, but I was disappointed not to hear a few more songs from that or the only other album of theirs that I (currently) own: I think they played one, possibly two, from The Golden Archipelago.
They played a lot of stuff from their newest album, and it was generally very good. The band were tight – the drummer in particular was giving it everything. He had the look of a man powering his way to the top of a mountain, determined to get there first. But the lead singer’s voice is the centrepiece of their music. It annoys some people (e.g. my lovely wife), but I think even she would have enjoyed this show.
I may just be getting old (39!) but I found it all a bit too loud for the size of the room. For the first time at a gig I actually made us of the free earplugs. It felt weird and I didn’t feel like I was hearing the music properly thereafter, but I definitely don’t want to take any risks with my hearing.
For the first of two encores they played a couple of David Bowie songs from his album Lodger. I wasn’t familiar with either, but they worked well. The clear influence of Bowie on Shearwater hadn’t occurred to me before. (As usual I was annoyed by the whole rigmarole around encores. Why not just stay on the stage and play all the songs they were planning to play and then let us all go home. It’s all very silly. I still remember Laura Marling’s very sensible approach to this issue when we saw her in Amsterdam in 2010. I do hope she’s sticking to her guns on the no encores thing.)
The support act was another band from Austin, Texas. I suspect they might have preferred a less polite crowd: the people who were in the room for their set remained pin-drop quiet in between songs, aside from a gentle smattering of applause once they realized the song was over. It was very disconcerting. Their music wasn’t my cup of tea.
I’ve tried – and failed – to find a video of a live version of You As You Were that does justice to what it was like in the room last night. There is this one from the Amsterdam date on the current tour, but it’s not quite as good as I remember last night’s version. (It was the final night on their European tour, so perhaps they were giving it a little more oompf on the night.) So instead here’s the studio version. Enjoy!