Wherever you are in the world, the chances are you are never too far away from music. On 21st June, those odds are dramatically increased as the annual Make Music Day grabs the world by storm once again! Championing music making for all abilities and ages, Make Music Day started in France in 1982 as Fête de la Musique, a national musical holiday. It has since grown into the largest annual music event in the world with some 750 cities taking part. Thousands of musicians, many of them amateur players, will make music out in the streets and many for the first time.
In the UK, the 21st June is also significant as the longest day of the year and the beginning of Glastonbury Festival which will see legions of festival goers descend on Somerset to see their favourite bands in the flesh (and discover plenty of new ones too). At nearly £250 a ticket this year, you might argue there's a premium price for seeing some of the UK's premium music acts. But here's a great leveller: all of the musicians on stage at Glastonbury were amateurs once. There was a time when Thom Yorke didn't know a B flat from a G, when Dave Grohl didn't know a paradiddle from a paraddidle-diddle or when Ed Sheeran didn't know how to make a hit as easily as the rest of us make toast.
Whatever your level – and it's never too late to learn an instrument by the way – we're celebrating Make Music Day with a special playlist. We asked British Council colleagues from around the UK and the wider world to think about their forays into playing music and dig out songs that they feel capture the essence of their instrument of choice. In the words of Radiohead, "Anyone Can Play Guitar". I wonder if they'll play that this week?
– Stephen Bloomfield
Our Make Music Day Playlist
Check out our Make Music Day playlist below and find out who chose what and why further down the page.
Acoustic Guitars by Rodrigo Sánchez and Gabriela Quintero
Rodrigo y Gabriela have the distinction not only of being able to play supremely quickly but also being able to create music of verve and breathless excitement. Even at my peak guitar-playing days at school I was a true amateur, plinking and plonking along until I eventually gave up. It’s beyond my capacity to understand how Rodrigo y Gabriela manage to create such a wall of sound.
– Tom Boughen (Music, Literature, Theatre & Dance Hub Assistant based in London, UK)
Viol da Gamba by Liam Byrne
What do I want to be when I grow up? I want to be a cellist … or maybe a viol da gamba player. It depends which I’ve heard most recently. For me, both instruments are closest to the human voice and capable of the most intense passion and beauty, not to mention melancholy.
Liam Byrne is professor of Viol da Gamba at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and a consummate artist on this instrument from the renaissance. Like a cello, but with frets, it is related but not an ancestor. I want to share the piece I heard him play recently at the Barbican’s Classical Weekender written by young British composer Edmund Finnis – we showcased Ed’s work in Porto in January – but unfortunately it’s not recorded. So here’s him playing together with Swedish lutenist Jonas Nordberg playing the Theorbo in Marais’ Sarabande in G major. Just look at those beautiful instruments, and be carried away by that glorious music-making.
Cello by Sheku Kanneh-Mason
Here is the remarkable Sheku Kanneh-Mason winning the BBC Young Musician of the Year in 2016 with Shostakovich’s first Cello concerto – a short bit of it! Watch out for him in the near future. He also plays in Chineke – the orchestra founded by Chi Chi Nwonaku. We supported their performance at Classical Next in Rotterdam last month. And PLEASE listen to Sheku as a 13 year old playing the Haydn cello concerto, the cello was almost bigger than he is – skip to 2.10 an witness sublime artistry and musicality.
– Cathy Graham (Director of British Council Music, based in London, UK)
Piano by Sampha Sisay
I think this song captures the relationship an artist has with their instrument really well together with the meaning and impact this can have on their life. I’ve always wanted to be able to play an instrument … yet to learn …
– Naomi Nekesa (Music Projects Coordinator based in London, UK)
Electric Guitar by Daniel Rossen
So often, the perceived “guitar greats” are the noodlers of this world – your Hendrix, Gilmour or Clapton-types. I won’t deny their significance, but they bleed into one and there’s more to great musicianship than achingly long solos and frenzied fret-wizardry. Daniel Rossen of Grizzly Bear is a welcome antidote to players of that mould. Unquestionably he has insane technical ability but he also brings real sophistication and restraint; each riff or chord sequence composed with careful consideration. His musical syntax – extended chords, intricate fingerpicking and jagged rhythms – and sound – reverb-drenched, tremulant and overdriven – create such a distinct musical persona. There are so many brilliant guitarists out there, but so few that offer that singularity.
I’ve chosen “Sleeping Ute” as the track that possibly best channels these strengths. The interplay between otherworldly psychedelia, jarring guitar stabs and undulating folksy arpeggios is simply a master class in song-writing.
– Jacob Silkin (Music Programme Coordinator based in London, UK)
Saxophone by Gerry Rafferty
This is probably one of THE most iconic sax solos and I used to get asked if I could play Baker Street all the time when I was at school and learning how to play. I love this solo because it's so joyous; it completely defies the incredibly downbeat lyrical content. It wasn’t until I had grown up that I really listened to the words and realised that this song was all about emptiness, loneliness and being stuck in a rut. Gerry Rafferty had a beautiful way with words. The music takes it somewhere else and also the (sadly untrue) urban myth that the sax solo was played by Bob Holness is as tremendous as it is ludicrous.
I stuck with the saxophone and progressed through all my grades. I played on some D&B records and then, amazingly, my musical ability played a large part in getting me into university where I continued to play in bands and had a lovely time. These days I don't get to play as much as I would like, but on the rare occasion I do, I'm always delighted I can still play, even if my embouchure is a disgrace. I recently played on a single by the band Bad Sounds which came out great.
– Phil Catchpole (Selector Radio Programme Manager based in London, UK)
Above: Bob Holness on TV show "Blockbusters" in 1988. Officially NOT the saxophonist on Baker Street. Photo credit: ITV/REX.
Vocal by Ella Fitzgerald
This track beautifully demonstrates the versatility of the voice as an instrument of expression; it shows range, tone, timbre, rhythm and humour. Ella was a wonderfully natural singer and she takes us on a magical journey that is both lyrically interesting but visually exciting. Love it.
I joined my first band Don Pato when I was a university student. It was a ten piece Latin outfit. We won battle of the bands and had one of our songs played on the radio every night for a week which was fantastic. I went on to play in a number of bands in Tokyo and did a little work in Cairo but sadly, I don’t do much these days. I miss it hugely. There are so many excellent singers out there. Right now, I’m re-discovering Muse and listening to some of their earlier albums obsessively. I think Matt Bellamy has the most divine set of pipes.
– Helen Gambold (Head of English and Exams based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia)
Mellotron by Tony Banks
The best use of a Mellotron I’ve heard (and also my second favourite piece of popular music of all time) especially since it appears on its own as the start of the track, setting up a spine-tingling atmosphere.
I would love to play this instrument, but even competent players found it notorious for quickly going out of tune.
I’m writing this from Manchester and our offices next door to the Palace Theatre where “Watcher of the Skies” was probably played during Genesis’ two nights there during their 1975 tour.
– Neil Roberts (Enquiries Advisor based in Manchester, UK)
Bass Guitar by James Jamerson
As a member of the Funk Brothers, who played on just about every big Motown record through the 60s and 70s, James Jamerson remained uncredited for many years and yet his influence over any bass player, or any musician with a milligram of soul in their blood, is enormous. There are certainly flashier examples of bass playing out there but I don’t think you can beat the playing on this – a wonderful, swaggering commentary across the whole song that makes total sense in its own right. The story goes, when “What’s Going On” was recorded, Marvin Gaye was adamant Jamerson was the right man for the job, despite the fact the bass player was too drunk to sit on his chair. In the end, he actually played the bassline lying on his back in the studio – it’s hard to believe the story when you listen to the performance.
I started playing bass aged about 14. My brother’s friend’s brother was selling a lovely, if well loved, Ibanez Roadster for £80. Had it been more money I might not have ever taken up the bass but such as it was, I was intrigued by this heavy, four stringed thing and fancied giving it a go. I’ve played “normal” guitar on plenty of occasions since but there’s nothing quite like the peculiarly satisfying responsibility of playing bass in a band, knowing that a lot of people aren’t really sure why you’re on stage, including band mates … until you do something mad like fail to play the tonic on beat one.
– Stephen Bloomfield (Music Communications Manager based in London, UK)
Duduk by Djivan Gasparyan
I studied piano and clarinet throughout my childhood and teens and played percussion and keyboard in bands later on. I’d never intended to take up the clarinet but one reed instrument that I do love is the Armenian duduk, an ancient instrument made of apricot wood. Its unmistakable, haunting sound has lent itself to many major films and a surprising number of video game soundtracks. It conjures up a desolate landscape, something heartbreakingly plaintive and mournful. Djivan Gasparyan is one of the world’s most renowned duduk players. “Little Flower Garden” can be found on his outstanding album I Will Not Be Sad In This World (All Saints). Recommended listening, now more than ever.
– Leah Zakss (Music Programme Manager based in London, UK)
Vocal by Papa Wemba
Papa Wemba’s voice is pure magic – the breadth of the vocal range he covers, the emotion he draws from it, the raw beauty of the cracks and imperfections alongside the clarity of timbre and powerful weight – and Awa Y’okeyi showcases the voice at its best. The music and the language of the lyrics together are a powerful vehicle for memory and take me back to people and places from my three years in DR Congo and remind me how privileged I was to live and work there during that time.
The post in DR Congo was my first job for the British Council, so the song further reminds me of the fantastic work we do trying to build friendly knowledge and understanding through cultural relations even in the most challenging contexts and the increasing importance of cultural relations in an ever more unstable world. Music crosses borders and cultures and brings people together, overcoming language and other differences. Papa Wemba’s early style and music inspired musicians across Africa and beyond – he played with musicians from around the world, including Youssou N’Dour and Peter Gabriel, and sang in a multitude of languages. Awa Y’okeyi is mostly in Lingala with a little French but other African languages and English also feature frequently in Papa Wemba’s music. Music is even more of a global language than English as Papa Wemba so succinctly explained: “I don’t make Congolese music anymore – it’s not even African music. It’s just simply music.”
The voice is an inherently egalitarian instrument – the vast majority of us are born with it and it’s a direct form of artistic expression that we can all engage in from a very early age. It’s an instrument that costs nothing, can be played immediately and can be played with almost everyone you meet. And it’s amazingly fun to do so! I am an absolutely terrible singer, but I take great joy in singing.
– Danny Whitehead (Deputy Director, Vietnam based in Hanoi, Vietnam)
Piano by Jean-Michel Pilc
Montreal based pianist Jean-Michel Pilc plays a hauntingly beautiful piano accompaniment in this piece which intertwines with Richard Bona’s voice in such a seamless way that it leaves you feeling as though you have listened to a duet of two voices. I think this track demonstrates quite a technically accomplished piano performance and all the while very much highlights the phrase ‘effortlessly done’ in the process.
I’ve played the piano since I was five years old and even though I was very classically trained I always had a secret admiration for jazz piano. I have listened to this piece maybe a hundred times but the first few notes never fail to give me goosebumps.
– Asya Robins (Theatre & Dance Showcase Co-Ordinator based in London, UK)
- Listen to our track one side one playlist here
- Listen to our live shows of 2016 playlist here
- Listen to our words and music playlist here
- Listen to our journeys playlist here
- Listen to our film and music playlist here
- Listen to our hidden gems playlist here
- Listen to our cover versions playlist here
- Listen to our whistling playlist here