There are a vast number of things that I’m thankful to my mum for, but one of the things that she instilled in me that I’m especially thankful for is a love of reading. The one thing that my mum struggled with at school was English – I suspect, looking back, that she was dyslexic but was never actually assessed and categorised as such. It was a source of frustration for her, so when I happened along some years later, she was determined that I wouldn’t have the same difficulty. She taught me my alphabet and had me carefully write out the letters over and over again long before I started going to a pre-school group, and followed this up with daily sessions with flash cards, teaching me new words and testing my spelling. All this meant that I had a great head start, which gave me the confidence to do well at school – at the end of my first year at primary school, my mum was told that I was a couple of years ahead of most of my classmates in reading and writing.
This was reflected in my reading, and I was getting through books really quickly. Initially I was all about ghost stories and mysteries, but before long I was clamouring for new books roughly once a week, so my mum took me to the town library and for the next few years, I had up to half a dozen new books to read every week.
I was a pretty omnivorous reader. I started out with my usual fare, but soon got interested in dinosaurs, astronomy, and no end of other things. In 1981, though, I discovered something else that was to become an abiding interest: archaeology. How did I get interested in archaeology? Simply put: Indiana Jones and the Raiders of The Lost Ark. Indy Jones’ adventures in Egypt and Peru were a lot of fun – pleasingly gruesome at times for the nine-year old me, too – but what really intrigued me were the locations: the ancient tombs and temples, and the civilisations that built them. Naturally, I was soon asking for books about the ancient Egyptians and the Aztecs, Incas and so forth. I was probably the only pre-teen in my town who could recite a partial timeline of Incan rulers, or name more than five Egyptian gods :-). It has remained an abiding interest for me – there was a time when I even considered taking it more seriously, but computing won out.
What’s this got to do with music, you ask, not unreasonably? Well, nothing – at the time. But I vividly remember watching a three-part BBC series called Flight Of The Condor, that aired in 1985. It was a series about the wildlife of South America, using the condor as a device to link everything together, but although the animals were the big draw – I have always loved wildlife/natural history documentaries – there was a lot more to enjoy, not least stunning footage of the South American landscape, including the mountains of the Andes, the barren wastes of the Atacama desert, and even some ancient Incan ruins, like the famous site at Macchu Picchu. Not only was it beautifully filmed, but the soundtrack was comprised of eerie but beautiful South American folk music, which I loved instantly. I watched all three episodes of the show, and was sad when it was over. I’ve long since lamented the fact that we didn’t have access to a video recorder at the time, as I’d love to see all three episodes again – a 60 minute edit of the three episodes appears to have been the only officially released document of the series. Since it’s awesome, and it’s on YouTube, I can at least post that :-).
Hey, and dig that seriously psychedelic opening BBC logo sequence. You wouldn’t see that these days. Far out, man.
Anyway, out of sight, out of mind. Time passed, and although I remembered the series – and its music – fondly, I had plenty of other things to keep me occupied. However, although I didn’t know it yet, that traditional South American music was to cross my path again in the not too distant future. My mum and were sitting watching Top Of The Pops in time-honoured fashion one week in 1982, when we saw a band playing South American folk music. South American folk music, on Top Of The Pops?! It was the British band Incantation, with their fluke hit single Cacharpaya. I was later to discover that the members of Incantation worked for a ballet company, and to soundtrack a dance performance with a South American theme, had learnt to play authentic South American instrumentation to enable them to perform pieces for the ballet company’s shows. They had enjoyed it so much that they had continued to play outside of their time with the ballet company. Their enthusiasm for the material was infectious, and both me and my mum really enjoyed seeing this most unlikely of hit singles storm the UK top 40. The single eventually stalled at #12, but I’m sure even the band’s most ardent supporters would not have imagined it would do even a fraction as well as it did. I went out to buy a copy of the single, but the local stores had none left by the time I had scraped together the pocket money to buy it with. I didn’t hear anything further about Incantation, so presumed that the single had been a one-off.
More time passed.
By the end of 1986, my mum had married, and we had moved out of my grandparents gaff and gone to live with my new stepdad, Duncan. Duncan had a video recorder, and a sizeable stack of tapes filled with things that he had recorded. He was – and remains – a connoisseur of blues music, and he had several video tapes full of blues-related stuff that he occasionally dug out and had a proper blues session with. These tapes were kept in a separate drawer in one of the cabinets in the lounge, and when they were taken out it was a serious business. Always interested in hearing new things, I usually hung around to see if I liked what was being played.
One weekend, we were sitting watching TV when an advert came on. It was for the band Incantation, who had released a ‘Best of’ album of traditional South American music – just like the music that had been used in Flight Of The Condor! I exclaimed in surprise, recognising the style of music on the ad, and then the band’s name – and Duncan, who had been reading the paper, looked up. To my amazement, he lunged towards the TV, but by the time he had inserted a blank video tape into the recorder, the advert was over. “Damn. Oh well, it was only an advert. I expect it’ll be on again.”
I said something about Flight Of The Condor, and that I had liked Incantation’s single Cacharpaya, but hadn’t realised that they had made any albums, and Duncan told me with a smile that he had heard of the band a few years previously and had actually got some footage of them on tape from some obscure late-night TV show. “Oh, and there was a thing on not too long ago…” He dug around in his Music Drawer, and out came a tape with ‘Incantation’ written on the label. Ah, that tape… I can’t tell you how many times I watched it, with and without my folks. For, amongst a scattering of largely blues-related music programming, it contained a hastily recorded copy of a three-song set that Incantation had played on a music showcase programme of some kind (the Incantation segment was the only bit that Duncan had recorded, so I’m still none the wiser about which show it was taken from), and best of all, a glorious 60-minute documentary aired on Channel 4 entitled Incantation: Music of the Andes that followed the band as they talked about their formation and went on a musical pilgrimage to South America. Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, the Atacama desert, Vilcabamba… all these places I had grown familiar with without ever leaving the shores of the UK were featured in that documentary, along with more examples of that extraordinary folk music that I had loved upon first seeing the Flight Of The Condor TV series.
Of course, now I knew that Incantation existed, and had produced albums, you might think that it didn’t take me long to go and buy some of it, and you’d be absolutely right. I bought that ‘Best Of’ album shortly afterwards, and although a couple of them really took some time to track down, Incantations previous three albums of South American music also found their way home. I played them to death. Hardly fashionable for a schoolkid to be really into his South American folk music, but then the concept of fashion and me were from totally different space-time continuums, really :-).
Sadly, that hallowed video tape of the Channel 4 documentary wasn’t to survive indefinitely. Finally it gave up the ghost and was unwatchable, and both Duncan and I were gutted to see it disappear into the Black Plastic Bag of Total Entropy. We kept hoping that Channel 4 would dig it up and show it again, or – much later – that someone would upload it to YouTube or something, but I’ve never found a copy. Once I even resorted to emailing the ever-patient Tony Hinnigan, one of the founder members of the band, to find out if there was any way I could get hold of a copy. Alas, he couldn’t help either. I remain convinced that someone, somewhere, must have a copy. If you are that person, please get in touch. You’d make me and Duncan very happy!
Incantation went through several different line-ups and lengthy periods of relative inactivity, but they’re still making music. The constituent members often contribute to film soundtracks – Tony Hinnigan in particular is well-known for his film work (check out the film section at the website I linked to above, it’ll blow your mind). I’ve picked up the majority of their records along the way, although I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have a special fondness for the South American folk songs that got them started – so much so that I’ve spent a small fortune on records by South American folk musicians (notably Inti Illimani, who were inspirational to Incantation and others along the way) to find more, all of which I’ve really enjoyed. There’s something so beautifully melancholic about the ballads, and joyful about the blustery instrumentals, that really touches a chord with me. Perhaps I was an Incan in a previous incarnation. That must be it :-).
I really wanted to post a video of Incantation performing one of my favourite pieces, Atahualpa, but couldn’t find a video that would play in the UK. So to fulfil my own criteria for this series, here’s the best-quality video I could find of Incantation performing their 1982 fluke hit single, Cacharpaya. Enjoy!