FEATURE: Hanging in the Keep | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Since reopening in March thanks to funding from the Heritage Lottery, the Castle Keep and the Black Gate have become unlikely but intriguing venues for some very special cultural activities. Its Great Hall may only seat around 60 audience members but that didn’t stop it from being one of the most popular stops on the Late Shows circuit this year, with around 1800 visitors between the two locations.

One of the major attractions of those evenings was Simon Wood’s playing of the hang drum, an enchanting instrument made in the west but influenced by eastern and Caribbean sounds, its simple yet beautiful sounds captivated its audience. Now, Simon is back for another special gig in the Castle Keep, giving those who might have missed it the first time another amazing opportunity to sample the delights both of the unusual instrument but also the stunning location of the Keep itself.

Ahead of the intimate gig, we talked to Simon about how he first started playing the hang drum and what keeps him coming back to the Keep.

What first attracted you to come to the Castle Keep and get involved with playing the Hang Drum?

I ended up playing at the Castle keep the first time because I was busking down on the quayside and I met a lady called Lindsay Allason Jones who works for the Hadrians Arts Trust – she asked me if I’d like to play at Chester’s Fort on the wall, which I did, and it was wonderful. Then she asked me if I’d like to do the Late Shows gig at the castle – I jumped at the chance! I love playing in old spaces with great natural reverbs and loads of history behind them. I’m a proud north easterner so to play there was very special for me.

The hang drum itself is a very unusual instrument in that it’s quite modern and Western but influenced by Eastern sounds. Is this part of your attraction to the instrument?

The story behind how I met the hang is a long one. However, basically I wrote the makers, forgot that I’d done that as I didn’t hear from them for over a year. Eventually I got a reply and they asked if I’d like to come to Switzerland to pick one up and I couldn’t get there fast enough. That was back in 2007. I’ve been playing the hang since then, but only professionally for a few years now.

Before your original visit to the Castle Keep for the Late Shows, had you played or encountered the hang drum much before? 

Yes, I have played all over the world. I also recently did a week at the Edinburgh Fringe which was great. I’m currently in Greece playing nightly on Santorini. The hang changed my life and I’m part of a wonderful community of players that’s become like a little family to each other. We are very lucky! I also use it in my drumming workshops and work for music in hospitals. I also played at the up-coming Lindisfarne Festival.

How difficult is the hang drum to play?

Compared to many other instruments, the hang, or handpans as they are known generically, is an easy instrument to learn to play. You just need to learn the touch which can take some time. A rhythmical background can help but is not essential. The instrument is tuned in such a way that it’s easy to improvise and most notes work with each other. However, like most instruments, to master it takes many hours of play and practice.

“I love playing in old spaces with great natural reverbs and loads of history behind them”

You’ll be playing with tabla player Martin Douglas – how did he get involved with the project?

Well I was lucky in that I had been studying Indian tabla drums for a number of years and the skills were transferable straight on to the pan. This is also when I first met Martin Douglas (drummer, ex Baghdaddies currently playing with the Unthanks at times).We were both studying with a marvellous guy from Delhi called Arun Debnath in an indian music school in Gosforth called Gurukul set up by the enigmatic Dr Anand.

Recently I asked martin if he’d like to jam a little and we did and it was a great combo, so when the chance to play this gig at the castle came along I asked him if he’d like to perform with me. I’m grateful he said yes because he’s such a talented guy and lovely warm person.

I will also be playing with musician and composer Steven Ellis Richmond, who creates wonderful soundscapes on guitar with his array of pedals and gizmos. These sit wonderfully behind the hang. I have recently added a cajon with a bass pedal to my set, which allows me to play up-tempo, danceable music as well as the more floaty ambient music associated with the hang. I’ll be playing some of this at the keep, just as I did for the Late Shows.

You’ve visited the Castle Keep twice before in the last couple of months, as part of the Late Shows and also for a special ‘drum circle.’ What keeps you coming back to the Castle Keep?

I think the Castle keep is perfect for intimate gigs like this – it’s acoustic are especially suited to hang music because it amplifies its intensity and you can really feel the music in your body. It’s a great place to really properly listen to music.

It’s great to develop a relationship with special venues as a musician and that’s what keeps me coming back to the castle. We got such positive feedback from the Late Shows gigs – people were captivated and moved and also, maybe unexpectedly, they wanted to move and dance even though it wasn’t set up for that.

The Castle Keep is trying to become more established as a venue for gigs and exhibitions. As someone who has played in its surroundings before, can you see the Keep being a lively and successful venue for these sorts of events? 

I really hope this relationship can blossom and we can do more events like this in the future, collaborate with other local musicians and, of course, maybe try other special venues across the region too.

Hanging in the Keep takes place at the Castle Keep, Newcastle on Friday 18th September.

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