Helen Moat considers the power of music to evoke a time and place – and remembers the songs that encapsulate her travels
For me, travel and music are food for the soul, and when you combine the two you’ve got something really powerful. I often have an image in my head, a time and a place that I associate with a tune. And I also choose a particular song or album to play on the road that echoes the landscape around me.
Driving up into Scotland recently, we stuck on Roots, Reels & Rhythms – again. It’s becoming a bit of a habit. This is folk music, but not as most people know it. It’s folk with attitude: a mix of Latin dance, jazz, rock, reggae and funk. Fusion folk. Bands like Mac Umbra, Capercaillie, Big Sky, Shooglenifty and Peatbog Faeries rock it up. Who would have thought the bagpipes could be so sexy?
Big Sky chants in 'Las Temporadas': "Scotland. Summer time. Freezing. Scotland, summer time… Let’s go to Spain". But at that moment there’s nowhere else I’d rather be than curving round the base of a granite mountain and along a sea loch under big skies, to the pulse of Big Sky.
I guess my travel started locally in Ireland as I was growing up in the seventies, listening to The Beatles at top volume in the back of a Mini with four or five teenagers squeezed into a tiny space, no seatbelts of course, heading for the coast. There’d be a guy I fancied, his arm casually slung around my shoulder, and the music of the Beatles felt a little dangerous and ahead of its time – even though most of their albums were written in the sixties. Songs like: 'Come Together', 'I Am The Walrus', 'Paperback Writer' and 'Norwegian Wood'. We’d hit the beach, build a fire and barbecue sausages, listening to the surge of the sea and looking out to the Mourne Mountains across the bay. It was incredibly romantic and mattered not a jot that it was freezing and there was smoke in our eyes.
In the eighties, I went island hopping in Greece with a friend. I remember 'Abracadabra' from The Steve Miller Band being played continuously in the taverns. That song will always be associated with gyro, moussaka, kalamari, souvlaki, retsino, feta, sea and salt. Then there were the Germans playing the guitar section from David Bowie’s 'Andy Warhol' with real expertise on the water’s edge. Later I discovered Hunky Dory, ‘the perfect album’, and I always think of that Santorini beach when I play it.
When living in Switzerland the first time, I discovered the Alan Parsons Project. After a day’s skiing, I’d lie ‘sunbathing’ in my sleeping bag on a lounger listening to the band. The Alan Parsons Project is, for me, the Alps, that mix of warm sun and nipping cold and the indescribable smell of snow.
Back in Switzerland for another stint, an engineering student of mine introduced me to Tears For Fears', The Seeds of Love. And that album will always be for me Winterthur, the sound of the trains outside my flat, and walks in the surrounding woods. Even more powerful was singing Mozart’s 'Requiem', music that’s beyond human, in the kanton of St Gallen, while looking out of a ceiling-to-floor window at skiers on the mountain across the valley. It still sends shivers down my spine.
More recently, husband and children in tow, we’ve done ridiculously big road trips around Europe. I’d have to stop off in the Germanic countries to see old friends. The albums of the German band, Wir Sind Helden, perfect for the Autobahn.
My first trip outside of Europe was to the US. In Maine I stood on the shore looking out across the Atlantic towards Ireland, the rocks under my feet looked oddly familiar. And I remembered looking out from the other side, wondering what it was like in North America.
We drove the wide open roads with their great advertising billboards listening to the Divine Comedy’s Absent Friends, and in particular 'Freedom Road', and I became hooked on a continent I never thought I’d want to visit. There is something about the open road, the expansive landscapes, the wilderness and the sheer scale of North America that makes you want to return… again and again: Alberta, British Columbia, Oregon, Washington, California… and the rest that’s still on my wish-list.
In East Africa, we discovered the background soundtrack isn’t always a memory you want to keep. On Kipepeo Beach near Dar in Tanzania we were kept awake all night in our banda by music from a distant bar that was surely the devil’s own music on a continuous loop.
More favourable, was learning the words to 'Jambo Bwana' as we pitched through East Africa in our truck, through the Ngorongoro Crater and the plains of the Serengeti, past Lake Victoria and on to Nairobi.
On a Sri Lanka train, I made up a Sri Lankan version of 'It’s a Long Way to Tipperary' for my Sri Lankan companions and we recorded it onto a mobile, playing it back at mickey-mouse speed. We were in stitches and everyone in the carriage was smiling. It made the slow, slow journey from Galle to Kandy, under darkness, go a lot faster.
There’s something in the way music brings people together. In the Thai hill country, we travelled with a father and son who seemed to know the words to every pop song ever written. We spent the evening in a Karen village dredging up every song we could think of, and soon forgot about the mud, the monsoon rain and leeches that had plagued us on our trek through the jungle. And in exchange the local children sang for us.
Back in Europe, I went to a small town in Switzerland off the tourist track to see a couple of my favourite Indie musicians, Foy Vance and Duke Special; an incredible evening of live music with the musicians playing until four in the morning. Returning again for a solo Duke Special gig a couple of years later, the organiser laid on a feast after the gig and invited us for breakfast at his house the next morning.
So for me, music has always greatly enhanced the travelling experience – and the places have enhanced the music. It’s a soul thing, man.
What songs take you back to the places you visited on your travels? Tell us in the comments below.
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