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October/November 2015

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Craig Denham

by Silke Hartung

Ex-Pat Files: Craig Denham

Auckland world music fusionists Beyondsemble were just one of the local musical outlets of multi-instrumentalist Craig Denham, who these days calls Prague home. Having toured Aotearoa six times with Beyondsemble, Craig thought it would be great to show his new Czech Republic busking ensemble his own native country. Praguematique play an eclectic mix of whatever takes their fancy – from ska, Balkan and European folk to gypsy swing, Latin, pop, jazz and funk. The five-piece’’s tour runs through October to the end of November, taking in a wide selection of venues, familiar to odd-ball, from far north’s Mangonui to Stewart Island. Before packing his busking bag Craig dialogued with NZM via email.

 

Can you introduce yourself in the Czech language?

Yes, but my Czech is really not very good at all. Ahoj, Jmenuju se Craig. Mluvim jenom trochu Cesky.
Hi my name is Craig. I speak only a little Czech.’

How did you get involved with music back in NZ?

I’’m from Kaikohe in the far north. Have pretty much been playing music my whole life. Started doing professional gigs when I was 12 on piano with my dad playing sax and clarinet at the Beachcomber Hotel in the Bay of Islands. We had a residency there.

As a teenager I played in a number of bands north of Whangarei. Often I was the only pakeha in the place. I believe I owe my groove to all the funky Ngapuhi I had the honour of playing with in my youth –– think I was one of the only keyboard players around at that time in the area. I played a lot of reggae, soul, rock, RnB type stuff. Later I moved to Auckland and started getting into Latin music as well as Irish music and Gypsy swing. That’s when I took up the accordion and tin whistle.

Some of the better known projects I’ve been involved with over the years include Ardijah (played keys for them for about six months), Ruia Aperahama (I was MD of his band for about four years –– he’s the What’’s The Time Mr Wolf guy –– and the Waiata Marley albums), Mamaku Project (I played accordion) and then my own Kiwi band Beyondsemble. I was in 13 bands at one time in Auckland trying to survive as a musician. That’s when I created Beyondsemble. It was an attempt to have a band that at least covered 70% of the styles I liked to play.

It couldn’’t have been easy to pack up and leave what seemed to be an established audience and fanbase with Beyondsemble? What was the reason you left NZ?

The main reason was probably my Czech girlfriend, but I had been considering a move to Europe for a while. Although I think the acoustic music scene is starting to really thrive in NZ it is quite hard to make a living off it as there just aren’t the numbers of people to support it. You ‘run out of road’, as Jim Mora once said when we played on his show. You can only really tour NZ once or twice a year and you’’ve pretty much seen everyone. In Europe you can tour all year and never see the same person twice. I guess there are just more people here interested in the kind of music I like to compose and play.

I had spent a couple of years living in Scotland a while back, and had also spent some time in Ireland and in France. I first came here to Prague five years ago with Mark Mazengarb, the original Beyondsemble guitarist. He was on his big OE and I joined him for the last seven weeks of it. I had no plans to visit Prague. It wasn’t on any list of mine. We came to Prague because we had put the message out on FB that we were looking for gigs and places to stay and some random guy we didn’t even know (who had heard us in NZ and since moved back to Prague) organised five gigs for us.

We couch-surfed with my now partner. We didn’’t get together then but she came to NZ for a year on a work/travel visa and we became a ‘thing’. I’’ve been progressively moving to Prague ever since. Now I’m based here nine months a year and return to NZ for about three months, usually to tour with Beyondsemble or Alpaca Social Club which is a duo with Jon Sanders the Beyondsemble guitarist.

Did you have work or a band lined up already before leaving?

I had no band or plan when I came other than find some musicians and make something happen. I was fairly lucky in that regard. It used to be illegal to busk in Prague and when Mark and I were first here we were interviewed for a documentary promoting the rights of buskers and trying to lobby the council and such. We had been illegally busking here and the doco maker wanted our opinions as international musicians.

Through that experience I somehow became attached to that whole movement and quite by chance, the day I arrived back in Prague was the day the official launch of busking happened. All the people who wanted to busk met in the town square to busk legally for the first time. I got an invite from the doco maker and that’s where and when I met the founding members of my now band Praguematique!

I also work with other musicians and performers in Europe. Jon Sanders is somewhat like me being half-based in NZ (and in Beyondsemble) and half in Dingle, Ireland. We get together and do gigs elsewhere in Europe. I also work with storyteller Tanya Batt from Waiheke Island. She visits Europe occasionally working in international schools and such, and we team up wherever possible. We have worked together for over 12 years and have a number of albums of storytelling and music for kids. I bring Beyondsemble over here when I can.

I’’m very lucky in that I have a British passport as well as a Kiwi one so I can come and go and work in the EU with no hassles. Accident of birth. Thanks Dad! Occasionally I get a bit of session work. I have a small studio here and have produced the odd folk album in the past and because it’’s so cheap to live here I can be pretty cheap by NZ standards. The odd musician in NZ sends me a track to add keys or accordion or whistle to and I get paid in NZ dollars. Great when it happens. Works out cheap for them and good for me. The sins of globalisation!

When you first settled there what were the biggest challenges?

The biggest challenges are still the same actually. Organising my own gigs. In NZ I organise my own tours and such, but doing so here in Czech language is definitely an issue. I can’’t be my pro-active self quite so much, which makes me more dependent on others. That’’s an issue for me. I’’ve ended up doing lots of gigs for the expat community and English speaking places as a result. So I’’d say the language. Not that I can’’t survive without it but that it’’s harder to generate my own kind of opportunities without it.

 

How does the ratio of income-to-living costs in the Czech Republic compare to NZ?

No comparison. Prague is cheaper by far. I think that’’s why there are so many creatives here. It’’s maybe around $500-$600 for a month’s rent here. That being your own flat with internet and power included. You can definitely get cheaper than that if you are sharing. Food is cheap and beer is ridiculous, $2 max for a pint at the pub and as little as 50c in the supermarket.

That being said, it’’s all relative. Gigs pay very little. A top jazz musician in one of the clubs is likely to get around 1500 CZK which is just under $100. That’’s considered very good money here. I’’ve found myself a great niche playing in the Irish pubs in the centre of Prague. I can play any night of the week I like (there’’s no one else playing Irish music here – it’s crazy) and my duo friend Vlada and I get 1500 each. Laughing really. Part of it is on account of my ability to shoot the breeze with all the English speaking tourists as well as the music. So the English language is definitely a financial plus for me here.

By the way education is free here too. People go to uni to study whatever they like without the anxiety of having to make that pay in order to pay off their huge student debt. Consequently there are a lot of smart people in Prague interested in all sorts of obscure oddball stuff. I love it. Part of my plan is to be based in Prague but to tour elsewhere in Europe where I can earn Euros. I did seven gigs in Germany this June and earned the equivalent of 29 gigs at an Irish pub in Prague, so it definitely pays to be mobile!

Who were the first musical friends you made?

Actually that first day of busking when I met Praguematique was quite funny. I was too shy to talk to anyone as my Czech was so bad. Thankfully my girlfriend Klara was with me and she recognised a cajon player from some African drumming thing she’’d been to. He met with a guy with a nice guitar case and I was like, ‘These guys seem to have their act together, do you mind going and asking them if I can join them.’ I didn’’t want to stand on a corner playing my accordion alone.

I’’d literally arrived that morning after a 36-hour flight from NZ. Anyway they were dead keen and sort of started deferring to me straight away in terms of song choices for the street and such as they’’d never busked before. I ended up teaching them a bunch of Beyondsemble tunes and other musicians joined us over time. I remember it vividly. That whole first year of busking in Prague was amazing. The city is so vibrant and there was an incredible vibe between all the street performers. Sadly that has changed in recent years.

 

Do you manage yourself or do you work with an agency/manager?

Oh to have an agent…… I’’d love one. I manage myself. Organise my own tours. I have some cool friends in a couple of places who help with gigs in their area. A good example would be Uli Stein, a great winemaker in the Mosel Valley, Germany. He organises one or two gigs at his place every year and has helped connect us with other local venues. Beyondsemble get to live at his place for a couple of weeks a year and do gigs in the area. It’s a great relationship. This European winter I’’m going to spend a week or so their recording stuff for a solo album I intend to launch in NZ next November. He has an awesome grand piano and a really nice room.

I have one or two other friends where it works in much the same way. Very grass roots, word of mouth sort of stuff. I find Uli and his partner Ruth to be maybe the German equivalent of Andrew and Jane from the Mussel Inn in Onekaka. Such cool people. They are out there. That seems pretty much to be the way we roll.

What would you say was your biggest success since leaving NZ?

Keeping my girlfriend! It’’s not easy being with a wandering muso like me to be sure. I guess, musically speaking it would be just being able to support myself off my music. I can now do that here. It took a few years to make enough contacts and find the work but I’’m pretty well established now. Or maybe it’’s just making people happy. I feel pretty fortunate to be able to make my living doing what I love and though it’’s a struggle at times it feels worth it when people are moved by something I’ve composed or played. I guess that’s where ‘success’ really lies for me.

Is it easier to work with music in Europe compared to NZ, or harder?

I think both. NZ is by far my favourite country to tour and it’s much easier for me to organise having done it six times already with Beyondsemble and speaking the language. Here you have to be at least 6-12 months in advance and usually you are not taken seriously without an agent. For an unknown it’s really hard to get a start. A couple of years ago I sent out over 100 emails to prospective clubs and such, only to get one reply.

But then, you can always play in the streets and do whatever gigs you can get together and eventually it all grows. I think you can go anywhere in the world and pretty much land on your feet if you can play music relatively well. I think it’’s easier making my living here in Prague just playing in an Irish duo and doing other musical projects whenever I want, than it was in Auckland being in truckloads of bands and taking anything in order to stay alive.

 

You’’ll be taking Praguematique on tour to NZ this Spring. What can people expect of the new band?

I think people who like Beyondsemble will like Praguematique. (Beyondsemble still exists. We toured in Germany this June as a trio, but we are having a rest from NZ for a bit.) We also play a really wide selection of styles and a few of the same tunes occasionally. I think we are more of a dance band though. The majority of our gigs here have been dance gigs though we do have some more subtle stuff we can pull out for people to sit and listen to. I’’d say we have a bigger sound too, having a great bass player on board as well as three of us singing.

People can expect high energy, diversity, a sense of humour, a bit more eastern European flavours than Beyondsemble, some nice solos (hopefully) and joy!

What would you suggest to other musicians considering a similar move?

Bring some marmite and I’ll be your friend! Eat as much fresh seafood and avocados as you can whilst in NZ! Don’’t know what advice to give really. Not sure there is a template or formula. Trust your instincts and do it! Maybe coming with an open mind and not expecting too much too soon might be good advice. Be willing to take any gig you can get knowing that eventually you find the right people and can start being more fussy in terms of the gigs you play. I think that probably applies to playing anywhere though. Not strictly just the Czech Republic.

What instruments and gear do you typically use?

In NZ I have a Kurzweil PC3X keyboard and also a Korg X50 and I have a vintage 1950s Scandalli accordion with Sennheiser mics installed. Here in Prague I have a Yamaha S70XS and I’m about to get an accordion I designed myself! I pick it up in January from Italy. It’’s being made by a small family company called Cooperfisa. It is the mother of all accordions and will have separate outputs for left and right hands (amongst other unique features) so I can put the left hand of the accordion through an FX processor. Can’’t wait to get my hands on it. At the moment I’’m playing another Scandalli accordion over here but it’’s just an average sort of an instrument. Then I have a bunch of tin whistles and low whistles. My favourite whistle is a low F made by Maurice Reviol of Reviol Woodwind in Laingholm.

How hard is it to travel or even migrate as a multi-instrumentalist?

It is a total pain in the A. My old Scandalli was damaged twice on international flights. In part that’s the reason for the new one. So one accordion can live in NZ and one here. It took three years to get the money together to pay for the new accordion. You basically need two sets of everything, one in each country, unless you are lucky enough to be sponsored or something. Thankfully I have an acoustic piano in my flat now. A friend conveniently needed a place to store it. Had a friend babysitting mine in NZ for a while and eventually sold it to put the money towards my new accordion.

 

What’’s your own Prague scene like?

Don’t think I have a scene as such. I have a pretty small group of friends here. Apart from my girlfriend Klara, Vlada Hajek (Praguematique’’s guitarist) would be my best friend. He’’s been trying to make the transition from being a classical guitar music teacher to being a full time player and I’ve been helping. He’’s the guy I do all the Irish gigs with. I’’ve always been in support of people trying to follow their passion and am proudly at least partially responsible for five people I know of giving up the jobs they don’t like to pursue their music full time. Vlada is the latest of these. We are pretty close.

There are some definite scenes here in Prague (jazz, alternative, folk, metal etc….) but I’ve always tended to avoid scenes as a rule. You tend to get pigeonholed. I remember when I first left NZ to go to Scotland for two years. I can’t remember how many bands I was in Auckland at the time. Pretty much all of them thought I was in their scene.

I had a farewell concert at the Dogs Bollix and invited everyone. There were folks from the folk scene who didn’t know I played keys with soul legend Ronnie Taylor, there were guys from Ardijah who’d never heard me play Irish stuff, Irish people who didn’t know I worked with a storyteller and did sort of cinematic stuff for her stories. Folks who had no idea I played gypsy swing on accordion and the like.

I guess maybe I don’t like scenes. They are fun to indulge for a while but ultimately a limitation. There’s too much good music in the world to get stuck in a scene.

The Praguematique story can also be found in a little video on our website here.