Mike Opitz Song Writing and Theory Project

Featuring the Karma Refugees

Midnight in Triana


In the ruins of the city
Cardboard for a bed
Sleep the great musicians
With visions in their heads.

At the end of Empire
Living in the debris
Arise the great dancers
Struggling to be free.

The city falls around them
“The fruits of Babylon”*
Soldiers in the streets at night
Terror in the dawn.

(“O yeah” / “Police and Thieves”)

Gunfire in the neighborhood
Children in the streets
Making beauty
Out of violence and deceit.

From the streets of Trenchtown
To the wars of Africa
Vaccinations for confusion
Immunity from despair

Playing on a tin can
Like no one’s ever seen
Dancing in the ruins
Of an economic scheme.

(Block 3 again)

Don’t you often yearn
For justice in this world?
That those who do the evil deeds
Should get what they deserve.

And everyone has problems
Small as some may be
Singing songs of freedom
Can almost set you free.

Rhythms in the alley
Strains of Tientos’,
At midnight in Triana
(sample of Tientos’)!

We experimented playing the following chord progressions drawn from flamenco in different orders until we settled on this pattern.

[Played block 1 (no words)
block 1 (1st stanza Am-G-F-E)
block 2 (2nd stanza) Am –G-C-E)
block 2 (3rd stanza)
block 4 (G-Am (3x) G-F-E (1x))
Then repeat this pattern through until the next block 4.

Then for the final 3 verses we play
block 3 (C-G-Am-E—on to the end).


Tom arrived armed with a copy of the film Benda Bilili, and a deep appreciation of Flamenco music. Tom writes: Benda Bilili is a group from the Congo made of street musicians, most of whom are victims of polio. They were discovered by a pair of French film makers, who filmed their ascent from the tough streets of Kinshasa to a successful tour of Europe. All the musicians have wonderful stories, but the story of Roger stands out. When he joins the group, Roger is 13 years old. The other musicians are much older. He plays a homemade instrument that consists of a single string attached to a tin can. There are plenty of stories within the American blues tradition of musicians (I think that even Jimi Hendrix told a similar story) whose first instrument was a homemade guitar they had made. A typical example was a shoe string attachment to a broom handle. It is quite rare for anyone to actually perform with such an instrument and develop such a distinctive musical style. In the clips below, one of which was filmed when Roger was eighteen; the “Je t’aime” clip below features Roger as a thirteen-year old). These became important elements in our session this year.

Perhaps unwittingly, but also led on by our attempts to play whatever music we study, we have become odd musicologists. Long ago, after collecting albums and reading theory, we committed to playing reggae music. This opened doors to other Afro-Caribbean music—descended through slavery—to contemporary forms such as soca, samba, ska and others represented in this project. Tom, in particular, has studied the Gypsy Trail from India through Europe and North Africa to land in Cadiz and bloom into flamenco. Before we assembled, he sent out 4 chord progressions drawn from flamenco. This song started with a jam session on these progressions—called blocks 1-4—me shouting out a different “block” and the musicians (Caitlin, Tom, Norb, Mike) playing that progression. Tom notes: Our initial difficulty was deciding which of the “blocks” to use and how to structure a song with a verse and a chorus around them. At times, it was frustrating and for a few days it seemed that we were going around in circles. We actually were going around in circles, jamming on the “blocks.”

Lost in Writer’s Block

It became fun to play these chord progressions and add variations. As we got better at playing “blocks,” I felt a certain pressure to write some words. However, I did not do so. Tom thought of a great title for a song we did not have yet. He said, “Midnight in Triana.” We all loved the title. We had a title for no song.

Tom’ Explanation

Triana is one the traditional Gypsy (Romani) neighborhoods where flamenco emerged in the 19th Century. Triana is located across the Gualdalquivir River from the Seville in southern Spain. When Mike first heard the basic chord progression (Am-G-F-E) for the song, he said that it sounded “dark.” When we were discussing a title, that remark came back to me, so I thought a nighttime setting would be appropriate.

Web Sites for Staff Benda Bilili

One night during breaks in a music session, we sat around and brainstormed on questions like, “What happens at midnight in Triana?” Or “Who is out at midnight in Triana?” It was fun to play this word game but still no words.

By Wednesday, all of us had seen the film, Benda Bilili. This provided a wealth of inspiration; we revisited the film and YouTube clips (E. G. “” or “Polio,” or “Je’t’aime.” Any clips are great!).

Web site for the film: Benda Bilili

Film trailer: Benda Bilili Trailer

Some songs:


“Je t’aime”


“Sala Mosala” Staff Benda Bilili on Jools Holland—playing reggae.

Some images began to form into a metaphoric vision. This metaphor wove together the sounds of the chord progression drawn from flamenco with images of the streets of Kinshasa from the film.

The Beauty of the Random

One of the random conversations we had involved the song “Police and Thieves.” This came up at the beginning of the week when we were watching the film, Westway to the World—and once again, and nearly every time I have ever played music, The Clash surfaced as an inspiration.

Then, later in the week, Tom pulled up a clip of the great Lee “Scratch” Perry. This was somewhat familiar ground to us, since we had long admired his work. One of the first songs we ever played together was “Daniel” from King Scratchy’s History, Mystery, Prophecy album—though I’m pretty sure I did not sing the words that Scratch wrote.

Cross link with Karma Refugee notes.

Late one night, we found this clip. An animated conversation resulted as we remembered learning about “Scratch” Perry. Learning the work of Lee Perry is one of the great joys of reggae music. Listening through his great productions, his original songs and all the dub is one of the most satisfying of musical adventures. From “Bed Jammin’” to “Dreadlocks in Moonlight,” it was good to rediscover Scratch—as amazing as ever.

Dub is a weapon!

Echoes of “Police and Thieves”

Kathee brought up doing “Police and Thieves.” That song was important to us during our days as The One Drop and though we played it many times, we recorded it only once on a 4 track. We noticed that block 3 of our progression was the chord progression for “Police and Thieves.” It became an influence in the song.

“Police and Thieves” by Junior Murvin (Original version produced by Lee Perry)

“Police and thieves” cover by the Clash (from the film Rude Boy)


Images and how they might attach to the blocks of the song started to coalesce. The juxtaposition of sounds drawn from flamenco with images of the streets of Kinshasa from the film grew into a working idea for the song. The falsetto strains of Junior Murvin echo under the chord progression:

Police and Thieves in the streets

Scaring the nation with their guns and ammunition.Police, police, and thieeeeevves.

Memories and ideas of Lee Perry’s work at Black Ark Studio came flooding back. This imaginative and complex work made in an impoverished post-colonial society out of a world-view that is at odds with the tenets of Babylon is among the great musical works of all time.

One of my first favorite reggae songs emerged from Black Ark: Lee Perry’s “Dreadlocks in Moonlight.”

In my early experience of reggae, I often did not know what Scratch said, but I knew it was true. The meanings and sounds of the actual words were up in the air—literally. A former student, David Hulm, took it upon himself to transcribe the song. We learned:

A time to sow and a time to reap,
Yes my friend.
The seed you sow is what you reap,
A bing a bang!

I once envisioned a mystical dread hanging out in the moonlight. The song has that feel. It nourished the spiritual reggae fantasy in my head at the time.

But then:
You send your big neck po’lice friend
To cool I out, but it no work!
Jah Jah walk right in and cool up the scene …

And then:
The knife that stick de sheep
A go stick de goat—Do you hear!
How you gonna feel
when d knife is at your troat .

In a nutshell, that’s the journey that reggae takes you on. We remembered that line, and when we pulled up a clip of “Dreadlocks in Moonlight”—revisiting an old favorite, we also pulled up the original “Police and Thieves.” Tom and I both thought they were the same track—laid down by the Upsetters at Black Ark. How many times we had both listened to those songs and never had that insight until that night in late July. We thought we had made a great discovers. However,

Tom noted:

“I am not too sure about this anymore, Lefty.”
At any rate, experience of the echo chamber effect of reggae plays a part in the writing of “Midnight in Triana.”

Friday Morning—The Fog Lifts

We had been playing the song in “blocks” and never settled on a consistent pattern. While Tom was recording and mixing bass lines in The Maltshop, I took my guitar to another part of the house and started playing the “blocks” until I settled on a structure. The words started to assert themselves—seeming at times to come out of the melody. Here are a few of the thoughts embedded in these lyrics.

“In the ruins of the city.”

I use the word “ruin” to allude to the work of Walter Benjamin—one of the overarching themes of this project. Even the juxtaposition of Benjamin’s terms—“mask,” “torso,” “ruin” seem poetic and visionary to me. It is in the “ruin,” the fragment, the discarded, that we see the clearest picture of our civilization.

“Cardboard for a bed.”

This line is an allusion to the film, Benda Bilili. The film provides a vivid glimpse into the ruin and the fragments of musical and cultural imagery that find expression in the music of Benda Bilili. They play reggae, funk, rhumba, rock and other forms—all African forms that made the forced journey into slavery and here return to The Congo through Benda Bilili’s music.

“Sleep the great musicians.” Tom says,

These two lines refer to the musicians who had to sleep on the street when the center for polio victims in Kinshasa burned down.

“Fruits of Babylon”

Whenever mass-media journalists interviewed Bob Marley, the questions they asked were poorly researched and often stupid. In one interview, the journalist asked Marley how it felt now that he was rich and famous and could enjoy “the fruits of Babylon.” Marley paused, scowled and said, “Babylon ‘ave no fruits.” This line refers to that interview.

“Playing on a tin can”

The satonge’ or mono-chord, the instrument that Roger plays in Benda Bilili. The symbolism of that instrument is like the band itself—that such style and beauty should emerge from the ruins.

“Strains of Tientos”
“Tom says,” Tientos is an important style of flamenco.

Is the Song Finished?

At the time of writing this entry, we do not have a “final” version of “Midnight in Triana.” In some ways, the song is still new and has a lot of growing up to do. Matt Gaffey provided some nice guitar tracks. Vocals need to be designed and recorded. This is an exciting time in the creative process because the raw material of the song now exists. The sonic possibilities are just being imagined.

One of the theoretical points of this project is that the song need not be finished. Unlike commodities such as books, records or films, song recording can continue as long as one of us wants to work on it. Tracks can be rerecorded, added, subtracted, modified, repositioned in the mix—the possibilities are staggering. I intend to repost this song as soon as I can get improved vocals.

Epistemological concepts, maintained and supported by literary conventions such as “the story,” “the end,” “the finished product,” “the book” are called into question by the emerging genre of the home-recorded song. “The story” becomes a collection of fragmentary images, sounds, collaborations and computers. “The End” could be the beginning of a remix.

Changes based on feedback loops can be made;

“the end” of a “finished product” transforms into “moments in an evolving process”—the process of song making.

Tom’s Review of the Benda Bilili Concert, October 18, 2012

I saw Staff Benda Bilili in NYC on October 18, 2012 and it was well worth the trip from Western PA. They played roughly 13 songs (11 in the main part of the set and 2 as an encore). The crowd was probably several hundred with a mix of all ages, but very predominantly white.
My overall reaction was to marvel is how good they have gotten now that they have had a few years to focus on music. All the elements were there from the early days when they were playing on the streets of Kinshasa, but they have grown more polished and self-assured. This was apparent in the tightness and elastic swing of their grooves, in velvet smoothness of their harmonies and in the cleverness of their arrangements. Although they played a few slower songs (by that I mean they started them at a slower tempo and then kicked things into a faster tempo after a minute or two), most of the songs are high energy, up tempo affairs. They have better equipment since their early days on the streets of Kinshasa. Roger is still playing his homemade satongé, but now he has built-in amp connection and runs it through an effects pedal. The sole exception is the drummer who is still using his home made drum kit (the bass drum is an empty crate; he uses some small hand drums as toms, and several tin cans as cymbals. He also uses a medium-sized kitchen pan as cymbal and he really makes that thing sing. He plays that kit marvelously and he is an important part of their grooves. That home-made kit helps maintain their rootsy sound.

The next thing that was impressive was the quality of their songs. They played 13 greats songs, even though they skipped of some of my favorites, like “Polio.” An excellent feature was that the concert program listed the songs they were to play and included a short translation of the lyrics.

What also stood out seeing them live is what a fabulous dance band they are. Despite having relatively sparse instrumentation, compared to other African or salsa dance bands which often use multiple guitars, keyboards, horns and percussionists–how sparse in their instrumentation is; they laid down heavy, irresistible dance grooves all night long. They had Coco on guitar (Theo also played guitar on a song or two) playing repetitive rhythmic patterns, bass, homemade drum kit and Roger on his amplified satongé (a homemade one string lute made from a tin can) improvising over the top. Roger’s role was often to drive the groove to peaks of frenzy. Being an American audience, people were reluctant to get up and dance. After the ninth song Kabose went up to the mic and said “Thank you, thank you, please, stand up,” and the crowd stood up and started dancing. It was as if everyone was waiting for permission to do something “outrageous,” like dancing to music. The crowd stood on their feet for the rest of the show.

Finally, they are a wonderful harmony group. They feature four major soloists (Coco, Papa Ricky, Theo and Roger), but during the show that I saw all eight members of the band took turns doing solo vocals. Their standard format is to have one person doing the main vocal with three to five other members of the band singing a harmony response. (It would have been nice to have someone like Kathee or Caitlin along to figure out how many different harmony parts they were singing), but in any given song they would trade off the solo part several times.

Here are a few additional comments:

Roger was wailing all night long. It has been interesting to see him develop from a timid 13 year old (in the early scenes of the Benda Bilili documentary) to become a self-assured adult with amazing talent as a musician and a performer. He has star quality written all over him and no doubt one day he will be fronting his own band, but he seems quite at home in Benda Bilili. He often jokes with the other members of the band. At one point Kabose lost one of his crutches and Roger went over to retrieve it for him.

One thing that surprised me was that Papa Ricky was very somber, he hardly smiled the entire show. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well, but I felt kinda of bad that he didn’t seem to be enjoying the event more. Playing in NYC had to have been a dream-come-true, I expected to him to enjoy it more. Well, he did enjoy it is his own way. He was however, quite dapper in a light pink cloth shirt. He would have looked almost preppy, if not for his white, wrap around shades.

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