Tracks of My Life: Joy Duncan

Joy Duncan has remarkable skills. Over many years she has acquired a considerable expertise in Afro-Cuban-Latin rhythms and developed practical skills in drumming and percussion playing. These skills she has shared with 
a vast number of people, young and older, on these isles. She has brought some of the greatest exponents of 
the world music genres here and created an atmosphere of excitement and enjoyment in listening to and participating in such music. With the phenomenal kora player Seckou Keita due to play Mareel this month, Shetland’s own “lady of percussion” has also arranged to have workshops with this master player in the days afterwards. JEFF MERRIFIELD interviewed her about this and how her interest in this music was nurtured 
and fed into the tracks of her life.

I was born in the Gilbert Bain Hospital, Lerwick, but my parents soon moved to Shetland and I was brought up in Scalloway. I remember being happy just playing around the village. My dad was a fish merchant and my grandparents and uncles were involved in fish. It was a very safe and stable upbringing, with six of us in our family. My parents were both in the Methodist Church, so we were dragged along to the Methodists every Sunday. My mam and dad sang in the church choir and, on reflection, I do like how they sang in harmony, though I did not understand that at the time.

My dad played the mouth organ and we had a piano, so I suppose music has always had a place in my life, though not the sort of music prevalent in my life now. We grew up with the Sankey hymn book and there’s some really beautiful hymns. There was lots of Jim Reeves and mum bought a record player and bought a Mozart collection. The Sound of Music was a big part of my life, a record that got played a lot. So everybody in the house loved music.

There were six of us and my older brother, who was four or five years older than me, had a big sound system in his bedroom and at tea, when we were trying to watch Crossroads, he’d be playing Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath. It must have influenced me because I really love that music now. I didn’t at the time, thought it was just a racket, but when I hear Hendrix and Zeppelin now, I just love it.

When I was a youngster I was quite sporty and played a lot of hockey and netball. We’d go at weekends and dance around to The Clash, Echo and the Bunnymen, Human League, and all that kind of stuff. It wasn’t until I left home and got a job at the Leadmill arts centre in Sheffield, where they had a real variety of music. I was 18 and I was completely blown away. Orchestra Jazzera, African music and Latin bands all played live. There was a nightclub every Friday and the DJ always used to close with Nina Simone’s My Baby Just Cares For Me.

My cousin Candida Doyle was there and she was linked to Pulp, which was in its early days. So I used to go to Pulp rehearsals and go on tour with them, get in the back of the van and go to their gigs.

But that music was never rockin’ me, it was more the funk, jazz, Latin, African side of things that got me. I was really inspired and I wanted this music in my life. I moved to London and started going to African dance classes in Covent Garden, on Monday nights with all these live drummers in the corner playing away. I loved it.

I was working as a cycle courier when I fell off my bike and hit a Canadian tourist, so I couldn’t dance that week. I so loved it I went along and asked if I could do some drumming.

This was about 1988 and there were lots of opportunities in multicultural London. I could access all sorts of workshops, classes and clubs in African and Latin music. And that’s exactly what I did. The trouble for me was that London was the mecca and there were so many awesomely good, fabulous percussionists and dancers, so I couldn’t kinda find my place.

After my daughter was born I started teaching and it felt right. I was good at it because I had to learn in the first place. Some of the African and Latin players had natural talents, but I’d had to learn. So I was good at teaching drumming and rhythms and dance, because I understood what it was like to be at the beginning.

We lived in King’s Cross and I soon realised that London was not the place I wanted to bring 
up my daughter. When she was two–and–a–half, my dad died and I thought, I want to go home. So I moved back to Shetland.

I had thought that was that and I’d have to leave all the drumming and dancing behind me and just bring up my daughter. But more doors opened for me here than they ever had in London. I was the big fish in the small pond, whereas in London I had been the minnow in a vast ocean. I found my voice, my place within the music, and I’m really happy and comfortable with that.

There had been some visiting musicians doing workshops, but I think my teaching work proved successful because I was a Scalloway lass, and I had this experience, I had this connection that I could share. And it was something new and different, 
but it was something that we could all tap into, what area of life we come from, what age or gender we are. The thing about the drums is it touches something deep down in us. It resonates in our lives. We’ve all got rhythm.

I worked with bairns to begin with and they loved it. I started a night class in Lerwick and another one in Scalloway and many people joined in. We were asked to play at the folk festival and I said there should be people from each of the classes, in the east and in the west. And that’s how Aestaewast was born.

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Joy (far right) performing with Aestaewast at the Shetland Folk Festival. Photos: Kenneth Shearer

The group just took off and we were quite strong for a good number of years. But like all things, it’s had its ups and downs and just now it’s not so strong. The jazz club became Shetland JAWS to take into account the amount of world music on offer in Shetland and together we brought four of the finest drummers in the world, Sura Succo, Adiano Adewale, Bruce Ncube and Asaf Sirkis, to Shetland and they worked with large numbers of bairns and adults in some of the best workshops I’ve seen.

For them to be able to come and immediately connect with what is going on here was great. It was like being at a birthday party. It made me happy to realise that was something I’d been able to facilitate and that it happened in the village hall where I grew up. Here I was, an adult, being able to share what I’d discovered in the world, in the big world, in the village hall with our bairns. It was great, it was magic. Now Sekou Keita is coming back to Shetland, one of the master African musicians, and he’ll be tapping into our drumming reservoir here working with bairns and adults.

Expect more magic.


I Wish I Knew
John Coltrane
I went to the United States when I was 19, on Camp America. I worked as a nanny – and discovered John Coltrane. I loved the music from the first time I heard it: Blue Train and A Love Supreme. I heard a story how someone had said to Coltrane that he just played fast and that he had gone into the studio to record a whole album of ballads, just to prove that he could bring it down. That album, called Ballads, I really love and my favourite track is I Wish I Knew.

Sir Duke
Stevie Wonder
I was lucky enough to see Stevie Wonder twice at the Royal Albert Hall. On every song, he delivered. His songwriting for that period, his lyrics, everything that he embodies, I really respect and admire and love. It’s really important stuff he’s writing about, really important messages. I had every album and they were never off my turntable. It’s so difficult to choose just one track, I’d have them all, but if I’m pushed I’ll settle for Sir Duke.

Malaika (My Angel)
Harry Belafonte & Miriam Makeba
I really love to hear about musicians who have really had to struggle, who perform with a passion despite what they are up against. Miriam Makeba was up against it big time, she came through some struggle and she made it through to the end. All through her life she had tremendous losses, she had horrendous treatment, but she kept on singing, amazing songs with such history and such depth. The voice that she had – nobody can sing like Miriam Makeba, nobody can. When I hear her sing it touches somewhere in me. I’ve chosen a duet she did with Harry Belafonte called Malaika, which means My Angel. Just brilliant.

Quiéreme Mucho
Ibrahim Ferrer
When I went to Cuba, when I was about 24, something happened, something changed and life would never be the same again. Ibrahim Ferrer was a remarkable man. He was one of the people rediscovered when Ry Cooder did his project. Just a wonderful singer and I knew him personally, went on tour with him. Whenever I hear his music I feel like he’s right there, by me. He was one of a genre of singers called balladeers and I just love the passion they sing with. His vocals are second to none. There’s a really beautiful song called Quiéreme Mucho that’s got wonderful string arrangements in it and it’s from an album he did because it was always his dream to record an album of love songs. He died not long after recording it, so he left a fitting tribute, his dream.

Sekou Keita
Probably one of my favourite musicians at this time is Sekou Keita. I first met him about nine years ago at the African Drum Village, a festival held in Scotland. It was about midnight and we’d had a few gigs already at this festival, everybody was tired and energy was quite down, when Sekou came on with his kora. Within five minutes everyone was on their feet dancing, and he just delivered some magic I’d no kent before. Everyone seems to think that kora is a gentle, celestial, loving instrument, which it can be, but it can be upbeat as well. And Sekou can do everything on the kora. Again, some magic happened that night. I’ve been in Senegal with Sekou, I’ve heard him play there, I’ve been to his home and eaten with his family. I have all his CDs in my car and because I drive a lot I listen to his music constantly. It’s a part of my life.

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