The Rise of the Planet of The Kazoo Sutra

How did The Kazoo Sutra come to be?  I am so glad you asked…or at least stumbled on this post and made it as far as this sentence.  If you are still with me by this sentence, read on for the rather exhaustive answer…

The Seed

Back in September 2011, while working on a large project in Doha Qatar, a colleague of mine – Fire Protection Engineer Dave Morgan –  told me that he had booked a room at his compound later that month and asked if I would provide about an hour’s worth of entertainment.  It wasn’t as though I was known for doing such a thing, but I had a reputation for hamming it up in front of audiences during my rather animated formal lectures to co-workers, off-site ventures into live theater (ie – “Miss Saigon“) and other such things.  With no idea what my act would look like (as far as I knew, he would have accepted a magic act), I enthusiastically agreed.

The Concept

To keep things simple and prevent me from ending up with a 200-song playlist that I could not bear to trim down, I started with a general concept: All country/western versions of the worst but most nostalgic electronic pop music from the 80s.  I figured this would go over well with the audience demographic of predominantly American male, 30-60 years with some accompanied by either their wives or in some cases, their “temporary” ones from the Philippines.

The decision to include the kazoo was merely a practical one: In order to get the most out of this performance (and to make up for my having lost my guitar “shredding” solo chops from years of neglect) I needed another layer of sound.  A kazoo, mounted to a piece of headgear that looks like I have serious dental problems, would provide me with a way to accompany myself with a melodic instrument whilst leaving my hands free to play guitar.  A concept inspired by Neil Young’s use of the harmonica, a kazoo would be less complicated to play than a harmonica (which by comparison requires a degree from Julliard), not to mention good for a quick, cheap laugh in case the rest of the act was a tanker.  Van-Halen-izing the kazoo ensures this.

Niel Young on the harmonica, or the other way around Kazoo with Headgear...the Humm-bucker
What to call this act?  Something cheesey that capitalized on the “kazoo” angle, of course.  At one point, I had settled on “The Kazoo Nostra“, but a lot of people didn’t get the Mafia reference, so when a friend of mine at work – Aleks (Sasa) Gutesa – uttered, “The Kazoo Sutra“, my committee of one voted “YEAH!” in favour. It was ideal because one has to be very careful what one does in the Middle East (remember: I’m always one middle-finger away from a free trip home) and it had this sexy connotation without actually being naughty.  Literally translated,Sutra is merely the “rules manual” part of The Kama Sutra, so I don’t expect to be thrown in prison over representing myself as “The Book of Kazooing…A Lot”.  I recently played a show where the audience was 90% East Indian and they got the idea (I hope).

By coincidence, on return to Doha from my last trip home I brought back an acoustic version of the Fender strat that I had picked up on my last trip to Canada.  Considering I already had several guitars in Doha, I had questioned my judgment on this…until now.  The black strat-shaped body integrated perfectly with the electro-cowboy concept. A few safety and glow-in-the-dark stickers later, “The Sutracoustic”, complete with Sutra-Signal (an impressively gawdy pick-guard made out of highly-reflective yellow sign vinyl), emerged.

The Sutracoustic with Sutra-Signal activated
I immediately got to work developing the playlist, downloading the lyrics and tabs and learning the songs.  What I failed to tell Dave (and admit to myself) was that even though I had an admirable (for an architect, that is) amateur singing career and almost annually picked up my guitar to re-learn it, I had never, in 30+ years of playing, sand and played AT THE SAME TIME, let alone with a kazoo strapped to my head.  I was never coordinated enough to do it within five minutes of trying, so following Homer Simpson’s advice to Bart, I had long since abandoned the idea that I ever would.  However, in the spirit of our office’s recent motto of “dare to work outside your comfort zone” (this is their way of justifying the deletion of your job description in order to get you to do all the boss’s work for him), I started practicing the whole playing/singing thing.  Had only someone told me 30 years ago that it actually took SIX minutes to get the hang of it, the musical landscape might look vastly different today :)  Coordination achieved – problem solved.  A feasible act was born.

The Inspiration

During the few days between the invitation and the show, I went to a party where one of the other cast members of “Miss Saigon”, Ryan Simonet, provided the music.  His brilliant one-man band act, “Cronkite Satellite”, was a mix of original and cover material and with the magic of “Live “Looping”, his vocals and guitar work were accompanied with ad-hoc looped recordings of beat-box rhythms, simulated bass, chord progressions, et al.  Everything was recorded live and his feet were working the loop station as hard as his hands were working the guitar.  The audience and I were amazed how one person could produce such a wall of sound and keep all the musical plates spinning without letting any of them drop.  It was as inspiring as he was awesome.  I knew instantly that had to get on this bandwagon: not to copy him, but simply to stay current (and by “current”, live looping has been around for years) and give my audience as rich an experience as Ryan had delivered.

The Tools

I got the cheapest and simplest Loop Station available in Doha: the Boss RC-2 single pedal with 11 pre-record slots.  The first time I used it, it fried my brain much like a 110v appliance fries when you plug it into a 220v outlet.

Boss RC-2 Single-pedal Loop station
The mechanics of live looping involve a lot of non-intuitive concepts that need to be learned and the instructions for the pedal are written with the assumption that you are already aware of them from the RC-1 version.  In spite of this, I forced the learning curve into a hockey stick and within a few days I realized a few things…

  • Audiences will be bored to tears if they wait for me to build songs from scratch, tapping the mic for bass drum, hitting damperred guitar strings to simulate the snare, etc.  Keep this to a minimum and instead rely partly on pre-recorded rhythm tracks, even if people see that as “cheating”…which I can live with.
  • The RC-2 has only 11 preset recording slots.  With the aforementioned strategy change and a repertoire already approaching 30 songs, this would not suffice.
  • I am too old, uncoordinated (remember, I had only begun to play and sing at the same time one week before) and busy with other things to fully embrace these concepts in a way that will allow me to master them, especially in front of a live audience and with a “simple” one-pedal device.  Regarding the one-pedal thing, it is like using an Apple Mac one-button mouse for the first time.  Having to operate all those different kinds of commands with one pedal, tapped different ways for each one, is like having to do all the right-click/left-click stuff with only one button.  Yes, it’s possible, but horrifically unwieldy.
  • With live looping, I would have to either pick songs that have the same chord progressions all the way through (little or no distinction between chorus, verse and bridge) or use the looping only during the verses or choruses.  “I’m too Sexy” is a perfect example of this, where the verse and chorus are lyrically different, but the rhythm and chord progressions are the same.  “Bohemian Rhapsody”, however, would have to go.

With the first show only days away, I set the RC-2 aside and got the Boss RC-30 twin-pedal Loop Station, which has capacity for 99 pre-recordings and they can be imported as *.wav files for perfectly-timed looping, as seen (the red thing with the warning sticker) at the bottom left corner of my pedal board…

tKS Pedal Board
…the contents of which I will not bore you here, but go into agonizing detail at the tKS website Utilities page, if you care to know more.

I gave the RC-2 to my son Adrian, who had complained about not being able to find someone (I live ½-way around the world from him) to back him on complex pieces.

The Show

With the concept, content and equipment for the act in place, The Kazoo Sutra was ready for his first show: Nov 21 2011 at the Beverly Hills Al Rayyan Compound “Doha Rocks” coffee shop.  Considering the newness of the act and that the facility is made entirely of tile and concrete without any curtains on the windows or carpets on the floors to control the echoing (bad acoustics are a marvelous crutch and opportunity for Special Pleading, by the way), it went so well that even my wife (my harshest and most valuable critic) gave it rave reviews.

It was so much fun that I decided to run with it.  I have since done a number of shows, each one setting a new low for “lame gig” (5-year old’s birthday party, a local Toastmaster group’s 200th meeting, etc) but being a LOT of fun regardless.  It also inspired me to use it as a platform to brush up on my Internet technical skills, resulting in the website, Facebook page and this blog.  I can’t help but mention that it wasn’t until AFTER I committed to the “thekazoosutra” domain for 2 years, finished the foundation for the website, told everyone about the site/blog/FB and made the vinyl pick-guard with “The Kazoo Sutra” emblazened across the guitar…that my wife said to me, “You know, that name you picked for yourself is just awful.”

Notably, many gifts I received for Christmas 2011 were kazoo-related, so I suppose this is now part of what defines me.  As such…

I AM The Kazoo Sutra

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