Following on from Fratello Mare and White Shadows Of The South Seas, two previous albums on Lawrence English’s Brisbane-based Room40 label, and both dedicated to seafaring in this part of the world, Mike Cooper’s latest album Raft is dedicated to the solo voyager, of which he is an eminent example. Based in Rome, he is an intrepid musical voyager, both in terms of musical genres, starting with blues, gravitating to jazz, folk and experimental music, as well as physically, having travelled to most parts of the world with his guitar, recording equipment and electronics. Raft is dedicated to Vital Alsar and William Wills, the former a Spanish (Cantabrian) solo voyager who led three expeditions across the Pacific Ocean to Australia by raft from Ecuador, the second of which set a world record of 8,600 miles, the third travelled 9,000 miles in 1972, lnding at Ballina. Alsar currently lives in Mexico and is still sailing, around the world on a galleon in 1980, and in a trimaran, from Mexico to Greece in 2009. He has won the Adena International award of the Society for the Protection of Nature, represented by a ‘Golden Dolphin’ by Salvador Dalí, which he shared with Philippe Cousteau, son and cinematographer of French underwater explorer Jacques Costeau. Wills is well-known in Australian as the partner of Robert Burke, the first explorers to cross Australia from south to north in the 19th century, with fatal consequences.
Mike adds a note to the album in which he also dedicates it to Jim Sale, a 36 year-old man whom he befriended on Reading, when he was apprenticed to a timber mill by his father. Jim became a ‘life mentor’ to Mike, and he was building a plywood box boat at the timber mill, which was near the river Avon, and also lived with his wife in a barge on the Thames. He finished the box boat and borrowed a crane from the timber mill to hoist it over the wall into the canal, and then poled it singlehandedly into the Thames to de Montfort Island – now called Fry’s Island – where there was a jazz club called the Bohemian. Meanwhile Mike had formed his first band, the Blues Committee, and had starting playing in folk clubs around the country, when he heard the news of a fire on Jim’s boat which killed his two children. It was the first funeral he ever attended.
He also dedicates the album to ‘Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Louis Becke, Adolph Plate, Jacque Brel, FW Murnau and to all sailors, scribblers and drifters everywhere’.
The first track, ‘Guayaquil to Tully’ sets the tone, a slow, languid, drifting ambient mix of keyboards and lap steel Hawai’ian guitar, and also sets up the voyage from the most populated city in Ecuador, and the nation’s main port, on the Guayas river, to Tully, a river in Queensland (?). Las Balsas, in Argentina, is also the name of Vital Alsar’s third raft expedition, which was the longest-known raft voyage in history and the only known multi-raft crossing of the Pacific. The album concludes with ‘Guayaquil to Ballina,’ near Lismore in New South Wales, where Alsar berthed on his third voyage. Other tracks, like Malama Honua (To Care for our Earth), Honey Hunters, and Age Unlimited, evoke aspects of the voyages, and amount to a delightful ambient journey of slow, casual drifting, with some spiky electronics added to the mix, along with what sounds like steel percussion, and a few incidental ambient voices. It’s a journey well worth taking.
Here’s Mike Cooper’s version of the song ‘Movies is Magic’, by Van Dyke Parks, originally released on Orange Crate Art, an album by Parks with Brian Wilson, from his album The Reluctant Swimmer, released on the Discrepant label earlier this year. The album is on vinyl, and was recorded live at the Controindicazioni festival in Rome, in October 2003, and consists of one long track over two sides.
And as a bonus, I came across this in-depth interview with Mike Cooper by Philip Hayward, published in the Australian academic journal Perfect Beat in 2000, where he talks about his album Kiribati, his film Planet Pacific, ambient exotica and his work in the band the Uptown Hawaiians, among other things.