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The Second Coming of the Penguin Café Orchestra | reviews, news & interviews

The Second Coming of the Penguin Café Orchestra

The Second Coming of the Penguin Café Orchestra

Younger funkier penguins in Bestival

After the untimely death of its founder, the composer Simon Jeffes 12 years ago, all bets were off as to the likely continuance of the Penguin Café Orchestra. I still remember conversations with various members of the Penguin ensemble in December 1997 at the wake in the house in Somerset where Jeffes spent his final days. The general view then seemed to be that without his presiding influence, the PCO’s music would only survive on record.

“Simon stopped us sounding naff,” was cellist Helen Liebmann’s blunt conclusion.

As a performing entity, the idiosyncratic Penguin formation – with its uncategorisable blend of ethnic folk, minimalist airs, found sounds and European chamber idioms – appeared to be over. Not so however. After a lengthy pause, the PCO has been re-modelled by Jeffes’s 31-year-old son Arthur and in 2009 has moved into its second incarnation. A younger, funkier orchestra – Arthur and his mates, basically -  has just spent a busy and successful summer playing various festivals, ending at Bestival on the Isle of Wight tomorrow. “It feels completely right to be doing this now,” says the multi-instrumentalist Jeffes junior. “The old fans still like it and now we have a more driving rhythm section, with a double bass and more of a backbeat, younger ones seem to find it fresh.” As well they might, since a third of the Penguins’ current set comprises new material composed by Arthur himself. “I’m writing for the musicians I have around me, rather than the ones my dad knew for so many years. That was a very intense relationship, and I can’t hope or try to reproduce that.”

He used a draft excluder to patch up the old harmonium that his father had found abandoned on a street in Kyoto

Jeffes concedes that there were rumpled feathers among a few of the original Penguins – “they got a bit grumpy over the billing” - when he re-formed the PCO  at the end of 2008. But in line with the group’s genial, libertarian instincts there has been no serious rowing over ownership of the Penguin brand. In fact a breakaway fraction of the original orchestra featuring trombonist Annie Whitehead and percussionist Jennifer Maidman has been out and about performing old PCO favorites as The Anteaters. Life, as it always did at the Penguin Café, goes on.

I’m particularly glad this is so. Having witnessed the reunion shows at the Union Chapel in 2007, held to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Simon Jeffes’s death, I was struck by a dark, melancholy strain in the performances which tended to obscure the PCO’s more uplifting, fun-loving side. A mood of foreboding pervaded the august churchy venue. To be honest, it felt uncomfortably funereal at times.

And that wasn’t quite the ticket. Having started out as a wacky imaginary ‘concept’ following a dystopian dream Jeffes had during a severe bout of food poisoning in 1972, the point of the Penguins was to stress the unfettered joy of making music without frontiers. Which it did very successfully over the next 25 years.

By the time of Jeffes’s death, the PCO’s deceptively weightless tunes had mysteriously infiltrated most areas of the culture, as they continue to do today. From Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label, which released the first PCO album in 1975, to the Royal Ballet’s repertory piece Still Life at the Penguin Café, choreographed by David Bintley, has been quite a journey. A lot of Jeffes’s pieces have been appropriated by film soundtracks – notably "Telephone and Rubber Band" and "Music for a Found Harmonium" – and there is nearly always something by the old PCO playing on a TV advert near you. "Harmonium", a modern faux-folk classic, has recently popped up as the theme to Radio 4’s brainiac knowledge contest, Round Britain Quiz.

This may be a great tribute to the enduring power of Jeffes’s compositions, blah-blah, but he was not one to value reputation and repertoire for their own sake. On the contrary. When I first met him in 1987, he was thrilled to report that several of his pieces had taken on a life of their own. (One was currently being used to flog a national newspaper.) He compared them to children leaving home and taking up with people and situations he might not have chosen or even approved of. The last thing he wanted was to become a part of a canon which he hated while at his London music college in the 1960s. The man who arranged the strings for Sid Vicious’s cover of My Way was no respecter of classical protocol and sensible career moves.

A year after the Union Chapel shows, Arthur Jeffes was asked to play at a private festival at Potentino Castle in Italy, a country which had always welcomed the Penguins. He used a draft excluder to patch up the old harmonium that his father had found abandoned on a street in Kyoto, and which had since become a signature instrument of the original band. With Tom Chichester-Clark on keyboards, Darren Berry on violin and Andy Waterworth on double bass, the quartet ended up playing Penguin Café numbers for hours on end. Which Arthur found “surprisingly enjoyable”.

It soon got better. There were low key gigs in Somerset and Galway. Reviving and re-versioning the music and adding some of his own, Jeffes junior took a nine-piece band down to the ICA theatre earlier this year, for the new PCO’s London debut. The start was a little stiff. “I don’t think any of us or the audience knew what to expect,” Jeffes said later. “Everyone looked so serious.” But soon things lightened up, as the African rhythms, the ukeleles and the cuatros started to skirl – reminding the young audience that long before the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain came into being Simon Jeffes had recognised the curious appeal of an underrated instrument.

In the second half at the ICA, Arthur Jeffes upped a gear and introduced some of his own new work, including Finland, an emotive piece for the cellist Rebecca Waterworth, which trailed some of Jeffes senior’s trademark piano arpeggios. There was an impressive piano study, Harry Piers, which showed off Arthur’s  delicate keyboard chops, and a lovely African thing, Ghost in the Pond, a new composition based on a 5/4 rhythmic mantra from Sierra Leone that Arthur found in the recesses of his father’s vast record collection.

With the new PCO now fully up and running, the next stage is to start recording. Arthur talks about “a modest album in the spring” and prior to that in November, a DVD release of footage from their recent festivals. He’s been talking to his friends in the Guillemots – what is it with these creatively consorting sea bird lovers? – about some collaboration sponsored by the British Council which he calls “a gentle mingling”. As we speak, he and the Penguins have just finished a recording for the Teenage Cancer Trust which took place last week in an empty, inter-Prom Albert Hall.

Arthur Jeffes still can’t quite believe he’s becoming the "chip-off" he resisted being for most of his twenties after leaving Cambridge. But he says it definitely beats doing music for commercials and the other journeymen jobs he took for years to make ends meet. “This just feels so immediate, not so tweaked or designed by committees,” he says. “Dad always understood that about music, and now I really get it too.”

The point of the Penguins was to stress the unfettered joy of making music without frontiers

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Dear Robert, Just for the record, 'The Anteaters' ,who you mention, are Geoffrey Rchardson, Jennifer Maidman, Annie Whitehead and Steve Fletcher, all long standing members of the original Penguin Cafe Orchestra ("older, less funky?" see the link below ), who were happy to continue after the Union Chapel, along with occasional Penguin Liam Genockey on drums and percussion. I wouldn't exactly say we've been 'out and about'. One gig so far, though we would love to do more, if anyone's interested. We will be at Applefest near Lewes on October 18th btw. Your reference to 'libertarian instincts' may be a little naive by the way. We couldn't call ourselves the PCO even if we wanted to (which we wouldn't without Simon), as both that and now 'Music from the Penguin Cafe have been trademarked by business interests. C'est la vie. Long live the Penguin Cafe! best wishes Jennifer x

Sorry, make that the link above. Click on my name to see the Anteaters playing Music for a Found Harmonium at Broadstairs folk week. ...

Hi Jennifer Sorry, what I wrote was based mostly on one conversation with Arthur. I had no idea that business interests had intervened. as you describe. Naive seems a fair comment. I wish you and the Anteaters all the best and apologise unreservedly for any hurt caused. rs

I had the great priviledge of seeing the original PCO 4 times, including the When In Rome concert at the South Bank. A few months ago, I took my wife and two young violin playing daughters to see Arthur and his band at Bexhil and we absolutely loved it. Tonight, I have only just discovered that the Anteaters are starting to play gigs and will definitely look out for them next year. One thing really upsets me, though. As a pure fan, Simon always struck me as being far too nice and unassuming to be the globe-trotting, band leading genius that he was and, having read the above, I do hope that there is no hint of animosity between the original members and Arthur and his band. The Penguin Cafe always seemed to be a place where talented musicians could drift in and out and I hope the two bands can still remain close enough to be in the Cafe at the same time, albeit at different tables!

I love HelenLiebmann.and her cello.therapeutic..to say the least. And of course not least of all the whole of penguin cafe orchestra.

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