It’s never too late, says grandmother with novel music comeback
At an age many women are looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet, grandmother Barbara Eke is raising the roof of Annie’s Bar in Kentish Town as she and her band deliver an energetic rendition of Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag. The next day, she’s off to see her publishers to discuss the launch of her debut novel. After that, she’s packing her bags for the French Riviera, where she’s been booked to perform a week of solo dates.
It’s quite a change of scene for someone who not so long ago was juggling a teaching job with the demands of raising four children, but something that she had been working towards for some time. “Ever since I was a kid I wanted to do two things – to front my own rock band and to have a book published. It’s just taken a little longer than expected,” she says.
A talented and imaginative child growing up in Norfolk, Barbara seemed destined for a career in classical music, joining the National Youth Orchestra at the age of 10 as a violinist. But a chance hearing of the blues singer Lead Belly at a friend’s house brought about a radical change of direction “I knew instantly that that was the sort of music I wanted to play. I’d never heard anything like that before yet it sounded so familiar.”
She learned to play the guitar and joined her first band at 14, singing blues and rock at local parties and work do’s. It helped that she came from a musical family. Her dad and three uncles were semi-professional jazz musicians who were in tune with the music she was exploring. “But they’d found it tough making a proper living as musicians and they hoped this rock chick thing was just a phase I was going through.”
Her other passion was writing and at the age of 13 she’d polished off her first book, Charlotte Under the Hedge, about a girl who can shrink herself. “I sent it to a publisher and although they never took it on they wrote me a very encouraging letter back telling me to keep up the writing.”
University beckoned but it was unlikely that a conventional education was going to tame her restless spirit. She had also become immersed in early Spanish music as well as US artists like Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus who blended African rhythms with jazz.
Now in her late teens, she formed a band with her future husband David, a guitarist and painter, which experimented with improvised jazz and fusion sounds. “We wanted to push at the boundaries of music to create a freer form that incorporated many elements, even modern classical music like Stravinsky.”
But in the age of the three-minute pop song, it was hard going, especially after Barbara gave birth to her first child in 1981. She was 21 and before the decade was out she’d had three more children.
In 1999, the couple moved to London, in the hope of finding more fertile ground for their music, ending up in Kentish Town. “We managed to get the occasional gig, made a CD but never really got anywhere,” she recalls ruefully.
To help make ends meet Barbara gave private music lessons and trained as a special needs teacher, working at Swiss Cottage and Chalcot schools in Camden. Three years ago, as she approached her 50th birthday, she became a grandmother. “It seemed like a good idea to re-start my musical career – it was a case of now or never. I advertised in the musical press and soon got a band together.”
Her re-entry coincided with the burgeoning pub music scene and after making her debut at the Inn on the Park in Portobello Rd she now does the rounds at a variety of regular venues with her band, Barbara and Diamond Blisters (as written), including Annie’s Bar, where she also runs a monthly jam session that has been noted by the NME, and former Amy Winehouse haunt Jazz after Dark in Soho, playing blues, soul and rock standards as well her own songs.
A font of seemingly boundless energy and enthusiasm, she still has a taste for the offbeat, performing with David as part of their band Eke Homo. “I’ve also returned to classical music and am working on playing Bach’s Cello Suites on bass guitar,” she says matter of factly.
Last year her dreams all came together after she sent the manuscript of a children’s novel she’d written a few years earlier to City-based publishers Olympia. “I’d already sent it to a number of publishers but nobody seemed interested at the time. To my amazement, Olympia said they wanted to take it on.”
The intriguingly titled The Now Legendary Disappearing Act of Louis Bramble is about a boy who can make himself invisible. “I’d met a lot of kids like him during my teaching, bright and likeable but not fully engaged at school, the sort that get into trouble all the time,” she explains. “The story shows how he learns to make the most of the magic at his disposal.”
Due for publication at Easter, it should come as no surprise that Barbara is preparing to give the book a musical lift off, with the help of a group of young musicians from WAC Performing Arts College in Hampstead. “They’ll be performing a song I’ve written to go with the book at the launch. It’s something the publishers suggested I couldn’t think of a better way to announce it to the world.”