Robert Lawson playing one of his instruments.
Robert Lawson playing one of his instruments. / Lawson

The art of improvisation in lockdown

  • When Robert Lawson's English classes ground to a halt last March he rediscovered his improvised music roots and taught himself how to make wooden instruments

When the first lockdown in March last year was announced and Robert Lawson had to all but give up teaching English in Malaga, he turned to his lifelong passion of music to help get him through.

However, not satisfied with just picking up the instruments - namely the guitar, drums and mandolin that he already had at home in Riogordo - he set about making new ones.

The musician admits that he had "never made an instrument before" and in fact woodwork was not a subject he excelled at as a schoolboy. "I think it took me about a year to make a tea tray for my mum at school," he confesses.

Unperturbed by his early failures, Robert started experimenting with bits of wood he had lying around the house and he started to produce prototypes of dulcimers.

Inspired by little-known, yet "mythological" Irish musician Michael O'Shea, who he first stumbled upon in the late 1980s in the UK, Robert set about making his very own instruments.

Robert Lawson emulates the only known photo of his hero, Michael O’Shea, for his Bandcamp webpage as a tribute.

Robert Lawson emulates the only known photo of his hero, Michael O’Shea, for his Bandcamp webpage as a tribute. / SUR

According to Robert, O'Shea made a sitar-style instrument with a wooden door he had found in a skip while travelling through Germany. He went on to appear on Irish television and record an album of improvised music with his homemade instrument, which he christened Mo Chara - meaning 'my friend' in Irish.

Robert, 52, says he has now made around 12 dulcimer or zither-style instruments of varying sizes. In terms of criteria, he says, "I wanted them to be smallish and portable but able to be played." All of the instruments are made out of wood and are of "simple, cheap construction".

Piano tuners

By a stroke of luck, Robert's Dutch friend Corne, who has a piano restoration business up the road from Riogordo in Colmenar, offered Robert the use of his workshop as well as some professional tips and piano tuners, which helped to "finesse" Robert's efforts. "Piano tuners are very hard to come by, unless you happen to have a friend who restores pianos," Robert laughs.

Some of the creations have names, including 'Big Blue' whose name speaks for itself - and Brazilian - due to the green flag-shape in the middle.

Robert has also been busy recording the music he makes on his instruments and as it's improvised, he says that some of the tracks include sounds of his cats meowing or dog barking in the background.

He uploads them onto a page he has on a website called Bandcamp, which is an online platform where artists can create their own online store to promote and sell their music.

Last month Robert contacted BBC radio 6 presenter Stuart Maconie and was amazed when one of Maconie's assistants replied. "It all happened really quickly," Robert explains.

The presenter was interested in playing one of Robert's tracks on his radio show, Freak Zone, which showcases underground and experimental music.

His moment of fame came on Sunday 28 February. "It's like a door you've been knocking at for years suddenly opens," Robert explains. Since then the musician says that he has already been contacted by other radio stations as far afield as the USA and Australia.

Although his English classes are beginning to pick up again, Robert has plans to continue with the improvised music scene and the instruments. He says he'd like to start workshops, especially with children. "Improvised music works better when people don't come along with the baggage of what music should sound like," he explains. "So that is why doing workshops with children is ideal."

Robert is no stranger to improvised music, having got into it in his late teens, when he was asked by a teacher to accompany a dance therapist who was working with a group of people with special educational needs. "It was the perfect place to do it. None of the participants were at all judgmental," Robert explains.

Fast forward a few years and Robert is the founder of the Riogordo improvised music festival, which has been taking place very year for about eight years. Robert hopes to play some of his new instruments when the festival can get going again.

Robert jokes that while making and recording the instruments has kept him busy over the last year, it may also have been his answer to "a mid-life crisis." Some people, he says, "buy big motorbikes, so at least this is a lot safer," he adds, laughing.