Penrith Theatre Concert,19.12.11

The Charity “Music Vision” was booked into Penrith’s Theatre for two nights. I was to play a selection of tunes on the Northmubiran Small Pipes in the 2ndhalf. The theatre went back to 1928 and possibly before due to the black and white photographs back stage. The acoustics were good and the stage had ample room compared to Cumwhitten Hall. 

“Music Vision” did their set and other performers came on stage too some local to Penrith, I came on 2nd to last and played the same set as Cumwhitten but with guitar accompaniment. I felt the tunes were beginning to be a little fast for my taste, and it was difficult to hold it back on stage. The tempo of the tunes were good for dancing: waltz tempo and reels etc, but I was after a different sound. The melodies are dance melodies but since no one was dancing why play them as such? I wanted to slow them down and bring out the lyrical quality, the slightly held notes and vibrato using the microphone’s reverb. This I could not to a dance rhythm as well. 

There was a different mood, the audience were a little ‘flat’ no energy and lethargic and I also felt the musicians were too, perhaps after the good response everyone had on Friday it was a little hard to follow. But I felt I played well and the audience clapped a long under reduced steam for my set. Every night is different when performing and I think every audience should not be taken for granted, also there was little alcohol and I think for Cumbrian audiences is a major factor!

Cumwhitton Concert 16.12.11

I was invited to play a small village hall on the outskirts of Carlisle, (UK) called Cumwhitton. The hall reminded me of my early music days of practising on stage no bigger than a postage stamp, tripping over wires and microphone stands. Tables were lay out and the hall could take 90 people (in fact there was well over 100), as people arrived it was clear there would be a lot more and they brought their own drink it was going to be lively.

The concert was in aid of the local Charity “Music Vision” who encouraged people, mainly with disabilities to sing and perform, they did a wonderful thing, and some of the people were severely handicapped but performed with conviction and feeling. The performers were all local, age ranging from 13 to over 65, some suffered from nerves better than others. 

Three school girls opened the performances by playing in a group singing songs and one was playing drums. The other school children who had meant to perform backed out as the school and Health and Safety imposed a lot of rules and regulations, insurance and other stupid laws (shame on them) and I guess the parents did not let them come, how stupid and pathetic can they be? Other singers had good voices, one 15 year old girl sang wonderfully.
There was a poetry reading, songs, solo guitarist, bands, and a Compare who had a more of her body out of her dress than in it. Good audience participation, jokes, moving recitals, and I did my performance on the Northumbrian Small Pipes. The tunes were: Mallorca/Wards Brae; Ye Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon/Believe me If All Those Endearing Young Charms/Bonny Lad; they were well recieved with the audience keeping time by banging on the tables.

Snakes and Reeds

As it was a holiday in Madrid we thought to go and get out into the nature for the day. Our choice of area seemed to be the wrong one as it was heavily industrial with rubbish spoiling the river bank and the river stinking from the chemicals from the nearby factories. This did not stop the wild life from inhabiting the area though, birds and rabbits ran to hide as we walked along the rivers edge. We were walking near to the airport and every 3 minutes planes came over our heads on their way to land. I was getting a little disillusioned as the track came near to the motorway and then it ended with a gate saying “private”. We sat down and ate then headed back the same way.

What interested me was the size of the reed (cane) beds that lined the river bank, and also which grew away from the river and close to the motorway; they grew very big and a few were thick enough to cut , dry and to make open-ended flutes (nai and neys) as well as cane reed flutes.

As we walked along the path we saw a movement a few steps in front of us, a snake slithered down a hole, it was quite large, fat and light green. I am interested in the Gaita de Boto, the gaita from the region of Aragon that sometimes has a snake skin covering the chanter and drone. Green snake skin suddenly came to my mind and how it would fit nicely over my chanter!

I have reeds cut and drying in our flat for about 1 year, they need sized and experimented with to see if they are good enough to make reeds for bagpipes and to make open-ended flutes possibly of an Arabic style (nai) and perhaps a Turkish ney. The reeds near to the motorway were much better than the river bank examples, being away from the river meant they were a lot stronger, I would return and cut them later on and have a supply for a year.

I had collected a few pieces of cane to take home and as we walked I thought what an excellent place to come for  a day out, I can get my musical needs satisfied in one afternoon: snake skin for my chanter and drone, open-ended flutes from the motorway, and drone and chanter reeds from the river bank!
I did not even notice the airplanes any more.

Busker in Sanse

Last night, coming back from the city of mega-stores that are just outside the city of Madrid, we were sitting on the bus heading back to Alcobendas, when my friend suddenly pulling me off the seat and pushing me towards the door. I was a little surprised but I went with the flow. Once on the streets in an area commonly called ‘Sanse’  she led me back up the street and I thought maybe she wanted to return to the mega-store complex that we had just come, but there was method in her madness and very good reason it was too, as on the street corner there stood a busker playing Galician pipes. She had spotted the player while passing and was so excited that she could not tell me in so many words.

He played a gaita with 1 drone over his shoulder and by the look of his ‘open-fingering´technique a Galician chanter. We spoke with him and it was a Galican bagpipe. The single drone variety is an older type, very similar to the Asturian gaita, Gaita de Fole (Portuguese),and gaita Sanabresa, but what makes it different is the finger style as the Asturian gaita use a ‘closed fingering’ not so dis-similar to the Scottish bagpipes. The bottom hand has certain notes closed, whereas the Galican (and others mentioned) use open-fingering and plays like a Pennie-whistle.

He was from a village just outside of Madrid and he came to do some shopping and afterwards was busking. It seemed an odd place to busk on the corner of a noisy street with buses and cars passing but the volume of the gaita cut over all of the traffic noise. He found out that I was from Northern England and then played “Danny Boy” and Irish song/melody then “Amazing Grace” and Scottish melody/song. He played a Galician melody which he said was also internationally well know which it was but I am not sure its title. The internationalism of the music and instrument is becoming more common, people are getting to know each others music and instruments thanks to these international folk festivals, radio, travel, and people taking the time to play on the streets and share music with everyone who passes, and yes, he made some money too.

"Gaitas…Gaitas"

In a hot and steamy basement loud music was playing, flashing lights and people dancing, but this was not a disco in the modern sense but a meeting of traditional musicians playing traditional music from Zamora. The music switched from dulzainas and gaita sanabresa, after a session of gaitas a man passed and said in a loud joking frustrating voice “gaitas! gaitas!”
i took him to mean the frustration of playing together and not being in tune with one another. Not that the dancers minded they were following the rhythms of the drums and castanets but melodies help and when it sounds out of tune it can be a bit hard on the ears! Dam Bach and Mozart…and all the others who have accustomed our ears to perfect harmonies. I think traditional music is one of the remaining forms what do not require perfect harmonic intervals…but it is changing and it is changing fast.

There was something primeval, organic and alive about this performance. Yes it was all out of tune with each other but after sometime the ears and the brain got accustomed to the it and melodies were still recognized. I remember during my M.A. an article about Bulgarian female singers who sang in a few isolated valleys sang with seconds…two notes sung as harmonies but not ‘harmonically in tune’ with each other eg. G and A.
The gaita players where playing the same notes but the pipes were micro-tonally out of tune with each other thus creating discordant pitches, as well as drones which where not in tune with the chanter nor the other drones. It was an amazing sound, loud, rhythmic, free-making. People were enjoying it, dancing to it and even I had a go…

I think the best instrument to annoy ‘harmonic music lovers’ is to play the Highland Bagpipes…they are very loud and can annoy listeners quite easy (as it did with my family relations), but there is something wonderful about it too.

As far as I can tell there is no fixed tuning or pitch with the gaita Sanabresa, it is an old instrument going back to Medieval time and possibly beyond, it has that feel about it. It does not have an equal-tempered scale. It plays in a minor scale but the 3rd flattened note is not exactly a 3rd, it is a little flat and so is the 6th note it is a little flat. It would be dificult to play with other modern instruments as they would be in tuned with an equal-tempered scale so they ‘fit’ harmonically and fixed to a certain pitch. But it makes sense when you play the drone as it would fit in perfectly with the harmonics of the drone.
Gaita Sanabresa can be found in a Bb, B, or C and perhaps other keys in between too!

This also complicates things when one tries to notate the music. As it is in a minor scale key signatures are used in the notation. C/Do minor has 3 flats, but the chanter has a sharpened 7th note, so the Bb would actually sound a B, but it is written without accidentals or a natural sign in the key signature.
The notation is only there for reference it seems not an accurate attempts to represent pitch of the music. There is some notation that is written with out any key signature at all thus making it a C major…but the chanter is the same as before it does not play in a different key with sharps and flats like the Galician (not that i can tell anyways). So the notation is only there as a reference.

On the internet I have tried to find a scale of the gaita Sanabresa written down but I was not able to find one.
So since I could not find a series of notes describing the scale I am going to attempt one now just to put something out there for people to see:
Starting from the bottom note with all fingers closed b, C, D, Eb (flattened), F, G, Ab (flattened), B, C

If any players can add to this I would be most grateful.

Plastic Reeds

Yesterday I got tired of sitting in front of the computer and decided to give reed making a go. I had bought some tools from the local hardware store…files, sandpaper, pliers, etc. and I have had cane drying drying underneath the couch since last year. I thought to start making bagpipe reeds by using a book I had been given on how to make Northumbrian Small Pipe reeds by Colin Ross.  This book was given to me by a reed maker from Appleby in Cumbria, UK. not too far from where I live. I met Bill while I was busking one day in Carlisle and through this contact I later met him in his home where he showed me his workshop, give me some tools and materials and sent me away telling me to go and make reeds, as he was stopping making. I did not do anything for a year, but now I have the time I will try it.

For this experiment I would not use the cane underneath my couch, I would use plastic so if i make a mess I can easily start again. The plastic came from a yoghurt carton and after cutting it to the specified measurements and fixed it to the metal staple I blew into it. It works, it is not loud, I need to experiment a bit with it, add a bridle, scrap it, etc. but it sounds and seems to be the right shape.

There is now a tradition of making plastic reeds. I am in favor of them, as a musician you need that stability these days. The cane reeds are great if they work well but when using your breath to play the bagpipe the moisture can cause all sorts of problems. Plastic reeds last, and it is possible to get a nice sounding reed especially if you learn to make them yourself.

Of course cane reeds sound excellent and if you are into the tradition then they are the right reed for you, but I feel if you are trying to make a living by using cane reeds then you need a steady supply of good reeds and this is not always possible to get on demand from busy pipe makers.

Bellows blown pipes are less of a problem of course due to the dry air from the bellows, but humidity is a problem with the NSP and I have played countless times…or not played, due to the reed closing, changing, getting weak and altering pitch to such an extent that I had to stop playing. This can not be a factor if one is playing for ones living. On the streets it is wet and hot, cold (check out my other blog http://kevnsp.blogspot.com/2010/12/frozen-money.html) and windy…I am tired of playing in the shadows all the time when it is warm.

So a stable reed is important and I am quite sure if the traditional pipers from centuries ago could have had a plastic reed I am sure they would have used it.

Casa de Zamora

Links and more links…all are connected so they say. Who would know it but last year a folklorist and music researcher I had met on Facebook called Alberto advised me to go to ‘Casa de Zamora’ in Madrid if I wanted to learn about bagpipes from the area of Zamora (Gaita Sanabresa) in north western Spain and to meet musicians in the Madrid area. Casa de Zamora is like a cultural centre for people from the Zamora district of Spain. Each region of Spain seems to have these cultural centers in Madrid and elsewhere, often music is practiced in these centers.

 It took me a few more months to finally get round to going and this was due to meeting Alberto in Zamora and listening to his music which finally made me go; I was thrilled by the music and the musical atmosphere in Zamora. The events itself that inspired me I will write about another time, but let me say it was a new experience and it excited me so much to try and learn the Gaita Sanabresa; the Casa de Zamora’s web site (casadezamora.com) listed a gaita class on Wednesdays and last night I went along.

I noted 12 musicians (10 pipers and 2 drummers) and 1 teacher. The gaitas were not all uniform like the gaitas from Asturius or Galicia they were a mixtures of colours, textures, thicknesses and designs. There were a few new surprises such as the wood used to make a couple of chanters, they were made from a heather plant, which for me was a surprise as I know heather in Scotland and it is a small thin plant, but apparently it grows very high here and strong enough to make chanters. I also noticed there were differences in construction. This is partly due to a lack of supply, one maker was mentioned who made good pipes in Cantabria had a waiting list of about 1 year, but he made other types of pipes besides Gaita Sanabresa. 

 If I wanted to learn to play I was advised to get a Galician chanter in Bb (Si bemol) and tape over a section of the 3rd hole making it a minor scale (the popular key of the class was Bb and this was good for singing). The tuning of the chanter was still unclear to me but generally the Sanabresa chanters have a flattened 3rd note and a flattened 6th note, but this was not always the case; and Aliste chanters (the region just south of Sanabresa) had the 3rd note flattened and the 6th note natural. There still needs some clarification in my mind about all of this. The Galician chanters in the class were thinner and slender than the Sanabresa, one boy had quite a thick Sanabresa chanter; their melodies were 1 octave and they used open fingering. The tone was not harsh and with 10 pipers in a small room it was OK on the ears, and time was spent tuning and making sure the pipes were playing in tune together.

 Another point of note was the bag construction, the people who had bought Galician gaitas (so they could learn quickly) had a Galician/Asturian style of bag – ‘pear shaped’ in style made from Gortex, with the bag cut so the drone stock sits naturally onto the shoulder. The Sanabresa gaita bags had the form of an animal and the drone stock was one of its legs (I do not think an animal skin was used, but the shape of the bag was constructed to look like one) and this ‘bent’ backwards so the drone went over the shoulder.  Some had tassel’s over the drones others with out. 

The drones were thick and differently designed made from different types of wood: ‘black wood’ and ‘red wood’, ‘knotted wood’ and ‘heather wood’ some of the drone sections had metal rings around the ends as did some of the chanters.
Men and women were learning to play all with different standards, they used notation sometimes but the people seemed to know the melodies from growing up in the Zamora region and were able to play from memory. There were 2 drummers and the rhythms were fast sometimes in 5/8 (aksak rhythm) and other times in more regular patterns, often the rhythm changed half way through a melody from 3/4 to 6/8; often the teacher took the drum when they played as a ensemble.
I was impressed by the whole evening, their friendliness and their music, which I liked a lot.
I will give it a try,…