Violence and Busking

What do you do when about 10 boys come at you in a menacing way? That is what happened to me last Saturday while I was busking? I heard lots of shouting then as they turned the corner they all started chanting and singing and stamping. It reminded me of a Soweto tribal gathering. Slowing advancing towards me in unison, all I could do was put my head down and continue playing. When the noise got too much and when they had circled around me I stopped playing. One of the boys wanted money, he looked into my bag and demanded £1 for to buy a drink. I said I need the money for a coffee as I was cold; it had been a cold day.

Women say men are not very good at multiprocessing, but when it comes to getting your head kicked in we are not so bad really. I answered questions that were rapidly aimed at me:
“Is that your bike? Give me some money? Can I have a go? What is that? I am going to steal your bike?” etc.

You have to think fast. If you are aggressive or rude then you will have a pack onto you, with your face beaten and your instrument taken or broken. I was sitting down, so a kick to the head was easy to do. In fact I was consciously aware of that kick or punch that never came.

I have always been good at talking my way out of trouble and it was not the first time that a group had menaced me like this. One time a group of football hooligans came my way and I got hit on the head by a passing blow while I was playing my pipes. The funny thing was his friend said “don’t do that you idiot” and then gave me a few pounds, so I got paid for being hit.

That Saturday as I talked with this gang, who were on their way to the pub. I dodged their comments and eventually they got bored, then the magical words I longed to hear came “leave him alone” and the danger had passed. One boy aimed a kick at my bike and walked off. They hung around before going to the pub. I packed my things away and made my way into town. If I was still there when they came out of the pub I do not think they would be tolerant.

Group violence on the streets in becoming more of a problem these days; before it was individuals giving me a hard time, or a couple of boys, but now it is gangs and not only boys, but girls too. I remember one time a group of about 15 young adults came out of the Technical College at lunch time, came through the alley where I was playing pipes and started calling me names, then some dropped over the wall at the other side of me, and started to call me names too, I was boxed in. One boy threw some liquid over me. It was turning ugly. I always believe the best form of defence when verbal diplomacy has failed is to run; I could not so the final resort is to “attack” so I did. The cowards ran off, I got one and beat him over the head until he squealed. I packed up and went home.

I have been threatened a lot by homeless people who tend to think that a particular paving stone is “theirs”. They can have it is not precious to me. But they can get aggressive especially if they are mentally ill. I have been threatened with violence in the same way as a young police officer would threaten me “when I get back if you are not gone you will be in trouble”. For me there is no difference in character except for the clothes they wear. One homeless man called “Geordie” threatened me in such a way, I felt very strange about this man, as though there was something seriously wrong. I left the area, and then 2 weeks later I saw his picture in the local newspaper, he had murdered a homeless man in the nearby park.

The other people who bother me are junkies, they are harmless but they want money. I do not give them any; drunks are more forceful (it is the nature of the drug I guess) and they try to take it. But generally I keep my head down, play my music and do not look at anyone. And 99.9% of the time I am left alone.

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A Minority of a Minority

While I was busking with the English Concertina last Saturday, in the distance I heard a sound; this sound got nearer and then I saw the reason for it. A large group of Morris Dancers were passing by, they had been performing in the town centre and now they were heading back to their cars. They still wore their bright coloured costumes, decorated hats, and ribbons hanging from their clothes; the women wore colourful dresses; “Middle England” with bells on their shoes.

As the concertina is a popular instrument amongst the Morris dancers of England I gave them a smile. But nothing, no response! No interest in the music I was playing (a Northumbrian tune called “Lindesfarne”) no interest showed on their faces. They were quiet, they looked ahead, and they were passive. After a few had passed I resumed my stance of looking down and concentrating on the melody. I ignored them as they ignored me.

I was not asking for anything, except a smile. Let’s face it folk music is not that popular, whenever I am playing I often get a smile or some sort of facial recognition from people who like folk music, but I think generally it is a minority who actually listen to it and even fewer who play it. I would have thought like-minded people would acknowledge one another, not everyone but at least some, and there was many of them. They kept on coming; there must have been many groups in the town that morning.

Morris dancers and musicians are a minority of a minority in the British folk world, their dances are quite strenuous and need to be taught to new people, it is not the waltz or polka type of dances that you spin your partner round and round. It is not something that people do without training; the general public “watch them” do their performance, but do not join in, it is not that type of dancing.

I think the general public considered them a joke; they are often depicted in comedies on TV. People who dress up in costumes, with sticks, bells and dance around with ribbons hanging from their clothes is not “normal” behaviour for an Englishman to do, whatever is odd is laughed at.

It is not an opinion I hold, in the past I went to a rehearsal of Morris dancers in Carlisle. I wanted to play my pipes to their dances, but they were not interested in that. Instead, they got me to dance one of their dances; it was hard work, I was knackered after the first dance; it is not easy and you need to be fit.

I have a friend who likes Morris Men as they like drinking and so does he, they seem to travel a lot and enjoy themselves with other Morris teams; they dance, play music, drink have a laugh; well some do but not this lot, none of them seemed happy at all.

Another friend of mine gets very abusive when it comes to Morris Dancers, he gets very “hot under the collar” let’s say; and says “it has no place in English culture”. I would not say that, but I think it is an “acquired taste” by its very nature and those who perform it do not pretend to be non-elitist, at least these Morris groups did not try to be friendly to me.

Another man I know, who plays English concertina, went to another local Morris team only to come away feeling “unwelcome” and he would not go back. It is a pity as they do have a reputation of being a “good laugh”.

These Morris people were not the laughing type! It was a serious hobby for them; they did not want to associate with buskers, even though they played the same music as me, had the same instruments and were from the same cultural tradition. But I was not them.

For me, folk music is not a hobby; and I do not dress up in colourful costumes, in fact I dislike dressing up when it comes to playing or dancing to traditional music. For me folk music is about “now” not rein-acting a history long gone. Folk music or traditional melodies are much of today as they were from the past and I do not need bright new colourful clothes to play it.

They passed by and I played on, and I am pleased to say that the general people on that day found what I played interesting, even if the “minority of a minority” did not.

Playford Dance Melodies

For several weeks now I have been playing for a dance group in a village hall near to Penrith. I play English Concertina with an accordionist and baritone English concertina. We play Playford melodies and the dancers form lines and swing their partners, a bit like a dance in a Jane Austin novel.

The format consists of 1 melody per dance and as the dances can go on, sometime for 15 minutes, it can be quite hypnotic, monotonous, entertaining, beautiful and taxing. Let’s say you get to know the melody well, it repeats and repeats. This is different to dances in Cumbria and the Borders as we often join a few melodies together to keep the dancer and the musician from getting bored. The melodies are different to the folk music I am used to playing, but I like it, different keys and finger patterns keep me learning new things about the concertina.

I have only known Playford melodies by playing a few pipe tunes, but Playford uses a range which is well beyond a 9 note chanter, so a concertina is ideal as often different keys are played and although they do not lend themselves easily to the finger patterns of the concertina, one can easily get used to them.

They are old melodies, mainly from England, roughly around the period of the 18th century. I had not played many of them as my version of the manuscript has been in “ABC” format and I am not comfortable with that, but there are a wide range of notated books that I follow.

The dancers are elderly; they belong to an organization that offers a wide range of activities, a dance group being just one of the activities. It is a small group, but there are larger ones and I think in the south of England they can be quite popular, with young people joining in.

For me it has been a new and interesting experience. It has led me to other activities connected with dancing and the experience of playing for dancing is quite different compared to solo playing or playing in a session. I am learning about tempo and group dynamics, which has added to my understanding of these old melodies and dance culture.

New English Concertina CD

I have started a new English Concertina CD, and I have been making some recordings this week and trying out my new microphones. I bought a new microphone for my concertina that has dual heads, 2 mics leading to one volume control. I can attach 2 mics to both ends of the concertina to get a balanced sound. The sound is excellent, not trebly or hissy. I can set a good level on the DAW.

I am playing tunes that I busk with, so they are well rehearsed and it does not take me long to record. The last CD was with a lot of new tunes and the whole process took me a long time to complete. I like the old CD, but perhaps it is not a representative of how I am playing and what I am playing while busking. The old CD was a mixture of Lowland Scots, Northern Spanish and Northumbrian melodies but with this one I am including some Irish into the mix as well.

I will be including other instruments too; the mandolin will be used to add extra rhythm to the melodies, and a bodhran on certain tracks for percussion. I also want to include a track with all instruments together including small pipes. The dominant instruments will be the concertina and mandolin, and the other instruments will be added for texture.

New Small Pipe Bag

I am making some progress with my small pipe bags. The success is down to finding some light weight material which is airtight; believe me it has taken me ages to find such material. I have been working also with a rubber solution to make the seams airtight yet flexible after gluing and sewing.

I made a bag with a “round” design, these bags are quite popular for small pipes and for gaita, the idea is that there is no bag protruding out from underneath the back of your armpit, so you can sit comfortable on a chair for example. But when I added the stocks for a bellow, I found it very uncomfortable to hold, I feel the “long bag” is ideal for bellows use.

Today I converted the bag into a mouth blown system by using some connecting stocks so I could fit a mouth piece. The original drone stock became the mouth piece stock; and the original blow pipe stock became the drone stock.

The design worked quite well, and I think I will keep it in the future and the new stocks line-up the mouth piece with the mouth very comfortably, without the need for cord to keep it in place.

I made a new stock for the bag to fit the Galician chanter in D, and played it without a drone. It worked very well; it uses little pressure and a good feel to it underneath my arm. I closed the chanter reed to make it play 2 notes above the octave (d’-e’- f#’). This is for the new tune book I recently bought by Matt Seattle, it is the repertoire of the 18th century piper Geordie Sims. These melodies have a lot of high notes, and it is common that e’ and f#’ will be used.

The next thing to do is to make the drones. I am thinking to make a drone stock so I can add 3 small pipe drones to the bag. So the Galician chanter will have a small pipe drone configuration D-d- d’. I hope to post some photos when I am finished.

Village Hall Ceilidh

The Solway Band, did a Ceilidh at Beaumont Village Hall, the band consisted of: 1 baritone English concertina; 2 treble English concertinas, a mandolin, a bodhran, whistles, a bouzouki, 2 guitars, 1 fiddle and 3 vocalists…in total 13 instruments, played by 5 people (I played one of the English treble concertinas and mandolin).

The “calling” for the dances was really clear and instructive and the people enjoyed themselves, some had never done these dances before and it was encouraging to see some young people attend the ceilidh. I was beginning to wonder if the local village dances were beginning to die out as the older generation gets too old to attend, but the young couples who attended enjoyed themselves and hopefully they will return.

I grew up with these villages dances, I did not attend that much because as a teenager I thought it “un-cool”, but my parents went and they were a familiar social event in our area. I am not confident with the dances (we never had a caller) so it was left to us to work it out ourselves, which is difficult to do; and another reason why I never went to these dances is that I never had a girl my age to dance with, they were not interested either. The young men who attended last night did have a girl to dance with and they had a go at all the set dances including the waltzes.

If you have never been to a village dance in the north of England then you might think it is a bit strange. The village halls are often in their original condition, some are old, over 100 years sometimes, made of stone but often they are wooden from about World War 2; I guess they were used to re-unite communities after the war. They were the centre of social events in those days with them being used for fairs and country dancing, bingo and dominoes and “tea and cake” social events, and later on discos and band rehearsal space…everything under the sun; our local one is still being used but not as much as it once was.

As a teenager I booked the hall to practice punk music with my band, and I went to a few New Years Eve celebrations, but the hall always felt “old fashioned” for me, not of my generation. If I was a teenager then, the people who attended regular must have been in their 40s, now they are not dancing and a lot of these halls are being used for other things, less strenuous exercises. I play sometimes for a Playford Dance group near to Penrith, and that hall is used for a variety of other events and people travel from miles around to come and take part, so it does not represent the village community any more.

I joke about it being like a scene from “Miss Marple” and I am just waiting for the murder to happen, but it is like that in a way, the tables are covered in flowered patterned table cloth, the event has a raffle mid-way through, and everyone “mucks in”… they get involved, it is a D.I.Y social event, less to do with technology and more about “holding your partner and having a pre-techno tête-à-tête”. It works for some and I guess it would work for a lot more if it was “cool” to do so.

To be fare the village hall is having a face-lift, the old ones are being knocked down and replaced by an architect’s vision of how a village should look like. This happened to the village close to us, the new structure cost millions and it reflects the changing face of village life… that village no longer has a post office or a village shop but they have a 21st century space-age designed village hall.

The ceilidh we played at was to raise funds for a new building, an architect will come and survey the area, then other businesses will be called to take the planning further, and this will lead to other fund raising events to pay for it all, all so they can build a new hall over the old hall. I guess the locals are hoping for the village social life to continue for many decades to come, but I wonder that in 20 years time when the older generation has passed on, will the young be there to continue the tradition? Or will these halls become a “glint in an estate agent’s eye?” we will have to see…