Pub Sessions – rethinking

By moving to another city/country to live, one has to get used to a new musical environment. It can be a upheaval and it may take weeks, months, years until you find an environment that suits you, or perhaps you never find it….it happens.
Recently we moved from Spain to Scotland, from Acala de Henares to Glasgow.

Moving house is a big deal, I never thought it would be as I have always lived out of a rucksack and moved from one country to another without much trouble. But we accumulate “stuff” and I had accumulated a lot of musical “Stuff”… various musical instruments, wood/metal work lathes, wood, computers, and pipe making equipment, tools, notation/manuscripts… the list goes on.

30 boxes later and in a new country we are slowly unpacking and sorting, finding our way around a new city and a different culture. For me it is not such a big change, but “visiting” a place is still different to moving and living there permanently.

Musically, I have to start again. I did not know where to go in Glasgow to hear traditional music, I knew no musicians to meet and play music with. I did know the Piping Live Festival but not the people who organize it or the musicians who play in it. I knew there were sessions but not sure if it was what I wanted or where they were.

When I was doing my M.A. in Ethnomusicology in Ireland, (Irish World Music Centre, Limerick Ireland), we shared the Centre with Irish traditional musicians, we shared some lectures also. One of the lectures was about the “session” how it started and how it evolved. I had never thought of it before, I always thought it was in pubs, jolly drinkers enjoying a pint and singing a few songs and having a tune on the fiddle (happy days).

But the session started in people’s homes, and it was not only songs and music, but anyone could do a turn…tell a story, recite poetry, dance, etc. Food, beers, wines, spirits, all included. It was like the house parties we had when I was a teenager. I can’t remember how the shift came about, how the session went from the house to the pub, but there was a shift in society, things changed and people moved, people changed and communities moved on.

If you are reading this outside of the UK you might not get what I mean, when I say “I don’t like pubs”, because I like bars! In Spain I finally got comfortable in bars, but each time I enter a UK pub I become very nervous. I have attended pubs since I was 14 years old (illegal drinking is a part of growing up in the UK) but also I have been to traditional music festivals where the sessions were in pubs. But if I look at European bars and compare them to UK pubs there is a big difference to attitudes and etiquette. In the past it was impossible to get a coffee in a pub, if you asked for something other than alcohol you could feel the pub “stiffen”, when I went to Europe I could ask for anything and it felt ok.

Things are not so strict now in the UK, in most pubs you can ask for an alcoholic alternative and not get looked at strangely (if you were a man) things have mellowed, but for me (and I know a lot of my friends) still feel uneasy about it.

The sessions I attended in Spain were relaxed, friendly and open. I sat down, got relaxed, chatted and maybe after 20-30 minutes ordered a drink, if I felt like it. I played a few tunes, got given a complimentary drink (free) bought my coffee/soft drink, and ate my tapas. My first experience on going to a session in Glasgow was different, after sitting down for a few minutes we were asked for our order…”coke please”!!! Reply “is that it?” “eeeerrrrrrr yes”. Some things don’t change (if you are a man).

I am not sure if sessions are my thing anymore. I like the house sessions, and I like the festival atmosphere, but pub sessions is not my thing. I have attended a lot of them over the years, I enjoy listening and occasionally playing, but my repertoire is not a typical session repertoire. I play bagpipes and pipe music and a lot of pubs do not allow pipes (they do not differentiate between the small pipes and the GHB) so I play concertina, but it does not endear me to the anti-pipe attitude. I like to be relaxed and I do not feel relaxed in pubs.

Another reason I dislike pub sessions is the high prices for a drink (often I do not need to drink) in a pub, it can be quite an expensive night when you consider transport in getting to the inner city, drinks and a bite to eat. There has been a lot written and said about “alcohol and musicians” I have seen quite a few good musicians ruined by alcohol, punters buying musicians drinks can lead to a ruined talent, alcohol problems and ruined careers.

Often too, you cannot hear the music in a pub due to the amount of chatter, festivals are becoming a big problem with a lot of people not listening to the music but shouting and talking loudly. I know musicians are not going to festivals due to this, musicians are staying away and only the talkers are going until they realize that there is no music and they stop going too, so the festival dies.

In the UK you cannot disassociate drink and violence, local youths are all too quick to find fault with an outsider, it livens up their weekend, again, this might be a purely UK experience, I have not experienced it outside of the UK. Sometimes I like to hope things have changed but every so often I find evidence that it is not so.

I think you can go out every week to a session in Glasgow or in the surrounding areas, Glasgow is alive with all sorts of music, it is a vibrant city, lots to do and they are very friendly, but I think and hope my musical future will not be in a session, I want to put my energy into making music in a different way and I hope explore these avenues while I live here.