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.

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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.

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…

“Play Something English”

It’s all becoming a bit too much. Brexit and the media have released in people a bigotry that was hidden. A few occasions in the past 2 months I have gone busking to be faced with a mindless ignorance that comes from people who are prejudiced against foreigners.

These people seem to think the instruments I play (English concertina and the Border Pipes or the Northumbrian Small pipes) are foreign instruments and therefore I am foreign too.

The latest encounter happened yesterday. A young couple (who had a Lancashire accent) came up to me while I was busking with the English concertina. “Where are you from” he said. I replied I was from Carlisle. “O’ good as if you are a foreigner I would not give you any money”. As he said those words I pulled a face of disapproval, he noticed this and said “O’ I am not racist” he thought for a second and came back and put 1p into my box, he must have felt guilty!

Another occasion was when 4 kids, aged roughly 13-14, came past me while I was playing the Border pipes. One girl did not like the sound of the pipes and was shouting at me to stop, then screaming at me to stop, holding her hands over her ears and screaming, she kept on saying “play something English”. The 2 boys with her began to get annoyed so I decided to stop. I told them that with all their screaming they had no idea that this instrument was from this region and the tune I was playing was from Northumbria. They were actually de-crying their own culture. I told them they should get to know their own culture and music before they open their mouths.

Ok, they are young, bored teenagers, and as they hung around I learned that they had nowhere to go, and had no family as such; so they were looking for mischief. One other girl egged on the screamer to throw a pint glass of water over me, but she threw it on the ground instead in front of me.

Another experience was again when I was playing Border pipes and 2 young boys walked past and shouted “play something fucking English”, again I was playing a Northumbria melody on an instrument that was native to my area. These sorts of comments happen a lot.

A couple of years ago I was playing the Northumbria small pipes when 2 police men stopped me. One had a London accent the other was from Carlisle. The Londoner was obviously looking for a promotion, or to make his mark. He said derogatively “which country is that instrument from” I said “country or county? The Londoner looked confused, and that’s when the Cumbrian said to him “these are Northumbrian Small Pipes” the Londoner looked embarrassed and they both walked away.

When I sit and play the majority of people like my music. But when they approach me they always mouth the words “it is nice”, like I cannot understand them, some look at me as though they want to speak to me but feel I cannot understand English.

I can only draw from this that they see a busker and they see a foreigner. To tell you the truth I feel like a foreigner, as I do not recognize the prejudices that are on our streets these days.

Bandcamp: CDs

I have been re-looking at my Bandcamp site. It takes a lot of time to edit it.

I have re-mastered (as they say) the Border pipes CD “O’er the Dyke” and in doing so, it was like finding a lost manuscript, hidden in my archives. I had to re-understand what I was doing all those years ago while recording that CD, using the equipment I had back then. No such thing as DAWs as today, I used to record using a normal computer and its own sound programme. 2 computers to create 1 CD.

Technology moves so fast and now it is easier to record, edit and publish a CD using 1 computer and 1 programme. It takes a lot of time of course, days, weeks and months… but the actual recording can be done a lot quicker.

I have been working on 2 new CDs.

The 1st CD is of the Northumbrian Smallpipes: looking more closely at the Dixon manuscript, with their complex variations. And also I have been looking at various non-British melodies from Sweden, Spain, Belgium and France.

The reason for the mix of styles is a reflection of the countries that have influenced my music of the past 20 years. A CD has to be representative of what I am playing now, and what I am playing are melodies that are directly part of my life. Since I spend a lot of my time in Spain researching the bagpipe, I play a lot of Spanish bagpipe melodies, and since I visit Sweden I have collected 1 or 2 tunes from there… and so it goes on.

The 2nd CD is a concertina CD, with a doubling up of a mandolin on various tracks. The mandolin I started to play again after 30 years break. These tracks are a reflection of my busking activities in the UK and various duets I have been involved with in Spain. The style also covers a range of UK and Spanish melodies that work on the concertina (not all of them do work!). I had to learn a new repertoire on the concertina recently as one of the notes stopped working, so instead of transferring the existing melodies onto a new pitch, I learned a new repertoire in a different key.

These CDs I hope to have finished in December and January.

Jinn & Tonik / The Flying Cats

I have been playing with Alba, a fiddle player from Madrid over the past few years. I put to gether a few mp3s connected with our rehearsals. We are called “Jinn & Tonik” and we are trying to mix Spanish and UK music with musical “accents”, how each of us look at each other’s music.
Jinn & Tonik

Another musical project was with a Alba and a singer called Isabel, we concentrated mainly on Scottish Songs, but with the phrasing and “accents” of Spain. We called ourselves “The Flying Cats” (the name was taken from Isabel’s cats who decided to jump from one side of the room to the other and land on our heads while we were reheasing).

The Flying Cats

Guadalajara – Irish Session

Does it seem odd to have an Irish Session in Guadalajara/Spain? Not really, as they are often called Celtic Sessions due to the mixture of music that is played from the different “Celtic nations” (Brittany, Wales, Ireland, Galicia, Scotland) but what is interesting about this sessions is that it is a session just forming.

I am not one of the original members, but I have been going off an on and I see it changing. The session also meets in a villages outside of Guadalajara on a Friday evening, but I can not get to that one.

The musicians are from different musical backgrounds and from different nationalities (Spanish, USA, Irish, Iranian, UK, Italian). We sit in a corner of a pub, we wait for the TV and loud rock music to be switched off the CD player in our corner of the bar (we request it) and we come together, often chatting for half an hour before anyone plays anything. Since I have to go early to catch the train back to Alcala de Henares I try and play something to get it started.

The seating arrangements of the musicians is interesting at at one end of the group there are the instrumentalists: flutes, whistles, violins, Irish pipes, concertina, gaita. next to these are the bodhran players (often 2-3 players) a Cajon player, someone playing sticks, someone playing bones, next to the rhythm section of this folk orchestra is the stringed instruments (3-4 guitars). I have been playing my English concertina since I have been attending, but recently I have been playing Spanish music on the Galician chanter which has been nice.

The type of music is a mixture of Irish traditional music (which dominates the session), a few Spanish melodies, a few melodies from George Formby, an Israeli melody, and a few hornpipes which are common to all sessions perhaps. There is no singing yet although one woman has a great voice for trad. music.

They communicate with each other via “Whats-Up” passing videos and notation, suggestions for melodies to play, as well as jokes and comments. It is an active site. Recently there is a discussion about splitting the Whats-Up into two forms, one for serious tune discussion and the other for chatting, notation often gets lost in the amount of chat there is.

It is a community, it is growing and evolving, changing and as an ethnomusicologist it it interesting to see the development.

Folk Sessions: Monkhill, Tebay, Newcastleton

I have been attending a few sessions before Christmas. They happened on the Sunday the 20th, Monday the 21st and Tuesday the 22nd of December, last week.

Monkhill Session
The first was a session at Monkhill, just outside of Carlisle. Besides the normal session it was well attended with holiday makers and also because there was a charity event to get some cash together for the flood victims in Carlisle. We had a list of tunes (I never knew we had so many!!) and people could ask for a tune to be played and they would donate some money towards the flood victims. There was a good atmosphere and we played an assortment of melodies and songs. The instruments were: a guitar/vocals, fiddle/vocal, 2 English concertinas, bodhran, guitar/vocals, and ukulele.
Afterwards I cycled to the boat at 12 midnight to check on her and bail any water out. I got home about 2.30am. There had been a lot of rain and some of the back roads were underwater I had to get off my bike and walk around it. It is difficult to see in the dark without a moon, the light of the bike lamp makes seeing worse, it is best to knock off the lights.

Tebay Session
The next session was just outside of Tebay near to Kendal. It was a birthday party in a village hall. Lots of musicians were there playing violins, cellos, accordions, etc. they were part of the Lakeland Fiddlers, a group of musicians who meet in the Brewery, in Staton. There was a nice mix of folk songs, carols, instrumentals, and nice food.

Newcastleton Session
The final session was at Newcastleton in the Scottish Borders. It had been a while since I was there and they have moved upstairs in The Grapes Hotel for the session. Attended by singers, an accordion, 2 guitarists and singers, bodhran, English concertina and Spanish gaita. This session happens on the 3rd Tuesday of the month.

Cummersdale Folk Session

It was the Cummersdale Folk Session last night, a slow start due to the lack of instrumentalists, but it livened up later on with nice sets played on the whistle. I played more concertina this week, some tunes with the other players: Jimmy Allan, Salmon Tails, Saddle the Pony, Miss Thompsons Hornpipe, Bollavogue, Boys of the Blue Hill, the tune to Captain Pugwash! But I mainly played the bodhran which I am enjoying a lot.

Instruments present were: guitar, whistles, wooden flute, banjo, metal flute, 2 English concertinas, and bodhran.

I am practicing other tunes: the Hawk, Minstrels Fancy, Random, Sheffield Hornpipe, Humours of Tulleycrine, Redesdale Hornpipe, Whinsheilds Hornpipe, and Whinham’s Reel.