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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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…

Xeremies’s “Ancient” Scale

We went to visit Juan Morley, in the town of San Joan. He is a researcher, musician and maker of the Mallorcan bagpipe “The Xeremies”.

He told us about the old scale used by the Xeremier players in the 60s. He said they used a different scale than today. A scale that is not based on harmony, or harmonizing with the drone, or perfect 5ths.

he explained: “you tune your drone (C) to your root note on the chanter (C) making sure the top octave (C’) is also in tune with the drone. Top and bottom of the chanter is in tune with the drone.

The 4th note (F) and 5th note (G) are also in tune with the drone using the harmonic series. So far it is normal to other modern bagpipes.

Here is where the differences occur. The tuning of the rest of the scale is different. It does not use semitones (or half tones) but quarter tones (1/4)…approximately!

Normally the 2nd would be a D (440cents), but with this old Xeremeis scale it is flat of of D, of about a 1/4 tone. Normally the 2nd note clashes with the drone anyways but this would make it more so.

the 3rd note should be an E at 440cents, and therefore harmonizing as a 3rd in the harmonic series… it would be a nice harmony, either using a major 3rd (an E) or a minor 3rd (Eb), but this old scale uses neither, it plays a 1/4 note flat of E.

the 6th note is a A (440cents) but again this is not concert pitch, it is a 1/4 note flat of A, again not harmonizing with other instruments, not with the drone.

the 7th note is flat also roughly a 1/4 tone, not a semitone.

Here, Juan Morley plays the “ancient” scale on the Xeremier.

I have only seen one other example of this tuning in Spain and this was with the Sanabresa Gaita, which also uses 1/4 notes in its scale.

Xeremiers in Sant Llorenç

We met the Xeremiers des Puig de Sa Font the next day in Sant Llorenç (Mallorca) for the Christmas parade in the town. They played at different venues as the main square was full of children’s activities. We had spent the previous day hearing them rehearse in the theatre.

They play a mixture of traditional Xeremies melodies from Mallorca, medieval melodies and new compositions by the director of the group, Antoni Genovart.

The Xeremies is a traditional bagpipe from Mallorca, with an unbroken line of musicians. I have been a fan of them for many years but I finally got a chance to hear them and to try them out during our time there. They have 3 drones out in front of the bag, 1 chanter with 9 holes, and are mouth blown. The other instruments are :

La Tarota – an oboe type instrument
Flabiol – (5 hole flute) and Tamborí (small drum)
Trombone
Tamborine

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.

Re-Sealing Bagpipe Bags

I have had a leaking gaita bag for some time, I could still play it but it was not holding the pressure after sometime. Perhaps the stitch was being stretched and the air was escaping through the stitching (the bag material was airtight). It was an old bag I made, and I have changed my technique since then for making.

Today I undid the stitching of my bag, took off the strip of tape that I had around the edge which was used for decoration, and cleaned up the loose threads. I then started the process of sealing the bag with a waterproof/gutter sealant. I did this to both sections of the bag, leaving an unsealed section/trip around the edge of the bag. I put extra sealant around the drone stock holes. Once I had sealed all the bag I went and covered the edge of the bag using a thicker film of sealant, then I left it to dry over night.

Tomorrow I will silicone the edges of the bag again with the same sealant and press them together, then leave to dry.

Once dry I will sew the edges with thread.

I will then glue one side of the bag/edge and reconnect the tape that I removed earlier. This gluing is only to seal the stitching/holes. When that is dry, I will do the same to the other side. Once dry I will tie in the stocks.

New Design for Drone

I have been playing my C gaita recently and I decided to make a small drone to go with it. I did not want to make the large C drone that normal go with a C gaita, but something I can carry around and make drone while I practice. I drilled though a piece of Bubinga wood and made 2 half from the one piece, 50cm each length. internal bore was 6mm. then I began designing the top sliding part. the internal diameter was 12mm. and I played around with the design.

The bottom standing part has an outside diameter of 12mm. the overall outside diameter of both pieces was 15mm.
The design for the bottom standing part was an idea I have been had for sometime and I wanted to try it out. if it did not work it could always be used for a chair leg!!

When I make the reed I will cover it in a removable stock and this will be inserted into a drone stock in the bag. It plays in C and I will make different sections for the top/movable part so I can play in D and Bb. I was gonna drill holes further up the drone but I decided to make new sections. This will add to the tembre of the sound.

I also intend to make a middle section to this C drone until I have a bass C playing alongside this tenor C. with 2 drones going it will be nicer for the gaita chanter which can be quite shrill. I have been thinning down the reed and now it plays a lot quieter than normal, this is for use indoors (pub setting).

Archive for Recorded Music

I have spent the last few days trying to find a web site to host the recordings for the blog. I have heard Soundcloud has recently sold itself to the multinationals and it will be hosting lots of advertisements on its site so while you are listening to a song you will be viewing all sorts of trash. I had to look for an alternative site. It is mind-boggling how much is out there and I had signed up for many sites only to find the same advertising or some other feature which is unacceptable. In the end I went with Myspace, I can upload the music and it can be an alternative site to the blog too. I do not mind people copying this music but I would like it to be listened too most of all. There is a lot of people in these bands and it is impossible to contact them individually and “ask permission from them” and I do not think I want to go through all of that anyway. The music is only uploaded as a reference not as a commercial project.

Removable Drone Stocks

I completed 2 drone stocks for my “workshop pipes” (2 drone holes are drilled at the top of the stock).

If you need to take the drones out of the stock the top part of the stock is removable, the drones stay still and the drone reeds are protected, the bottom stock is fixed snug into the bag via the grove.
The drone stock (lying down) has a smaller hole drilled into its bottom end for air to pass through, this reduces the size of the air hole to stop any drone reeds falling out of the drone seat into the bag; if this happens the top part is removed and the reeds retrieved.

The bellows are finally taking shape to what I imagined. They have studs around the edges for cosmetic purposes, the bellow’s fabric matches the fabric of the bag (different fabric can be sort to the buyers choice).
The shape of the bellows were sourced from a Musette’s bellow I had seen in the National School of Piping’s museum in Glasgow, I thought the design was unusual yet attractive.
The straps have a quick release and adjustable clasp. The bellows have a hinge attachment inside of the cheeks this gives a solid connection. The bellows are completely airtight, they are large enough for NSP and SSP as well as Border Pipes, as they are large less action is needed to inflate the bag.

Although the chanter and drones are still under design, the bag and bellows are beginning to be finalized.


Small Pipe Workshop in Hexham

The Small pipe workshop went really well last Saturday in Hexham (Northumbria). The students engaged with the exercises very well and I think got a lot out of it…well I know they did. I got good feedback from them and the boss of Core Music, who ran the event. I would like to do more events there, and do a follow up workshop for the Small pipes, as I feel the students wanted to go further with their playing. They managed to get a regular bellow technique; they got 2 drones in harmony and the beginnings of a steady chanter note, not bad for 3 hours. Northumbrian/closed fingering was popular; I guess Scottish Small pipe fingering is more popular over the border. If lessons could be held regular then I feel they could advance quickly.