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

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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.

Busking and Begging

When I finally emerged into the tunnel it was late morning. I had not intended to go playing at all, but I positioned myself underneath the arches, where there is a good echo, and played Northumbrian small pipes. I play to practice, to play melodies; I gave up doing it for money long ago when the money dried up. I keep my brain active by playing all the tunes I know. This is an ever changing format, new tunes come and go and I revise them all the time.

These days I am memorizing Peacocks tunes, I hammer them into my memory by playing them over and over again, busking helps to play them well, as it is a performance, and I have to get it right. It is good to play new tunes, it refreshes the set, and it puts new life into an old rehearsed format. I rework the notes, rhythms, and style. I play them fast, slow and everything between, a reel becomes a hornpipe, a slip jig a jig then becomes a waltz… a hornpipe a slow air… I am free to improvise.

As the morning wore on I noticed out the corner of my eye another busker with a guitar standing at the other end of the tunnel, I cannot hear him, but it is cheeky. Normally a busker would not be down here standing so close, there is not the space for 2 musicians. In fact I have never seen another busker there for many years. No one goes there, it is not a good place to make money and it is dirty and dark. But he was singing with his guitar, moving positions, and stopping a lot. Then he was gone.

After a break at 2pm I went back to play a little more. I get tired from standing, and I play until I cannot stand much longer. After a few minutes I notice a few meters away a man, it is like he is on his holidays with a carrying case and bags. It looks like he is arranging his case, but he sits on the floor and there he stays.
He is homeless, he is begging, he just sits there a few paces away.

What to think? This is not the first time a homeless person has sat in this tunnel while I am playing. On one occasion it was nasty, the person had once threatened to “stick a knife in me” if I came back, and a few days later he had knifed another homeless person in the park. Others have told me to “fuck off”, but only this one had sat. I played on. I noticed a couple of his friends hanging around; a man passed and whispered “careful of your case”. Things where turning serious. I played on. No abuse, no threatening movements only silence, only looking on … waiting. As time went on more lost people where hanging around. The park is well known for homeless people at night.

I was called a “beggar” in the early 80s while playing. Thankfully those days are gone; I think people realize playing music is not an easy thing to do on the streets. And I have only had abuse from drunks and drug addicts this then. I guess some people see me also as a “beggar” as a “homeless person” but I am neither.
In the end I moved off, I had played enough, this man was turning a dirty tunnel into something else… something where music is not welcome. I better quit while I still had pipes to play.

I packed up and passed him. I thought him a fool; he chose a place where he would make no money… I was making it. He could have gone to the other end, but he sat in the dirt and dog piss, where he would make nothing while I was there.  When I passed him he looked at me and I at him, he was the type who did not look after himself, a drunk and waist.er Let’s hope he gets lifted and put into a home… like so many others who had sat in his place. It is cruel to be kind as that is no life for anyone.

 I wandered into the center of town, a large merry-go-round was pumping out music… was this the reason why the other busker had come down to the tunnel, to escape the noise? I heard a brass band playing amongst the noise, then they stopped, a police man had stopped them and told them to move… recorded music is ok but live music is not. They were 5 people from Rumania; they looked confused and lost, wandering off down the street with nowhere to play, it was time to go home.

Music Software, Notation and Midi Files

I have been working on 2 variations of tunes from the book “The Day It Daws”. By writing out the notation from the book onto “Finale” music notation programme I can hear what it sounds like before I memorize it. The midi file also helps me to memorize the tune by converting it into an mp3 and listening to it via a player.

The 2 variations I am working on at the moment are “The Day Dawes” and “The Day it Dawes” I think both tunes are in the 1500s, but it is a bit confusing in the book to know which tune is being written about, but they are believed to be tunes played by the town pipers.

The other tune is called “Hunts Up” there are 3 variations I am trying out are “”Hunts Up”, “Honsup” and “The Scoth Huntes Suppe” there is another version I will notate also “Scottish Huntsupe”.

These 2 tunes were supposed to be played by the town pipers, the titles are mentioned in literary sources dating from the 16th centuries.

I have notated a few piping books in this way: Dixon’s, Bewick, Peacock, Over the Hills and Far Away. Also parts of the Northumbrian pipers 3rd tune book and the Charlton Memorial Tune book; as well as other music notation from various countries and sources. I put the midi files onto a CD and play them like a music CD, in time the tunes stay in the mind… aids memorization.

It has given me a good insight on how to play these tunes, also for enjoyment. It is an aid to learning passages too as some of the more difficult passages can be broken down and repeated with correct rhythm.

"The Session" and organic environment

I heard many years ago, in Limerick/Ireland, that “a session is an organic environment”. It changes; it comes and goes, it grows and depletes in size, it has highs and lows, with acoustic dynamics.

I experienced that in the Monaive Festival last weekend. It is hard to pin point all the changes. But there are ‘rules’ to a session, unspoken (mostly) yet evident. These rules are sometimes broken, but generally every one learns the rules and those that don’t find a corner somewhere to play in, alone or with likeminded people, and a different type off session begins… where strangely enough, the same rules apply but under different leadership. Is there a leader in a session? I think there is a general leadership, someone might suggest a rule in the beginning of it, saying who goes next, or what rules are to be used e.g. “we will go in a clockwise rotation of performers”) or, in a instrumental session there is often someone who leads a few sets then is over taken by someone else… and so it continues.

We entered a session in a back room at Monaive, it was in progress with guitars, singers, whistles etc. it was relaxed, with breaks between songs/tunes. We sat on the outside of the circle and waited and listened, after 5 minutes there was time to understand ‘the rules’ and we started to play when there was a pause. It went down ok, then the main group started up again, and so it continued.

A short time later one of the new comers started to tune his drones half way through their set of melodies… the players/group stopped automatically, a pregnant pause occurred, the “rule had been broken”, politely they had stopped to let the newcomer do his thing even though they were into their set (politeness is a rule) but since the new comer was new to “the session” (it was his first festival) how was he to know the rule? No one had told him, no one corrected him (except me). He learned his mistake, seemed apologetic, then a new melody started (the same melody did not continue).

After a while some more people joined the session, pipers, like us. They hung around for a while, listened, learned the rules… and joined in. it was going good, the session had grown, had changed its acoustic dynamic, more original performers still had their inner circle but the newcomers had join and had harmonized.

Then a mass migration happened, a group of new musicians entered, they did not stand and listen, they did not feel what the rules were, they changed the session completely by moving chairs to the bottom of the room, physically moving people down there by persuasion (“it will be better down there for everyone”) the movement occurred while one of the performers was playing a melody, I saw him still playing while he was herded to the bottom of the room, I saw him moving down to the “inner sanctum” of the new “temple” of the newcomers, with themselves as the high priests dictating to the congregation, constructed by themselves. It was no longer an organic session, but a constructed session, a creation with a core of leaders.

The original session had now disbanded, some packed up and left others hung around, watched, talked… I left.

I had seen this happen once before in Newcastleton Folk Festival. Interestingly they played the same type of music too… their type…and you either played it their way or you did not play, there was no room for anything other than themselves. You joined in their session or you were not included.

No one said anything, about this break up, was it accepted as normal? Musicians tolerate… even when the noise levels increase by the “listeners” as more beer is poured down their throats, musicians, singers say nothing… sometimes there is a “shshshs” from a listener to the room, but a few seconds later the noise increases. It is not surprising the festivals are changing, few musicians are going, fewer musicians are camping at festivals… they are changing.

I think ‘the session’ is a microcosm of a society, whether it is in some ones house, or in a bar, or a festival it shows the humanity and the lack of humanity in people.

To Record or Not to Record… that is the question?

Talking to Liz (the organizer of the Newcastleton Folk Club) we discussed the pros and cons of recording the folk club session. This prompted me to write my thoughts on recording music in public, whether it is a session, concert or festival.

Personally, I do not have a problem with it. I have been recorded, videoed etc. before, some have asked permission, some have not. It is always nicer to ask, not for the permission, but to make contact with the performer. Some occasions do not permit this (concerts, festivals) others do (buskers). The microphone placed in front of someone changes the dynamic of the performance. It puts a ‘barrier’ between you and the performer and it put the performer under a certain ‘obligation’ to ‘perform, thus creating a ‘false’ situation, and it can often take away the true, honest, heartfelt performance one is after in the first place!

So what are our motives for recording at all? Most who record will probably not listen to their recordings. Some might occasionally listen to them, and some will record for a reason. Very few we imagine record to make any commercial profit from it. Most will up load a few pieces of music on to Soundcloud, or Youtube… and others might listen to it in their own homes.

So why are people not willing to be recorded, or are ‘afraid’ of being recorded? Are they afraid of the internet? Are they afraid of being ‘used’? Is the material that they are singing or playing really ‘theirs’ in the first place? When we are playing/singing a particular tradition (folk, traditional, world, ethnic) we are passing on what we have learned and loved. Why should not we pass it on to a bigger audience? If someone thinks you are good enough to be recorded and put up on the internet then is that so bad? Perhaps we give too much importance to social media, it is just a video after all… it is only a recording?

As an ethnomusicologist I have recorded in many situations, solo performers, festivals, official paid recordings, ‘secret under the table’ recordings… etc. I have recorded for years, I have always recorded music. My first experiences of Newcastleton Folk Festival in the 1980s have been recorded, and I recorded others who are now dead and gone. This is the main reason why I record as events and people pass away, and styles change and repertoire change. I find it very interesting to listen to my recordings years later; I find it very interesting to other peoples recordings, the early bagpipers of the 1900s recorded on wax cylinders for example.

Of course there are ethics to do this… but if your intension is to record your event, to capture your experiences then one should do it. So how should we do it? If I had a Folk Club I would make it known that occasionally these events will be recorded and photographed… not all the time, not to put people off… and occasionally it will be uploaded with the person’s permission… when it is ok to do so for the performer for the context of the occasion.  If this is known to all then they can choose to say “I do not want my recording publicized” and that is fine, end of story. It is cutesy to be asked but if the performance is in the public domain (pub, festival, concert) then I think it is ok to record that event, to archive it for history.

If anyone is really interested in music then who would not want to know what traditional music sounded like in 1733 or in 1843? I know I would, how would a Half-long bagpipe sound in 1733 playing the Dixon manuscript? For them it would have been normal but today, we have no idea what that tradition really sounded like? Today we have an opportunity to tell future generations what it sounded like, why loose that opportunity? You might think “the BBC and Virgin are recording it all” but that is not the point, they are not recording everything and they are not making it ‘yours’ by physically recording you are making it personal, you are a part of it all.. You are adding to a tradition, helping it, preserving it.

The Nayanban – The Iranian Bagpipe

The Persian bagpipe is becoming more popular, possibly thanks to the internet, this once little known instrument is gaining more interest in Europe. Generally one player popularizes an instrument…becomes a well known name and gets all the attention, concerts, fame and money!
But, it does not mean they have the final say on the instrument, music, or style… but to many it is.

Leila, visited her country and chanced upon a Nayanban musician in Isfahan, Iran. Being Iranian she could converse with the player and learn a little bit about him. This is her story really, I am just including it as i think it is a wonderful story and a chance to Ethnomusicology working both ways.

The Nayanban is a bagpipe from southern Iran, near to the Persian Gulf. The “red arrows” on the map indicate the areas where the instrument is popular: Bandar Bushehr to Abadan, along the coastal area. These are port towns and possibly this instrument was imported from across the seas or it was exported from these ports to other countries?
The area is also near to Iraq and Kuwait, big oil producing areas, and there is also a lot of oil on the Iran side of the border too. During the War between Iraq and Iran (1980-87) this area received a lot of bombing and invasion. A lot of local people (Bandari) moved north to escape the bombing and they took their culture and instruments with them. A lot of the migrants settled in an areas close to Isfahan,  especially in a town called Shahrekord (South West of Isfahan).

This nayanban player Leila met was called Behnam Rahimi, from Baghbahadoran, which is close to Shahrekord, he came to Isfahan to play on the streets to earn some money; but unlike buskers in Europe who would play on the busy streets, shopping areas, city centers, and commercial and touristic areas, Behnam plays in residential areas far from the “madding crowd”, his streets were quiet, walled enclosed, no passers-by or shop-keepers to move you on! His audience were behind their walls, inside their homes or peering from their windows.

The instrument consists of a bag, 2 chanters in a single stock, no drone. The 2 chanters have the same tuning, the player’s fingers cover both chanter at the same time and play the same notes. The music is highly rhythmic, more for dancing I imagine than for singing. Behnam, told Leila that he was later to play at a wedding where there is generally dancing; but before the wedding he was “busking”… not ‘on’ the main street of the city, but ‘behind’ the main street, in quiet roads, lanes, drive ways. People would hear his music, and like his music and come out and pay him.

you can hear him playing the Nayanban here 

Gaitas at Christmas

The cold is affecting the gaita, it takes about 15 minutes to warm the reed up and to settle the drone reed, until then it is unstable. 

When it settles down I start with a mix of Asturian and Catalan melodies, a few from Zamora and I am now slowly introducing melodies from Galician and Northumbria. 
The melodies are well received by the general public, whether it is the new sound I do not know but they seem to like the melodies, which is encouraging. 
I am playing a Galician chanter in D, this is bought in Madrid and has a high pitched sound. The reed is constantly changing due to the damp and cold, so I have to alter it until it becomes stable, but when it is stable it has a nice contrast with the bass drone. This drone is from a Highland Bagpipe, the big bass drone, it sounds a D (440c)… , in fact I bought this Highland bagpipe in India in 1995 while I was there researching music. There is a metal tongued drone reed but it does not seem stable in the beginning, probably due to the large bore size of the Highland drone…  I need to make the bore smaller. 

I added “fleco” to the drone… a typical decoration that the Spanish bagpipes have. The drone sits across my arm (not over my shoulder) like the Border pipes; I did this because the drone was being scraped against the wall so it was not practical for playing.

Bellows Piping at Newcastleton Folk Club

It is only the 2nd time I have attended the Newcastleton Folk Club, but the piping there is increasing each time, last Tuesday evening there was Irish bellows-blown pipes and 2 sets of Scottish Small pipes. I feel it is important to include the titles of the tunes as we do not often record what we play and this can be of interest to future researchers.

Each person played or sang in turn, when it was my turn I played “Frisky” and later I played a Minuet both pieces were from the Peacock manuscript, which is a manuscript written especially for the Northumbrian small pipes, dated 1800.

As my time came around again I did a duet with David (who was also playing bellows small pipes) the tune was called “Noble Squire Dacre” with 6 variations and this was followed by the Scottish version of “Buy Broom Besoms” from the manuscript “O’er the Hills and Far Away”, a compilation of tunes from the Scottish Borders.

Later I played “Green Bracken” a melody with 3 parts, and later again I played “Kelso Lasses” next to “The Wedding O’Blyth” both tunes are from the “O’er the Hills and Far Away” manuscript.

 David played pipes and sang which is something I love to hear, but I do not know the title, the Irish piper played some beautiful Airs and reels, some I knew but again I do not know the titles.

Home Recording Distrbution

I started a new page of Facebook called “Home Recording distribution”, it is a page to help artists like myself who are fed up with multinationals distributing music at inflated prices, and over loading us with their narrow choice of musical genre. 
Everything is ‘packaged’ from the CD to the recording, even the type of reverb they use on the final mix; there is nothing original they can offer. We are so used to it, to get the plastic wrapper in a plastic CD cover which is given to us in a plastic bag!
A new ‘Cottage Industry’ that once had so much promise and hope – the internet has been high jacked. To produce one’s own music and getting it ‘out there’ to the world, either for profit or for interest is not easy. Controls are everywhere. 
I listen to people/music I know, people who have spent their time and energy composing, writing, learning, producing, recording, editing, re-editing, designing their CD; so much time and effort for what? For it not to be listened too? For it to be put away while people just go to the multinationals and buy something that they have ‘heard before’. I do not think I have bought a CD from a shop in years.
I have made my own recordings for years, I sold them on the streets, I have sent them through the post….it works! I also listen to recordings I made of other people, ‘field-recordings’, ethno recordings, of local bands, people, in the UK and around the world. They have more life and originality; they have new ideas and passion than any mass-produced run-of-the-mill factory production. 
Today I listened to a Cumbrian flute player called Rob Rynn, who produced his own CD with his own money by paying studio time, and working on his own CD design etc. it is good, it is original, sometimes it is not accurate in tempo, sometimes it is like a live recording…but it is good and it is different and it stays in my mind…it is personal. I encourage people to record and upload their music to the Facebook “Home Recording Distribution” page, and try to sell your work, or interest people in it. Here is the link and logo:

http://www.facebook.com/pages/Home-Recording-Distribution/117782875075397

Nyckelharpa in Bingsjöstämman

In July there are 2 music festivals I love to go to in Sweden. The first is the Sackpipa meeting in Gagnef, Dalarna; and the other is the Nyckelharpa and fiddle festival at Bingsjo, Dalarna. Both festivals are in the 1st week of July.

“I have admired the Swedish Nyckelharpa since 1991, and the interest has never gone away. I have been lucky enough to attend the Bingsjöstämman music festival (Dalarna, Sweden) for the past 2 years, and seen and heard the Nyckelharpa being played by many good musicians. Here are a collection of photos I took from my 2012 visit, and I recorded the music too. Sadly, I do not know the group of Nyckelharpas who were playing on the recording, nor the name of the melody being played, but I hope it is a homage to the many names of contributors to this amazing instrument and musical tradition”.

The nyckelharpa is a keyed fiddle, it comes in many different variations, but most of the photos here are of the chromatic variant which is relatively modern instrument. I am also interested in the Moraharpa and the Silverbasharpa, which are not chromatic.

Rabels in Castilla and Leon

I made my first Ravel last weekend. I did not know anything about them, only a idea that it was a “up-right” fiddle played in the Medieval Age, but I was wrong. The style of playing in Spain can be up-right or it can be rested into the shoulder and played like a violin, it is played mainly as an accompaniment to singing. It is a popular instrument in the northern region of Spain called Cantabria, but it is also popular in Castilla and Leon, where the workshop was held to make one. One finished ravel was made from a wooden clog, and nicely decorated.

Clog Ravel

The shape is like a cross between a violin and a guitar, it is bowed and the strings can be made from gut or metal. it is made from wood with the body made from a different wood to the soundboard, which is of a harder type.

My Ravel nearly finished

There are 3 stringed Revels (Rabel in Spanish) but we made the 2 string model. They are tuned a 4th a part, when I got home I found mine tuned nicely in a A (440c) and the drone string to a E (440c). Playing it is a different matter as I am not used to bowing, but I can find a scale now and the rest is practice.

 Making it was a joy, I really enjoyed it. As there were too many of us to make one from the beginning we went through the process of making the body and the bow by cutting out the form, but the main construction had already been done for us by our teacher Luis Payno, who is a maker of such instruments and more besides, concentrating on Shepherd instruments of Spain….single reed flutes, bagpipes etc. his web site is http://www.es-aqui.com/payno/pral.htm

A lot of the work was simply gluing and sandpapering, dying the wood and putting on the strings, but it took us 2 days. The workshop was held in a village called La Pedraia de Portillo, near to Valladolid in the region of Castilla and Leon. Accommodation was there in the old Missionary house, and meals were in the organizers home, excellent food! The company was great with late night party on the Saturday with music and more food, my only regret is that I could not understand much of the conversation, and neither could Leila who speaks Spanish, they were speaking a dialect of the area. There a mix of people from the area and some had done this before and some where obviously going to do it again in a more professional enterprise.

Completed Ravels, mine is on the bottom row, 2nd along

Animusic Conference (Aveiro University), Portugal

The Conference went well. I gave my paper on the Open-ended flute in Iberia. I got some positive feed back from other participants, and made some constructive contacts. A few leads which might lead me to other areas of music inside of Spain and Portugal which can only be positive, but in the question of the open-ended flute inside of Iberia is still in question and probably always will until some concrete evidence emerges of this flute type in Iberian history.
Other ney papers were given at the Conference, Turkish ney was, for me, interesting. But I found their information only related to Turkey. But the Turkish ney is surely more than that, as it was the Ottoman ney, which had its influence as far as Iberia. Also when one hears the styles of pre-1926 neyzens they style of playing is not like the ´mystic´style of one hears today in Turkey. It is more of a Arab style, melismatic; and with influences of Western music with uses of arpeggios etc. Neyzen Tefik can be said to use these influences.
We can not just look at one instrument and give all the credit to one country, no country works in such isolation, especially with a large Empirical Empire like the Ottoman.

Iberian Ney

Since there is only a few days to go until I fly off to Porto in Portugal, to give my paper on the “Open-Ended Flute of Iberia”, at the Organology Congress in Aveiro University / A N I M U S I C : Associação Nacional de Instrumentos Musicais / National Association for Musical Instruments – Portugal. I thought to share my Abstract here to post the question “Where has the open-ended flute gone in the Iberian Peninsula?

Commonly known as the Nay, or Kaval (or many other names), I believe it once exisited in Iberia during the occupation by the Moors for over 8 centuries. It is a long time to be under the influence of any power, and one would have thought that such an versatile instument such as this flute type, would have left its mark on the Iberian musical landscape? But, it seems to have completely vanished, except for some Ensembles who are using it in Sephardic and Andalusian recreations, but they are using it with no historical basis, as there is little to find. I think more work needs to be done on this topic, by people who can translate old text documents and find out in what capacity this flute was played and in what music.

“The Iberian Ney: Renewal and Invention”
By Kevin Tilbury

My paper intends to describe the open-ended flute of North Africa and asks the question, “What has happened to the open-ended flute of the Iberian Peninsula?” Since instruments have crossed over from north Africa into the Iberian Peninsular at different periods in history and many of these instruments have survived, flourished, transformed and progressed, I ask why the opened flute, such as the Nai and Qasba, which are evident in north Africa have not survived in Spain and Portugal. There seems to be a lack of evidence present in today’s musical sources.
Yet, the Iberian Peninsular offers an ideal environment, geographically, climatically and musically for this instrument to flourish and adapt and feel at home amongst the music of many regions and styles of Iberia. My own research so far in will show that there is amble interest and source material to resurrect and construct these types of flutes. With interest in Andalus and Sephardic music and various instrument makers constructing and experimenting with old traditional instruments it seems a good time to open the question and hopefully examine why and how the open-ended flute disappeared from the Iberian Peninsular.
Without drawing any final conclusions I hope to open certain areas of research, questions and debate asking why and how the open-ended flute died away and if there is factual evidence to reinvent this instrument back into the Iberian musical landscape.”

Gaita in Sanse (Madrid)

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.

Txistu Festival in the Basque Country

A recent festival in the Basque Region of Spain of Txistu players. Tey came from all over the Basque Region local groups coming together for an annual festival. The idea was to walk around the streets of Amorebeta and play in their local groups. Later they would meet up and play on mass around the streets until they came to certain bars/pubs where they had a drink, this continued for many hours!! Later there was a meal and more playing and singing, we left at 3am but it was still going on. The next day we heard that the local residence had called the police as txistu was heard at 3.30am!!

the video shows singing and playing in the streets, and at one of the many bars the playing of the txistu at night.

Gagnef Sweden: Sackpipa Meeting

 It was not a festival, it was too intimate for that, but it was a meeting of musicians who play the Swedish bagpipes, the sackpipa. I have been interested in the sackpipa for many years when I bought the LP of solo sackpipa in 1991. I had additional information after that when I visited Sweden and actually got to see the instrument after many years of just listening and seeing photos when I visited a maker near to Nykoping called Bors Anders, he is a maker also of ocarinas. The Sackpipa has 1 drone, 1 melody chanter, 1 bag, it is mouth blown. It has a range of 1 octabe – bottom E to top e, the drones sound in A and the tonic on the chanter can be found half way along the chanter. The Scale is E, F#, G#, A, b, c, d, e (most instruments can also play a c# and a d#) these semitones are opened/closed by placing a rubber band over the hole.

 But my real immersion to this instrument was the meeting in Gagnef in the county of Dalarna, Sweden. There for a weekend we talked about sackpipa and Swedish music, learned about reeds and construction of the instrument, its evolving status amongst other single beating bagpipes. It is classified as a “simple” instrument due to its single beating reed construction, but it is far from simple! It is quite complicated and getting more advanced as the makers think of new and inventive ways to improve the instrument, its sound and by doing so are creating a new tradition. I was greatly inspired by the event and I have learned a lot about my own playing and instrument by listening to the musicians there. The people were very welcoming; they took the time to speak English and converse with me about their instrument and also about my own Northumbrian Pipes. The players rarely meet to play together and there was a mixture of advanced players and some who were just starting out and all said they had learned from each other. What was special about the meeting was the atmosphere, the closeness of the meeting, the friendliness I felt as an outsider. Certain players played well together, blending harmonies and sweet sounding chanters that I hope, in time, will be recorded and reproduced on a CD. I came away with a lot of ideas about recording and documenting what I had seen. It is changing fast and a lot of techniques and information would have changed by next year, so it is important to document it and preserve it for the future. I hope to make a detailed video of the meeting next year and record the music and performances, dialogue and reed and pipe maintenance as a decade from now I am sure it will have advanced a lot and knowledge will have been lost just as the knowledge has been lost for the 1970s
 

D Drones and the Sackpipa

After coming home from Sweden, where I had attended the Sackpipa Festival (Swedish Bagpipes), I started busking. I have not busked for a few months, I have been too busy with the new rig on the boat. But on my birthday I felt like going out and busking just for enjoyment. When I was playing I had trouble with my G bass drone, it would not staying in tune but kept on going flat. Today it did the same thing and I knocked it off and set the bass D drone instead, so having 2 D drones playing D/d.. I got this idea of a few Cumbrian pipers who just so happen play with their D drones all the time whether in the key of G or D. The Swedish sackpipa players have a chanter which is A, but their drones are in E, which is a similar arangement. I played a lot of melodies today using the D drones and after first thinking it does not sound right…as I am so used to the G/d drone arangement, I started to think how compatable they are together. The D drone compliments the bass notes on the chanter, the F# and the A as well as being in tune with the G (root note) it is quiet and in the top octave the harmonies sound less complicated than with the G/d drones, and the D drone stays in tune!
Another influence from the Sackpipa Festival was the re-tuning of the Border pipes by using tape. I have always had problems with my Border pipes or should I say with the reeds. I could never get the whole chanter in tune with itself whilst being in A (440c) it was ok when it was flat, but in A I had problems. The Sackpipa players cover their holes with rubber bands to tune the chanter, so I covered the holes with tape to make a few notes flatter/sharper and now it is in tune, in concert pitch A and sounding quite nice, again with 2 drones (tenor and bass) tuned in A.

Galician Gaita on the Basque Streets

While walking through the countryside of the Basques (northern Spain) we came across a woman busking on the streets of Bermeo, playing Galician gaita (bagpipes). She was hot as standing in the sun and the sound echoed all around the area.


I talked with her a short while and she was grom the west side of Spain (Galicia) and touring around for the Easter holidays.

The Txistu and Danbolina : Basque Flute and Tabor

We had spent 5 days walking through the Basque Region of Spain and we ended our travels at a small town near to Bilbao called Amorebeita. Here we met a musician who played the Txistu (flute) and Danbolina (tabor).
These instruments have an unbroken tradition in the Basque country (as well as other parts of Spain too) but what makes the Basque Txistu a little different is that they have been changed to bring them more into a “classical” repertoire. My knowledge of this instrument (as in indeed all Spanish instruments) is limited, but I am finding that the tuning, scale, range of the txistu has been tempered and fixed so that it can be played more easily with other instruments.

The txistu is a 3 holed fipple flute played with one hand, and it can have a range of over 2 octaves and is fully chromatic. It is made from various black coloured hard woods or hard plastics, the fipple mouth piece is made from metal and it is generally found in the key of F (or F sharp if it is played on the streets, as it produces a louder sound). We spent a great weekend with Iban, who let us attend his performances:
On the saturday there was a txistu/danbolina and dance performance for the pensioners at an old peoples center. One man danced a traditional dance dancing the 1st and the 4th part of 4 part dance, while Iban played the txistu and danbolina together (one hand the melody and the other hand the rhythm).


Next there was a march/procession around various streets of Santurtzi, here 3 txistularia played and marched, stopping at various bars along the way!!
That was the end of the formal playing, but as there was a Basque football match on that night the txistu and danbolina was brought along to play various football and traditional Basque melodies.

The Sunday was a march/procession around the streets of Amorebeita, an unbroken tradition (except for 3-4 years in the 90s) where the txistularia play various melodies and stop off at various bars playing a mix of Basque and Spanish melodies for the people who often come out onto the streets and make an occasion of it with wine and food.

Extremadura Folklore Ensemble

While on holiday in the Basque Region of Spain I came across a folk group on the streets of Santurtzi (Bilbao). I was there meeting Basque musicians who play the Txistu so I did not have time to stop and take the performance at its full length. Here is a small clip of the group. Extremadura is a region of Spain close to Portugal, it is the Central/Eastern side of Spain. I know very little about the area but I know they have a similar pipe and tabor to the Leon/Salamanca regions and to Basques. Here they have beautiful colourful costumes and are dancing to the music of that region.

Spanish Gaita and Uilleann Pipes

The Irish music session at Taberna Elisa last night was even better than last week with tunes coming fast and furious and with a lot more energy. An addition of an fiddler and a guitarist who also played button accordion made a fuller sound. Pennie whistles were brought out to play along with the flutes. What attracted my attention was a man who played one of these whistles also took out a Galician gaita/bagpipe and played along with the Irish melodies. I had seen this man before at the Spanish Jam session on a Friday night, and I had meant to ask him about his pipes. They were in the key of D/Re which is perhaps is unusual as most of the gaita players play in the key of C/Do. The chanter was smaller than the C chanters in fact the over all bagpipe was smaller to what I had seen before and higher in pitch. With this smaller chanter he could over blow into the 2nd octave and achieve a larger range of notes that the C chanter could not get (an extra 4), reaching a top C/Do so it would fit quite well with Irish melodies, also it had the European open fingering technique so it was fully chromatic within 2 octaves, quite a versatile instrument. His drone arrangement was standard: one D/Re bass drone over his shoulder and a smaller tenor drone across his chest also in D/Re. What was unusual was he would remove the top end of the drone and this would give him a drone sound in E/Mi so he could play melodies with a drone accompaniment in E minor/major. He has a excellent mastery over the instrument and played Irish melodies with the Uilleann piper. This video proves it:

Taberna Elisa: Bluegrass Jam Session

I have attended over the past weeks various events at the bar “Taberna Elisa” in down-town Madrid and i have enjoyed all of them. They must get 100s if not 1000s of people in through their doors and yet they are always welcoming and have, in my opinion, a good attitude to music and musicians. It is a unique place as i think about it. As The Clash once said “you just plug in and play” and in a way it is what happens at Elisa. In the various rooms/basements strains of various instruments: Highland bagpipes, gaitas, guitars, tambourines, flutes…filter through the Bluegrass, Spanish, Breton, Irish…CD recordings behind the bar. The concerts are always well attended and have a great relaxed atmosphere, friendly and one is able to meet people, dance, jump up and down…join in with the music. The session nights have excellent musicians and, to me it shows the ability of Spanish musicality. They have gotten behind the musical notation (if that is what they use) and adopted their chosen musical style whether it be Irish, Breton, USA….with feeling, style and good technique. For me personally, I love the gaita, and I have enjoyed listening to the pipes there, the flauta y tamboril (pipe and tabor) come a close second but there is a variety and I have learn a lot. I hope these videos from Taberna Elisa show a little of what I mean.
This video is of the Bluegrass session held on a sunday night, audience participation is welcome and in the close proximity of performer and audience it is easy to get into the evenings music.
The video is of a song I use to play in my own band, an old Bluegrass favorite called “Salty Dog Blues”.

This next video is the version of “Salty Dog Blues” we played in the group as you can see it was a little different! It was recorded in London, my group was called “The Virginia Vagabonds”. We were formed in August 1988, a meeting of two 3 piece bands busking in Amsterdam´s Leidseplein. The two bands, ´The Lonesome Pump Attendants´ from Carlisle and the ´Cottonpickers´ from south London fused to become The Virginia Vagabonds consisting of 2 banjos, 2 guitars, a double bass and a fiddle. The following five and a half months we played over 60 gigs in clubs, colleges and pubs in and around London. We disbanded in 1989. This video represents us towards the end of our career. R.I.P.

Spanish Jam Session (29.01.11)

It was my first time back in Madrid for some time. We decided to go to Taberna Elisa for a firday night out to see what the Spanish Jam session was like. i had forgotten the good atmosphere from the place, beautiful old pub with photos on the walls of the musicians who had played there. Tonight was a mixture of Spanish music and Celtic melodies, all done with a Spanish accent. In the back room there clustered around the walls were some of the musicians warming up, we asked if this is where the music would be, thinking it was a little too small and cramped to let all who wanted to see enjoy the music, but we were told that when they felt like it they would come on stage. Impromptu sessions like this always seemed to spring up often when the main act was on stage! Tonight there was guitars, Galician bagpipes/gaita, percussion with a good atmosphere. An Italian man got up to sing a few Irish songs, and another man got up on guitar to sing Irish songs and play on his guitar with the backing of the Spanish session musicians. It was all un-amplified, fine for the musicians but the vocals needed a little help.

Martina Quiere Bailar (Martina Wants to Dance)

http://www.facebook.com/v/124581564280960(5.2.11) As the band came on stage the audience came in and it filled up nicely, the band consisted of 2 violins fronting the stage and to the rear an accordionist and a guitarist. The accordionist was from Italy and he had some of his Italian supporters in the audience one of them being a tambourine player who hit hell out of his tambourine later on in the night as he joint the group on stage for a number, beating out a rhythm that made his thumb bleed. The rest of the group were Spanish and the mixture of nationalities blended nicely as did their melodies, rhythms and presence on stage. They were not static, especially the 2 female violinists who played their music intertwining their melodies and harmonies with each other, as well as their body movements. As the tune progressed all four of them seem to come together and dance and sway often forgetting that an audience existed. The audience did exist and Martina and many others did dance! This music was made for dancing and I got enjoyment in watching the audience, sometimes set dances other times excited leaping up and down always with couples and the slower tunes were met with intimate close contact dancing. Their melodies lasted a lot longer than the average 3 minutes, melodies were repeated 3-4 times to let the dancers enjoy the rhythms and to let them get into the swing. This could have been boring to the non-participants but it was not so bad as the on-stage movement made the performance enjoyable and watching the dancing made up for any musical repetitions.

Andaraje Concert

(4.2.11) A short walk from Alcobendas (Madrid/Spain) to the next area of San Sebastian Los Reyes, where the lesser known bull racing takes place each year in august on the streets. We were there to attend a concert of traditional choral music sung by the group “Andaraje” a 5 piece ensemble who sing religious and folkloric songs from the southern areas of Spain, Andalusia and Murcia. The event took place in the Ethnographic museum of El Caseron which holds musical events every friday nights at 7.30pm. We have been there a few times to see various groups and it is not only a concert but made for instruction also so there is a rapport between group and audience introducing them to style of music many are not familiar with or have forgotten.
“Andaraje” are mainly a choral group singing in close harmony, often monophonic or a call and response between men (2) and women (3). AS I do not speak Spanish I can not tell the content of the words but there is a mixture of religious folkloric content often religious themes were used a song about the “10 Commandments” or references to Mary etc other times thematic songs about the sea or humorous songs which tickled the audience.
Instruments were not used that often a guitar was played twice a finger picking style to accompany the singers. The mainly instrumental accompaniment were with wooden and metallic percussion instruments such as triangles, bells, rattles…these were shaken while singling perhaps to religious songs and occasionally hand gestures to explain the text and meaning of the song, syncopated clapping was also in a few pieces.
I recorded the show but there was about 25 minutes of song while the rest of the concert (total 1 hour) was with a dialogue with the audience.
Sometimes the performance was a little flat, they read the lyrics from a paper and this stunted their performance, i felt the songs should have been more from the heart and spirit, to sing out and with more feeling and personal interpretation as it would in a rural church and in the village life, it was not “felt” more like a classical concert. Often the singers were looking at the leader to start the song off giving the feeling that they do not rehearse so much now (?).
Here is one of their livelier songs.

Irish Jam Session

Taberna Elisa look rather empty at 10.30pm when we arrived to hear some Irish music. We chatted to the barmaid about which nights they had music and took our drinks to a table. In the basement we could hear the strains of the Highland bagpipe behind closed doors and waited for the Irish music to start. Start it did about 11.30pm when an Irish bagpipe player, 2 flautists, a harpist and a bodhran player sauntered on stage. It was a very informal and relaxed session, music well played and enjoyable to listen too. At one point the harpist did a few solo numbers that had a Breton feel to them and later one of the flute players got out the Highland pipes and did a few numbers that were well executed with good gracing and tempo.

Really enjoyed the night all the more enjoyable as it was the harpists birthday and she had made a cake which she passed around the small crowd!

Iranian Tar

The other day I got my hands on (for the first time) an Iranian Tar. I have only seen photos and video clips of this instrument so I was interested to see it close up and to play it. It is heavy due to the solid wooden body, and it has a wider neck than i thought. There are 3 double strings with gut frets across the neck.

There is a tight skin over the body of the tar and its peculiar shape of the body is by hollowing out 2 pieces of wood and joining them together to give that “8” shape. The most enlightening part of the instrument for me was the plectrum, it was solid brass and cone shaped. It was difficult to hold and the owner said that players often put wax over it so the fingers can grip it securely, but it is the brass that makes the loud sound and the resonance from the body and strings are amplified by such a hard material as brass. The owner said the tar is the leading instrument in the ensemble and the loudness can rise above the other instruments. Some pictures of the tar I held:

Ana Alcaida at Taberna Elisa

A good concert in Taberna Elis (Madrid/Spain) by Ana Alcaide and her fellow musicians. Three people in total giving a full sound with instruments such as the Swedish Nickelharper, the Iranian Santur, the Arabic Ud, the medieval Cittern, various percussion including a water pot! a Bouzouki and Guitar. Some songs with vocals and a mixture of Sephardic and Spanish songs and some others I did not recognize. The sound was not that good I think a proper sound check with the sound system could have had a better concert with the group running through a few numbers to get the levels earlier in the evening, but it was done just before their performance and half way through, the time in messing about made us miss the last of the concert as we had to get the metro home. Some really beautiful melodies and a nice blend of instruments giving it a nice acoustic relaxing atmosphere. The audience was attentive even telling the louder ones at the back to be quiet! The small bar was full with people standing outside peering through the windows. Here is a video clip from the gig.

Radio Cumbria Interview

It took a while in getting but I finally got a copy of the interview I did at Radio Cumbria a few weeks back. I include it here. It went well I told the basics i think, about the Northumbrian Pipes, the Border piping tradition we have in the Scottish Borders and a little about the music that is played in those parts. Besides the interview there are 3 melodies and I added some pictures to the interview.

"Radio Radio…"

The recent interview at Radio Cumbria was a recording for annual Robert Burns’ night, which is taking place at the end of January. The interviewer asked me about the Northumbrian pipes the Border tradition of piping and the melody of one of Burn’s melodies “The Banks and Braes of Bonny Doon”. The event got me thinking of other radio sessions I have done. Besides this one, I have another Radio Cumbria interview that was done while busking in Carlisle. A radio presenter came across me busking and happened to have his DAT recorder with him and recorded an interview about the pipes and I played a few tunes, this recording I have put on the end of my 2 CDs.

Another radio interview about the pipes was done in Istanbul, Turkey in the late 90s. I had brought my pipes to Istanbul as I was involved with a few folk musicians and I was spending a lot of time there and needed the pipes to practise and to keep in contact with my north UK roots. I did not know what was happening but one day at the conservatoire a Turkish piper turned up and invited me to be interviewed on a radio programme. I was invited along to the Radio Istanbul studios, which was in a back street in Taksim, and there beside me was another piper. He was Turkish and he played the Tulum, a Turkish bagpipe from the north east of Turkey near Georgia, Azerbaijan and along the Black Sea. It is mouth blown and has no drone, only a bag and 2 melody pipes in one stock and a wooden ‘horn’ at the end of the chanters. The holes in the chanters are not the same so when played it has the effect of having 2 melodies played at once. The radio programme was about these 2 pipes, their comparisons; we both played a few tunes and chatted about construction etc.

Another radio interview was when I was playing in a band in Amsterdam. “The Lonesome Pump Attendants” were a 3 piece band whose members were once in the “Red Aligatorz” a rock-a-Billy group from Cumbria, UK. When the Aligatorz split, the singer and I moved to Amsterdam playing skiffle songs with guitar and t-chest bass. Later the double bass player from the Aligatorz came over and the 3 of us played in Amsterdam for about 6 months, touring all over Holland. The radio interview was recorded in a squat/pirate radio station. A New Zealand biker did the interview with his Dutch assistant. WE performed 3-4 songs and I remember the first song when the presenter asked us to play he did not know how loud we were, his recording nearly blew his speakers!

The last radio interview was with the Red Aligatorz in Carlisle, again Radio Cumbria in the early 80s, with the presenter asking about the band and the gigs etc. I remember it being a lot of fun…but not sounding so cleaver!

A Forgotten Manuscript

I am planning a busking route through the Basque country and northern Spain this year and sorting through my maps and books in a pile of travel information, I came across an old black book I recognized from years back covered in dust. Inside were mostly blank music manuscript pages, but in the front of the book using my hand writing were traditional melodies from various countries: Lithuanian, Sweden, French and Slovak. The key signature of the notation told me that I had collected these melodies for playing on my Russian accordion that was in the key of A major, but other keys showed I was thinking for the Northumbrian pipes as the keys were also G and D major and were in the range of the pipe chanter (an octave and a half).

My Russian button accordion I had bought in 1992 while I was living in Vilnius, Lithuania; researching traditional music. The accordion was a popular instrument for dances not only in Lithuania but in Poland and Russia and throughout the Baltic States. I had bought it in a music shop in Vilnius, I could not play nor had I attempted to play it before, but I had time in those changing days when Lithuania was freeing itself from the Soviet influence. I was studying at the Vilnius Conservatoire so I thought I could get advice from the people there. My accordion had a range of about 3 octaves, double reeds that was slightly out of pitch with one another that gave it its particular sound, but what I loved was the harmony buttons that gave me that instant “Russian” feel. I learned a Belo-Russian melody and used these harmonies which transported me to the literature of Bakunin, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky. I also learned a few Lithuanian melodies and used the more dominant harmony buttons, the style instantly changed into something more recognisable, more European perhaps; these melodies were dance melodies from the folklore tradition. It seems this is where my interest fell away as I could not co-ordinate my melody hand and harmony hand correctly, polkas, marches anything in 2/4 or 4/4 was fine, but I could not get the waltzes and 6/8 rhythms and if I could not master it there was no point in continuing with it? Anyways, my interests slowly changed later on when I met different, less academic, folklorists in Kaunas. These people were into wood and skins of the Baltic nature/villages, not metallic instruments of the Soviet cities; and even though I did continue play it for the next 2 years I never really progressed from these few melodies that I learned in 1992.

The melodies in the book were copied from scores in the Conservatoire, my interest in Swedish music was a long standing one, I had visited Stockholm in 1990 and came home with some records of traditional music: accordion, nickelharper, anthology of Scandinavian instruments, and of course the bagpipes, there is something about the Swedish lilt, style, and presence that is soothing to me, relaxing and touches my Celtic sprit. There are only 2 Slovak melodies in the book, not surprisingly quite different in structure to the other melodies. Apart from these melodies copied for accordion I had written next to certain scores “fiddle” so apparently they had been written for violin. A couple of French melodies were penned in ink as an afterthought, possibly done at a later date.

In the back of the book there are some of my attempts at folk melody composition; flute notation without any description; a Belo-Russian melody; Kankles melodies and some compositional workings on a musical project I wrote called “A Maiden Wreath Made of Lead” which was a composition using my experiences over 4 years in the Baltic States, the composition was written during my BA in Contemporary Arts (1994-7). This is followed by other compositional workings as a follow up from “Maiden Wreath…” called “Paths” which was a musical journey into religious music of India and Pakistan, especially Qawwali, where I went on a field trip in 1995.

Festivals 2011

Busking has been a good way for making contacts, it has its limits of course when compared to the internet, but it has offered a few opportunities in the past to break away from the streets and perform in more varied surroundings. I have been offer weddings to play at, festivals, on the spot radio programmes and recordings have happened, and it has led to TV appearances and even the occasional music promoter offering to promote me! People have offered job suggestions and many have taken my card and details with promises of future work, and the opportunity to sell my CDs which is a good chance to promote my work and ideas. This year there has been interest too and if everything happens as it appears then I will be doing a radio programme this week for Radio Cumbria. In March there will be a project to preserve the Border pipes that I will be attending. In June I am invited to play at the International Folk Festival in Pilzen, Czech Republic; and in July I have been asked to play at the Cockermouth Festival, Cumbria. Let’s see what the future holds?

Border Variations

The world at 8am is a dark and dangerous place for a cyclist heading for Carlisle on the Wigton road, it is rush hour and it is the main road linking several towns along the west coast of Cumbria with lorries roaring past, cars, vans and one lone cyclist all heading for Carlisle in the dark with rain beating down and an icy wind on my back. I caught the 9.10am bus to Langholm, about 20 miles over the Scottish border, where I was to meet 2 Border pipers for a session of playing traditional melodies of those parts. One piper lives in Langholm and the other comes from Hawick, we play generally from 10am until 2.30pm with a small break where we enjoy a soup and a chat. The melodies we play are a mixture of different tune books but all are traditional Border melodies with variations. I am a new comer to the group and I add my share of melodies from Peacock and Bewick to the eclectic mix. I sight read where I can to join in, I am not so bad in sight reading but I loose my way with the speed they play and the variations that are still unfamiliar to me. The variations are very particular to the Border piping repertoire, sometimes runs and arpeggios are reproduced in other melodies and after playing a dozen or so, one can see patterns, clearly formulating a style to these types of tunes. Often a melody can be found in a different manuscript under a different title, possibly suggesting that a common melody travelled well but that the names were not passed on. The main manuscript to be used is the once forgotten “Dixon Manuscript” brought to light again by Matt Seattle who reprinted it for general use. The style of the melodies are very different to the Scottish Highland pipe tunes or to other melodies from the UK and Ireland, they have virtually no grace notes written in to the score, whether they were played in a systematic fashion is hard to tell there is no reference either way, but the general thought is that they were played in a more “Northumbrian/Border” style with little gracing. When I started playing the Border pipes I found the variations difficult to enjoy, in fact I did not play them, but now I see them as being a part of my tradition, an important part of our ‘style’ and part of my culture. Variations look a little like ‘practise pieces’ one finds in music tutors, as though a pupil learns an instrument and has a series of finger exercises before the main melody begins. On the surface it looks like they are just a series of arpeggios and runs, less melodic and more rhythmic in style, a series of repetitions and an unusual use of the 7th note (flattened or sharpened) that in theory is used as a passing note not an important part of the melodic structure, when played this 7th note should clash with the drones but it gives it ‘its’ sound, the particular sound of Border piping. It takes a while to get use to this sound, these runs and repetitive arpeggio use, but when it does get into your mind and heart it is captivating and it is a window into a lost world into the music of the Scottish borders.

Coming home the wind was in my face and it took me ages to cycle home, when I did I flopped in front of the fire and to pass the time got out the concertina and played some tunes that I had memorized trying to add harmonies to the bare melodies. I play mainly 3rds and 5ths to the main melody notes trying to add a harmony where appropriate.

After dinner I went back to the Border pipes and made some changes that I had noticed in the afternoon: making them louder by opening the reed, trying to get them closer to concert pitch “A” but realising that the top notes were too sharp and so it needed flattened by pulling the reed out but this would make the chanter flatter, it could not be helped, an ‘in-tune’ chanter is better than one that is half in tune! So I will have to make do with a chanter that is just below concert pitch and hope it will not make too much difference. I also tried playing melodies from memory, so building a repertoire. In all it was a good day full of music.

Tuning the Border Pipes

Today I got the Border pipes out of their old battered suitcase. It is a while since I played them and since I am having a session over the border in Langholm, Scotland tomorrow, I thought to get ready and dust of the fingers and try and remember some tunes. Remember I did, it all comes back after a few failed attempts, I played mainly Peacock melodies some new ones too. As usual I altered the reeds as I am trying to get the chanter in tune with the drones as close as I can to concert pitch “A” (440c), this is to blend in as much as possible with the other 3 pipers who will be turning up tomorrow also I wish to play with other musicians in time and the need to be compatible with other instruments is becoming quite important. I have played solo on the pipes for years and although it is very liberating to play what one wants, it can be quite isolating too. I put more thread around the sliding drones to make them air-tight and to stop them double tonguing. I also experimented in holding them, as they are not the most comfortable set of pipes to play. Old photos of the Border Piper have playing them with the drones set neatly across the chest. In practise this is not so easy; the drones are heavy, longer than the Northumbrian pipes, and flop around. I have had them over the shoulder, by far the better position, but a big separation between the chanter (melody) and the drones (harmony) I like the Northumbrian pipes as the chanter and the drones are relatively together blending nicely. I put the drones across the chest but it is very unstable under the bag arm, then I put them underneath the arm that they normally rest upon so they are lying downwards towards the ground with the arm over them. This is the best position as the chanter and the drones are sounding together, but the neck of the chanter was flapping around and also uncomfortable, more experimentation needs to be done. I pushed the chanter reed in as far as it would go, opening the end to make it louder and to flatten the top notes of the chanter. I have always tried to quieten the chanter as think it is too loud, but I now believe (because of playing on the streets and back ground noises) that louder is better to cut above the other street noises. It is a constant struggle between the reed and the chanter to get it right, very frustrating very tiring, all in aid to get it to concert pitch “A”, if I had left the reed the way it was it was a perfect match between pressure of the bag, drone reeds and pitch – a flat “A”, but problematic to play with others. Lets see what happens tomorrow at the session.

The "Jackie" Concertina

The “Jackie” English is a 2 octave chromatic concertina I bought from Barleycorn Concertinas about 3 months ago. I have been playing it nearly every day since I bought it trying to establish a repertoire I can busk with this summer as well as my Northumbrian Small Pipes and Border Pipes. It is my first concertina I own, I did start off with a Hohner Anglo 20 button concertina in Bb but it was badly out of tune and the bellows leaked. I had some music notation of the Northumbrian Pipes with harmonies and I wanted to play this music on the concertina, I found the 20 button Anglo limiting on the harmony line so I decided to switch techniques and buy the English system instead. I later found out that the harmonies are equally difficult to play on the English as the fingering is not as easy as on the Anglo, but with practice it is ok; but I do believe by trying the two systems out that the Anglo is the easier of the two to get a basic harmonic accompaniment for a basic folk melody.
The Jackie has accordion reeds, but the action is good, light and strong, the springs are good and I think will last a long time. The fingering is ok except for a few notes in the bass nearest the finger straps that are hard to get at, but again with practise and by using different fingers one can reach them alright. It is bigger and heavier than the Hohner but that is to be expected and it is quite loud and I think it is a good choice for busking or playing with a group, and since I play a range of UK and European melodies I can get the different semitones that sometimes occur in the scale of foreign melodies.
I enjoy playing melodies in their right key, and not having to think too much about in which direction to pump air. I am trying to memorize new melodies and relearn my pipe melodies, so I am concentrating on UK fiddle tunes: reels, hornpipes, polkas etc. As well as some melodies from Sweden and Spain, I am getting these into my head and starting to play them from memory, and trying to play around with the melodies to make them ‘live’ and not just to play ‘dots on a page’. It is progressing nicely.

Harp and Concertina

WE visited a harpist near to our home today. She has busked over Europe and now makes her living by playing small festivals and doing a lot of weddings. She is a good player and when we meet we tend to play European melodies mainly from Sweden, Spain and France, but also some melodies from Turkey, Czech Republic, Belgium and Medieval, but strangely enough not British or Irish! I play the Northumbrian pipes and the Turkish Ney – an open-ended cane flute. We have been playing together for a few months now and are working on a CD and a repertoire to go playing this spring, do a few gigs and some busking.
Later that evening at home I played my English concertina, trying to play from memory the tunes I have been trying to memories since I bought it (about 3 months ago). With this instrument I play English fiddle music, a few Irish melodies, and Northumbrian and European melodies. The beauty with the concertina is that it has a range of 2 octaves and it is chromatic so most melodies are in range for me now. There is no transposing or worrying about the range, it is already tuned and it is ready to play, and I do frequently. I played for about an hour and a half, but I need more practise if I am to busk with it this year.
I got an e-mail from a fellow Border piper arranging a meeting next week over the border in Scotland that is good as I would like to play Border pipes now; it has been such a long time!

The Galician Gaita

Being at home and not busking I am able to practice Spanish melodies, or more to the point bagpipe melodies from Galicia, north western Spain. I began lessons on my last visit to Spain in December 2010, when I visited a cultural centre in Alcobendas, northern Madrid. There was a school of Galician and Asturian pipers and I sat and listened for 2 weeks and given a chance to learn some of the Galician melodies. But first one has to learn the fingering that is played on their Gaita (bagpipe). The Galician gaita uses an open-fingering technique as opposed to the Asturian closed fingering, but these definitions can be changed and not fixed; different and mixed finger techniques are used depending on the chanter and maker of the Gaita. I learned this open-fingering from the band leader who told me to buy a cheap recorder/block-flute and bring it to him, this I did at the next session. He made the 3rd hole from the bottom wider thus making it a sharper note, so playing an F sharp instead of an F natural this suited the scale of the Galician melodies. The one octave scale is as follows: (c#), D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#, D. semitones can be obtained and a 2nd octave can be reached by using a cross-fingering technique. I was presented with many examples of notation written in the key of D major (the popular root note for the gaita is C major). So with my modified block flute as a practice chanter, and a wad of photocopied bagpipe melodies I am determined to practice.

"You must be completely insane"

Another puncture yesterday (24.12.10) on the way to Carlisle, continued by bus into town; the city centre had the South Americans setting up their amplification, loud speakers and digital programming all for their pan pipes and drums. They had on American Indian costumes in sub-zero temperatures when they play they drown out everything in the centre of town, no one can perform there, the Christian Bible Basher has to pack up and go, all other buskers are blasted out. A fiddler who comes from Edinburgh retreated down a side street but I guess even the panpipes would reach him there, he has amplification too, a small amp with the bass turned full up and the treble down, it is a nice sound and he is a good player. The South Americans also have their amplification with an extra bass boost; it stops the terrible feedback that often accompanies outdoor amps, but I ask myself is all this technology needed for a few acoustic instruments that have worked very well for centuries in South America, a radio mic was attached to the singers cheek as he walked around the pavement singing to no one; his voice unheard and a deep booming voice from 1000 of pounds worth of equipment. I wonder if it pays them to do it. I slipped my way to my other haunt to find it occupied by the guitarist and his friend singing for beer money, I turned and went to the other edge of town to go into the bowls of Carlisle in the subway. It is a dirty and damp place but has a stream of shoppers coming to and from the centre. I played and was doing ok until a friend I knew stopped and we talked for 15 minutes after that I was cold then I became blue with cold. I spied a ray of sun at the other end and I sauntered over there to take advantage of the glimmer of sun. It helped for a while. A parade of school kids must have gotten out of some x-mass pantomime and for the next 10 minutes I could not hear myself play due to the screams and shouts as they took advantage of the subway’s acoustics. After that I played until I could not feel my fingers and I was jigging about so much I must have looked like a jack-in-the-box. I called it a day when a couple passing said “you must be completely insane”. I packed up and thawed out over a coffee, did some x-mass shopping then caught the bus back to my punctured bike and walked home. Merry X-mass one and all.

Sweet Hesleyside

The day started with a flat tire on the way to Carlisle, I did think to walk back home a journey of 3 miles but I decided to get the bus into town and pick the bike up when I finished playing. This effort paid off as I had a good days busking by selling 2 CDs and getting an offer of playing a festival this summer at Cockermouth, Cumbria. It was still cold and people walked by not smiling too much, but there were a lot of people compared to other days. Last minute shopping before x-mass perhaps and a few people stopped and chatted, the odd drunk, and asking what sort of pipes they were? One elderly woman asked if I could play “Sweet Hesleyside” probably the most asked for melody, I had to prise the keys open as they had stuck fast with the cold probably due to the almond oil congealing. I was playing in the centre of town again and there is a noted difference in atmosphere as later I went back to my usual haunt down a small lane near to a church where a steady stream of people walk to and fro to their cars. The interest died off and the money became less, but the sun shone in my eyes and thawed my fingers out. Then I took the bus back to my wounded bike and walked home as the sun went down at 3.45pm, it became bitterly cold after that.

Entertainment for the Public

When I turned up yesterday to play in my usual place there was a young man playing guitar. He had a good voice and played the guitar with sensitivity. He sang modern pop songs and as young boy passed he joined in with the words. I thought this is what busking is all about…entertaining the general public. I play melodies from the 18th century and for many it is a dead art. in the 18th century the tunes I play were probably well know, played at festivities and perhaps the ‘top of the tops’ of their day, now they are forgotten liked by a select few who love traditional music. No one whistles the melodies I play although some old folk can recognise them (I would like to know from where they know them) but that not is to say they do not like the music. I am often surprised who does appreciate this music and instrument it is not only the traditional music lover, the passerby can be aged from 5 to 75 or older, male and female, often they are dressed in normal popular fashion from the big stores, but often I have been acknowledged by punks, skin-heads, crusties, mods and rockers etc. businessmen and homeless, junkies and musicians. They are not all interested in traditional music so what attracts them? For nearly 30 years I have busked and only on a few occasions have I been told that it sounds bad, so why do people like something yet do not generally listen to it? The people who dislike it are just as interesting as the people who like what I do, nevertheless more people like or else I would not be making a living from it!

Frozen Money

It never got above 0c today I was in two minds whether to go busking or not it was extremely cold, a beautiful day with sun but a fog over the fields and icy roads. I played from 1pm to 3pm and was not too cold due to the sun in my face, the people walked passed with not too much interest scared to fall on the slippy pavement. Some threw money in full momentum missing the case and landing on the floor when I had finished the tune I bent down to pick it up but it had frozen to the floor! I introduced a new tune to my repertoire “Sr. Charle’s Rant” a Peacock tune, one octave. It sounds different when played with the Northumbrian pipes compared to the Border pipes probably due to the closed chanter compared to the open ended chanter on the Border pipes. For a time the sun disappeared behind a building and it became numbingly cold and I noticed the difference when it reappeared. A nice cycle home with the sun in my eyes and it coming through the mist over the fields, I got home before the black ice formed on the roads.

Busking

Busking today was a cold affair, we had snow in the morning but the main roads kept clear. I cycled into Carlisle, a journey of 8 miles, went to my usual place but it was so quiet I headed into the centre and started to play. As long as I kept playing my fingers stayed warm but when I stopped I began to get cold. I played for about 4 hours and enjoyed it very much. I have enough one octave tunes in my head to play for 3 hours before I start to repeat them. I dislike repeating tunes. I did not see any other buskers, even the Romanian woman who sits and plays odd notes on her accordion was not there. I actually enjoyed the weather, it was clear and crisp, and the sun shone and altered my drones so much that there were to their full extent on the sliders. I played mainly Bewick and Peacock melodies from Northumbrian. The pipes kept in tune I was pleased with the sound and the playing. Sold no Cds though, everyone wanted to get home, no time for stopping and chatting, it was a rush to get home before it iced over. I cycled home with no problems.

A Return to Busking

I have been busking this past week on the streets of Carlisle. It has been a long while since I last busked but I never forget the melodies and I quickly regain my speed and lost titles come back to me as though they are waiting for me. I only have two places to play as my pipes are so quiet compared with the background noise that seems to be everywhere on the pedestrian walkways. Once a British man stopped to have a chat many years ago, he lived in France and was returning to his home in Carlisle, he remarked that compared to France the background noise was far greater in the UK. I find the general hum of noise quite bad too. when I started to play the pipes were heard in the centre of town, but now I cannot hear myself play, so I retreat down back alleyways and places where there are not many people or mechanical interference, this results in less money and less contact with people, but quality is important and I do not want to be playing when I cannot hear myself. Busking has changed for me over the years. I started playing full time in 2001 and I have continued playing while I am in Carlisle. It has improved my playing greatly and I sell my Cds to people who have an interest and who likes my playing.
I did not speak to many people this week, people where running from the cold. I only saw one other busker too, a young boy who was playing guitar. The cold effects the pipes too, the metal keys are not comfortable to play so I generally play the 1 octave melodies and leave the lower keyed notes to the warmer weather.

Heat of Competition


The cold weather has kept me indoors for a few months so I have not been busking, but last Saturday I put on my thermal underwear and headed out to the streets. It was a depressing time, the weather did not help much the sun not creeping over the 1970s monstrosity that is the Civic Centre building. People were not in the mood either; they hurried past not caring not listening and not thinking music. It could not be said for the kids though, they were in good voices as they chanted insults and clattered their skateboards down the small subway drowning out the pipes and peoples voices.
I gave up after a few hours in low spirits and took refuge in our noisy library, I sat myself down in front of the internet for an hour to see what the outside work had to say.

Later on in the centre of town I saw other musicians playing: a man sitting next to his amplifier playing highly rhythmical blues music on his acoustic guitar and harmonica, very catchy and up-beat music it even attracted a small group of skateboard kids – how hip can you get? I liked his playing but I dislike amplifiers, the world has become too noisy, you need amplification to be heard, but by doing so you just pump up the volume so people have to be noisy to be heard over you, it is a cycle of noise. When I started playing the Northumbrian Pipes the world was a quieter place, I used to play in the centre of town just like Mr Blues, but now I cannot as I am too quiet and I cannot hear what I play! “Get an amplifier” people say, no I will not. So I look for alternative areas where to play that push me on to the peripheries. Busking is a periphery type of activity at the best of times, but it seems I am on the periphery of the peripheries (if there is such a periphery!).

A few meters from Mr Blues there was a young chap playing an accordion, luckily he was not amplified nor was he blending in with the Mississippi Blues rhythms either! I stood in the middle of the these two frequencies trying to get a stereo balance and thinking how great it is to introduce to the general public of Carlisle Contemporary music! I try not to make generalizations but last year Carlisle had a swarm of accordion players descend on the town centre, these players played cheap Russian accordions and played them in a Eastern European style, but the problem was they did not play a melody, they improvised notes. They had their stools and their packed lunches they all spoke to one another in their lunch breaks. It seemed like they were learning the instrument trying to play a fragment of melody with one hand and the bass notes with the other but getting bored half way through and then deciding to play something else in a different key and rhythmic structure. To be honest I did not notice these musicians from their musicality I noticed them as they were in all the places where I usually stand and more besides. It was like a family of accordion players had sprouted and were filling the air with discordant fragrances. I luckily found an ‘un-accordionated’ spot somewhere on the periphery but after a few weeks people started telling me of the noise that was emanating from the centre of town and how these accordionists were not making any music or money!
After a few months they disappeared, gone with out trace, one day they were not there any longer and no one ever saw them again until that Saturday when I saw one next to Mr Blues. Later on I saw the young accordionist in a different spot away from the centre still trying to play the ‘1st lesson in the Accordionist’s handbook’! The only other guy I saw that day was a guitarist, a singer songwriter playing to himself at the other end of town. The day did not pick up for me I got hassle off the homeless people and came away wishing I was a banker or from another disreputable profession.

Busking Through life


I have been busy the past few days editing past photos and videos and putting them on to utube, editing my Myspace pages and now creating this blog. What for? some people I know do not understand this activity. I guess it is to meet others, like minded people. Recently I applied for a job and realized I have very little to put on my CV in the way of work! But, I am busy all the time, I realized what i do it can not be documented in the normal conventional ways, yet it should be documented to show what I do to others, as we are not Islands, are we?
By doing these http://www.sites I am dissecting myself, sorting out myself, compartmentalizing who I am and having to think about who I am and what I am. One of the worst questions to ask me is “What do you do?” I never know what to say! What do I do? I am busy, very busy. This question was asked the Dalai Lama once and he replied “I am taking care of myself”.
When I left school at 16 I knew what I wanted to be, but in the late 1970s life was not so open as it is now. I wanted to play music, but in 1979, UK jobs – professional music jobs, were not recognized, it was a small business then. So I started to join bands and make my own music. I started to busk and I found I could make a little money.
Later on I started playing the Northumbrian Small Pipes, a bellows blown bagpipe from the NE of England, I joined more bands and I got good at my craft. In the 90s I did it full time and I started to do concerts and to sell my CDs. But in my mind it was never a ´job´ as in my ´1970s culture´ it was nver a proper job!
Then, busking was “begging”, to a lot of people, and often I was called a beggar back then. Now the times and attitudes have changed.
now I consider what I do a job! I sell my Cds and I live by it, occasionally I do concerts and Festivals, it is not great money, and each week it is different but it is a job and it is enjoyable.
If you want to see my playing the Northumbrian Small Pipes check out the utube web site at http://www.youtube.com/user/kevnsp