Folk Sessions: Monkhill, Tebay, Newcastleton

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

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

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

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

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Bowness-on-Solway Folk Session – and Full Bilges !

It was a wet night that I went down to the folk session at Bowness-on-Solway. I packed my concertina into a big black bag and cycled the 12 miles along waterlogged country roads. The weather in Cumbria has been particular wet these day (if oyu have been keeping an eye on the news you will have seen the flooding). I expected a bit of flooding on the roads so I was prepared to slow down and judge the situation, but as there was no moon and it was very dark I could not see the pieces of road that was underwater…the section of road which I was not prepared for.

Getting to the session I was a little late as I had to make a call in to see Sadaf. She has been sitting on her keels for 7 weeks and had been checked only a few times. She was ok, and has been ok amazingly over the weeks with all the flooding and rain. She leaks water above the sea-line from an unknown spot, it is rainwater and generally there is a trickle in the bilges, but because of the amount of rain we have had she has been full.

When i got there she was full too. I was surprised to see how much water had gotten into the bilges. It was not up to the cushions, but up to the floorboards. The only difference I could see that could account for the increase in water, was the front cover/plastic had blown off and rain was getting in from the fore section…I do not know from where?

Bailing her out took some time, each section had about 2 big buckets of rainwater to sponge out, and there was 5 sections. The area underneath the cockpit was dry! So I am thinking the leak is towards the front of the cabin. I will have to make some checks.

The Bowness folk session begins at 8.30pm and I just got there in time, the musicians were there and the pub was nice and warm to dry my coat. It is nice and relaxed, playing a mixture of southern English, Northumbrian, Scottish and locally penned songs/tunes. The songs are dominant and the guy who writes them was getting good responses to his humor. Besides the local musicians a guy called Steve came with his guitar to sing: and some tunes were played from the Playford’s manuscript.

The session ends roughly when they sing the “Haaf Netters Song” with audience participation, is has become a bit of a ritual there.

The session ended about 11pm.

Then the long cycle home, with the rain in my eyes, somewhere along the route I got a puncture, but the tired stayed up enough to get me home. I could hear the roar from the sea as it raced into the estuary.

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.

Rothbury Folk Festival 2015

The weekend started on the Thursday before the weekend by going through to Newcastleton, getting up early morning and going to Hexham and playing Northumbrian small pipes for 3 hours in the shopping precinct. Luckily there was not much disturbance and I played ok and got some good responses… always a bit uncertain as Northumbrian pipes in Northumbrian can be a bit like teaching English to the English! Before we left Hexham I visited a music shop (also music co-operative) where I knew they held workshops, I asked about holding my “Small pipe workshop” there, I had a positive response.

Then onto Rothbury Folk Festival, we got there about 5pm set up the tent and headed off for a session in the Queens Head pub. Due to a lot of background noise I opted for the Border pipes tunes.

Saturday was a quick listen to the town pipe band, then the Andy May Trio on the village stage, then off to the piper’s competition in the hall. It was full of people and a good turnout of performers. This year there was Border pipes competition. Listening to the Northumbrian pipers beginners and intermediate performers I noticed a lack of “drone tuning” therefore the pipes sounded horrible “TUNE YOUR DRONES TO THE CHANTER”  it is basic stuff, the judges need to be more strickt about this.

After the duets we headed off to a small room above the Newcastle pub and played a few sets. It was funny really as Border pipers sat in one end of the room and the northumbrian pipers sat in the other end… they did not mix… of course they were friends, but musically there was no common ground. Different tunings (A verses F) loud and soft… except for a few tunes in G (one G border pipe and some had G Northumbrian).

Then off to the Queen’s again for an evening session. This lasted until about 01.30am for me then I wandered off back to the tent. Then a strange thing happened about an hour later I had strong car headlights on my tent, voices calling out “are you in there”. One of my fears in a car/tented campsite is that I get run over by drunken drivers. This seemed to be happening with a car nearly on top of me. I stuck my head out of the tent and there was a police car. They kindly shone a strong beam of light deliberately into my face and asked me “I had seen Andy, who wears a green arm cast?” I replied to the negative. There had been a police helicopter above wakening everyone up and I guess the infrared camera had singled me out as I walked home.

The Sunday was a good small session in the Queen’s lots of varied music and a mixture of styles and instruments and song, I played Northumbrian small pipes more here due to the lack of background noise.
An excellent weekend.

Newcastleton Folk Festival 2015 (review)

I had a different, and in many ways a better festival this year. I did not attend the sessions like I normally do. I found last year a bit frustrating with all the noise (drunks not music) and a lack of places to play (for quieter instruments) all added to me walking aimlessly around. This year was different the organizers had added new venues to the places to play, one was a “quiet room” not in the main square (away from the pubs) but where you could have a tune. Also there were fewer drunks there this year and possibly less musicians (?) so I could find places to play.

I found the marquee empty on a Saturday morning so I played my Northumbrian small pipes, I played and played and slowly people began to sit down, after 2 hours of playing the tent was getting full, a few more musicians arrived and added more… then I left, found another piper and played on the grass (Border pipes and Scottish small pipes) and spoke to some people about the festival, piping and things in general. I met with a Northumbrian piper and had a few tunes together.

The after-hours sessions were great, songs and music, which went on until the early hours (got to bed 3am both nights) and on the Sunday night the “survivors session” we finally got out at 5.30am… and excellent sessions (I even sang while playing the pipes… a rare occasion).

The workshop went well, 10am to 12.30pm was useful to the students and myself (I even got a hug off one of them) what was apparent was the lack of contact the individual pipers had (isolation) and no advice or after care help; something they found the workshop was useful for. After the workshop we chatted and played until about 4pm!

I learn a lot too about my pipes and the adjustments I need to make, but the comments about the pipes were good and positive. I will make some mouth blown pipes too incase they will be needed. I will look for more festivals in the future and other venues to attract the students.

Completed Small Pipes for Newcastleton Folk Festival 2015

There are 7 completed Small pipes for the Newcastleton Folk Festival. I have covered most of the bellows with a fabric except for 2 of them.

Bubinga chanter, cherry and cedar drones. The bellows were donated by a friend this is the only item that I did not make.

Indian Red Wood chanter and drones, the deeper colour on the chanter is due to oiling. The bellows I made in 1994 in Lithuania

Bubinga chanter and drones, cedar wood decoration on drones

Cherry chanter and drones, walnut wood decorations on drones

Bubinga chanter, cherry drones with Indian red wood decorations

Indian red wood chanter and drones, cherry wood decorations on drones, cedar wood decoration on chanter

Cedar chanter and drones, this was the first bagpipe I made in Spain in 2014

Bagpipe Society Blowout, 2015

It was my first time at the ‘blowout’ (Polesworth, Tamworth, England) in a beautiful surrounding of the Abbey. Each piping culture has its traditions and this was a new tradition for me. Here there was a different style and feeling about the music, pipes, people and events, perhaps a more European style or perhaps an ‘English” style. I say English as it is a reinvention of a tradition that died out. And the reintroduction of the tradition has established a very firm and loyal group of people to their type of music.

I was expecting a heavy influence of French music, but I was surprised to see a good mix of styles in the form of workshops and concerts: Northumbrian/Borders; Occitan from the French Pyrenees; Hungarian; Irish; Welsh… these music’s were played on a type of bagpipe that I have a problem in naming.

They call it a “Border pipe” but I cannot see where their border is exactly? The majority played a type of pipe similar to the French/Belgium bagpipe: mouth blown or bellows blown, conical bored chanter, 2 drones, over-blown into a 2nd octave. Not so loud, plastic reeds, no African Blackwood in sight (made a nice change too) therefore the sound was mellow, perhaps they could call it a “French-Anglo Pipe” as the makers are English and the pipe is modeled on the French/Belgium style.

The makers present (selling their pipes) were in the main hall alongside a Society stall, a flute maker, an Occitan maker. Zampogna maker. There was a 2nd hand section of music books, CDs, cassettes…

One of the workshops I attended was a ‘beginner’s workshop’ to sort out teething problems players were having. This was very informative as it gave me a chance to see how the workshop was structured (with relation to my own workshop); I was also looking for some advice about my Spanish gaita as it was sharp in the bottom notes.  It came apparent that the information was only for a select type of pipes from a select few pipe makers. A general knowledge was not there of conical bored pipes.  The Society was open to all pipes but in reality (at this blowout in particular) only certain types of pipes were represented. Sometimes it felt like if you did not have a bagpipe from a certain type of maker then you were excluded from activities and advice, there was no advice about the Gaita. Also it presumed that because I had “asked the question” that I did not know anything about pipes or conical bored pipes, and I was told to go and “ask (someone) and you will find that the pipes are fine” (meaning “it is you who is wrong” well it seems I know as much as the person who is giving the advice, as he did not know either, a little condescending I thought).

The only sessions available were in D or G, G being the more popular of the 2. G pipes are common in French music, a large bass G. Which is fine, they sounded beautiful. But there are other pipes and I would have liked to have seen a session where any type of pipe could have been played… a few people had brought their sackpipa (key on A minor), , Spanish gaita (C),  , I had with me bagpipes in A minor, C, A major, D, F, and C minor… but no G. I did attend the Irish workshop which was in D, but others I could not. This did not lesson my interest. Other pipes present were a Welsh Pibgorn (D), Leistershire Small pipe (D), Italian Zampogna and there was a Dudy from the Czech/Slovak regions.

The D session on the Saturday was titled “English Session” this apparently is a new occurrence as only English melodies are played (I did not know this at the time and I played a Catalan melody which was met with a silence). After I realized my “mistake” I tried to play along with the English melodies, which there was a lot of. This was the biggest surprise of the weekend, a firm selection of English tunes were being played by all. The Northumbrian tunes came at the end of the night when they had played out all the English tunes. This is great as it establishes a firm melody base of for an English tradition, and leaves the Northumbrian tradition a little apart (which I feel is more accurate as it is more akin to the Scottish/English Border tradition).

Another surprise for me was the Occitan music and bagpipes. 2 makers from the French side of the Pyrenees were offering their instruments for sale, CDs, workshops and concerts. It was a music I only knew a little about (and only recently). They seemed to have a cross-over from the Catalan and Aragon side of the Pyrenees with the Sac de Gemecs (made from a fruit wood, a type of apple) and the Gaita de Boto (complete with snakeskin and girls dress). But also they had their own type of pipes a very large bagpipe in F with a large drone with a knitted “flecco” (decoration). A shepherd’s bagpipe without a drone, deep sound, sad sound, lovely (I had heard this on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees). And the Boha bagpipe with the drone apart of the chanter which can play 2 notes… (Therefore is it really a drone?). Also there was a variant of this having 2 melody pipes and 1 ‘drone’ built into the chanter, single reeds, polyphonic sound.

In the sessions I heard the Welsh Pibgorn, a dingle reeded instrument, 1 octave mouth blown with a distinctive sound, a beautiful decorated horn cut away at the bottom of the chanter, with cylindrical bored chanter.  Their melodies were not dissimilar to a Breton tune, in a minor mode.

The Hungarian duo (pipes and hurdy gurdy) were fantastic players, (I had seen them at the Piping Live Festival in Glasgow a few years previous) tight in their music and ‘tuning’ (an important lesson for us all). Played beautifully with traditional and composed pieces, improvisations and structured parts. The pipes were not so dissimilar to the Occitan Boha. With the Hungarian ’suggesting’ that the Boha was taken from their pipes. They look similar… but who’s came first is a question too far…

My final observation of the weekend was that there is a danger of the “small pipes” becoming obsolete in time due to their quiet nature. Those who had them were drowned out by the conical chanters. This is a reflection of what is happening in sessions too all over the country. If you are “not heard”, why play them? The highland pipe makers are increasing the volume of the “session small pipes” but not so with pipe makers (although there are exceptions). Perhaps the small-pipes need to become more assertive, and insist the venues, meetings, and festivals are predominantly ‘small-pipe sessions’ the same way the ‘English Session’ has become?

Newcastleton Folk Club

Newcastleton Folk Club is on every 4th Tuesday of the month, just over the Scottish Border. I have been going for a few months and enjoying it a lot. There is a nice mix of singers and instrumentalists, with a mixture of ballads, modern songs, humorous songs and the odd poem.

The musicians always have an element of piping as one of the organizers (Dave) is a small piper, and has been introducing the larger French-Anglo pipe and the Swedish Sackpipa into the mix. I play my Northumbrian and Scottish Small pipes, and this time I was joined with a fiddler and guitarist. There are a few guitarists generally to accompany songs or to perform solo. Other times there have been Irish pipes, mandolins, mandolas, and a whistle.

There is a rotation of music, so everyone gets a chance to play/sing. This week I played 3 sets on the Scottish Small pipes, the first being composed of 2 Lowland Scots tunes “Now Westlin Winds” and the “The Gallowa Hills”; the second set was made up of 3 Northumbrian tunes “Neil Gow, Chevy Chase, and Frisky”.

The next set of tunes was on the Northumbrian Small pipes, I played 2 tunes called “Bonny at Morn” and “Fairly Shot on Her”

The last set was on the Scottish Small pipes, which was accompanied by a guitarist and violin player. The tunes were “The Rowan Tree” and the “When the Battle’s O’er”, 2 Highland pipe tunes.