The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

Real Musicians

Over the past few weeks I’ve been to two folk sessions in Castle Douglas, and one in Kirkcudbright, run by the same guy. At the last one, I heard tell of a session every couple of weeks in the pub in Corsock (a remote village so small that the pub is also a post office), but it carried a warning.

“They’re a bit hardcore up there,” said the mandolin player supping his Guinness next to me. I have noticed that there seem to be an excessive amount of mandolin players at these sessions – by excessive, I mean more than one and/or when they outnumber the guitarists. Time was I would get an extra level of respect turning up with a mandolin, and it allowed me to avoid the heavy competitiveness that goes along with playing a guitar - mandolins were rare but guitarists were always three-a-penny.

“Hardcore?” I raised an enquiring eyebrow.

“Real musicians” he replied, lowering his voice conspiratorially, “play a lot of Irish music. No singers…”

I let out a long slow breath; not quite a whistle. “Intimidating?” I asked, although it was a statement more than a question. He nodded.

Meanwhile the fiddle player had struck up another tune so we returned to the music and nothing more was said.

At the folk sessions I’ve been attending, while there are some traditional fast-fiddle type pieces, there are also a fair amount of songs, both traditional and some composed by people who attend. The advantage of song-focused folk music is that the mandolin is then an accompanying instrument. You can either join the guitarists in playing the chords (rarely more than 3 or 4 in any song), which is easy stuff, of you can follow the tune of the singer, which is unlikely to be anything too complicated.

But with instrumental folk music, the fiddle is usually playing complicated fast twiddly stuff and the mandolin is expected to keep up!

It is here that I start to feel like a bit of a fake. I came to the mandolin from the guitar, and always listened to rock, heavy metal, punk and the odd bit of blues; I have no folk history. When I first got my mandolin I used to listen to some of my wife’s folk tapes and played along, but I never bothered to learn the names.

Think of it this way: some games, like chess for example, are far more fun to play than to watch unless you are a real aficionado. For me, folk music has always been very similar in that respect. It’s great sitting in amongst a group of folk musicians playing live, joining in where possible, but I don’t have CDs full of the stuff to listen to when I’m driving.

So I knew I was letting myself in for it by heading up to Corsock last night, and as I walked into the bar with the mandolin over my shoulder, there was a voice screaming in my head, “Turn around now! Get back in the car! Don’t be so stupid, you’re just going to make a complete fool of yourself. Leave now before you embarrass yourself and everyone here.” However, the reality is that any folk session can only survive if new blood comes in, and as long as I wasn’t so crap that I actually interfered with the ability of the other players to concentrate, then it was unlikely I’d be snubbed.

As it turned out they were warm and welcoming, although they were all vastly superior players. Several of them actually have a Ceilidh band together, so had a huge repertoire of tunes that they all knew, and I didn’t.

Once or twice across the evening I led with one of the half a dozen tunes or so that I can play without making a fool of myself and everyone else joined in. When asked afterwards what the tune was called, I had to confess that I had no idea, but had just picked it up somewhere. They were kind enough not to snigger.

While I was relieved that there were no other mandolin players, one guy did turn up with an Octave Mandola, which is like a larger mandolin, but tuned an octave lower. He let me have a go: it was a beautifully crafted instrument, with a fantastic resonate sound that vibrated in my chest as I played.

When I praised it he proceeded to tell me that is was built by Spinoza or Spiro-Agnew, or some such name, and then looked at me with an expectation that I should be really impressed. My lack of credentials meant that I had never heard of the name before (and as you can see, the name didn’t stick in my head either), but to get the point across he continued that it had cost “two-two” when he bought it three years ago. I guess at this point he meant £2,200 (about $4,000), so I made sure that I had the appropriate respectful and impressed expression on my face.

As I went up to the bar to buy myself drink, another fiddle player walked in. At this point the landlord leaned forward and said, with reverence in his voice, “That’s Nigel…” and at this point I cannot recall the surname but, once again, I was evidently supposed to be impressed. I contorted my face into what I hope was a expression of deferential surprise. When Nigel Whatisname played, I wasn’t aware that he was necessarily better than the other fiddle players there, but he had an air of self-assurance that suggested he didn’t feel like a fake.

Did I feel out of my depth? Yes. Did I feel like a fake? Yes. Would I go back? Yes.

Ultimately, if I keep going, I will learn the tunes and my playing will improve, and several of them did seem like genuinely friendly people. When Maggie and I decided to change our lives and move here, one of the things we wanted to do was meet more creative people, and this seems like a good way of going about it.

Eventually I hope I'll stop feeling a fake.


fatmammycat said...

Do you have an actual e-mail address?
You in fleagh ceoil, fatmammycat.

Gyrobo said...

A pub that's also a post office?! I'll need some concrete proof before I believe such a bold assertion.

Swiss rebecca said...

Man of many talents, you are... the mandolin???? Sounds like you wandered into a great bunch of people. Keep it up.

Kim Ayres said...

fatmammycat - if you click on my blogger profile you'll find a link to my e-mail under my photo.

What's a fleagh ceoil?

Gyrobo - it's true! Visit this site and scroll down to Corsock, where you will find "Corsock Post Office: Situated inside Pringles public house since 2002."

Swiss Rebecca - much better name than another rebecca!

If you scroll down my links in the sidebar to "Music", then you'll see a couple of other mandolin entries

swiss rebecca said...

Hmmm... could have known that, I just looked at your 101 things and found mandolin at 2.... but what on earth is a bouzouki?

Kim Ayres said...

A bouzouki is like a very large mandolin (click on this link for more details: - it has 8 strings, doubled into 4 pairs and has a deep and rich sound. However, the frets are much further apart and I have quite short fingers, so I find it much harder to play.

fatmammycat said...

A fleagh Ceoil is a meet of traditionalIrish music players. People come from all over and just join in, soometimes there are singers, mostly not. it is an amazing sight. One that I attended as a yougster- observing mind, not playing- had up to thirty players by the end of the first hour and to hear them was out of this world; there were pipes, tin whistles, two mandolins if I recall, fiddles, spoons, bodhrans, a couple of guitars, tremendous! Keep it up Kim, it is good for the soul and don't be intimidated, most session players are delighted to have new blood.

Gyrobo said...

Now I've seen everything, except for a flying whale.

Stella said...

Kim, can understand you feeling intimidated but sounds like you had a great time!

Gyrobo said...

It's always nice to try new things. I never do, since I can program all the knowlege in the universe into myself.

But you never know what you can do until you try. I didn't think I had any artistic talent, but look at these. Pure genius.

Kim Ayres said...

fatmammycat - Sounds like great fun! Do you play anything yourself?

Stella - yes, it was good.

Gyrobo - have you ever thought about setting up a FAQ page, or some form of introduction for those of us who are new to your style of thinking, and don't have the necessary cultural and mental structures to place your art and prose into a meaningful context?

fatmammycat said...

I used to play guitar and tin whistle years ago. But fell out of the habit. I do love live music though, from the lame-est garage rock band to seasoned professionals. There is just something so thrilling about feeling the first chord reverberate through your feet! And unlike every person I know, I love the sound of bagpipes, it can make the hairs stand on my arm.

Kim Ayres said...

Well on the days when you're not doing your hard physical work-out you should pick up the instruments again. In fact, playing the bodhran for more than 10 minutes is a pretty tough work-out in it's own right by my experience - maybe you should start playing one of them!

Then find a few good places to join in, invite us over, and I'll bring the mandolin. I've never been to Ireland, though I've always wanted to visit.

Gyrobo said...

I once thought about putting together a coherent explanation, but then realized that the purpose of my blogging nature was too abstract to be constrained.

Anyway, the art has no context. It's just stuff that popped into my mind.

That said, I also enjoy traditional music. It has an earthy feeling to it. Like home, or some kind of farm.

Kim Ayres said...

To explain something doesn't necessarily require it to be constrained. Instead of talking boundaries you can talk about purpose, aims, guides, analogies etc.

For example I can talk about being Earth-bound, or I can talk of looking to the stars.

I would have thought that a robot programmed "with all the knowledge in the universe" should be able to come up with something ;)

del said...

That pub is correct. There is also a very beautiful blonde babe there called Sarah!

Kim Ayres said...

Hi Del, welcome to my ramblings. I must confess that I've not seen anyone matching that description on a Wednesday evening folk session

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