The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

Folk Nights and Redemption

For about 10 months or so I’ve been going along to folk sessions in the area, but there are 2 distinct types who don’t really mix. On the one side (alternate Wednesday or Thursday evenings) we have the musicians who are mostly fiddle, flute and pipe players, with the occasional guitar, mandolin, squeezebox and hurdy-gurdy. Many in this group play more than one instrument and the standard of musicianship is exceptionally high. They all know hundreds of tunes that they can all play at breakneck speed, but the one thing they are united in is that they don’t sing and can’t be doing with people who think that folk music is just paying 3 chords and singing with a nasal inflection.

On the other side (Fridays, fortnightly) we have the singers, which mostly comprise of guitarists, many of whom also play the mandolin, plus the occasional bodhrán player, a ukulele player who covers everything from George Formby to Britney Spears, and a single fiddler, who doesn’t sing but is well respected by all nonetheless. While there are bursts of music-only playing, as the evening goes on and the pubs fill up, the singing gets louder, slightly slurred and is often accompanied by a drunken crowd wanting yet another rendition of “Danny Boy”. This group cannot be doing with the “diddley-dee” players who are perceived as possessing a superiority complex and want to steal the limelight away from a moving, soulful voice or a good old sing-along.

I’m one of the very few players who go to both groups

I don’t sing. I know a handful of tunes that I can play well that, unfortunately, nobody else knows. However, once I’ve worked out what key everyone’s in I can usually play some kind of accompaniment either plucking a more basic or complimentary tune or, if I can see the guitarist clearly, strum along the chords. I’ve got by with this for nearly a year, and although I’m steadily improving I always feel like I’m completely outclassed. The fact is that they all know the tunes and I don’t.

Last night, at a sparsely attended diddley-dee session – one fiddle, one tin whistle, one flute and, unusually, no guitarist – there was a guy from Turkey with a Baglama. With its long neck and round back it had a beautiful, deep resonant sound, and when Gürhan played his Turkish folk songs and tunes, the hairs on the back of my neck prickled as I was swept away in an exotic soundscape of Middle-Eastern emotion.

The whole tuning of the instrument, along with a different scale and chord structure made it nigh on impossible for anyone to join in with him, or for him to join in with the traditional Scottish and Irish folk music. So after one or two abortive attempts, the main group played most of the tunes, occasionally giving Gürhan a slot to play something of his own, while admitting that their ears were just not accustomed to such radically different music structures. But I was captivated. I listened intently and eventually thought I could see a way in. At the end of the evening, after the rest of the musicians packed up and left, I re-tuned my mandolin slightly and was able to jam with Gürhan for 20 minutes until we were finally booted out of the pub.

I may not be an expert musician, but I'm not bad at improvising and getting the general gist of what’s going on. In this case it seems to have given me an advantage over those who are so proficient, that their very skill in understanding the patterns of Celtic folk music have also restricted them to that form.

To be fair, with instruments like whistles, flutes and fiddles you have to commit to each note completely as you play it, because a half-hearted attempt will sound awful, but with a mandolin you can dampen the strings as you play until you feel more confident. This made it more difficult for them to improvise with the baglama player.

However, even if no one else was there to witness it, in my own eyes I felt I’d redeemed myself somewhat.

A baglama saz


34quinn said...

I think that is so cool, I love that you were not only able to take the time to try to make it work but that it did work out and the two of you enjoyed it. Next get together you will both be able to demonstrate how a little patience and some diligence can blend these instruments together and purhaps one of those other musicians may be inclined to also give it a moments try. IT will be interesting to see, who knows you may have discovered a whole new blend of enjoyable music.

I wish I were musically inclined but I am not really, I love all kinds of music...I have always like the bagpipes ( not an instrument we hear often here ) but I think I come by that honestly as my heritage is Scottish.( I only found that out later in life it did help to explain my interest some.)

Anyways, sounds like you ended up with an enjoyable evening in the end and that is all that matters.

Foot Eater said...

I love folk music. Eliza Carthy is one of my favourites; she does a great folk/techno thing and her image is somewhere between punk and Goth. Ther's a folk band who did a whole album based on the classic 1970s horror film The Wicker Man, whom I heard a programme about late one night on Radio 3, but for the life of me I can't remember their name.

Danny Boy, on the other hand, is the most diabolically horrible ditty ever composed and the person responsible for it should be drowned in his own effluent. Why has it stayed so popular when Ireland has produced so many beautiful folk songs?

Sarah said...

"a ukulele player who covers everything from George Formby to Britney Spears.."

i can't quite explain why, but i find that statement to be disturbing.

i had no idea that you played the mandolin. UGH! i LOVE the mandolin and have always wanted to know how to play it. i have 2 guitars that i haven't played with for quite a number of years.. so redemption for me is further away music wise.

did you know nicholas cage learned how to play the mandolin for his role in Captain Corelli's Mandolin?

is it beautiful? your Mandolin?

Kim Ayres said...

Quinn - I love trying out different kinds of music. When I was in Canada on a student exchange I got involved in playing South American, Andean music with a couple of guys from Peru, and even a bit of Chinese music with a woman from Hong Kong.

Foot Eater - folk is one of those things that I enjoy playing in a session at the pub, but otherwise don't tend to listen to much, so I'm completely out of my depth if anyone asks the name of something I've played or where the tune comes from

Sarah - you are right to feel disturbed. Last session she did a rendition of "I will Survive" on the ukulele.

If you read the 101 things about me you'll find that the mandolin is number 2 on the list.

The one I have is beautiful - it's made from recycled wood fromthe Talisker Single Malt Whiskey distillery on the Isle of Skye, off the West Coast of Scotland. You can see a photo of it on my blog entry Mandolin Heaven

Nikki said...

My Dad brought one of those home from his time in Turkey when I was knee high to a grasshopper.

It hung in a place of honor in our home.

Dad played guitar - all classical and ragtime, and played the 6 string banjo (all self taught), but could never learn to play his "Turkish Banjo" LOL

Andraste said...

I envy you your talent and musical ear. I play guitar and drums, and can barely tune the bastards without help.

SafeTinspector said...

Goodness! For some reason I never knew you played any kind of instrument.
See, now you need to upload an MP3 of it for us.
Go ahead. We're waiting...

Dr Maroon said...

I don't believe you lot. Ayres can hardly type a paragraph without somehow bringing that mandolin into it.
And Kim, perhaps you should mention to Sarah that it is made from the wood of seasoned malt whisky casks.
The way you put it, one could be forgiven for thinking that they they used an old skirting board or roof-rafter from the attic.

Kim Ayres said...

Nikki - I'd love to have one. I can't imagine having an instrument but not playing it.

Andraste - I envy you playing the drums. I've never been able to figure out what to do with them.

SafeTinspector - In the sidebar, go down to the "Who am I?" selection and "101 things" is the first option. You might be surprised at what you'll find out about me (or bored stupid)

Dr Maroon - Thank you - at least someone has actually read what I write. I'm beginning to suspect that some people just look at the pictures and make a random comment, and as I don't usually include pictures in my entries they don't get looked at at all.

Kate said...

Mandolins sound wonderful, really evocative. I do envy you being able to play one.

A chap I used to know used one when he was performing with his band, they did mostly rock stuff, but the mandolin gave it quite a unique sound.

Foot Eater, is the band you referred to the Sneaker Pimps? They aren't really folk, but one of their albums featured a cover of Willow's Song and several other tracks had a Wicker Man feel to them.

millerqueen said...

Sorry I'm a lot late to this party, but I AM that ukulele player! Bwah ha ha!!! and yep the word disturbing could be used about me...

Kim Ayres said...

Millerqueen - welcome to my ramblings.

I really enjoy your rendition of "Hit me baby one more time". I think next time you should put your hair in bunches for extra effect :)

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