Live Music

I really first started playing live music for circle dance several years ago when I went to Mary Callaway's circle dance birthday party in Sutton Coldfield and Bob Minney invited anyone to play along with him using his selection of drums. I picked up the biggest drum I could find - Bob's jaw dropped but he went along with it! I drummed the gentlest I have ever done and this met whole-heartedly with Bob's approval. I didn't dance at all that evening - I played drums all night.

Spurred on by this experience, I then ventured into the main arena of live circle dance music at the second Easter Gathering to take place at Darley Dale, when Paul Boizot co-ordinated the live music sessions - by that Gathering, many of the established circle dance musicians had ceased to attend the Gathering and so I felt more confident about joining in. Paul, who has been an enthusiastic encouragement to me in my musical development, even gave me a special role - I was appointed leader of the percussion section! However, I took my eye off the ball momentarily and left dear Marion Pfister in the centre nursing some maracas, not quite what was needed for the final dance of the session, By The Quiet Stream!

At the Easter Gatherings since (and I have been blessed to be able to attend every Gathering held since 1996), I have participated in the live music sessions under the direction of various co-ordinators, including James Wilde and Richard and Olivia Hunt. I have been proud to play alongside many talented musicians at Easter Gatherings over the years.

To date, I have played in two named bands, Hora and Triskell. Hora was a band formed in the North West by Helen O, John Hofton, and myself. We played at events at our main local workshop venue at Rixton and also at Windows for Peace events organised by Ros Raizada. It was mainly as a result of some apparently anonymous goading (I knew who it was though, Helen O!) to play at Wendi Lethbridge's birthday party in Cumbria that I first played live music with Mike Machin and Clyde Olliver, with whom I now play in the band Triskell.

At Sophia Hatch's long weekend events at Alnmouth, I used to busk along with the house band before ultimately becoming a formal member of the house band in later years.

I have also played along with John Hofton at Suzy Straw's Encircling the Land in Sacred Dance events at Gorton Monastery in Manchester and with Paul Boizot and Richard and Olivia Hunt at A Grand Day Out, an event in Malvern where the dances are taught by Sunnara Vivian.

I have joined many of the illustrious musicians mentioned above, and others, at various live music sessions for circle dance groups, in scratch bands at various events, at Summer and Winter Solstice events in Manchester (outdoor events, with a 7.30am start in December!), and with Maya, Eva, Mike, and Laurie at events that Cindy and I have led at Puriton organised by John Wealthy and Frances Fawkes.

My main focus of attention musically is now with Triskell. The dances are taught by Cindy so that we may concentrate on the music. Mike has composed two tunes for dancing to, one of which he choreographed the dance for and the other he asked Cindy to choreograph. Both have been very well received. I also dabble with composing tunes and hope that we may soon include one or two in Triskell's repertoire. With the assistance of my 8 track recording system, maybe soon there will be CDs available in the foyer?!!!

So, for those of you with an interest in the instruments I play, here are some nuggets of information!

Drums - I possess many, from various places (Turkey, Mauritius, Bali, Greece, Egypt, etc) and various shapes and sizes. Drums are good to play - no tuning required so they play in any key and you get to sit down a lot when playing! Also, great for keeping the hands warm at outdoor Winter Solstice events! I learned a lot of my drumming skills from Moshiko, the famous Israeli dance choreographer and musician.

Guitar - very useful as there are many music books available and whilst I don't read music, I can play guitar chords from sheet music. Mike and Clyde try to get me to remember the chords to our repertoire. I do try, but the eagle-eyed dancers amongst you may sometimes see a bit of paper jammed under my foot, my crib sheet for the tricky chord sequences!!! I use a standard tuning mainly. For my own compositions, I often use alternative tunings, including dropped D and I also use a short cut capo that I acquired in the States when co-facilitating New England Dance Camp with Cindy. The short cut capo covers just the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings, so by placing it 2 frets higher than the 6th, 2nd, and 1st strings this raises the 5th, 4th, and 3rd strings by a tone, which creates some wonderful harmonies - other placings of the capo can provide some interesting results too! Do check out David Wilcox, an American singer-songwriter who uses many alternative tunings. We saw him at Club Passim in Boston - a wonderful evening.

Tamboura - another stringed instrument, this one from Bulgaria via; I tune mine ADAD so I can play melodies on the top string mainly and the other 3 strings create a drone effect. Another instrument with 4 strings in pairs (so 8 strings altogether). It effectively plays in the keys of D and Dm only, which isn't as bad as it sounds as a lot of Balkan tunes are in those keys. I find that trying to use a capo isn't good, so I stick to D and Dm. I do wonder though if I shall be damned for all eternity as I play lots of Macedonian tunes on a Bulgarian instrument! NB - I have also been known to play Turkish tunes on Greek instruments and vice-versa, so my political incorrectness knows no boundaries!!!

Mandola - as a viola is to a violin so a mandola is to a mandolin (or so I believe!). It's a sort of bigger and lower register mandolin. However, I have never really got my head around standard mandolin tuning as it is the same as a violin and therefore like the top 4 strings of a guitar but the other way around! Having been well challenged by refingering guitar chords for the bouzouki (see above) then reversing the chord shapes is a step way too far for my brain, so I tend to tune it similarly to the tamboura (i.e. drone plus melodies on top string) but in a different key. It does take a capo well so I can play on the mandola any tune I can play on the tamboura but in any key.

Balalaika - I have a 3 stringed one, which I have yet to play anything meaningful on! I need to check out tunings, chords, etc on the internet. When we went on a cruise to Norway, we stopped off in Stavangar where there was a band of Russian musicians busking on the street. The bass balalaika was absolutely enormous (like a triangular shaped double bass) - amazing to watch being played.

Saz - a recent acquisition. A long-necked stringed instrument from Asia Minor, with quarter tones. Amazing stuff to get into! I managed to learn Uskudar (from Turkey) on it and played it solo at our Upholland group recently.

Gaida - the shock troops of the Balkan music world! Another instrument courtesy of and another present from Cindy from that source. This is a beast - a Bulgarian goatskin bagpipe! The first gaida I was sent was a small bag with a wooden chanter and drone, and a wooden pipe to blow into to inflate the bag. When it arrived, it was in a brown paper package which reeked of goat and cigarettes!

I had only ever played a recorder (at school) and a tin whistle by way of blowy instruments before and had no experience of what I later discovered was a closed pipe instrument. Also, I had no breath power to play more than a couple of squeaky notes on the damned thing!!! Cindy used to worry about my health at the start as I went very red playing it and my first few forays into live playing for dance were no more than a couple of times through a very short tune! In time though, I got the hang of the bag inflating and notes. Then, at a Christmas residential event, I thought it would be kind to the dancers to tune up outside in the snow before unleashing the beast within the confines of the small dance space - however, the reed went sour and I couldn't get it to work again. We contacted and they very kindly sent replacement reeds for the chanter and drone (they said you have to replace both at the same time). Then I got carried away and decided I would like a Kaba Gaida, a lower register gaida with a massive bag. When it arrived, I inserted all the nice carved horn parts (chanter, etc) into the bag but couldn't get a peep out of it. I think I was lucky with the first gaida and am still convinced to this day that I am not playing it correctly as I have seen DVDs and read books about gaidas having to be inflated whilst covering the end of the drone to produce a 'balance' of air pressure, which I don't have to do with my gaida. Anyway, having decided that I could spend years trying to get a meaningful tune out of the Kaba Gaida, I opted for a simple solution, just stick the first gaida's drone and chanter etc into the new bag. This is fine - obviously I don't get the lower register but I do get a bigger air reserve. In fact, I have since tried on several occasions to go back to using the small bag with the original chanter etc but find it very difficult to keep up the inflation process. I plan to have another go with the Kaba Gaida bits sometime in the future.

I have another bagpipe. I was given this by a dance friend who had a friend who brought it back from Greece and seemed keen to get rid! I thought it was a joke! It had two chanters with only 5 holes in each and the bag was not skin but smelly vinyl, like a bit of textured lino! Anyway, when in Glastonbury some time later, I went into a CD shop and bought a CD of folk playing various ethnic bagpipes and lo and behold I recognised this one, called a Tsambouna. I haven't had a try on it for a little while but plan to give it a whirl again sometime in the future. I think I have understood what one has to do with it now!

I have various bits and bobs percussion-wise, such as several shakers, tambourines, tic-tocs, a wooden frog with a ridged back that you scrape with a stick, a duck call, and so on, plus various other instruments such as an ocarina, a tin whistle, and a fanfare trumpet complete with heraldic standard!!!! When I bought a book on how to play the ocarina, I could only get one with a photo of a 6 year old girl on the front, not quite the image I was hoping to portray!

So, for someone who doesn't read music and doesn't stick to one main instrument, I seem to have come a long way and shared some great experiences with many musician friends. It's quite amazing to make music without understanding all the technical background - but then that's how it seems that the ethnic musicians do it too. Try to quiz a Balkan musician about scales and the intricacies of complex time signatures and you'll no doubt get a blank expression! It just comes naturally to them. Q "What's 22/8?" A "Just after half past seven?"!!!