Trip to Sligo – Leeds Céilí Band at the All Ireland Fleadh 2015

Walking down from dropping my daughter at Nursery is a rare occasion for me to day dream. Red and brown autumnal leaves crunch under foot and a first trace of winter breath sneaks out in front of me in the foggy Sheffield air. My son has fallen asleep on my back and my mind wanders back to my solo visit to the All Ireland Fleadh in Sligo this summer. This was the last time I had a stretch of time without the family, time to indulge in watching and listening and playing as little or as much as I like.

Sligo 2014 was much more hectic, with family in tow and two competitions to deal with. The journey there and back with the children was great fun but I didn’t enjoy the Fleadh itself. No sessions, off to bed straight after the Senior Band competition and the early Monday morning train back to Sheffield.

2015 was different. A walk in the rain to the the train Station. My bag packed with a great Ethnomusicology book to read again (May It Fill Your Soul: Experiencing Bulgarian Music by Timothy Rice, University of Chicago Press, 1994), some craft ales from Sean at Beer Central, bread from the Forge Bakehouse Sheffield, smoked bacon from Konrad Kempka, my flute and some glitter of course.

Train and boat are my favourite way of travelling. Head down if you are feeling anti-social or chin up if you want to discover. My first discovery was on the train was a man in a gimp suit.  I’ll save you the pain of a picture. His suit was plastic and had to avoid radiators and open flames.

14 hours after leaving Sheffield I jumped off the train at Carrick-on- Shannon, County Leitrim, to stay for the first couple of nights with my cousin and catch up with relatives. It’s a quick train ride from there to Sligo Town and I wanted to get some decent rest before the Band Final on the Sunday night and the ensuing madness.

The Senior Céilí Band Competition is the final competition of the Fleadh. It’s a hot ticket with people queuing from 5 a.m. of the morning of the competition to get their tickets. The couple of days leading up to competition revolve round grabbing practices when ever you can, where ever you. 250,000 people pack into a small town for 4 days. There’s not much room.

Leeds Céilí Band practices were held in the glamorous surrounds of an open air archway which was an entrance to a pub car park.

Leeds Céilí Band Practice All Ireland Fleadh Sligo 2015

Leeds Céilí Band Practice All Ireland Fleadh Sligo 2015

Glamour of the Fleadh

Glamour of the Fleadh

Our band comprises of Drums, Piano, 2 flutes, 3 fiddles, a banjo and a button accordion. Most members come from Leeds with a couple of blow-ins from Sheffield via Manchester and Liverpool. Qualification for the Fleadh requires success in Regional and Provincial (All Britain) competitions.

There are few rules for the competition apart from maximum number of members and type of repertoire. Four sets of tunes are allowed. We chose to play a March, Hornpipe, 2 Jigs and 2 Reels.

Tunes are learned in a mixture of ways. Some learn by ear, some learn by written music. We practiced in sub groups (e.g. flutes & fiddles separate) and then as a complete band. Band members come from a mixture of backgrounds including learning through Comhaltas as children, coming through the Folk scene and Rock/Country music. Our music is directed by Michael Tennyson, a great Piano Accordion and Piano player from Leeds.

After a slight uniform malfunction last year, this year I was ready and in full attire a good few hours before the competition. I had a little bit of blue glitter on just to bring a bit of sparkle to the event and played plenty during the day to get my flute warmed up. My flute is made by George Ormiston, a world class craftsman. But anything made of wood can subject to a change in environment and so it’s important to warm up.

The Band Competition was held at the Sligo IT Arena. 1500 seats, cameras, lights and 15 bands from Ireland, USA, Scotland and England competing for honours. The talk around the town was that the Sligo band the Knocknashee were favourites, but in reality the adjudicators do their own thing and I’m not sure they get swayed by hype.

A big issue for me is nerves. I’ve really worked had to develop techniques to manage them. I’ve learned a great deal from ‘The Inner Game of Music’ by Barry Green. As well as practice, much of performance is about conquering how your mind works.

We arrive at the Arena and are guided into the first band room. This is a military precision exercise with so many musicians and equipment in one place. I look out and see this….. 20150816_183812no I’m horizontal, I just can’t work out how to flip this picture 90″.

 

 

 

 

 

Next move is into the changing rooms… no pictures there. You don’t want to see Leeds Céilí Band half dressed. That would certainly be niche. Warmed up and in a semblance of tuneage we’re led into the back stage area. I’m congratulated by the crew for having proper trousers on this year. Two sets of ten chairs are lined up opposite each other for the two bands waiting. One band comes off to the left of the stage another band goes onto the right. Very smooth. It’s our time now. We head on to the stage. It’s hot and the crowd are chattering about the previous band, the great and the good are lined up on the front row and the adjudicators lie somewhere beyond in the dark of the audience. I take a breath, smile and relax. I don’t think I can do this next year so I decide to really savour the moment.

Our drummer Tim checks if everyone is ready. we’ve checked our tuning, a tap of the block and the march introduction swirls us into readiness, the pulse becomes part of us and we become one great Céilí music machine. The Thatch Hornpipe next, three vamps on the piano to set us off. Remember the variations, keep the tuning in the high notes, relax. Two taps for the jigs. Bunch of Roses in G minor for a start. This has pushed me musically. So that’s what those shiny keys are for.

One tap, are you ready? Two taps and we’re off with the reels. It feels great…

https://comhaltas.ie/music/detail/comhaltaslive_478_8leeds_ceili_band/

It’s all done now. We head to the Green Room and watch some of the other bands. We know we won’t get placed but revel in the best Leeds Céilí Band performance in years.

Two days of tunes ensue. We are looked after royally by the landlords of the pubs in which we play and by our hosts. A great fleadh. Thank you Sligo. The slow train home to Sheffield suits my weary but happy head.

 

Gijón discoveries… Fiesta, Politics, Books and a little Sidre.

Going away with family, partners, children or even friends can be challenging. Balancing needs, wants, energy levels and concentration spans mixed in with the first few days of unwinding coils bouncing around a rented flat could have been difficult. We had the added flavour of me wondering whether I would be allowed to get on with my field work and my wife having an international conservation ecology conference she had been heavily involved with organizing, at the other end of our time away. Suffice to say we didn’t kill each other. The children don’t make allowances for what I’ve set out to do. One example would be while trying to write and layout this post Osgur decided to roll around our lovely white sheeted bed and cover it in poo. Please excuse the layout.

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Back to Gijón….The Spanish lessons seemed to be working, (although the Asturian accent is a challenge that I’ve still yet to get my head round) and with time on my hands and sleeping children I headed into Gijón to meet up with an old Camino de Santiago friend.

I walked along the Camino route into town following the blue and gold conch shell Camino signs. As I passed the Gijón Dock yard I was drawn in by the noise coming from behind the 20 foot high walls covered in graffiti. I knew this was called Semana Negra but thought it was just a fairground. It was much more than this, it was a real sensory overload. I discovered something different every few metres.
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Central to this Fiesta is a literary festival and book fair. I didn’t spend too much time in the literary events as I found it difficult to keep up with what was being said and many of the events were packed to the exits. Everything from left wing and Asturian nationalist politics through to thriller and fantasy fiction was covered. I bought a copy of an Asturian-Castillian Dictionary and got myself a beer and started to take in the countless food stalls. Meat was big here.

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An essential part of Semana Negra is political protest. Protest is a hot topic in Spain at the moment as in 2015 the PP Government introduced punitive anti-protest laws. There was a protest about protesting in the middle of the fair.

Following the protest around the site I came across a side stage surrounded by Cider bars and roasting ribs. Cider, or ‘Sidre’ is the ‘national’ drink of Asturias. Un-carbonated, it’s poured from a height to give it a bit of life. The last two centimeters, the sediment at the bottom of the glass, are thrown away.11207365_10152904142976746_1785160847684536010_n

Familiar Asturian tunes were blasting out from the P.A. system. I chatted to the soundman and the group that night were Degañan’s featuring the great piper and flute player Dani Alvarez. I was familiar with Dani’s playing (see Corquieu)  and it was a great start to my Asturian flute odyssey. The male singer was particularly powerfimpressive. More music to follow up.

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We returned the following night with families. More food, bouncing on trampolines for Celeste, more Sidre, meeting up with fellow PhD Asturian Folk Student Llorián García and watching in awe as the legendary Ambás and friends kept a crowd dancing for three hours with songs accompanied by panderu (Asturian hand drum) and percussion using olive oil tins.11183464_10152907844536746_2118638952902869641_n

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By a circuitous route I finally had my ethics permission through and I was almost ready start work. My PhD supervisior, Simon Keegan-Phipps has written a blog post which more or less sums up the problems I had to deal with when applying for ethical clearance, differing professional backgrounds, value sets and perspectives on what maybe ethical… I’ll leave you with Simon’s thoughts…. I will have to return to this subject and the ‘informants’ I spoke to after I have had time to reflect on how my first field visit went.

https://simonkeeganphipps.wordpress.com/2014/10/03/research-ethics-in-the-arts-and-humanities/

Ambás with Tuenda Trio…

All written content and photographs are copyright of Michael Walsh 2015.

 

Trains, Trains and Automobiles… Travelling to Asturias.

Months pass quickly by and my time is filled with raising my children, starting my PhD in Ethnomusicology in Sheffield, teaching music, trecking to Leeds for ceili band practice and learning Spanish. I’ve made no time for blogging, it was that or sleep… and I love my sleep.

Suddenly it’s summer, there’s light in the sky and light at the end of the tunnel. It’s time to return to Asturias for my first ‘Fieldwork’ visit. We pack lightly and take the train to Aberdeen for the wedding of our friends, Sakthi and Gareth. In the 4 years or so I’ve known my wife we’ve never played music together. Our debut as the Walshrymples begins in the grand surrounding of Drum Castle. We play a newly composed Norwegian tune I found on Facebook. We play well together, nerve wrecking but maybe the start of something more.

After some Macaroni Pies, ceili dancing and a quick catch with Gaorsach Rapper and Step at Stonehaven Folk Festival we take the train to London. We’d planned to do the overnight ‘sleepy’ train but forget the small detail of booking until it was too late. Some more rapper pals, Mim and Tom, come to the rescue and we stay overnight in Elephant and Castle. The children love the train, lots of space to play around and new people to meet.

The next leg of our journey is Eurostar to Paris. We negotiated the London tube in the morning (London Underground, your staff are really rude!). We were a bit squashed on our trip under the sea , 4 people in 2 seats but some treats and a Trunky full of toys kept spirits high. Oh the Trunky… I can praise it enough. Suitcase, mobile seat to pull my little girl along, beach bag and shopping bag. Paris was intense as expected. Within a minute of getting on the Metro a thief grabbed my daughter and when I pulled her back he tried to dip my pocket and steal my phone. I roared at him and he simply stepped back out of the carriage and smiled as the doors closed. The locals shrugged their shoulders as if to say this was a daily occurrence.

Walshrymples create a 'Banksy' at Austerlitz Paris

Walshrymples create a ‘Banksy’ at Austerlitz Paris

After a trendy Croque Monsieur (on a slate) and 5 euro beer at the Moo Bar on top of the design centre we climbed on the sleeper train from Austerlitz, locked our door and snoozed our way through France. As the dawn broke we looked out onto the border towns of the Pyrenees. We’d missed the mountains. A quick bus ride from Irun to San Sebastian airport and we had our hire car for our adventures in the mountains of Asturias. If we had more time we would have taken the narrow gauge railway that slowly makes its way across the Green Coast of Northern Spain, from the Basque Country to Santiago de Compestela. The drive to Asturias took a few hours along a fast and smooth motorway.

Eurostar Asturias bound 2015

Eurostar Asturias bound 2015

We arrived in Gijón and settled into our apartment in La Cazalda, a working class district of the city. A quick play in the park, a stock up on Spanish essentials at the local Almerka (Asturian supermarket chain, can we have one in Sheffield please?), Chorizo and wine, and we had our peaceful in my favourite part of the world. The next few day would require a lot of thinking, juggling and chasing up as I tried to get my ethics clearance in the middle of holiday season and make sure my family were having a good time.11755093_10152904128801746_1175228385900658775_n (1)

Lights to guide me through the fog

At the beginning of November I gave my wedding speech in the upper gallery at Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield. Our wedding day fell on the feast of Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. At the end of my speech I looked out on to the candlelit guests spread across the large yellow brick Victorian hall. I told the story of Diwali, the lights being lit to guide Rama and Sita home from exile and I asked all those there to be lights guiding my family on our way through life.

Over the last few weeks I felt I needed some of that light and guidance. My world had become so busy. Applying for PhD’s, job hunting and maybe not succeeding, preparing for baby number 2, learning new band tunes and generally trying to be a good husband and father. I started to feel that I was making no progress and my dream of making music a central part of my life was slipping away. My head felt foggy with no clear path to follow.

Feeling wiped of all energy I mindlessly noodled around the internet and came across a TED talk by Eric Whitacre. Eric is one of the most successful living choral composers and many will have come across his virtual choir works. He has sold millions of albums and won several Grammy’s. His compositions are aurally and visually breathtaking, but what caught my imagination was his journey into music. He had little music education and was unable to read music when he joined the choir at the University of Nevada. He talks about singing a Mozart piece for the first time and it being like switching from black and white to technicolour.

His light bulb moment encouraged me to consider mine, hearing the Asturian group Tejedor for the first time and the subsequent adventures my love for Asturian music has taken me on. This morning I put a Tejedor CD on and sounds and smells and sights of Asturias came back to me. It reminded me of meeting great musicians there and my friends playing a Tejedor muiñeira at our wedding. It made me smile and lifted my shoulders up straight. The room felt full of light and the fog began to clear. If Eric can start his musical journey without any formal education and get to where he wanted then why can’t I? Thanks for inspiring me Eric Whitacre, I think I will go and play some flute.

Tell me about your ‘light-bulb’ moments and music that you love.

If you need some inspiration and light take a look at the Eric Whitacre TED talk, listen to some Tejedor or even book a flute lesson with me:

Book a Flute or Whistle lesson with me.

Eric Whitacre TED Talk

Tejedor

Back to School with TradDad… Sitting my LCM Grade 8 Trad Flute Practical Exam

My heart is thudding in the 30 degree heat of the first fiercely hot summer day. My pal Angela Durcan has entered me for the exam and told me that I won’t have a problem. I’m the only candidate to turn up without a parent for comfort and support. I’m 46, it’s going to be fine. The examiner sits in front of me with his poker face. I hand him my programme of pieces and repertoire list for him to choose from later. The tiny space is unforgiving as the two of us compete for all the air the room can give. I try to remember the little techniques that keep me calm. Both feet on the floor, solid and rooted to earth. Squeeze the flute hard and let go, remembering how light and relaxed your hands need to be. Breath from your diaphragm, enjoy the moment and in the back of your mind visualising how great it will be to have finished strongly and successfully. He asks me to start playing.

Killavil Jig and Ships in Full Sail. I’ve been playing them for ever, a safe start. No response from the examiner’s face. Ok, go again. The Coulin, keep focused think sad, play just the once over and into the Kildare Fancy Hornpipe. Play without fear, a few variations. I’m at the Ceili Band Competition, on stage. Concentrate. Back in the room again and keep it nice and steady. Phew. The sweat is dripping off me now. Reels now, don’t lose the head. Roaring Mary going good. A few niggles from the back of my brain. You’ll go wrong, you’ll mess up, what’s for tea? My heart’s going even faster, I start having palpitations. That massive coffee and huge jammy biscuit was a really bad idea. My heart is going to stop. But I pull back to focus. Get my feet rooted and imagine my shoulder muscles relaxing. The flute feels like it is playing itself. Trust in what you know. How have I done? Still can’t gauge it from the man. All I can remember are the mistakes.

He picks the March into the Reel. The Lilac always makes me want to go fast but I take it steady and keep it lively. Think Hup! Think NYAH! ‘That worked well as a march but it’s actually an O’Carolan air’. He liked it! It’s whizzing by now. ‘Two five minute presentations on particular musicians and their styles please’. Seamus Tansey…Sligo…. ornate… controversial.. wide cuts…. Kevin Crawford… Birmingham… Clare……thank you. ‘I’ll play you four bars of a tune twice, play it back to me’. Done. Name the type of tunes, slip jig, hornpipe, yes, yes. Barndance? No, mazurka. Hello, is there anyone home? What was I thinking, it’s a disaster but at least it’s over. ‘Play me a cut, tap and roll’. How did I do? We’ll let you know. When can I resit? LCM Grade 8 Trad music performance flute exam done. I walk out into a sticky Manchester afternoon, exhausted but relieved. My results come a few months later and I pass Grade 8 with Distinction.

It gets me thinking about the point or value of exams in traditional music. I took it to demonstrate that I had a high standard of musical skill when applying for my Ethnomusicology PhD. How can you measure a folk tradition and if anyone is any good? I’m still not sure and what the balance is between performance and skill. You can be a great player but a terrible performer. What it did give to me was a structure on which to hang my skills, review them and ultimately develop them. I’ve often been in sessions and couldn’t think of more than a few sets of tunes. Pulling my repertoire together for this made me realise how much I actually knew. It made me consider technique, reminded of all the things I talk about when teaching or coaching. Relaxing, visualisation, setting targets, regular practice. I am definitely an improved musician after going through the experience.

If you want to know more about LCM Grades for Trad Music or would like help and guidance with preparing and entering for them get in touch with me via the traddad for hire page.

Tinkling in the Street

Tinkling in the Street.

Celeste Playing Street Piano on Argyle Street Sheffield

Celeste Playing Street Piano on Argyle Street Sheffield

One of the highlights of a very damp week in Sheffield was stumbling across the Street Piano on Argyle Street. I always like to take a different route home, perhaps like members of the Piano Liberation Army in days gone by (more of that in a moment). But for me it’s not a security measure more a matter of my nosey nature and terrible sense of direction. As I pushed baby Celeste up the hill a piano chained to lamppost came into my sight. ‘Play Me’ daubed on the facia made it impossible to resist. Some keys worked, some just made a ‘plonk, some in tune, some not. Celeste was mesmerised as was I.

I am partial to the sound of a piano sensitively vamped in a good Irish celli band. It’s a sound that transports me back to childhood fleadhs. Band uniforms of stiff white shirts, blue nylon trousers, and shiny black shoes. Sweaty hands clenching instruments tightly with the sound of clumsy reels bouncing round the gym hall of some drab secondary school.   The heavens opened once more and we dashed home. But I was intrigued about the idea of a street piano.

Searching around on the net gave some clues. The piano was placed on the street by Val Regan, a local choir leader and musician for a limited period during September and locked over night to prevent lubricated revellers presenting their world premiers of the piano masterworks.

The Street Piano concept was turned into a worldwide phenomenon by artist Luke Jerram, placing his first piano in Birmingham in 2008 and inviting passers to ‘Play Me I’m Yours’. There are now over 500 pianos placed in public spaces worldwide. Sheffield though can perhaps claim to be the origin of the Street Piano. In the early noughties a piano was placed on Sharrow Vale Road and people were invited to play. The piano become a landmark but was eventually stolen. A replacement was donated after a public appeal. Shortly afterwards the Local Council stepped into have the piano removed. A campaign to save it ensued, including the formation of the Piano Liberation Army, a shadowy bunch of well meaning piano enthusiasts. The threat of removal was withdrawn and the Liberation Army dissolved without a single veggie burger being thrown in anger. The final victor was mother-nature, as the ravages of the Sheffield seasons finally resulted in the piano falling apart.

The Argyle Street piano well be disappearing soon so go and have a public tinkle.

http://www.valregan.co.uk/

http://www.streetpianos.org

http://www.streetpianos.com/

Me and my little girl playing with shadows

My post ‘Walking in the shadows of Don Quixote and Alan Lomax’ got me thinking about shadows. Yesterday was a cloudy late summers day in Sheffield and there were fascinating shadows everywhere. My daughter was more interested in the other children and the various slides in the parks. Let me know what you think of the photo’s.Celest and Daddy on the SlideCeleste upside down in ShadowCeleste and Daddy in Shadow at a fenceShadow celeste and meCeleste and Daddy in the Park sun light

A week in Asturias Part 1 – Walking in the shadows of Don Quixote and Alan Lomax

Shadows in the Park

I put it out there to friends and contacts that I wanted to work on something inspiring and linked into my love of Asturian traditional and folk music. An offer came back from my friend, and project director extraordinaire, Lorna Fulton to work with her on a project with the University of Newcastle to raise the profile of the University’s copy of the Alan Lomax Archive.

Alan Lomax was one of the great music collectors of the 20th Century, bringing to prominence the likes of Lead Belly and Woody Guthrie. He also spent several months during 1952 collecting music in Asturias, northern Spain.

I said yes to the offer and with some funding from the Arts Council and logistical help from family and friends, I flew to Asturias to find out what was happening now in the trad/folk scene, make some links and if possible do some field recording.

My first challenge was that my key music contact in Asturias had gone to ground. Lesson one, never rely on one contact. I had a good idea of who a number of musicians were from a previous trip and I had contacts to chase up from Facebook and numbers given to me by friends. My Camino pals, Zach and Paula, provided me with bases in Fuentes and Gijón / Xixón, lovely food and great interpretation skills. My Spanish is improving, but I still have a long way to go.

Responses to my requests to meet were few in the first couple of days. I was feeling a little dejected. I skulked around Arriondas and Ribedesella feeling like the world was against me and I was really missing my family at home. I was wondering, what Alan Lomax would do in this situation, when I was approached by an odd looking character. His trouser legs were too short for him, his head was shaved, his belly hung out and his body language was wide open if not a little awkward. ‘Hey Don Quixote’ he shouted several times, pointing wildly at my moustache. I told him I had no Spanish and thought that would put him off but he asked me if I spoke English. I was very guarded, thought he wanted something from me. He asked me my name; I told him it was John. He told me his name (Juan), shook my hand and welcomed me to Asturias. I walked on quickly and sat in a cafe.

After some reflection it dawned on me that I had been completely closed to Juan, had judged him without giving him a chance and I hadn’t seen the opportunities, professionally and personally, staring me in the face. Walk with an open heart, I had learned on the Camino de Santiago. Alan Lomax would probably have seen an opening to ask some questions. What’s going on in this town? Where is the music? Where are the musicians? Can you introduce me to them? This was simple, obvious stuff that I had lost in the midst of my self-pity and defensiveness. Lesson two, open yourself up to people.

Angry with myself and remembering that I was being paid to be the ‘Professional Stranger’ I did what any self respecting Ethnomusicologist would do, I ordered a cake. Fortified by the Casadielles (fried pastry filled with walnut and anise and covered in sugar) I made a ‘to-do’ list and got on with it.

Links:

http://www.johnszwed.com/about-the-book

http://www.culturalequity.org/features/globaljukebox/Asturias/ce_features_Asturias.php

 

Trad Dad

Gazing up at the sky over Santiago de Compostela I felt everything was possible now. After a 1000km of walking across Spain on the Camino de Santiago my body was lean and my mind refreshed. Pilgrim stories bounced around my head interweaving with the ever present soundtrack of ‘Celtic’ Galicia. I would never return to the humdrum life.

Back in England, despite my best intentions, I took an easier route. Jumped back on the work express took the pay cheque. But all the time something told me that other worlds were possible. I fell in love; a daughter came into my life. Her whole being constantly threw at me questions about my integrity, about walking the walk as I had challenged so many people to do since my Camino experience.

So I jumped off the express where I thought the landing would be soft enough and decided to follow my heart, inspire my daughter and keep the flame lit that my partner recognised in me when we first met.

This blog is a record of my thoughts, actions and results as I work towards my dream of another world filled with the sounds, smells and tastes of the Iberian Atlantic Coast, a happy growing family, a PhD and lots and lots of flute playing.

Watching the tragic events unfolding in Santiago de Compostela over the last two weeks in July 2013 my heart was deeply saddened but I was reminded of that night sky in the city of stars and the gift of life that I had. So this is me getting on with it, the Camino has only just begun.