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Archives for June 2010

Instruments I wish I could play - Part 2

Mike Harding | 15:43 UK time, Thursday, 24 June 2010

After the fiddle, another instrument I've always wanted to play is the Uilleann Pipes. I tried them once. Mick Doonan from Hedgehog Pie got me a practice set. I took it out of the box and in the privacy of my own home, strapped it on. I gave a few tentative pumps of the elbow bellows and filled the bag with air.

Immediately the thing started to growl and snarl at me like a pit bull with a thistle up its bum. I persevered and pumped more air in while trying to finger some notes. It was like trying to make love to an unwilling adenoidal octopus and after an hour the neighbours were banging on the walls and threatening to call the police.

So it was back to the banjo and the blues harp and instead of a virtuoso version of the 'King Of The Fairies' it was 'Sammy Shuttleworth's Party' and 'The Hole In The Elephant's Bottom'. Irish piping's loss may have been comedy's gain - that's not for me to say - but Finbar Furey and Liam O'Flynn can certainly rest easy.

I wonder how many other people in the folk world wish sometimes they were doing something other than what they now do. Does Joan Baez, I wonder, ever wish that she'd taken up the spoons? Does Martin Simpson ever wish he'd been a folk comedian? I could always teach him 'The Hole In The Elephant's Bottom' if he fancied doing a stint wearing the red nose.

So, what have you always wanted to play... and why? Let me know below...

Instruments I wish I could play - Part 1

Mike Harding | 15:59 UK time, Monday, 21 June 2010

There was a tradition in my family that when boys got to seven years old they were given a mouth organ. I can't remember what the girls got, a drill or a shovel or something. Both my uncles played mouth organ, and played them very well; my Uncle Harry in particular could play really well in the old vamping style where you play a melody as well as the accompanying chords.

My first mouth organ was a Hohner in the key of C major and I can remember that the box had a boy on the front in Alpine costume blowing a horn. The first tune I learned was 'I Love To Go A-Wandering' rapidly followed by 'The Skye Boat Song' and 'The Minstrel Boy.' I stuck with the mouth organ for a few years, eventually learning to play blues harp after falling in love with the music of Sonny Terry.

My second instrument was the guitar, which I picked up during the skiffle boom and which led me into rock 'n' roll, from where I progressed into folk music proper, picking up the tin whistle, mandolin and banjo along the way.

Why I'm telling you all this is that I suffer from instrument envy, because the instrument I would really like to play is the fiddle. I can't think of any other instrument so expressive, whether playing slow airs or fast reels, whether played fairly staccato or with slides and glissandi. The bow and the strings together - to my mind - make some of the most wonderful music there is.

Listen to Dezi Donnolly or Aly Bain, listen to Eliza Carthy, John McCusker or Frankie Gavin; they're all very different in style but all play with wonderful soul and passion. Unfortunately I have a damaged left wrist which means my left hand won't turn over properly. The only way I could hold a fiddle in the correct playing position would be if it was nailed to my head.

The English Acoustic Collective brew up

Jon Lewis | 14:57 UK time, Wednesday, 16 June 2010

Guest blogger Rob Harbron, of the English Acoustic Collective, writes:

The English Acoustic Collective was recently invited by London's Exhibition Road Cultural Group to be part of Music Day 2010 at the Royal Geographical Society on June 20th. Our performances on the day will include the premier of a new piece I'm writing, inspired by the Royal Geographical Society's picture library. The library is online and contains some amazing images from all over the world. On first glance, I wasn't immediately sure what I'd write about, but I knew there would be plenty of inspiration there.

Then I remembered a traditional tune I'd played ages ago called 'Coffee and Tea'.  The tune itself was nice enough, but there was something about the 'A' part that hinted at more music waiting to emerge. The name of the tune struck a chord straight away; for me, coffee and tea are daily essentials that play a major part in the creative process.

Looking again at the RGS archive, I was struck by how many images there were, and from so many different times and places, that involved coffee or tea. Tea pickers and plantations in Sri Lanka and India, coffee harvests in South America and the Caribbean, cafes and coffee houses everywhere... even Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay drinking tea during their ascent of Everest.

tenzing_hillary.jpgIn my mind was the contrast between these images, and the corporate, big brand chains that we're so used to. But the more inspiring idea was the way that these images showed a common thread among many different times, places and people.

One thing I love about traditional tunes is the way they can capture a snapshot of a place, a person, or an event, and frame it in music. There's something magical in the 32-bar structure that so many traditional tunes share; something that allows the tune to convey just enough information for you to know that it's about something, without it being too impressionistic or descriptive. I've sometimes tried to extend those structures slightly or develop them, but I still work as a traditional musician would, with a tune that is played several times while being developed, harmonised and arranged to form the final piece.

I've been trying to do the same thing in writing 'Coffee and Tea', the new piece that will be premiered on Music Day. To find a way of capturing something of each photo in music. I'm putting together a slideshow of the photos that will be projected as we play the piece, and building the music up in response to that. So rather than working with a manuscript pad or sequencing program, I'm composing using movie software with my concertina on my lap.

It's an interesting way for me to approach the music, because it means the images control the timing and structure of the piece and the music responds to it. When we perform the piece, it'll be a real-time response to the images, with all the improvisation and interaction that's integral to our music, but without the repeated tune structures. I'm looking forward to hearing it...

The English Acoustic Collective will be part of Music Day at the Royal Geographical Society, London, on Sunday 20 June 2010.  The event runs from 10am to midnight and admission is free; the EAC will be playing at 1pm and 3.20pm.

Brampton Live 2010 is cancelled

Jon Lewis | 18:52 UK time, Monday, 14 June 2010

Bad news for folkies in the North West and beyond: Brampton Live 2010 has been cancelled.

The event, held near Carlisle for 15 years, was due to feature The Unthanks, Jim Moray, Jez Lowe and lots more. According to a statement from Brampton's organisers, its future is 'unknown'.

'Reduced funding, decreasing sponsorship and disappointing ticket sales' are being blamed for the cancellation.

The festival's planned centrepiece, the premiere of the All Along The Wall project (in which musicians and poets celebrate Hadrian's Wall) will still go ahead.

For details on refunds, see the festival's website.

A bag of 'brilliant' new releases

Mike Harding | 16:13 UK time, Monday, 7 June 2010

I received an email from a listener a few months back telling me off for saying 'brilliant' too much. As she pointed out the word loses its potency when overused. I find it hard though to bridle my enthusiasm when so much good stuff comes flopping through the letterbox every day. I got back from a week's fishing on South Uist yesterday to find a heap of stuff waiting to be listened to, and amongst the stack there were some absolutely brilliant gems.

Alasdair Roberts' new CD, Too Long In This Condition, is a brilliant collection of traditional songs sung to a sparse but completely fitting accompaniment. Like all fine singers Roberts lets the song be the star; his voice is always there for the words and not the other way about.

Another CD came from a newcomer (to me at least) from the North East called Rebekah Findlay. Great music and fine songs, mostly self-penned and well worth checking out. She has a strong distinctive voice but again, like Alasdair Roberts, it is always the song that is the thing, not the singer.

The new album Gift by Eliza Carthy and Norma Waterson is one of the finest things I have heard in years, two women in great voice singing with complete absorption and commitment and with a rack of learning and wisdom behind them that goes deep into the roots of the music. I love it to bits and I suspect that lots more people will love it too, because it is the real thing.

Talking of which, flute and whistle player Brian Finnegan's The Ravishing Genius Of Bones is one of the best instrumental albums I've heard in years. Finnegan himself is a true master of his art and when you couple him with people like Damien O'Kane, Johnjoe Kelly, Crooked Still, Ed Boyd, Leon Hunt and a heap of other great musicians, you know that the end result is going to be a lot more than just good.

So, sorry about ranting on, but it was great to come home to a load of CDs that were - simply - brilliant.

One song, daily: Boden's oral prescription

Jon Lewis | 11:50 UK time, Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Here's a bit of news we thought you might be interested in: Radio 2's Folk Singer of the Year, Jon Boden, is challenging himself to record a different folk song, every day, for an entire year.


Jon is gearing up to begin his aptly-named A Folk Song A Day project on 24 June 2010 (Midsummer's Day). He's aiming to improve the status of social singing in this country - most of the songs will be unaccompanied - and provide a resource for anyone interested in singing traditional songs.


In a statement, Jon said: "I have always thought of myself as first and foremost an unaccompanied singer so it was quite a shock to me to realise that, although I have now made 10 albums, I have never included a solo unaccompanied track on any of them."


"It seemed high time I rectified that situation and [this] is an opportunity for me to record my whole repertoire of songs without worrying about making any of them commercial, stylistically original, or fitting them in to a particular album concept."


Jon estimates he knows about 240 songs, which means he'll have to learn half as many again in order to complete the project.


You can read Jon's full mission statement and (ultimately) hear all the songs at afolksongaday.com.

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