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Overcoming the Competition

12 Jan

Gorgeous CDs from Seamus Walshe, Patsy Moloney and John Regan

Irish music competitions sound like a nightmare to me, what with all the stories of young wannabe champions passing out and vomiting with the stress, and the bitter disputes over the scoring.  Yet there are good things that come from it. One of these is the camaraderie and friendship between old sparring partners. Tom Dunne, my friend and session co-leader in New Jersey, is full of stories of exploits with his fellow contestants and subsequent buddies from competitions back in the day, in particular Seamus Walshe and Patsy Moloney. They  have recently both albums which are well worth your attention.

seamus-trad-coverSeamus Walshe plays the box in a very personal style. In the liner notes of one of Seamus’s previous CDs Traditional Irish Music on the Button Accordion  Joe Burke likened his approach to that of an architect (Seamus’ chosen profession).  At the time, I considered that notion fanciful, preferring to just savor the luxurious experience of having that CD on repeat for a leisurely drive across the Canadian Rockies. Now I get the architect thing. There is definite evidence of a stately, elegant and logical form, yet lyrical and emotional touches abound.

seamus-turas

There are many examples of this on the new CD Turas: on the “Long Drop” Seamus shapes the first tune with phrasing and dynamic subtleties; as Eimear Reilly’s fiddle comes in for “Fred Finn’s Reel”, the stricter tempo and the “sit up and beg” figures enhance both the swing and the sadness in the tune; “The Torn Jacket” works as the release with a more straight-ahead approach (albeit with outstanding unison triplets).

The strong windswept melody of “Margaret’s Waltz” is stated with bold accordion and fiddle lines, leading into “Louis’ Waltz”, a staple of New York sessions (also known as “Dermot Grogan’s Favourite”). Here it is given a totally different treatment with the harp, fiddle and accordion creating a dense texture with the fiddle adding harmonic variations. The Poppy Leaf is another commonly recorded tune (twice by Tony DeMarco , and a stunning interpretation by Brian Rooney) which still gets a fresh treatment by Seamus and Grainne Hambly on harp. They take a relaxed pace, resisting the temptation to stuff the high part with notes, and smoothly transition into Charlie Lennon’s Rossinver Braes with its exquisite interplay of box and harp.

Turas means trip or pilgrimage and this album echoes that reflective note.  While it doesn’t have some of the exuberance of Seamus’ previous recordings it is an album of great sensitivity and maturity. It is also noteworthy that he has brought along some famous musical friends for this particular journey, including Alec Finn, Charlie Lennon, Noel Hill and Steve Cooney.

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Kids of all Ages Welcome

12 Jul

10425116_254393288079788_753302429790402446_nPat Molloy understood kids. He knew how to get them engaged but also ,when they were under too much pressure, to just let them be kids. Some knew the tunes they wanted straight off the bat; others needed a little prompting so he used “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” as an introduction. Of course the idea grew into a jig version, a reel version and a hornpipe version (I’m sure he had barn dance and mazurka versions up his sleeve as well). For those who needed a bit of theatre he also had a party piece of a 4-part manoeuvre before putting the fiddle to the neck (think of a fun version of the military “present arms”). At the other end of the scale he used to also relish the senior student – if I recall correctly his oldest first-time student was 80 years old and full of self-doubt, but still walked out of Hendon Road with a tune.

This spirit is at the core of the Anne and Pat Molloy Summer School, about to run for its 5th year on the weekend of 23rd and 24th, 2016,  a welcoming place for all interested in traditional Irish music, whatever your current level or age.

We have noticed at previous summer schools that those attending or teaching could be split up into different categories: the Little Kids, the Big Kids and the Adults.

Surprisingly enough, I was able to come up with an extract from an academic paper about this very subject. I refer to Distinguished Wandering Professor Emeritus Dan Washington of the DETRITUS (DEritend TRaditional Irish Thinktank for Unverifiable Slander) Institute. Dr. Washington introduces the issue:


I have categorized the broad groups in Irish Music as follows:

  • LIMKS (“Little Irish Music Kids”)
  • BIMKS (“Big Irish Music Kids”, sometimes perhaps understandably mis-transliterated as “Birmingham Irish Music Kids”)
  • ADULTS

The BIMKS have traditionally formed the largest group, but in recent years are in danger of being overrun by the LIMKS (this is generally viewed as a good thing).


Cute LIMKs in action at past year at the school (photo courtesy of Ronan Molloy)

IMG_1198

The good doctor Washington then goes on to discuss some of the understandable concern the public at large has with BIMKS, and suggest ways to “parent” them.


The issues with BIMKS aren’t fundamentally different to those with LIMKS. These examples should be familiar to all who have raised LIMKS:

    • playing dress up
    • Putting things into their mouths (for example bus tickets of other BIMKS to stop them leaving the play area / session)
    • Pouring drinks over themselves
    • Running around naked way past the socially acceptable age
    • “tummy problems” (generally associated with a bottle held to the mouth with a tight grip for hours on end)
    • Visits to the A&E
    • Inserting items into the belly-button and running around showing off to everyone like a big silly boy (be aware that coins are a gateway navel choice; nip this in the bud or it will be flutes and all sorts)

 

According to trusted sources there was an instance of all of the above occurring one night at the Big Bull’s Head, Digbeth on April 1st 1990.

Dress-up

Playing Dress-up

Sometimes symptoms are harder to categorize. A good example of this was as recently in 1995 when a well-known BIMK managed to end up in A&E after making a trip from the back door of an after-hours club to her vehicle parked nearby in the car park. What made this example interesting is that the vehicle in question was a motor home, the classic travelling choice of a more senior category of Irish musician than even the ADULTS, euphemistically referred to as “Venerable Keepers of the Tradition” or VKOTs.

Some academics have also pointed out the TRABFAB syndrome where a barely-in-control BIMK can raise a very sensible LIMK, causing many hilarious comic moments in the household.

Mischievous Litlle Scamp

Mischievous Litlle Scamp

Mischievous Big Scamp

Mischievous Big Scamp (on right)

Sensible Lad (on right)

Sensible Lad (on right)

 

There are times of course when BIMK behaviour does get out of hand. We have all heard about the ill-advised impersonation of a police officer or playing on a pub roof in the middle of the night until the arrival of the constabulary, but a lesser known example was when a BIMK attempted to play a humourous prank on a Handsworth drug dealer, without the ensuing hilarity you might expect. In such cases I blame the parents – someone should have taken that BIMK aside and explained that you can’t rely on criminals having the same sense of humour as the typical Brummie.

It is worth remembering though that, for all the lunatic behavior the night before, the next day all the BIMKS would gather together and play the most gorgeous music, with the innocent, beatific expressions of the most angelic LIMK.


I recently met with Kevin Crawford in a swanky coffee house and “gelateria” in the Lower East Side on Manhattan (a far cry from some of the hangouts I knew him from back in the day!). He talked about his musical journey. It started when the famous Clare fiddler Junior Crehan noticed this little fat boy over on family holidays, always hanging around indoors listening to music when he should have been running around in the fresh air. Taking pity on the lad he gave his Mum a banged up old fiddle. Kevin and Mum got it stringed up at Thomas Smith Violins on Broad Street in Birmingham city centre, “did a little bit of homework” and were soon off on a nightmare Monday night bus marathon from Cape Hill  well north of the city to Sparkhill on the south side. The destination was English Martyrs School where Pat was teaching fiddle under the auspices of the South Birmingham Comhaltas (chatting about this, we both remembered The Silver Spear” as one of the first tunes Pat gave us). While he ended up giving up the fiddle for the whistle after a few months, this moment was still an epiphany. The encouragement from Anne and Pat Molloy was the spur he needed (Kevin was most insistent that he “wouldn’t be playing now if it wasn’t got for the Molloys. I kind of got taken in by them”).

It was also where he got to meet and befriend kids closer to his age (Joe and Enda Molloy, Mick Green and the rest of the Comhaltas crew). This camaraderie grew as Irish south Birmingham (centering around the Molloy residence at 7 Hendon Road) became his adopted home. Kevin’s style endeared him to all the lads. His reputation was cemented when at 12 or 13 he had a gig with a junior ceili band gig at the Town Hall, turned up late with the wrong coloured uniform and a late excuse that he was having a couple of pints. As Kevin put it, “they were well impressed with this little f***er”

It wasn’t only barmen that were taken in by Kevin’s worldly manner – he swanned into the position of secretary of the South Birmingham branch Comhaltas at 15. At the time no one (myself included) believed his age. As Kevin put it,“I was hanging where I shouldn’t have been hanging. It speaks volumes about Paddy and Anne (that) they never questioned it. They should have called Child Services or something”.

Later Kevin, Ivan Miletitch and others set up camp in Handsworth (above a Jamaican blues party venue) where they could carry on all day and night. While the craic was always there, “it was always about music, no matter what. There were so many sessions at that time. I used to love those sessions. None of us had mobile phones, or the internet or anything but you could organize a session within an hour. It could be the Spotted Dog or the Angel or all those pubs around Dibgeth  … obviously the Bull or the Little Bull. And then when Paddy started doing that one at the Antelope, that was a nice one.”

Back at the flat at 6 in the morning after a full night of sessions they would still listen to records and tapes. This included all the releases coming out of Ireland such as the Bothy Band (as well as of local music such as the Steve Gibbons Band and the calypso jazz of Andy Hamilton at the Accafess club) but the style of their own music was always distinctively Birmingham – “a lovely flow to the music, a slow and lyrical style”- with a fiercely independent streak. As Kevin summarized the scene – “it was some university to go to. It was great”.

For a taster of the university course, come to the Anne and Pat Molloy Summer School this year. Check out the website and Facebook page for details, and reach out with any questions – there is always someone glad to help. In case you were wondering why the long name, Kevin was able to answer that question as well – “I can’t think of Pat without Anne, and Anne with Pat”.

So take heart – you might be a LIMK now but you too can become a VKOT. And tell your parents that it’s OK to hang out with a few questionable characters along the way (though perhaps don’t mention the underage drinking bit).

 

Tony Horswill, 2016

Irish Trad Music Comes Full Circle in Birmingham

10 Jul

Something beautiful has sprung to life in Birmingham these last two summers, and it’s happening again the last weekend in July.

It is first of all music, yet is also traditional and it is Irish” to paraphrase the carefully inclusive words of Pat Molloy, the man who has inspired this happening. It is no secret that it is also fun and a chance to let it all hang out. What I am talking about is Irish Traditional Music (ITM or “Trad” for short) and the Anne and Pat Molloy Summer School is where you can get your first lesson, a refresher course or just a plain old session fix – whatever you like. All are welcome.

“Long Acre” by Catharine Kingcome.  Ivan Milititch, Bernadette Davis, Kevin Crawford, Mick Conneely, Brendan Boyle and Joe Molloy in the Big Bull’s Head, Digbeth, Birmingham in 1998

“Long Acre” by Catharine Kingcome. Ivan Milititch, Bernadette Davis, Kevin Crawford, Mick Conneely, Brendan Boyle and Joe Molloy in the Big Bull’s Head, Digbeth, Birmingham in 1998

The story for me, like many, starts much earlier – in the 1980s in fact. It is no exaggeration to say that Birmingham was then THE place for the music. I’m talking THE place, worldwide. The full history of that time is waiting to be written but let me give you some insights. The scene was very different then. I called it the Irish music “underworld”. To give some context Birmingham was an altogether grimmer place then (Jonathan Coe’s “The Rotter’s Club” captures it well) and the political climate of the time helped drive the music underground. If mentioning anything Irish to the Englishman in the street didn’t bring forth hostility or distrust it would likely elicit a lame joke involving bombs.

That didn’t concern the musicians: this was an artistic underworld where creative anarchy ruled with a flagrant disregard for the licensing laws (with the sessions typically starting at “closing time”). There was also an urge to pack as many people into as small and as smoky space as possible, as if in some perverse Guinness Records attempt. Going home before complete physical exhaustion was forbidden under almost any circumstances (Karen Tweed recalls her bus ticket being eaten when she tried to make a break for it after an entire weekend of playing). If in this underworld Joe Molloy was the captain of the young exuberant “crew”, his father Pat was the benign Don in the corner, playing sweet fiddle and smiling at the craic.

“Meets” seemed to require a code I could never quite crack – I remember phoning Pat at 9:30 one evening hoping for some information and him saying “well I’d say there’d be a session tonight but I wouldn’t like to say where. It’s a bit early for the boys. Can you call back in half an hour?” He might throw in a whistle (also part of the ritual?)

The sessions were one thing, but there was a whole other world which was the teaching. Anne and Pat’s house in Hendon Road, Sparkhill, was the academy, spiritual center and sometime flop-house where fiddle lessons, words of encouragement, soda-bread and eccentric curries were served in equal measure.

7 Hendon Road

7 Hendon Road

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These two complimentary activities of lessons and sessions have provided the winning formula for the first two years of the summer school. There are expert teachers on pretty much every instrument (tin whistle / flute/ button accordion/ melodeon/ piano accordion/ banjo/ mandolin/ bodhran/ bones/ anglo-concertina/ guitar&piano accompaniment/ ballad singing/ sean-nos dancing and of course the fiddle), and classes are designed so that no one is left out – from complete beginners who have never touched an instrument through to advanced.

Master Class - Noreen Cullen and Tom Dunne

Master Class – Noreen Cullen and Tom Dunne

 

A lot of summer schools may of course have a similar format but there is something unique about the Anne and Pat Molloy Summer School which is hard to put your finger on. Part of it is the very definite Birmingham flavor, but to me it is really the love and affection that all the musicians had for Anne and Pat that you can feel. One manifestation of this is the Sunday group performance afternoon where we gather to cheer on the class arrangements from the simple to the (intentionally) humorous to the extravagant -check out Noreen Cullen’s grand opus last year on Facebook.

 

 

 

London Lasses with Chris O'MalleyMusicians who travelled to Birmingham for those famous sessions of the 80’s and 90’s are becoming enthusiastically involved in this year’s development, the Saturday night concert. This is to be headlined by the world-acclaimed London Lasses & Chris O’Malley, supported by DisKan (who happen to include Ivan Miletitch, the consumer of the afore-mentioned bus ticket), who are reforming for the event

 

 

 

 

It all happens on 26th & 27th July 2014 at South & City College, Digbeth, starting at 10am Saturday. It costs next to nothing – of £15 for the weekend of workshops and a small charge for the concert. For more info and to sign up check out http://www.patmolloysummerschool.co.uk/ or search for “Pat Molloy Summer School 2014” on Facebook.

I feel a bit uncomfortable giving away so much information (it could be bad luck) so let me tease you with not too much about the sessions. They will be in some of those great old Victorian pubs in the Irish district. One of them will have a small, no longer smoky, back room. They will definitely happen Friday night through Sunday night but I would lay money on Thursday and Monday as well. If all else fails, look for Facebook events with a Start Time: of “now it would be hard to say” and an End Time: of “while you still have your ticket home”.

A new summer school is born in Birmingham’s Irish Quarter

17 Apr

Birmingham in England has a sense of the scrappy underdog – it has a way of drawing you with its dry sense of humor and old-school camaraderie. It also loves its local heroes, and the city lost one of its treasures last year in the passing of Pat Molloy.

Pat was the master of Irish music teaching in the city and one of life’s teachers in the widest sense of the word. My lessons with him were not what you would call conventional – there would be deep explorations lasting well into the night – not just of fiddle music and style but also philosophical discussions which left my mind in the dust, math questions, card tricks, checking into firebrand George Galloway’s show on the radio or cricket test matches broadcast from Australia at 1 a.m. (small bets on cricket and smelling tobacco burning were Pat’s token vices). At regular points in the proceedings his beloved wife Anne would come in with a pot of tea and some wonderful soda bread with a jaunty “I’m not hearing much music” as we were gassing away. Magical stuff, and through it all there would always be Pat’s smile and that swing he could put into the fiddle.

It was at Pat’s funeral that a plan was hatched by local musicians and friends to keep alive the celebration of the music that Pat and Anne had devoted themselves. This vision came to life the last weekend in July with the Pat and Anne Molloy summer school

Check out http://www.patmolloysummerschool.co.uk.

The unofficial start to the event was a wild impromptu session at the famous Spotted Dog pub lasting into the wee hours. At some point I could sense Pat’s sons Joe, Enda and Ronan in a huddle at the bar with banjo, box and bodhran at their feet. Not all that unusual – they come onto the field of play late – like an audacious match-winning triple substitution tactic once used by one of the more eccentric local soccer club managers. On heaving myself up to the bar to investigate I could sense some pre-festival nerves when questions like “what is a workshop anyway?” arose from the Molloys and other seasoned and talented players who were to tutor in the morning. I attempted to regale them with stories of shambolic workshops that I had attended States-side to lighten the mood, but what would the sober light of day bring?

It brought a huge crowd of 95 students to the Irish Centre Saturday morning with a great buzz from young and old, beginner and advanced all milling around, eager to get started. I had the enormous privilege of being in a workshop with the irrepressible Noreen Cullen. In no time she was whipping our small group into shape with a twisting and turning Brendan McGlinchey hornpipe in B-flat with theatrics and dance moves thrown in for good measure, all delivered in a paint-peeling Brummie accent peppered with infectious and uncontrolled laughter. This lady is no respecter of a hangover! But her credentials are serious – she was the Hayley Richardson of her day, performing on tour with Sean McGuire at 11 years old.

The Saturday night concert brought more treasures, highlights being Joe Molloy and Patsy Moloney’s   gorgeous set, a slideshow of Pat and Anne having fun with friends and musicians over the years, the Molloy family playing Pat’s compositions, and the traditional dinner of samosas, chicken curry, rice and naan bread with a side order of a large bin of boiled potatoes (some of this Irish in England stuff is hard to explain).

Sunday mixed group workshop had a certain off-the-cuff quality, but someone had the inspired idea of “let’s get all the groups to make a tune arrangement and play it in the afternoon”. For me this was the highlight of the weekend with even complete beginners joining in the fun, and some of the arrangements were priceless.

So how can you join in the fun? Come next year! My credibility as the token New Yorker is wearing thin (particularly as M.C. Mick Green leaked the fact that “his Mum lives down the road”), so we need the real article – you will enjoy the Brummie Irish hospitality. Next year the organizers are planning to invite some big names from Ireland who fell under Pat’s spell over the years.