Friday, August 24, 2018

Giovanni Vailati, mandolinist

Giovanni Vailati (1815 - 1890) was an Italian mandolinist who reached the virtuosic-level of playing ability and was able to travel and perform throughout Europe.[1] Entirely self taught on his instrument, he was described by Philip J. Bone as a "natural genius on his instrument, who by his remarkable performances, became known throughout his native land as 'Vailati the blind, the Paganini of the mandolin.'"[1] He is important as one the first generations of quality performers to use mandolin. He was one of a small number of mandolinists of the 19th century to play the mandolin in the concert halls of Europe after the Napoleonic War, who played with excellence in spite of indifference and diffidence toward their chosen instrument.[4] Pietro Vimercati was another, whose concerts predated Vailati's by about 30 years.[4] Also performing in Europe in the years following 1815 was Luigi Castellacci.[1]
Vailati was born "at the Torchio farm in the village of Vairano in the current village of Santo Stefano," near Crema, and grew up in a rural setting.[3] Records are confusing, and the indication is that either he was blinded soon after birth, or about age 7 from smallpox.[5]
Taking up the mandolin, he joined the ranks of people who made a living on the streets, playing for themselves and "begging a small fee" from others.[5] He got some help from Pietro Bottesini, the father of double-bass player Giovanni Bottesini and himself a clarinet professor.[5] Pietro worked with him on "musical principles" and the harpsichord and violin.[3][5] Bottesini was impressed with his virtuosity, particularly his ear; Vailati demonstrated the ability to retain and play music that he had heard only once or twice.[5] He performed in the coffee shops in Crema, and then in Lombardy's other cities, building his reputation.[5] In 1852 on December 2, 1852 at the Teatro Regio in Parma, he have a performance that was noticed.[5] Eventually Vailati was invited and performed in England, Portugal, Sweden, Norway and Germany, which was a rare accomplishement for any mandolinist in the middle of the 19th century.[5][4]
According to historian Paul Sparks, there was a decline in the use of the mandoline and mandolino (French and Italian mandolins) after 1815, and a general disinterest in plucked instruments "during the second and third quarters of the nineteenth century" to include harps, lutes, and guitars.[6] They were surpassed by struck and bowed string instruments in the concert halls, pianos and violin-family instruments.[6] The mandolin, which had been only been briefly allowed into the concert hall was largely excluded.[6] It became a "folk" instrument, in an era when that went along with poverty.[7] Although Giovanni Vailati did well as a performer, he was performing in a period when the mandolin was out of style in the concert hall.[4] In 1855 he performed at a benefits concert at the Sala dell'Arte in Florence, and only a few people showed up; however the Gazzetta musicale di Firenze paid him tribute on its front page.[4]
He died in the poor house in Crema, November 25, 1890.[1] According to Bone, Vailati was betrayed by someone he had known most of his life, who stole his savings, and "being quite destitute, was forced to seek the shelter of his native poor house, where he passed the remainder of a desolate career."[1] After he died, a monument was erected in Crema with the words "To Giovanni Vailati, the blind professor of music, who honourably upheld the name of his country over all Europe. Crema is grateful."[1]

Thursday, August 23, 2018

Mandolin Maker: Steve Sorensen

by Hermon Joyner
March 30, 2015

Several miles north of Los Angeles in the suburban, rolling hills of Santa Clarita, California, something curious is happening. Steve Sorensen has been designing and building mandolins and archtop guitars in his converted garage for the past several years. In a relatively short amount of time, he has built his business from scratch in much the same way that he builds his mandolins—assuming nothing, considering all his options, pushing hard all the time, and making course corrections as needed—and now his mandolins are attracting a great deal of well-deserved attention.

While many mandolin builders are content to build mandolins the same way Gibson and Lloyd Loar built them, Sorensen is convinced that there must be other ways to approach the design of these eight-string instruments. In fact, it’s the design process itself that provides so much satisfaction for him. He loves it and he sums up his philosophy about mandolins like this, “I love the classic Gibson F5 design, but I’m just not interested in building copies of it.” He is quite emphatic about this.

Steve Sorensen came to mandolin building in a roundabout way. While he grew up with a dad who taught him woodworking skills, he didn’t have much experience with instrument building, aside from one banjo he built while he was in college. Even with that project, he went a bit overboard. He said, “I ended up doing marquetry on the back of the pot, with my own variation of a mother-of-pearl hearts and flowers inlay on the fingerboard and additional detailed inlays on the heel. It turned out nice, though I did fill my dorm room with sawdust.”

Sorensen eventually studied viticulture, or wine growing, at UC Davis. When he left college, he worked at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, where he managed the vineyard team who developed a series of new techniques for growing fine wine grapes in the South East. However, it didn’t take long for him to realize that he was no farmer, so he moved back to LA to enroll at the California Institute for the Arts (CalArts) and got a Masters in Live Action Filmmaking. After graduating, he found himself writing scripts for a Cartoon Network’s TV show, The New Adventures of Johnny Quest, and he also tried making a feature film, but when the funding for that film fell through, he landed a job at 1-800-DENTIST, where he ran the call center for the company. What he learned about marketing in that job would come in handy when he later started building mandolins.

Starting in high school, Sorensen loved bluegrass and that was why he eventually built a banjo in college. But about eight years ago, his interest in bluegrass expanded into a new direction when he bought an inexpensive mandolin from eBay. Sorensen said, “My wife, just off the cuff, said, ‘Knowing you, you’re going to either start building these things or composing music.’ Well I’m not a composer, but I did love building that banjo. So the next week, packages started arriving at our house. It was the wood to build a mandolin.”

Since he had recently finished remodeling the inside of his house, he had most of the tools to begin building instruments. Just before this, in 2010, venture capitalists had bought out 1-800-DENTIST and terminated most of the existing management team, including Steve. Ironically, it was Sorensen’s substantial severance package which allowed him to consider mandolin building as a new career. So he picked up the few pieces of equipment that he was missing and bought a copy of Roger Siminoff’s book on building mandolins. All that was left was to start building, so that’s what he did.

Sorensen sees a lot in common with building mandolins and many of his other career paths. One of the aspects he enjoys the most is what he calls, “the long process.” Sorensen explains, “I realized that throughout everything I’ve ever done, there are very complex, long processes. With the wine grape process, it’s five years before you get good grapes. I did the same thing with film. I had to write my own crazy script and try to produce it. And this is the same sort of thing in building instruments; it’s the long process that attracts me. The challenge of figuring out how to make world-class instruments is infinite. It is the sum of your good decisions and your bad decisions all combined.”

And other parts of his life also feed his building process, most notably the design classes he took at CalArts, but also the writing classes and jobs he’s held. He said, “At CalArts watching great designers talk about the flow of lines and how things fit together; it changed me forever. I look at the world and I look at my designs and I’m constantly going, ‘How does this flow into that? How does everything feel more harmonious?’ I think the combination of that and my brief career in writing, where my mentors kept saying over and over again, ‘Writing is rewriting,’ and ‘Until you hit six drafts, you don’t have a first draft.’ You have to come to grips with the fact that your first idea isn’t going to be brilliant. So truly, the combination of those two mindsets means that I’m really into design and that I’m not scared to rework stuff.”

Because of his variety of life experiences, Sorensen comes to mandolin building with the right attitude, but it’s his innate nature that gives him an advantage when it comes to this business. It’s his ability to focus his complete attention on one thing and see it through to the end. Sorensen said, “My wife coined the phrase that’s on my website and t-shirts: ‘The fine line between passion and obsession.’ It came from her saying very nicely, ‘You know you’re not obsessive, you’re just passionate about things.’ I think that’s perfect for instrument building.”

However, when you combine his obsessive qualities with his background in design from CalArts, another consequence is created; Sorensen cannot be satisfied in building another person’s mandolin design. Take his Pacifica model, for instance. The open scroll is echoed in the lines of his unique peghead, which is repeated in the shape of the pickguard. All the individual elements come together and support each other, but it doesn’t exactly look like anyone else’s mandolin and that is what drives Sorensen to build them. He’s not really interested in doing something that isn’t original. Sorensen says simply, “I love the design process.”

Picking up one of Sorensen’s mandolin, you are struck by the fine workmanship, but once you strike your first note, the quality of the sound really hits you. He describes it this way, “There are three main things. Everybody uses the word ‘chiming’ for the high notes, but Nuggets scream in a beautiful way. And particularly when players slide up the neck, they have this operatic scream that is very clear, very bright, and it makes me wonder why people aren’t playing mandolins in every kind of music, because that sound should be everywhere. Then in the mid-range, the word is syrupy. Most of the Gibson-era Loars have that mid-range richness. It’s a fullness of tone that is very complex. And then on the low end, just a straight-up woof. I work the back for that. Good mandolin backs are reactive and responsive, and that’s part of that depth. Those are the targets for me and trying to get all three? I’m getting there.”

Another place where Sorensen chooses to differ from other builders is in the idea of how the mandolin’s sound develops over time. Sorensen explains, “I sincerely doubt that the early Loars came out of the shop sounding like they do now. It takes a while to reach that complexity of sound. You can hear the years in the instrument. When I was making wine, I liked Cabernets. And a good Cabernet starts out astringent because it is high in tannins and then it loosens up over time. I think it’s similar with mandolins that if you can get the clarity and the chime in at the beginning, the looseness will grow. As a ‘child,’ I want my instruments to have all the traits they need to be a good instrument, but not to sound too old too soon.”

During the building process, Sorensen likes to take his time and see how each mandolin is developing. He said, “I string up everything in the white and spend about a week or two hearing what it sounds like and then go back and thin up the back and the top from the outside a little bit and play with the graduations. After I’ve heard it and played it for little bit, I start to get a tactile sense of how the instrument is responding to the strings. That’s a time eater, but it’s worth the investment.”

It is also at this point that Sorensen draws on the expertise of his friend and mentor, Randy Torno. Torno has been playing mandolin for well over 50 years and has made a career out of teaching mandolin in the San Fernando Valley. Sorensen met him when he started taking mandolin lessons from Torno and he has become a major resource for Sorensen and his mandolins. Sorensen said, “He was the first person to support me early on and he’s been playing and teaching bluegrass forever, so it’s nice to have somebody with that much perspective. He can change modes with me and go from a player (‘I love this, it’s beautiful.’) to an instructor (‘You’ve got these things you can improve.’) to a retailer (‘If I were buying this, I’d be worried about these things.’). It’s been a great, helpful relationship.”

Randy Torno tells his side of the story, “As soon as they are strung up, I’m the test pilot. Because I’ve been playing so long, I can look at a mandolin from the player’s standpoint and point out things to him that from a builder’s standpoint he may not think are important. I feel fortunate that I’ve been in the position that I can advise him and steer him in the right direction. Whatever has happened with his mandolins would’ve happened with or without me, but maybe I’ve shortened the process a little bit for him. I think he’s going to be at the very top tier of designers and builders.”

It was Torno who suggested that Sorensen should first go to the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) World of Bluegrass Festival in 2012 to show his mandolins. Torno said, “It was pretty amazing to have Adam Steffey and Doyle Lawson stop by and just freak out at these instruments. That’s what was going on at IBMA. To have these people even acknowledge our presence was way beyond what we expected, but all the major players in town stopped by and played them, and they were really very complimentary about the instruments. It was a pretty amazing experience.”

Sorensen worked out an endorsement at the 2012 IBMA for his mandolins with Lee Roy of the band, The Roys, an award-winning, brother-sister, country/bluegrass band. Since 2012, Lee has commissioned additional instruments from Steve, and now plays a Sorensen F8, a Sprite Two-Point mandolin, a Sprite mandola, and an arch-top Big Hammer mandocello.

With the interest in his mandolins growing in the mandolin community and custom orders steadily coming in (there is currently a 15 month wait for one of his mandolins), Sorensen is determined to remain a one-person shop, even if there can be some challenging consequences.

Such as, for the past few years, The Mandolin Store in Arizona has been the only retail dealer for Sorensen mandolins in the US, but with his increasingly busy custom build schedule, Sorensen wasn’t able to supply them with as many mandolins as they needed. Both Sorensen and Dennis Vance, The Mandolin Store's owner, thought that it was better to discontinue retail sales for now. On the other hand, Sorensen notes that he is still working with Trevor Moyle at The Acoustic Music Company in Brighton, England, to offer one or two mandolins each year for sale to retail customers outside the US.

Sorensen's first set of mandolin designs included the Sprite Two-Point, the open scroll Pacifica, and the F8 model, which is his own interpretation on the Gibson F5 look and is sure to be as close as he ever comes to that model. In addition, he builds 'The Californian' archtop guitar. In 2013, Sorensen added the Sprite Two-Point mandola, and the SXS mandolin, which was inspired by the beautiful and innovative designs of John Monteleone and Hans Brentrup. In 2014, Sorensen added the Big Hammer guitar-bodied mandocello and the Big Dog guitar-bodied octave mandolin. Currently, Sorensen is building a prototype for the FX model, which Sorensen hints, "Has all the elements we love about traditional F-style mandolins and yet is totally different." If his other mandolins are any indication, it’ll be sleek and powerful, as well.

In the last few years, his interactions with working mandolin pros have taught him a lot about the directions that he should go in terms of sound and performance. Serious players know what they want and need in a mandolin, and Sorensen has been honing his understanding of what it is that they are looking for. Working to meet Lee Roy's mandolin needs, as The Roys have written and recorded several new albums using his mandolins, has been a real education. This past year, Sorensen has also been working with Randy Jones of The Lonesome River Band on an ongoing instrument project which may see the light of day within the next few months. Clearly, Sorensen delights in the long game of reworking and refining his building techniques to meet the players' needs while also delivering the rich, woody Loar-type sound which continues to get better with time.

But as Sorensen has recently finished his 50th mandolin, which is a milestone for all builders, he now knows that a mandolin doesn’t have to look like a Gibson to sound great. He is determined to follow his own path in instrument design and delights in pushing the boundaries of what the modern mandolin can look like. In fact, the last five mandolins he built are all one-of-a-kind designs, and he is happy to be working like that.

Steve Sorensen says with confidence, “I believe that I can build in the tone players want and dish up some cool new designs at the same time!”

And that’s what he’s doing right now.


[This article appeared in a different version in the Winter 2013 issue of Mandolin Magazine.]

Mandolin Maker John Wynn (1938 to 2010)


What is Ozark culture? “Self-made,” said John Wynn, without missing a beat. “When they got here to such backwoods, hilly country that you couldn’t hardly farm because there wasn't a level piece of land around, they had to build everything they used. They built their own culture.

“They formed their own ways of life. Their own standards, their own religion. It meant so much to them.

“They were hill people."

Born on the West Coast during the latter of the dust bowl days, Wynn remembers traveling back and forth from California to the Oklahoma Ozarks to “pick up family members and haul them to California to find work.”

In time, his family returned to Salina, Oklahoma, and a “40-acre rockpile” where John remained until joining the navy, at which point he found himself back in California.

It was during this time that another serviceman, Charles Winkler, altered John’s life forever by simply teaching him a few guitar chords.

“Funny how someone can influence our lives by a little gesture like that,” he remembers. “It changed the whole course of my life. Funny how things happen. I'd love to find him and thank him for that someday.”

After getting out of the navy, John Wynn continued to play in his spare time while doing woodwork and cabinetry for a living. He also taught himself to play banjo.

It wasn’t long before his past-time and his career converged. To save money, he built a mandolin. Building several more, John continued to improve, finally taking one into an LA music shop simply because he was proud of it.

The storeowner offered him $550.

The year was 1974. John Wynn was in the mandolin business.

“I still don't have one of my own,” he notes. “I’m getting close to 200 mandolins that I’ve built and have probably built almost that many banjos. And to this day, I build a mandolin and someone comes along and wants to buy it.”

Never one to stick with tradition unless required, John continued to experiment as he developed his skills. As a result, many of his mandolins truly represent the Ozarks, having been crafted from native wood.

“Traditionally, F-style, Gibson style mandolins were built out of maple.[But] I really like walnut, which produces a really good, acoustic sound, and I’ve experimented with sassafras, persimmon, sycamore and willow just to see what would happen and a lot work really well.

“Wood does contribute to quality, but it's mainly workmanship,” explains John.

“When you build a mandolin, you tune the wood to a musical pitch as you are carving it, and that stems back to even the early days. Stradivarius would tune the wood to A440 pitch — taking a front or back, putting a little rosin on the edge, and run his bow across it.

“Well, I take my thumb and tap the tops and backs and listen. You take off a little bit of wood until you get the pitch you want. So you're actually tuning the wood itself.”

Despite his skill, John’s humility is nearly as remarkable as his craftsmanship.

“I just practiced my craft and kept building. That's how it came about. I think I made every error in the book. But it's kind of routine and fairly easy for me now.

“The one I built today is hopefully better than the one I built yesterday.”

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Musician Barry Mitterhoff - Mandozine Interview

Barry Mitterhoff
Based out of a small town in New Jersey, Barry Mitterhoff is a mandolinist who absolutely refuses to be pigeonholed into one style, despite the ease with which a writer in this sort of database can click on a key that says bluegrass. Of course, like just about every mandolinist around, Mitterhoff got into bluegrass music and has played his share of it. He became closely associated with banjoist Tony Trischka, who helped take that genre just about as far out as it has ever gone, thus forever associating Mitterhoff with the progressive bluegrass movement and even beyond that, the avant-garde bluegrass movement. He is most certainly being watched by "the bluegrass police," as described by his fellow mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau, also not a player who liked to do things the way they are supposed to be done in bluegrass. Mitterhoff has become involved in several different styles that are firmly outside the bluegrass camp, working regularly with a klezmer group and through his good sight-reading abilities becoming drawn into both theater and film music. In the film You've Got Mail, it is also a case of "you've got Mitterhoff," as this is one of the Hollywood soundtracks he appears on. And despite whatever connections he has with progressive or avant-garde music of any persuasion, he is also a respected player in the old-time music field, having maintained a long-standing relationship with the wonderful Appalachian singer Hazel Dickens. Meanwhile, he is studying the choro music of Brazil.

Junior high and high school were where the young Mitterhoff began developing enthusiastic interests relating to music. The relationship with one of his closest playing associates, guitarist Danny Weiss, stretches all the way to 1963, and the two began playing music together when they were juniors in high school. By then, it was the late '60s and rock had taken over everything. Mitterhoff introduced his friend to bluegrass as Weiss was still in rock-out mode. As for the mandolin, it was put into Mitterhoff's hands for the first time by his aunt Sylvia Reuben, who played the instrument in the Workman's Circle Orchestra, a 15-piece mandolin group in Newark, NJ. She had taken up mandolin as a teenager. When she heard of her nephew's budding music interests, at that point mostly confined to the guitar like many a teen with rock in his head, she offered him the mandolin and he began to fool around on it. Coincidentally, a guitar teacher named Bob Appelbaum Mitterhoff had recently hooked up with turned out to also play the mandolin and banjo. It was this teacher who played Mitterhoff his first bluegrass mandolin records, and they had a strong effect on him. Weiss, Mitterhoff, and another friend began getting together to play folk, blues, and bluegrass. The friends were also drawn toward country blues and jug band music, and it wasn't until he went away to college that Mitterhoff joined his first out and out bluegrass band. Yet his open-minded attitude was beginning to be forged even then, and instead of narrowing his attention on the "yee-haw!" crowd, he also took in much musical input of a swinging nature from the fine jazz guitarist Ted Dunbar, who was on the music faculty at his college.

Skyline cut its first album in 1977. The band originally consisted of Mitterhoff, Trischka, Weiss plus bassist Larry Cohen (no relation to the low-budget filmmaker), and a female vocalist, first Dede Wyland and then later Rachel Kalem. The band toured and recorded intensely for almost 12 years, including European as well as American barn-storming. In 1989, the band officially called it quits, but in the late '90s, they began working again whenever appropriate, averaging about ten gigs a year. These two different levels of band commitment have had quite a contrasting effect on Mitterhoff's personal life. When the initial decade or more of almost constant touring and involvement with Skyline ended, the mandolinist began expanding his music career so that he might become known as a versatile mandolinist ready to deal with jobs in a wide variety of styles. That way, he felt he could stay put more often in the New Jersey/New York area without going broke. The idea has worked for the most part, the major drawback seeming to be the parking violations that even a relatively unburdened mandolinist unloading his car has to deal with in the Big Apple. Although the Skyline lifestyle wasn't missed, there was no desire to cut connections with the players. Weiss, Cohen, and Mitterhoff continued to play together, forming the group Silk City when they added violinist Marty Laster. This group has recorded several CDs and remains the main outlet for Mitterhoff as a bandleader.

Unlike their earlier, more intense Skyline experience, the Silk City band makes much less demand on the players' time, leaving room for a great deal of freelancing. If the opening description of Mitterhoff's versatility was impressive, bear in mind that was severely edited for purposes of coherency. In reality, this mandolinist has even more projects going on. In the '90s, Mitterhoff's bluegrass activity included touring the U.S. and Europe with the bluegrass singer, banjoist, and bandleader Lynn Morris, whose music is more on the traditional side. He also worked with a Nashville bluegrass singer named Chris Jones, as well as with the previously mentioned Hazel Dickens. He also maintains a relationship with the interesting Tex Logan, a Texas bluegrass musician who is also a theoretical mathematician. Mitterhoff has crossed paths several times with this character, even backing him up with the college bluegrass band the first time it ever got on-stage. In the late '70s, Mitterhoff sometimes worked in a band Logan put together with guitarist and singer Peter Rowan. When Logan relocated to New Jersey a decade later, it was only natural that Mitterhoff resumed a relationship with him. Recording documentation of this collaboration is not so easy to find, consisting solely of an obscure record made and released in England.

Then there is the so-called "New York thing," in other words, professional work in whatever settings an experienced player is able to get his foot in the door of. This includes off-Broadway plays, jingles, and films. On Broadway itself, Mitterhoff was a sub on +Adventures of Tom Sawyer. Accordion player Dominic Cortese became a valued associate in the film world. A man who has worked on so many soundtracks that he can't even remember what half of them were, Cortese recommended Mitterhoff to the producers of the gangster comedy Mickey Blue Eyes and other big budget projects have followed. Mandolin picking done for the Oh Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack wound up on the cutting room floor, unfortunately.

Another great influence and presence on the New York music scene is Italian music, not exactly the style a typical bluegrass picker decides to get involved in. Picking on some tomato sauce commercials actually merged the mandolinist's activities as a session player with his interest in Italian mandolin music, but his playing in this genre is by no means limited to hawking pasta seasonings. He has worked with the group Friti e Latzi, led by Emilise Allesandri, and performing music selected from the early 20th century Italian vaudeville circuit. He also performed on a CD by Neapolitan singer Mary Mancini. These projects by no means represent the end of Mitterhoff's involvement with ethnic music. He has played in a Phillipine mandolin orchestra, done some Brazilian concerts with David Rumpler, and joined the West End Klezmorium, with which he played for six years. And in a move that no doubt greatly pleases his aunt, he has played off and on with the New York Mandolin Symphonette. He also performs with a chamber music group named the Abaca String Band. This group might not play frequently, but the gigs they do are high profile, including a performance at the White House, Alice Tully Hall, andMetropolitan Museum of Art.

In the late '90s, Mitterhoff recorded the Mandolin X 4 project with upcoming mandolinist Todd Collins. Silk City released a new CD in 2000, entitled Time. Along with his performing and recording activities, he also is active as a mandolin teacher and is usually involved with writing arrangements and compositions for ensembles he plays in, this work involving a predictably wide range of material in many genres. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, All Music Guide

Q - I caught your show with Jorma at Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa a few weeks back and enjoyed the two of you very much. You both seemed to play off each other quite well in spite of Jorma's bout of the flu. Tell us, how did you get the gig and how much rehearsal went into the preparation before taking it out on the road? I am aware of Sam Bush's contribution to Jorma's latest album. Did you try to emulate any of Sam's material from the album at least as a point of departure early in the preparation process?

PS - what's up with the New York Mandolin Orchestra these days?

A - Thanks for the nice comments about the Tampa show. I have to admit, I was a little apprehensive about doing those shows completely instrumentally(Atlanta, the night befor was also a non-singing show). After all, approx 4/5 of Jorma's music is vocal music and he's a great singer and lyricist. My approach at those shows was, in order to give the songs some structure, to play the vocal melody whenever there was supposed to be singing going on befor breaking into our solos. It was challenging trying to keep the two sections distinct from each other. Jorma and I agreed that the mandolin is a great melody instrument and can really sing.

I was really lucky to get the job w/Jorma. I was teaching at a bluegrass camp in England-The Sore Fingers Summer School almost exactly one year ago. I was having lunch with the Dobro instructor, Sally Van Meter who mentioned to me that she was going to be doing some playing with Jorma that summer and that he was looking for a mandolin player. I e-mailed him and told him who I was and who I had played with and the next thing I know he was asking me to do some dates w/him and Sally.

Jorma and his wife Vanessa Kaukonen flew Sally and me to their guitar camp, The Fur Peace Ranch in Ohio for two days of rehearsal and then we started playing two weeks later. There was really minimal rehearsal compared to other bands I 've worked with but since June, we've done over 60 dates and that's really the best way to learn new material. This past January, RCA re-released one of Jorma's first solo albums, "Quah" and we spent some time working up some of his great originals from that album.

As far as Sam Bush is concerned, what can I say? He is my idol. I think he is as important to my generation of mandolinists as Bill Monroe was to his. I've been inspired by his playing since the first time I heard the New Grass Revival in 1972 at the Berryville, Va Bluegrass Festival. His energy and positive persona are almost equal to his musicianship. Sorry, I'm gushing. When Jorma sent me a pre-release copy of 'Blue Country Heart', his CD with Sam, Jerry Douglas, Byron House and Bela Fleck, I wondered how much Jorma wanted to recreate the sound, breaks et al, in our live shows. He told me befor the first rehearsal that we should play it our own way and not worry about keeping everything the same. As a matter of fact he said that even the 'boys' and Jorma himself had a hard time remembering all the arrangements as they appeared on the CD. That being said, I have used some of Sam's licks (Thanks, Sam!) simply because they seemed so perfect in feeling and style that I just wanted to cop his sound. Just a quick word about the 'Blue Country Heart' CD. It was recorded live with no overdubs. Not only did this make for a great old-time feel and groove on the tunes but I think if also affords us a different look at these great players. There might be fewer hot licks than we might expect from that line-up but the playing is in the pocket and totally appropriate in creating a groove and a band sound. Check it out.

Q - I had the pleasure of seeing you play for the first time this year at Wintergrass, in Tacoma, WA. I'm from the SF Bay area, do you get to the Bay Area ever? I don't recall you playing recently in the mando centric Bay Area. In watching you play as part of Hazel Dickens band, I noticed how easy you make it look, you have evolved a style of control and the least movement required to make the instrument sing. I'm hoping to see you with Jarma Kaukonen here in the Bay Area some day. Have you enjoyed playing the acoustic blues with Jarma, he is a local legend here in the SF Bay Area, from his playing in both Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna.

A - Let me start by saying what an honor it is for me to be the 'guest of the week'.

I have had the chance to play in SF a few times in the last few years. Hazel Dickens played at the Bluegrass First Class Festival in 2000-2001 in Golden Gate Park. I believe we'll be playing again in October 2003. This past summer it broke my heart to have to pass on playing Petaluma, SF (the Fillmore!) Santa Cruz with Jorma Kaukonen Blue Country. (my sub, on mandolin, was G.E. Smith) At this moment, Jorma has no scheduled gigs with this band in the Bay area.

As far as making it look easy and playing with control, I have to say it goes show by show. In general, I try to to psyche myself into a relaxed state when I play. That's not alway easy. At the Wintergrass show you mentioned, it seemed like the stars were in line. The sound on stage was good and the band felt comfortable. Playing with Hazel Dickens is a real treat. I've played wtih her off and on for over 25 years so I feel like I really know her material. She is a great songwriter, always has really strong players in her band and she plays straight ahead traditional bluegrass. I take my role as a sideman very seriously in that I try to match the style of the artist with my mandolin playing. I've played alot of progressive acoustic music over the years with Bottle Hill, Peter Rowan Tex Logan, Tony Trischka Skyline and Silk City, so it's really fun and a challenge when I get to play it straight.

Having said that, there are some trickier sides to the freelance sideman role. First off, the Hazel Dickens group only plays periodically so its never like stepping on stage with a band that plays together 2 or 3 nights a week every week of the year. As I alluded to before. I try to play in a traditional style and minimize the hotlick factor. Its easy to cross the good taste line when playing real traditonal music.I know, I've done it.

The second part of your question concerned playing with Jorma Kaukonen. I've been playing in his group since last June. It's a truly great experience. We've been playing mostly songs from Jorma's 'Blue Country Heart' album. That music is country blues so it came fairly naturally for me, playing songs like 'Big River Blues' and 'Just Because'. We also have worked up a number of songs from Hot Tuna and even 2 from the Jefferson Airplane. Those were a little more of a stretch for me but we do them in a folky/traditional style. Two of the most important elements of Jorma's music are the blues and improvising(jamming). Of course I've played the blues from Bill Monroe's tunes to Charlie Parker's over the years so I was familiar with the concept but it's been an enjoyable challenge playing tunes like Uncle Sam's Blues and How Long Blues every night on tour. I have to say that Jorma is a great musical partner. He loves to play, he totally encourages the people in the band and gives us lots of space to play. Getting into the 'Blues' as opposed to getting the blues is something every player should do.

Q - Barry, I bought your "Silk City" CD a couple of months ago and it has become one of my all-time favorite CDs. I have just about worn it out. Tell us how that CD came about and who plays on it with you. The Wizard of Oz medley is great. Who are the two male voices? Great singers.

A - I recorded Silk City in the last year we toured as Tony Trischka & Skyline. We recorded 3 albums for Bruce Kaplan & Flying Fish Records (Late to Work, Stranded in the Moonlight & Skyline Drive) and recorded what was to become our last (Fire of Grace) simultaneously with my mandolin album, Silk City. We began recording my album in February, 1988 and it came out around September 1 of that year. At the time, Skyline was doing around 120-150 dates a year and Bruce Kaplan gave me the go-ahead to record. The idea behind the project was to show that the mandolin could do it all: traditional bluegrass, original progressive bluegrass, swing, classical music, ethnic music etc. We recorded it in Hoboken, NJ and the album was named for another great old city in NJ that had seen better days. Paterson was known as the 'Silk City' because of the silk mills there dating back to the late 18th century. My wife, Stephanie, and I lived in a renovated mill that was built around 1805 and I was inspired by the city's multi-ethnic past and present. The album's sense of tradition and innovation was informed by the city and the other musicians, artists and dancers we met in our designated artist housing. Unfortunately, when the LP (remember those) was turned into a CD we lost a beautiful graphic of the mills done by illustrator, Sue Trusdell.

Playing on the album are Tony Trischka, Larry Cohen(my co-producer), Danny Weiss, Matt Glaser, Marty Cutler, Joe Selly, Stuart Duncan, Kenny Kosek, Mark Hembree, Evan Stover and many others. It was a real production.

The Wizard of Oz medley has proved to be the most popular piece on the album and when I play live today. Like many baby boomers, I was a big fan of the movie and especially the score by 'Yip' Harburg & Harold Arlen. We put the piece together when Danny Weiss & Larry Cohen and I would do extra-curricular gigs during Skyline's existence. It was modeled after an old-fashioned, 'and-then-I-wrote' cabaret-style medley playing the songs from the film. The second piece in the medley is a version of the instrumental cue written to accompany Margaret Dumont either as Miss Gulch or the Wicked Witch. Larry Cohen was invaluable in helping to arrange this piece for mandolin, guitar & bass for our live shows. When we got into the studio, Larry re-orchestrated the medley, adding a 2nd guitar, piano, clarinet, trumpet, violin and recorder. Those non-folk instruments really helped create the old-time movie vibe. The medley ends with a vocal version of 'If I Only Had a Brain/Heart/Nerve'. In concert I sing the scarecrow, Danny Weiss the tin woodsman & Larry the cowardly lion. On the album, my part is sung by the amazing singer, John Gorka and the part of Dorothy is sung by Rachel Kalem, a member of Skyline for our last year and 4th album. We even did the Chipmunks thing by recording the Munchkins at slow speed, overdubbing many times and then speeding it up to get the same effect they got in the film. It was a lot of fun in the studio.

Q - Could you tell us a bit about your mandolin? I understand it is set up in a non-standard fashion.

Tell us the history of that great 40's Gibson F5 you have used for so long. Do you know any history of when and how you got it or from whom the original owner was. Yours is joined at the body at a different fret so tell us about that oddity. Also what kind of strings and picks you are using these days. Do you have any other mandolins you use?

A - I play a 40's Gibson F-5. Unfortunately, I know nothing about the life of this great instrument befor I got it. I do remember that I bought it from Henry Heckler in 1979. I believe Henry was a transplanted New Yorker who was living in Buchannon, VA near Roanoke. I ran into him at bluegrass festivals in the '70's in Virginia and North Carolina. If my memory serves me well, he offered the F-5 to me years before I bought it at a lower price but in retrospect the money I paid seems insignificant compared to today's prices and considering how much I've played it in nearly 24 years.

When I received the mandolin, it was in mint condition and I took it to a friend, Arthur Rose to help me set it up. That was when I realized that the neck was attached to the body at the 16th fret instead of the 15th. It meant that for the intonation to be right I had to place the bridge closer to the fingerboard than the standard placement which is at the mid-point of the f-holes. It took a little getting used to but since then I've seen a few other F-5's from this period where the neck was attached at odd places. In Tom's listing of F-5's, mine is always one of the last. It just barely made it's pre-war classification.

I use GHS strings, either PF 250's or PF 270's and when I play my F-5 I use the oval shaped black Gibson heavy picks. I usually use the rounded edge as opposed to the point. On the rare occasion that I play instruments with lower action(my roundback, tenor banjo or tenor guitar) I use a lighter pick so I don't overplay.

Q - I remember seeing you and admiring your playing back in the '80s with Skyline and wonder if you have some stories to tell from those days. That had to be an interesting group to work with.

A - I'm glad you got to see Skyline. In addition to being a fun band and some of my closest friends in the world, Skyline is the group that established my approach to playing music. We really put in time trying to come up with an orchestrated and arranged style that has stuck with me.. The band was uncompromising in many ways and I guess you could say . we were ahead of our time. Due to Tony Trischka's influence, we did quite a bit of original music, Tony being one of the most prolific tunewriters I ever played music with. Combining his originality and seat of the pants high energy playing with Larry Cohen's arranging skills and background in classical, rock and jazz, the band was always pushing the envelope with our approach and arrangements. It was also a luxury having two lead singers in Danny Weiss, Dede Wyland or Rachel Kalem. It was hot picking with adventurous arrangements yet great singing with lyrical content always at the top of our concerns. I sound like a publicist.

As far as war stories, I'm afraid that might have to wait until we can sit down with the appropriate refreshment and let the tales start to flow. Suffice to say, we played all over Europe, Japan, Czechoslovakia and about 25 states in this country and had amazing times together, good and bad over about an 8 1/2 year period. With our fellow bands on the circuit, Newgrass Revival, Hot Rize, Trapezoid and others we made lasting friendships, some recordings and almost made a living.

Q - Any specific jazz or western swing method books that you can reccommend? 2) When you accompany somebody, Jorma for example, what is your method for coming up with ideas? For example do you try and translate previously recorded guitar or bass lines to mando? Do you learn the melody and try and weave that into standard mando techniques like double-stops, tremelo etc. Any other back-up techniques that you can share?

A - As far as jazz books, I worked out of some books by my jazz teacher at Rutgers, Ted Dunbar. He really had a great approach to learning and hearing chords. Unfortunately, he published the books himself and has since passed away so I'm sure how available the books are or where to find them.

For Western Swing or Texas Fiddling, I like Stacey Philips fiddle books, Western Swing Fiddle, Contest Fiddling and the Mark O'Connor Transcriptions from Weiser.Pete Martin has put out a book of Texas Fiddling for Mandolin and Tiny Moore put out a book of transcribed solos with some good western swing tunes.

You could also find books of the guys who influenced the Western Swing players i.e. Django Reinhardt or a book of Charlie Christian solos transcribed by Dan Fox.

Q - In my earlier question where I mentioned seeing you at Wintergrass with Hazel Dickens, you answered how it was nice to play very traditional as well as playing the more progressive acoustic music you've played with Bottle Hill, Peter Rowan; Tex Logan, Tony Trischka; Skyline and Silk City. What recordings are you on that you are most proud of? Are there any projects "in the can" or that you have coming up that we should be watching for. You know at Wintergrass I was hoping you might end up jamming with the DGQ, I would have liked the opportunity to see you stretch out a bit more than you could in Hazel's band. Every lick you played with her sounded so appropriate to the music, but I'm looking forward to hearing you live some day in a more progressive format.

A - I guess the recordings of mine that I like the most are my solo CD 'Silk City' and 'Ticket Back'-the Skyline retrospective, both on Flying Fish. Also my most recent band CD is more in the progressive acoustic style. We now call our trio, Silk City(named after my mando album-is this confusing enough?) We have a relatively new CD on Sliced Bread Records, a label out of Philadelphia. Our CD with them is entitled 'Time' and it has 4 mandolin tunes on it: a latin piece, an original, and two arrangements of classical pieces. There is also an obscure CD called Mandolin X 4 put out by Norman Levine and Plucked String Recordings. On there I recorded a choro, a Russian/Jewish march, a fiddletune and another latin piece called 'Velverde'. The other mandolin players are Terry Pender(mandolin & voice), Neil Gladd(classical) and the great Charlie Rappaport(Eastern European). There is also an out-of-print, cassette-only recording of an old group of mine, Calle/Strada/Strasse which had mandolin, English concertina & cello. That came out on Global Village Music and they might have a few more copies, I know I don't have any.

I love playing with David, I've only done it a few times but it's always fun and challenging. this Summer I did a bunch of shows called Jamgrass and I got to sit in w/Sam Bush and his great band. That was a thrilling yet daunting experience.

As far as stretching out, I guess I stretch the most with Jorma and Silk City.

Q - Barry, Tell us about that group you were with before Skyline? You did a recording with them and cut El Cumbanchero on it. I was always impressed with that northern group of pickers. Who were they and where are they now?

A - The band you asked about was Bottle Hill. I played mandolin with them from 1971-1977(yikes!) At first it was called the Bottle Hill Boys but as we discovered our progressive bluegrass mission we dropped the 'Boys'. We recorded 2 albums on the Biograph label and toured quite a bit in the Northeast. It was back in the days when bands could get a fair amount of work on college campuses and we did quite a few. Some of the musicians that passed through the band were Lew London(gtr & bjo), Walt Michael(gtr & ham dul), Rex Hunt(dobro), Harry Orlove(gtr & bjo), Bill(bjo, gtr).

I feel that the band was a little ahead of its time. We played a Charlie Parker tune, a piece with 2 mandolins and mandola, we messed around with some classical pieces, there's an excerpt from a Beethoven mandolin piece on our 2nd record.

We ventured out of our home territory for some Carlton Haney festivals and trips to North Carolina & Colorado. When I joined the the band I was playing a Gibson A-1 that my Dad bought for me for $50. I switched to a 3-point F-2 by the time we made our first recording but found my 1920 F-2 in Rochester, NY at Eldon Stutzman's in September, 1972. I played that one for seven years and I still have it.

A - In addition to the usual sources of inspiration i.e. Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, Andy Statman, Jacob do Bandolim and many more, I 've been vey fortunate to work with or play in bands with some of the most inspiring people.

The first night I ever played an entire evening of bluegrass music was with Tex Logan and Bottle Hill. Tex has had a profound impact on my music; his sense of the blues, mixing the traditional with the original, his love of fast tempi, jazz, old-time, swing. He had a real apreciation for scary lonesome sounds on fiddle. I loved playing music w/him.

Bottle Hill had a revolving cast but I can say I learned alot from many of the guys and gal: Lew London, Walt Michael, David Jaffe, Joe Selly and the others. I tell students to try to get in playing situations with people better than you and that's always worked for me. I've learned so much from my Skyline buddies, Jorma Kaukonen, Hazel Dickens and even in the short tours of duty w/The Lynn Morris Band & Chris Jones & the Night Drivers. I've really been lucky.

I teach quite a bit and it's easy to get caught up with the less magical, more technical aspects of music making. I love it when my students pick up on the feeling and emotion of the music in addition to the technical stuff. You can't teach feeling.

When I get the chance to listen to music, my palette is varied. I'm likely to listen to classic bluegrass (Monroe, F&S;) and I really love listenting to classical music. Brazilian & Italian music also gets a lot of airtime in my music room/office.

One of my favorite jobs and one of the hardest was playing mandolin in the orchestra pit of the Metropolitan Opera. I was asked to be one of two mandolinists in the pit for 'Moses & Aron' by Arnold Shoenberg. The music was in the 12-tone style and really challenging. the orchestra sounded like a recording the first time they tried a section but I didn't. James Levine was an intimidating figure but very warm as well, constantly complimenting the orchestra and rarely raising his voice. Sitting in the midst of the harps and percussion was very exciting and being part of an opera was truly rewarding. I heard that they're performing again in the 2003-2004 season. I hope I get the call.

I was with the NY Mandolin Orchestra in one version or another for about 20 years. I was the concertmaster for some of that time. They are definitely still together and they meet at a school on the lower east side of Manhattan. I believe they still play the same mix of classical and folk music with a little less pops than some other groups. I have had to pull back on some of my activities due to family responsibilities and work but I played I a double concerto with Marilyn Mair and the NYMO a few years back. I'm sure you can find them through their web-site or from Norman Levine & Plucked String. When I joined in 1976, not many of the bluegrass crowd or the younger generation of players (I was almost young then) were going the mandolin orchestra route. It truly great to see how much its grown with orchestras popping up around the country. I hope to return one day.

A - I also love playing klezmer music. I first started playing some tunes from the Kammen books in the late seventies with my street trio, Calle/Strada/Strasse made up of mandolin, cello & English Conertina. I got to see a couple of the Dave Tarras shows that ushered in the klezmer revival.

For a number of years I played w/Harold Seletsky & the West End Klezmorim. We have one CD on Global Village but I played more tenor banjo than mandolin with them. I met Margot through the klezmer scene beforE she got bitten by the bluegrass bug. Now she has learned about 20-30 Bill Monroe, fiddle and oldtime tunes on the clarinet and the Klezmer Mountain Boys play just what the name implies but we're not all boys. Now we have Marty Confurious, Kenny Kosek and Joe Selly in addition to Margot and me. We have a CD coming out this summer on Tradtional Crossroads.

I love playing Jewish music. I taught at Klez Kamp this past year and was amazed by how far the music is reaching and all the different influences playing a part(even bluegrass). I don't claim to be an authority on klezmer but my main inspiration has been the playing of Andy Statman. You should also check out Jeff Warschauer and Charlie Rappaport.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Irish Dance Traditions

Dancing in the Middle Ages (England)
Irish dance dates back to its origins in Europe in the 11th and 12th centuries and became closely tied to Irish independence and cultural identity in the middle ages.  Through history, these ancient dances were never documented or recorded due to Ireland’s occupation by England, which tried to make Ireland more “English” by outlawing certain traditional practices.  Many Irish cultural traditions were banned by the English authorities during the 400-year period that came to be known as the Penal Days.

Despite this ban on cultural traditions in Ireland, Irish dancing continued behind closed doors. Because their musical instruments had been confiscated by the authorities, Irish parents taught their children the dances by tapping out rhythms with their hands and feet and making music through “lilting” (or mouth music somewhat similar to “scat singing” in jazz).  Irish dances came from Ireland’s family clans and, like tribal Native American dances in this country, were never formally choreographed or recorded.

History records a variety of dances done by the Irish in the mid-1500s. These include Rinnce Fada where two lines with partners faced each other, Irish Hey (possibly a round or figure dance), jigs (likely in a group), Trenchmores (described as a big free form country dance), and sword dances. 

The Rinnce Fada or Hey (also Hay)
English suppression of Irish culture continued, exemplified by the banning of piping and the arrest of pipers. However, Queen Elizabeth I was “exceedingly pleased” with Irish tunes and country dances.

Power struggles between the Irish and English continued during the 1600s. The Penal Laws enacted in the late 1600s crushed Irish commerce and industries. The laws also banned the education of Catholic children leading to hidden (hedge) schools. Traditional Irish culture was practiced with some degree of secrecy. This period of severe repression lasted for more than a hundred years, explaining some of the initial secrecy of teaching Irish step dancing. Country dancing continued, one description being that on Sundays “in every field a fiddle and the lasses footing it till they are all of a foam”; another being “the young folk dance till the cows come home.” Dancing continued during the 1700s, often during holidays, weddings, christenings, and wakes. However, the Church sometimes condemned dancing, “In the dance are seen frenzy and woe.”

A major influence on Irish dance and Irish culture was the advent of the Dance Masters around 1750, beginning a tradition that you could argue continues today. A dance master typically traveled within a county, stopping for about six weeks in a village, staying with a hospitable family (who were honored by their selection as host). They taught Irish dancing (male teachers) in kitchens, farm outbuildings, crossroads, or hedge schools. Students would first learn the jig and reel. Sometimes, the teacher had to tie a rope around a student’s leg to distinguish right foot from left. Besides dancing, they also appear to have given instruction in fencing and other skills. Some teachers had other skilled trades that were used on occasion by the villagers, helping to explain dance masters habit of traveling from town to town. Having an eminent dance master associated with your village was a cause for pride and boasting by the community.

Each dance master had a repertoire of dance steps and he created new steps over time. (Eight measures or bars of music are called a “step,” hence the term step dancing.) Sometimes the masters danced competitively at feisianna, the winner being the one who knew the most steps, not the one with the best execution. The loser of a competition might have to concede a town in his territory to the winner. These men were the creators of the set and ceili dances and they carefully guarded their art of step creation. Dance masters created the first schools of dancing, the best known being from Counties Kerry, Cork, and Limerick. One dance master described himself as “an artificial rhythmical walker” and “instructor of youth in the Terpsichorean art.” Villagers paid dance masters at the end of the third week of teaching at a “benefit night.” They paid the accompanying musician a week later. Sometimes, the dance master was both musician and dancer simultaneously! Apparently the level of pay for the dance masters was relatively high for Ireland and it included room and board.

The Penal Laws were finally lifted in the late 1800’s, inspiring Irish nationalism and the Great Gaelic Revival—the resurgence of interest in Irish language, literature, history, and folklore—and its accompanying feis (essentially a gathering that included carious forms of competition).  The feis was typically held in open fields and included contests in singing, playing music, baking, and, or course, Irish dancing.

In 1929, the Irish Dancing Commission was founded (An Coimisiun le Rinci’ Gaelacha) to establish rules regarding teaching, judging, and competitions. It continues in that role. Prior to 1929, many local variations in dances, music, costumes and the rules of feisianna existed. Part of the impact of the Commission was standardization of competitions.

During the 20th Century, Irish dance has evolved in terms of locations, costumes, and dance technique.  For example, during the period of the dance masters, stages were much smaller including table tops, half doors, and sometimes the “stage” was simply a crossroad. (An old poem called dancing “tripping the sod.”) Tests of dancing ability involved dancing on the top of a barrel or on a soaped table! As stages became larger, the dance changed in at least two ways. The movement of dancers across a stage increased greatly (a judge would now subtract points if a dancer did not “use the stage”), and dance steps that require substantial space became possible (e.g., “flying jumps”). The location of competitions also changed over time from barns or outdoors where flat bed trucks were (and still are) used as stages, to predominately indoors in hotels, schools, or fairgrounds. (Note that fairgrounds are particularly appropriate in a historical context of where ancient feisianna were located.)

Irish dance has evolved in other ways during the 20th Century. Instruction is beginning at a younger age. Who is instructed has also changed from mostly males to mostly females (the turning point was before 1930). Girls dancing solos in competition were rare before the 1920s. Dance styles have also changed; for example, arms and hands were not always held rigid during solo dances. Previously they were sometimes more relaxed and were even placed on hips. It seems that the influence of parish priests led to the lack of arm movement; some argue that stiff arms were less provocative, others argue that the Church was trying to increase dancers’ self control. Hand movements still occur in figure (group) dances.

The Church opposition to dance was a European universal from the 1740s to the 1930s in Ireland in tandem with state desire for control, resulting in the 1935 Public Dance Halls Act (EDI).* 

Dancing at the crossroads
Houses and crossroads, where Irish music was played and danced, had been the main venues for social dance in Ireland prior to 1935.  These were still in "operation" well into the 1950s, especially for the American wakes.  House dances were often fundraisers, generally benefits or for the fun of it, but sometimes for political groups, and they could be held in anyone's house.  Neither they, nor cross-roads dancing could be legally controlled by the church and this of course they didn't like.  But emigration and recorded music combined with foreign dance forms (the waltz, foxtrot, twostep, shimmy-shake) were beginning to be popular in Ireland.  Private commercial dance halls were being opened to take advantage of the new fashion.  The Gaelic League was against this activity for its perceived "undermining of Irish culture". 

The Church damned dances and saw them as not only improper (on the borderline of Christian modesty - Irish Catholic Directory, 1924), and "direct and unmistakable incitements to evil thoughts and evil desires".  In addition, there was concern among the authorities about the hazards of overcrowding in unsupervised premises, and even about groups like the IRA running dances to raise money for guns.  The issue became a battle for control.  Religious and political forces combined to demand licensing of dancing.  Intensely conservative lobbying was engaged in by the Church.  Under the Public Dance Halls Act (EDI) of 1935, dancing required a license, and this would only be given to people approved of by a district judge.  Failure to comply was a criminal offence.  Overzealous vigilante style enforcement of the Act by the Church destroyed social, noncommercial house dancing, and gradually shifted the social dance from private space to public. 

Church approved dancing
Many argue that the Church destroyed Irish traditional music and discouraged new players.  But it also laid the groundwork for the "band", the "ceilidh band" in particular, as the mainstay of music for dancing in Ireland, opening a new chapter in Irish music History.

In 1969, the Irish Dance World Championships started in Dublin, and competitive Irish dancing continued to gain momentum.  As the students of the first generation of dance masters became established in American in the 1970’s, the first American Irish step dancing champions began to emerge, and would change the art form forever.

Monday, August 13, 2018

The People of the Goddess Danu

The People of the Goddess Danu

The Goddess Danu
The Tuatha Dé Danann, the people of the Goddess Danu, were one of the great ancient tribes of Ireland. The important manuscript 'The Annals of the Four Masters', records that they ruled Ireland from 1897 B.C. to 1700 B.C.

According to an ancient document known as the Annals of the Four Masters (Annála na gCeithre Maístrí compiled by Franciscan monks between 1632-1636 from earlier texts), the Danann ruled from 1897BC until 1700BC, a short period indeed in which to have accumulated such fame.

They were said to have originated from four mythical Northern cities Murias, Gorias, Falias and Finias, possibly located in Lochlann (Norway).

The arrival of the tribe in Ireland is the stuff of legend. They landed at the Connaught coastline and emerged from a great mist. It is speculated that they burned their boats to ensure that they settled down in their new land. The rulers of Ireland at the time were the Fir Bolg, led by Eochid son of Erc, who was, needless to say, unhappy about the new arrivals.

The Fir Bolg c.55 b.c The Bag Men
The Tuatha Dé Danann won the inevitable battle with the Fir Bolg but, out of respect for the manner in which they had fought, they allowed the Fir Bolg to remain in Connaught while the victors ruled the rest of Ireland.

The new rulers of Ireland were a civilised and cultured people. The new skills and traditions that they introduced into Ireland were held in high regard by the peoples they conquered. They had four great treasures (or talismans) that demonstrated their skills. The first was the 'Stone of Fal' which would scream when a true King of Ireland stood on it. It was later placed on the Hill of Tara, the seat of the High-Kings of Ireland. The second was the 'Magic Sword of Nuadha', which was capable of inflicting only mortal blows when used. The third was the 'sling-shot of the Sun God Lugh', famed for its accuracy when used. The final treasure was the 'Cauldron of Daghda' from which an endless supply of food issued.

The original leader of the Tuatha was Nuada but, having lost an arm in battle it was decreed that he could not rightly be king. That honour went to Breas, a tribesman of Fomorian descent. His seven year rule was not a happy one however, and he was ousted by his people who had become disenchanted with hunger and dissent. Nuada was installed as King, resplendent with his replacement arm made from silver.

Breas raised an army of Fomorians based in the Hebrides and they battled with Nuada at Moytura in County Sligo. The Tuatha again prevailed and the power of the Fomorians was broken forever. The victory had cost the Tuatha their King as Nuadha had died in the battle. A hero of the conflict named Lugh was instated as the new King of Ireland.

The grandsons of the next King, Daghda, ruled during the invasion by the mighty Melesians. The Tuatha Dé Danann were defeated and consigned to mythology. Legend has it that they were allowed to stay in Ireland, but only underground. Thus they became the bearers of the fairies of Ireland, consigned to the underworld where they became known as 'Aes sidhe' (the people of the mound - fairy mounds).

Eriu or Eire
The Melesians used the name of one of the Tuatha Dé Danann gods, Eriu, as the name of their new kingdom. Eriu or Eire is still used in modern times as the name of Ireland.

According to legend, the Tuatha de Danann were a mystical race of God-like beings who invaded and ruled Ireland over four thousand years ago. Modern academics and scholars deny they ever existed, yet ancient historians have left behind texts full of the most incredible stories about them. So, medieval fantasy, myth or fact? You decide.

Stories of the Tuatha de Danann were passed down through the ages into legend via the ancient oral tradition of Ireland’s poets. Later, Christian monks began assembling and recording them in an effort to produce a history for Ireland.

Inevitably, these texts were influenced by their beliefs and doctrines, their translation skills (or lack of), and the desire to please their patrons. What we are left with is impossible to distill into fact and fiction.

These myths are so fantastic, so bizarre, that no scholar or historian worth his salt would ever entertain them as anything other than pure fantasy. But I’m not so sure. I say there is no smoke without fire.

The Tuatha de Danann: Pronounced "Thoo-a day Du-non"

Who were the Tuatha de Danann?

Tuatha de Danann
Tuatha de Danann (pronounced Thoo-a day Du-non) is translated as ‘tribe of Danu.’ Scholars are agreed that Danu was the name of their goddess, most probably Anu/Anann. However, that is unproven, and I believe could equally have referred to their leader or king, or even the place from which they originated.

They were a race of God-like people gifted with supernatural powers, who invaded and ruled Ireland over four thousand years ago. According to an ancient document known as the Annals of the Four Masters (Annála na gCeithre Maístrí compiled by Franciscan monks between 1632-1636 from earlier texts), the Danann ruled from 1897 BC until 1700 BC, a short period indeed in which to have accumulated such fame. They were said to have originated from four mythical Northern cities Murias, Gorias, Falias and Finias, possibly located in Lochlann (Norway).

The Book of Invasions (Lebor Gebála Érénn compiled c.1150) claims in a poem that they came to Ireland riding in “flying ships” surrounded by “dark clouds.” They landed on Sliabh an Iarainn (the Iron Mountain) in Co. Leitrim, where they “brought a darkness over the sun lasting three days.” There is a lovely line which illustrates perfectly the bewilderment felt towards these conquerors;

“The truth is not known, beneath the sky of stars,
Whether they were of heaven or earth.”

A later version of the story relegates the flying ships to mere sailing ships. The dark clouds became towering columns of smoke as the ships were set alight, a warning to observers that the Danann were here to stay. Clearly, the monks recording this story were trying to make sense of something which was well out of their comfort zone.

And so we have our first dilemma; which story to believe. Did they arrive from the skies, or from across the sea?

What Did the Danann Look Like?

They certainly looked very different to the small, dark native peoples of Ireland at that time. The Danann are generally described as tall with red or blonde hair, blue or green eyes, and pale skin.

Interestingly, archaeology has unearthed evidence all around the world of small colonies of red-haired people from the same time period as the Tuatha De Danann’s arrival in Ireland. Excavations in Xinjiang Province, China have revealed mummies of red and blonde haired people living around four thousand years ago. The extremely well preserved Egyptian mummy of nobleman Yoya, c. 1400 BC, shows he had blonde hair and Nordic features, as did his wife, Thuya. She was also Tutankhamun’s great-grandmother.

First Bionic Man

In order to win supremacy over Ireland, the Danann fought against the existing ruling tribe, the Fir Bolg, in the First Battle of Moytura. During this encounter, the Danann High King Nuada Argetlam (pronounced Noo-tha Or-geth-lam) lost his arm. He survived, but lost his position, as a king could not be seen as anything less than ‘whole’ if he was to bring his people continued success.

In an intriguing turn of events, the physician Dian-Cecht replaced the lost limb with a fully functional ‘arm of silver’. Later, Dian-Cecht’s son, Miach, also a physician, caused skin and flesh to grow over the metal arm. Thus ‘whole’ again, the kingship was restored to Nuada following the ousting of his replacement, the tyrant Bres.

So here we have another case of strange, advanced (dare we say ‘alien’?) technology. Could this be the first-ever prosthesis, a robotic arm built over four thousand years ago?

The Four Treasures of Eirean

The Danann brought special equipment with them, four magical talismans of great power. These were:

Sword of Light
The Sword of Light - also known in Irish as Claiomh Solais (pronounced Clee-uv Shull-ish). It was said to have been made by Uiscias in the northern city of Findias, and brought to Ireland by Nuada, and that no-one ever escaped from it once it was drawn against them. It is also described as a ‘glowing white torch.’ The similarities to the imaginary light sabre are quite striking; could this sword have been some kind of futuristic laser weaponry?

Lugh’s Spear
Lugh’s Spear – also known as ‘the finest/famous yew of the wood,’ said to have been made by Esras in the northern city of Gorias. Lugh used it to kill his Formorian grandfather, the giant-king Balor at the Second Battle of Moytura (although some versions of the story claim he used a sling). It has been suggested that Lugh’s spear, the spear Crimall which blinded Cormac mac Airt rendering him unfit (not ‘whole’) for rule, and the Lúin Celtchair are one and the same weapon, although there is no concrete evidence to back this up. The Lúin Celtchair is a fascinating legend. It was a long, fiery lance from which ‘sparks as big as eggs flew’ when ‘the spear-heat takes hold of it’. In order to prevent the flames of the tip from consuming the shaft and the warrior holding it, the spear head was dipped into a cauldron of mysterious sorcerous liquid. In ‘The Destruction of Dá Derga’s Hostel’, a saga of the Ulster cycle of mythology, the Lúin Celtchair is claimed to have been discovered at the Battle of Moytura, the same battle where Lugh killed Balor. This spear, then, could well be Lugh’s, and seems to possess many of the qualities of the Sword of Light.

The Dagda's Cauldron
The Dagda’s Cauldron - Also known as the ‘Cauldron of Plenty’ (Coire Ansic in Irish, pronounced Kwee-ra On-sik). It was made by Semias of the northern city of Murias. Not much is known about this vessel, although it was thought to have had the power to bring the dead back to life, and that “none would go from it unsatisfied.” Dr. Ulf Erlingsson has suggested that the giant stone basin found in the eastern passage of the central mound at Knowth, part of the Newgrange complex, could be the Dagda’s Cauldron, and that the concentric circular design depicted on it could be a map of Atlantis, as described by Plato. How could the Danann have come by this knowledge?

The Lia Fáil
The Lia Fáil - Also known as the Stone of Destiny, and the Coronation Stone. It was made by Morfessa of Falias, and brought into Ireland by the Danann, where they duly placed it at the Hill of Tara, in Co. Meath. Legend has it that its cry confirmed the coronation of the rightful High King of Ireland, and that its roar could be heard throughout the land. It was broken in half sometime later by Cuchullain when it failed to proclaim him or his protégé. One half was carried away to Scotland, where it eventually ended up in the throne of the British monarchy, although there is a whisper that the true stone was hidden, possibly beneath the River Tay, and remains there to this day. A stone with a voice sounds too fanciful to be true, but perhaps it was misunderstood; perhaps the stone was no more than a stage upon which the new king stood, his voice amplified by some sort of early (or alien?) microphone.

Immortality and the Other-world

More famously known as Tir na Nog, or The Land of the Ever Young, this was thought of as the original home of the Danann. It could be reached through water, by traveling west over the sea, or passing through the gateways of the Sidhe mounds. In these places, the veil between the worlds was considered very thin, and therefore more easily traversable. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the magical realm is not the eternal youth, beauty, joy and plenty it represents, but the passage of time attributed to it. In Tir na Nog, time seems to stands still, while in the mortal world it passes in the blink of an eye. The story of Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall’s son, and his other-world lover, Niamh, illustrates this perfectly. After only three blissful years in the magical realm, Oisin returns home to find three hundred years have passed. When he falls from his horse and his feet touch Ireland’s soil, age catches up with him, and he dies an old man.

This idea of infinite paradise where no one grows old and time has no meaning has parallels with space travel, alternate dimensions, and even the mundane, such as advancements in health care and medicine. Were the Danann immortal? Not in the absolute sense of living forever; they could be killed in battle, or by sickness, although compared with the natives at that time, they were clearly long-lived. Even modern man would seem ageless and long-lived in comparison with our early ancestors.

The Danann and the Sidhe

The Milesians
The Danann were defeated in two battles by the Milesians, whom historians and scholars alike agree were probably the first Gaels in Ireland. Not only were the Danann defeated by military might, but by cunning too. It was agreed that the new invaders and the Danann would each rule half of Ireland, and so it was that Amergin of the Milesians chose that half of Ireland which lay above ground, leaving the Danann to retreat below. They were led away to their new domain via the Sidhe mounds by Manannán, God of the sea, who then shielded them from mortal eyes by raising an enchanted mist known as the Faeth Fiadha (pronounced Feh Fee-oh-a), or ‘Cloak of Concealment’. As time passed, they became known as the Sidhe (Shee), Ireland’s fairy-folk.

So, Gods or Aliens?

To one who observes without understanding, even an airplane flying through the sky carrying people in its belly to far distant, unimaginable lands seems like powerful magic; so does flicking a light switch, a television screen, a mobile phone. The plane becomes a ship, transported on dark clouds; a television screen becomes a vision, the phone a stone which speaks, perhaps an oracle giving advice direct from the Gods. Those who manipulate such magic must surely be Gods themselves; they look like Gods with their height, their red-gold hair and sky-blue eyes; they wield fiery, powerful weapons; they appear to be ageless and immortal, and they are wise, beautiful, and fearsome.

Danann ‘magic’ can be explained, though not proven, as technology misunderstood by the local population. Whether it was man-made or alien made, is debatable. It is certainly possible that these were migrating people from advanced civilizations in our world, perhaps displaced by the Great Flood, searching out new homes, bringing with them what remained of their knowledge and technology. I also believe that ‘we are not alone’ in this great cosmos, and that visits from other worlds and dimensions cannot be ruled out. Or perhaps it was magic after all, a force which, having no comprehension of, we seek to deny.

Experts, being of scientific and analytic mind, will insist the lack of physical evidence proves the Tuatha de Danann never existed. The fact so many stories about them remain, however, is evidence enough to me that they did. The aura of mystique that surrounds these elusive people is, for me, the greatest part of their allure.

Les Poules huppées

CRESTED HENS, THE (Les Poules huppées). French, Bourrée à 3 temps (3/8 time). E Dorian. Standard tuning (fiddle). Composed in 1983 by French...