Irish Music at The Ould Sod

San Diego’s Irish Music Sessions at the Ould Sod

In this second in a series of reports on the fascinating variety of traditional music that can be found around the world, Mike De Smidt tells us about Irish music sessions in San Diego, California, USA.

Many people became familiar with Irish traditional music in the 1990s with the emergence of the stage phenomenon Riverdance. Some may also be aware of something that has existed far longer and continues to be a vibrant affair for musicians and spectators alike: the session, best described as a group of musicians playing a spontaneous selection of dance music. Irish music has a very long history, dating back thousands of years, but the music that is heard today developed primarily in the past two hundred or so years.

george-rubsamen-sm

Photograph by Michael Eskin

One important aspect of Irish traditional music that makes it distinct from many other European musical traditions is that it has a contiguous history, unbroken by shifts in the political climate or changes in cultural taste. Sessions are a great venue for the transmission of this tradition from one generation of musicians to the next. The purpose is thus not only musical, but also social. Friendships are forged and reinforced through the sharing of tunes from the participants’ repertoires. Sessions, moreover, play a very important role in building a sense of community.

The session at The Ould Sod on Adams Avenue in San Diego has engendered a fantastic musical climate for over a decade and a half and serves as an anchor for the local community of Irish musicians. Every Tuesday night, between five and ten musicians gather in an alcove by the front door and play a variety of tunes—jigs, reels, hornpipes, slides, and the occasional song—for themselves and for anyone else who wishes to listen. This is an important thing to note about Irish sessions: the musicians, while certainly happy if other pub patrons enjoy the music, are primarily playing for their own enjoyment. That being said, it is a fairly inclusive affair as well. New musicians—of varying experience—are welcomed into the group, learning the shared repertoire and often adding to it with music they bring to the gathering on their own. While it is a regular weekly event at The Ould Sod, the session still maintains an air of informality that adds to its charm and sense of inclusion. There is no amplification, the instruments are acoustic, and you will find a wide variety of them at that! You’ll find the fiddles, flutes, banjos, and guitars that most people are familiar with, but also  more unusual instruments such as the uilleann pipes and the concertina.

kevin-kane-bob-schoultz-at-the-ould-sod-sm

Photograph by Michael Eskin

A session is an occasion to celebrate, enjoy a musical culture, and have a great night out with your friends. Tuesdays at The Ould Sod are certainly no exception.

— Mike De Smidt is a musician, ethnomusicologist, and instrument builder living near Santa Cruz, California.

See a short video of a typical Irish session, from Joe McHugh’s Pub in the village of Liscannor on the west coast of Ireland.

World Music: United States – Jug Band Music

The first in a planned series of reports on the fascinating variety of traditional music that can be found around the world. We start the series in the United States with an article about jug band music and the human capacity to make music from an object one might find mundane. 

As the leader of San Diego’s G Burns Jug Band, two questions follow me around every show we play: “Who is G Burns?” and “What is a jug band?” I’m saving the answer to the first question for another time, but let’s talk about what a jug band is. Style aside, jug bands are defined by their use of a ceramic jug as a bass instrument. Technically, the jug is a wind instrument because the players buzz their lips and blow into the jug, using it as a resonator. By adjusting their embouchure, or the tenseness of their lips, the players create a musical tone resembling an upright bass being bowed with a weedwacker.

Some of the earliest accounts we have of jug blowing in America trace to the turn of the 20th century around Louisville, Kentucky. This shouldn’t come as a surprise; Kentucky, after all, is the storied land of bourbon and moonshine. It was inevitable that someone would come up with something funny to do with all of the byproducts once emptied. The instrument was most popular in African American string bands, where it was combined with guitars, mandolins, banjos, and fiddles, and even clarinets, saxophones, cornets, and tubas.

The first bands to record jug blowing in the mid 1920s were also rooted in Louisville. Bandleaders Earl McDonald and Clifford Hayes formed numerous bands which included the jug, and sought to emulate the hot jazz coming out of New Orleans and Chicago. Though their names are not well remembered now, they worked with legends like Johnny Dodds, the New Orleans clarinettist who also worked with a young Louis Armstrong. Listen to Earl McDonald’s composition “Banjoreno,” performed by his Dixieland Jug Blowers, for a beloved example of this exuberant, wonderfully strange music.

The Dixieland Jug Blowers. Earl McDonald poses with jug in center.

The Dixieland Jug Blowers. Earl McDonald poses with jug in center.

Recordings of the Louisville bands caught on among black musicians across the South, who applied jug playing to other styles of music. The bands of Memphis and Birmingham, for example, drew on the rowdier sounds and instrumentation of country blues, itinerant songsters, and minstrel shows rather than more modern and urban jazz sounds of Louisville and New Orleans. The sound could be jubilant, like The Memphis Jug Band’s “Memphis Shakedown,” but it could also be tender and moving, like the remarkable “Cold Iron Bed” by Jack Kelley and his South Memphis Jug Band. The jug even found its way into church, with “sanctified jug bands” cutting records like “Thou Carest Lord” sung by the Holy Ghost Sanctified Singers.

Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers from Memphis

Gus Cannon’s Jug Stompers from Memphis

When you collect all of these examples, the idea of a “jug band” or “jug band music” becomes hard to define stylistically. They just don’t fall easily into the categories of American roots music we’re most familiar with. Their music spans nearly the entire gamut of black music-making in the early 20th century, and yet their place in American music history often seems marginal. In the grand narrative of jazz, Louisville jug bands seem like a strange cul-de-sac on the roads connecting New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. Meanwhile, the grand narratives of blues music have valorized rural soloists of the acoustic age like Robert Johnson, and electrified urban bandleaders like Muddy Waters. In between them, the acoustic urban jug bands, with their bluesy fiddle or bluesy mandolin just don’t seem to fit.

So, to return to that original question: what is a jug band? Trying to define it in terms of musical style might be futile. My favorite answer (though maybe not always the best answer) comes from the last of the black jug band musicians of Louisville, Henry Miles, who said, “You can have a symphony orchestra. If you got a jug player in that band, that’s a jug band.”*

*Jones, Michael L., Louisville Jug Music: From Earl McDonald to the National Jubilee (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), 98.

Clinton Davis, Ph.D. is a freelance musician and educator born and raised in Kentucky and currently based in San Diego. He performs music from a variety of American traditions on guitar, banjo, piano, and mandolin, most visibly for the award-winning G Burns Jug Band. For more information, visit his website at http://clintonrossdavis.com

Brain of a Drummer

The Neuroscience of Drumming: Researchers Discover the Secrets of Drumming & The Human Brain

Ever wonder if the configuration of a musician’s brain is distinctive? Neuroscientist David Eagleman confirmed that this is the case through an experiment in musician Brian Eno’s studio. He found that professional drummers have “different brains.” Eagleman’s work and related studies are discussed in a fascinating Open Culture article.

Eno . . . theorized that drummers have a unique mental makeup, and it turns out “Eno was right: drummers do have different brains from the rest.” Eagleman’s test showed “a huge statistical difference between the drummers’ timing and that of test subjects.” Says Eagleman, “Now we know that there is something anatomically different about them.” Their ability to keep time gives them an intuitive understanding of the rhythmic patterns they perceive all around them.

For more, read on here.

World Music Instrument: The Tin Whistle

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article about the tin whistle by Jonathan Parker, program director for the World Music in the Schools program.

An instrument with an ancient and enduring history, the tin whistle (or penny whistle) is one of the most misunderstood and maligned of wind instruments. Often mistaken for a toy, this flute is, in capable hands, one of the most expressive and delightful of traditional musical instruments.

Originally made from a hollow bone, such as that of a bird’s wing, the tin whistle is a type of instrument known as a fipple flute, and is identical to the flageolet in its earliest form. As its name implies, it later came to be made of tin, and was first mass-produced in this form by Robert Clarke around 1840. Examples of bone whistles dating from the 12th century have been unearthed in High Street, Dublin, Ireland.

Whistle assortment The tin whistle is, in physical terms, one of the simplest of instruments. The mouthpiece has a narrow windway, an opening or “window” cut in to the side of the instrument, and a sharp edge over which the player’s breath passes. The instrument has six front fingerholes and no thumbhole, distinguishing it from the recorder. The bore was often conical in older instruments (typified by the English-made Clarke tin whistle), while many modern whistles have a cylindrical tube and a plastic mouthpiece replacing the older wooden or lead plug. In recent decades, this instrument has been made from a wide variety of materials, including exotic woods, PVC plastic, aluminum, brass, composite materials, and even sterling silver.

Whistle mouthpiecesPlayers of the tin whistle range from the 17th Century English diarist Samuel Pepys, who wrote of his delight in playing the “flagilette,” to the great modern Irish flautist James Galway. Many Irish flute players and uilleann pipers have played the tin whistle as a secondary instrument, including Willie Clancy, Paddy Moloney, Joanie Madden, Liam O’Flynn, Michael McGoldrick, and Mick O’Brien. Among the best-known contemporary players of the Irish tin whistle are Cathal McConnell, Mary Bergin, and Brid O’Donohue.

Deceptive in its simplicity, the tin whistle is one of the most accessible and portable of instruments, and one of the grandest in character.

Video Links:
Mary Bergin plays two jigs, Tom Billy’s and the Langstern Pony
Liam O’Flynn performs the slow air Sliabh na mBan

Jonathan Parkerthe World Music in the Schools program director for the Center for World Music, has played the tin whistle since 1980.

This article appeared in slightly different form in the July 1990 issue of the San Diego Folk Heritage journal Folk Notes.

Cudamani

Study Music and Dance in Bali, Summer 2016

The Çudamani community in Pengosekan, Bali, is offering a three-week Summer Institute in Balinese gamelan and dance, June 28-July 18, 2016. The village of Pengosekan, a traditional center of the arts, is just south of Ubud, at the cultural heart of the island.

Share three weeks of intensive learning with musicians, dancers, students, scholars and people from around the world who love the arts. You will gain a new understanding of the richness of Balinese arts and be inspired by the powerful commitment to community that is at the core of Bali’s beautiful culture. An experience you’ll never forget . . .

Teachers include several of the most renown artists in Bali. The programs of Çudamani (pronounced Soo-dah-MAH-nee) are widely respected.

For more information visit cudamani.org.

World Music Instrument: The Lao Khaen

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Christopher Adler, Ph.D.

The khaen is a free-reed mouth organ of the Lao people who live primarily in lowland Laos and the Northeastern region of Thailand (also called Isaan). The instrument consists of two rows of bamboo pipes that are mounted in a wooden windchest. The number of pipes can be between six and eighteen, but the most common form has sixteen pipes. Into each pipe is set a piece of flat metal with a tongue cut into it—this is the free-reed that vibrates whether the players blows into, or draw air out of the instrument, producing a continuous sound. Each pipe has a small finger hole near its reed that acts as an air escape valve, preventing the pipe from sounding unless covered by the player. And so the instrument can sound as many pipes as the player can cover, making it a polyphonic instrument—although the conventional musical texture is a combination of one or more sustaining drones with a melody that may be ornamented or harmonically embellished.

A spirit healing ritual in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler, used by permission.

A spirit healing ritual in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Supeena Insee Adler, used by permission.

As a native instrument with rural origins, unaffiliated with elite royal cultures in the region, the khaen is upheld as a symbol of Lao cultural identity throughout the region and among the Lao diaspora worldwide. The instrument has also been adopted by other ethnic groups in Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia, and is closely related to other free-reed mouth organs found throughout East and Southeast Asia.

Among the Lao, the khaen is traditionally played by both amateur and professional musicians to accompany solo singers called maulam in entertainment settings and sometimes also in spirit rituals. The music can be heard at temple festivals, in local markets, and in professional concerts, and is also taught in public schools and universities. Traditional performance genres are still maintained but are less popular than newer contemporary folk-pop fusions.

A maulam singer and dancers accompanied by a pong lang ensemble in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Mahasarakham University, used by permission.

A maulam singer and dancers accompanied by a pong lang ensemble in Northeast Thailand. Photo by Mahasarakham University, used by permission.

One such modernized form includes the khaen along with newer folk instruments as accompaniment to dance or singing. This ensemble, known as wong pong laang, is ubiquitous in Northeast Thailand at schools and universities and is presented nationally and internationally as a musical symbol of the Isaan region.

The khaen is also found in folk-pop fusion genre called lam sing, where the instrument appears as a visible sign of ethnic and regional identity, but is often sonically overwhelmed by other amplified instruments.

See the khaen in action on YouTube: Khaen Master Sombat SimlahLao Khaen Master Lung Kong |  Folk—Pop Fusion Wong Pong Laang

Christopher Adler, Ph.D is a former board member of the Center for World Music,  and is a composer, performer and improviser living in San Diego, California. In addition to being a Professor at the University of San Diego, he is internationally recognized as a foremost performer of new and traditional music for the khaen.

Turn the Music Off

Why It’s Time to Turn the Pop Music Off

Worried and/or stressed by “pop pollution” in our environment? British philosopher Roger Scruton offers some interesting thoughts on the ubiquity of pop music in our culture for the BBC News Magazine’s “A Point of View”:

 Rhythm, which is the sound of life, has been largely replaced by electrical pulses, produced by a machine programmed to repeat itself ad infinitum, and to thrust its booming bass notes into the very bones of the victim. Whole areas of civic space in our society are now policed by this sound, which drives anybody with the slightest feeling for music to distraction. . . . The banal melodies and mechanical rhythms, the stock harmonies recycled in song after song, these things signify the eclipse of the musical ear.

But there’s hope:

The addictive ear, dulled by repetition, is shut tight as a clam around its pointless treasures. But you can prise it open with musical instruments. Put a young person in a position to make music and not just to hear it and immediately the ear begins to recover from its lethargy. By teaching children to play musical instruments, we acquaint them with the roots of music in human life.

For more, read on here.

K.V. Narayanaswamy

Defining “Classical” from a World Music Perspective

By Mark Hertica, professor of music at San Diego Miramar College
and Center for World Music board member

There are many terms in use today for the wide variety of musical styles played, heard, and recorded throughout our world: folk, pop, jazz, world, rock, classical, and more, as well as all their various sub-genres. While these terms are useful for most of us as general descriptors and for purposes of marketing, defining them is problematic. The term classical provides us with an excellent example of the problems posed.

Use of classical as applied to music presents several problems. For example, when associated with the Western tradition, as exemplified by such composers as Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Copland, and many others, it often refers generally to pre-composed music of the concert hall. But one of the more confusing aspects of the term in this usage is that classical also refers to a specific period of time from the latter eighteenth through the early nineteenth centuries when certain aesthetic principles were generally predominant in the music of European concert halls, churches, and the courts—a period in which the styles of Haydn and Mozart are most illustrative. Moreover, beyond the problem of European application, the problem is compounded as it is often used when referring to some traditions found worldwide in places such as Japan, China, India, Iran (Persia), Arabia, etc. Thus the determination of what is classical music is dependent upon the context in which and by whom it is used.

However, there are certain characteristics, some musical, some extra-musical, that upon closer inspection can be observed in all of the traditions referred to as classical music. First and foremost among these characteristics is that the musical traditions referred to as classical in various cultures have historically been associated with material wealth, education, and nobility. While today this music may be performed, observed, and enjoyed by people of all social backgrounds, historically this was music created and performed by members of the socially and politically elite classes. What are some of the other characteristics of classical music, and why would it find its creation and historical home among these elite classes?

Court Gamelan Solo

Court Gamelan, Royal Palace, Surakarta, Java

By their very nature the great courts of the world were, and, although perhaps less so, still are elitist, socially and politically. The high art found in these courts represents the most sophisticated and refined expression of the aesthetics of the cultures from which the courts arise. The art associated with these courts and their religious traditions therefore reflects and glorifies the people of the court and their divinities, and their music is an integral part of those traditions. The music, just as the court itself, must be elevated above the mundane, the everyday, as it expresses the aristocratic nature of its surroundings and speaks to and for its patrons. Indeed, to fully appreciate the artfulness of the music and the musician, it is as incumbent upon the listener as it is upon the musician to be familiar with the musical language. As Ananda Coomaraswarmy points out, “the listener must respond with an art of his own.”

The language of these various court musics, like the visual art, literature, dance, etc., is highly nuanced and packed with meaning for those who know how to listen to those nuances and for the meaning. To the untrained ear subtle details of rhythm and melody might be lost, but those educated in the details of the musical aesthetics of a given culture learn to hear and maintain in memory those details, hearing them as constructing the hidden meanings that may be lost on the unschooled ear.

To convey these messages classical music found around the world requires highly skilled and knowledgeable performers to play in an aesthetically pleasing manner for these audiences. To obtain the proficiency necessary for proper performance, the players must devote years of their lives to acquiring the physical dexterity necessary for flawless performance. But physical dexterity is not enough. Performers must have an intimate knowledge of the various nuances of the musical aesthetics that govern what is acceptable in a given style or genre; this is the basis for musical education. Whether for ritual or entertainment purposes, the musician must be well acquainted with proper performance procedures and practices.

With all of this in mind, if both the listener and the musician are to fulfill their roles effectively, then both must have sufficient time to practice their art. This requires resources for both day-to-day living and musical studies. And around the world it was the court and the religious institutions that possessed those resources. So as these musics developed, it was by and for these social elites that this music was created.

As resources necessary for musical education and training have become much more widely available, classical music is no longer the realm solely of the social and political elite. However, for a fuller appreciation of the art, the listener still must become acquainted with the particular musical language being performed. An uninitiated listener may well appreciate the inherent beauty of an Arabic maqam, a Tyagaraja kriti, a gendhing for Javanese gamelan, or a Beethoven symphony, but without some understanding of the nuances, the subtle art of the composers and performers, the messages put forth within the music will more than likely not be heard. As Wynton Marsalis tells us, “When an art form is created, the question is how do you come to it, not how does it come to you. Beethoven’s music is not going to come to you . . . you have to go to it. And when you go to it, you get the benefits of it.”

The Art of Peace Banner

The Art of Peace Conference and Performances at USD

The Art of Peace, a major, multi-day symposium exploring the use of the arts in peacebuilding, will take place at the University of San Diego November 11-14, 2015, under the auspices of the Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace and Justice. The symposium will feature local, national and international playwrights, filmmakers, poets, musicians, visual artists, and academics who are mobilizing the creative power of the arts to break the cycle of conflict.

For details, download the conference poster. Most of the symposium’s events are free, but registration is required.

One event that might be of special interest to world music lovers is the performance of Saffron Caravan on Wednesday, November 11, from 7:00 to 9:00 p.m.

Saffron Caravan

Saffron Caravan features Lebanese-Brazilian Badi Assad, vocal and guitar, Moroccan Aaron Bensoussan, vocal and oud, and Arab-Israeli Haytham Safia, oud, joined by Bosnian Tony Pesikan, guest percussionist. They’ll take the audience on an inspiring musical journey from the Balkans through the Middle East and North Africa to Brazil, tracing the cultural crossroads of sevdah, an emotionally charged folk music originating in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The concert includes an original composition, specifically for Saffron Caravan, by Nigel Osborne, composer, global human rights activist and emeritus professor of music at the University of Edinburgh.

Tickets for this concert are available here.  There’s also a nice poster for this concert.

Playing 'Til Your Soul Drops Out

Music of Macedonia Showcases Rare Folk Traditions

Smithsonian Folkways Recordings recently released a new CD of field recordings collected in 1968 and 1973 by noted music and dance ethnographer, Martin Koenig.  Martin is a long-time friend of the Center for World Music and also serves on our Advisory Board.

A sonic time capsule of this region of Southeastern Europe, these recordings are from a significant period in Macedonian traditional music, made just prior to the popularization of modernized or newly composed folk music. The only known recordings of these skilled traditional musicians, the seventeen tracks and detailed fieldwork travelogue included on Playing ’Til Your Soul Comes Out! document popular and historically significant urban and rural traditions ignored by state radio and folkloric productions.

Read the full article and listen to sample tracks on the Smithsonian Folkway website.