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Bodhran

World Music Instrument: The Bodhrán

We continue our series of reports on the fascinating variety of world music instruments with an article by Máirtín de Cógáin, CWM teaching artist and player of the bodhrán, or Irish frame drum.


When I was a young lad in Cork, Ireland the bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn, like cow brawn) was commonly considered as the “ancient sound of Irish percussion.”  Indeed, we are told that the bodhrán was used to summon the fairies from their magic fort on full-moon nights. Many novice players could not understand why this profound sound of the past was not widely featured in traditional Irish music sessions across the world. After all, they would say, isn’t this “the Irish drum”? Little did we know that the opposite was the case. While teaching bodhrán in upstate New York at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, I sat in on an eye-opening lecture by Fintan Vallely entitled “Hunting for Borr-án: Shaking a Stick at the Origin Myths Concerning the Irish Drum.” My world as a bodhrán player was completely dismantled.


Through long research, Fintan had found that the bodhrán has been a part of Irish music for only the last 200 years, if that. Its use was not widespread and was generally reserved for only the wildest of parties. As Fintan puts it in his notes on the talk:

“. . . what is the history of the bodhrán? What we know so far is driven by myth and wishful thinking. . . . the famous Irish drum has no ancient artistic past: at the best it was only ever just a tambourine. The Irish device, from which the word ‘bodhrán’ comes, most likely originally meant an agricultural and domestic tray or container — even a sieve. Yet the bodhrán IS around, and being brilliantly played, as solid an art and presence as the harp or the pipes. We borrowed the device from [minstrel shows] or the Salvation Army, the rhythms from dancers’ feet, and we synthesised the modern playing style from the sounds of Ulster Lambeggers, Indian tabla tippers and Scottish pipe-band snare drummers.”

Today the bodhrán is a rapidly-developing Irish drum, in both its design and its playing style. It was brought from its humble origins in rural celebrations to public attention in concert halls and theaters by Seán Ó Riada and Peadar Mercier in the 1960s, and featured prominently in the ensembles Ceoltóirí Chualann and the Chieftains. From there it has exploded across the globe and become a mainstay at many Irish music sessions and home fireplaces. Johnny “Ringo” McDonogh is noted as the first player to damp the sound with one hand on the back of the instrument, and many others have further developed this style of two-hand playing. In addition, tunable bodhráns have improved the tone more concretely, and turned the humble farm utensil into a sophisticated musical instrument.

At the age of 19, I stumbled into the Douglas, County Cork branch of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, a non-profit organization whose mission is to preserve and promote Irish traditional performing arts. It was there that a tiny 6-inch bodhrán with a hole in it was thrust into my hands, and I was steered into a bodhrán class with teacher Eric Cunningham. The rest is history. Today, I play a 14-inch Metloef bodhrán, although many instruments of old were 18 to 20 inches in diameter. According to Fintan’s research, those larger sizes were prevalent because old spinning wheels were used as the rim of the instrument. Personally, I find the larger diameters too cumbersome, although other players still prefer them. Two pieces of wood in the shape of a cross, placed within the back-side frame are common in the larger drums, but I feel that they are a hindrance to playing the smaller instruments that I prefer.

In the past, the performer’s bare hand was most commonly used to beat the drum, as demonstrated by the great Rónán Ó Snodaigh. Nowadays, however, a stick called a cípín is typically used. Ideally, the cípín matches the length of the player’s hand, from outstretched thumb to outstretched baby finger, as this is about as much weight as any one’s wrist can withstand for extended playing. When both ends of the cípín are used, this is known as the “Kerry” style of bodhrán playing. A different style, known as “top end,” uses only one end of the stick and is characterized by a heavy emphasis on upstrokes of the cípín. 

Videos of the bodhrán:
The Gallant Fusiliers by Máirtín de Cógáin
Bodhran jigs – Karl Nesbitt & Tommie Cunniffe
www.MairtinMusic.com

—Máirtín de Cógáin is an actor, singer, percussionist, storyteller, playwright, dancer and teaching artist in residence for the Center for World Music.

 

 

Máirtín de Cógáin

Máirtín de Cógáin, 21st Century Irish Storyteller

We warmly welcome Máirtín de Cógáin, who joins World Music in the Schools as a teaching artist in residence.

Máirtín de Cógáin-drumming-2Center for World Music artist in residence Máirtín de Cógáin is a singing, dancing, story-telling bodhrán (Irish frame drum) player, who also is a noted playwright and actor. He performs all over the United States, as well as in his native Ireland. An infectious personality, Máirtín pleasantly commands the attention of all audiences, from concert halls to intimate porches.

Descended from a long line of storytellers, Máirtín is the winner of two All-Ireland awards from Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. He often tours with The Máirtín de Cógáin Project, The Fuchsia Band, or Gailfean. A true promoter of “the Ballad,” he searches for those forgotten songs of old and breathes new life into them, as well as writing some new songs of his own. Máirtín learned from many famous Irish singers such as Danni Maichi Ua Súilleabháin, Séamus Mac Mathúna, and Ciarán Dwyer. He is a fluent speaker of Irish (Gaelic) who was brought up in a bilingual home, and attended primary and secondary schools taught in Irish. Máirtín holds a degree in the Irish language from University College Cork.

Máirtín de Cógáin-drummingIf not on stage singing, storytelling, dancing, or playing the bodhrán, Máirtín is treading the boards as an actor, notably in the film The Wind that Shakes the Barley. He has co-written many productions with the Be Your Own Banana Theatre Company, recently playing De Bogman off-Broadway in New York.

Máirtín has been playing the bodhrán for many years, learning first from Eric Cunningham (The New De Danann) and later from Colm Murphy (The Old De Danann). Máirtín has taught bodhrán technique at the Catskills Irish Arts Week, Augusta Irish Week, as well as giving workshops at major U.S. festivals including the Kansas City Irish Fest, CelticFest Mississippi, Minnesota Irish Fair, and La Crosse IrishFest. He also gives private lessons in the San Diego area and along the road while touring.

Máirtín de Cógáin-dancing

A traditional brush dance with his father Barry Cogan

Growing up in a house full of dancing, Máirtín helped teach the steps at the family-run céilís (social gatherings) from an early age, and now teaches the folk dances of Cork to dancers everywhere.

Máirtín makes friends wherever he goes. In a very short time, de Cógáin has become a regular performer at some of the most prestigious Irish festivals in the U.S. Although he can often be found leading a tour group in Ireland, or entertaining guests on a traditional Irish music-themed cruise ship, he now spends most of his time in California, where he lives with his wife Mitra and their young son, who shows great promise as a dancer and bodhrán player himself.

Want to learn more about Máirtín and his career? Visit www.MairtinMusic.com. You can also catch him on YouTube telling a story or singing with friends.

 

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 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.

Ten Fun Facts About the Irish Fiddle

Even Google is featuring the Irish fiddle on its home page today!  As a modest contribution to your St. Patrick’s Day revels, an interesting article about the instrument . . .

The fiddle has survived generational changes from its start as a low-class instrument popular among the poor. Now, the Irish fiddle is playing an instrumental role in preserving traditional Irish music and culture.

Read on at the OUPblog.

Molly's Revenge

Celtic Trio Molly’s Revenge Performs in Encinitas December 13

San Diego Folk Heritage presents Molly’s Revenge, a trio of acoustic Celtic musicians, with vocalist Christa Burch and Irish dancers, Saturday, December 13, 2014 in Encinitas, CA.

Molly’s Revenge is a dynamic, acoustic Celtic band known for its unique and infectious enthusiasm. The classic combination of bagpipes, whistle, and fiddle, with a backdrop of guitar, mandola, and bodhran guarantees an enjoyable experience for all fans of Scottish and Irish music. Molly’s Revenge has performed at many of the top folk festivals and performing arts events in the USA, and prestigious events in Scotland, Australia and China.

http://www.mollysrevenge.com/

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