31st August, 2013.
My Dear Readers,
I have gone to the dogs! Yes, it’s true. I have, quite simply, let myself go in recent times. “Impossible,” I hear you say, “It is well-known that Chadwick has lofty standards and impeccable taste. It cannot be thus.” Fear not, dear readers, I am of course speaking in jest. I beg you to forgive my poor wit and misuse of grammar and allow me to explain.
Yesterday was my birthday, and Herself treated me to a surprise evening out. I was, of course, expecting the usual ‘surprise:’ an intimate three courses with fine wine at one of Belfast’s classier restaurants. But no; the taxi took off in completely the wrong direction, heading away from the city and into the countryside. I have to admit that I was perplexed at first, and was rather racking my brains to try and determine exactly where we were going. Quite the mystery!
Well. You can imagine my horror when we pulled up at the greyhound racing stadium. My heart sank like a stone, and my face must have betrayed my disappointment, because Herself rebuked me for having no sense of adventure. You know how untrue this is, readers; am I not your valiant and fearless reporter? Accordingly, my response to this calumny was to summon up every ounce of my intrepidity, and resolve to make the best of it. I did slip up at one point: my enquiry as to whether a decent Burgundy might be found in such a place was met with a steely look, which would have reduced a lesser man to cowering silence.
I had always thought of dog-racing as a sport for Cockneys and the lower classes, as opposed to the noble Sport of Kings, which I regularly attend at Downpatrick. As I’m sure you are aware, I have even been known to travel across the water for the big meets at Cheltenham and Aintree on occasion. I must admit that I was pleasantly surprised when we entered the spacious gallery and saw men in suits, and ladies in elegant attire. Not a flat cap in sight, I’m pleased to say. Our table was right beside the track, and provided an uninterrupted view of the racing. Dinner was acceptable, and after a couple of G&Ts even the Chilean red seemed to go down rather well.
Herself and I decided to have a small wager on the first race, and I can tell you that I got quite excited, even though it was all over very quickly. I like to think of myself as a good judge of form, and it seems that my talent extends to the dog-track, because I did quite well: Morgana Lass came in first for me, at a good price, and Pretty Mary got me a third place in the next race. Herself picked a few good runners as well, and we ordered a second bottle of red to celebrate. I suspect this was our downfall, since emboldened by the Merlot and our early success, I grew more ambitious, and placed a few unfortunate doubles and a forecast. Still, I didn’t lose too much, and we had a thoroughly enjoyable time. Not the three courses I had expected, but four – if you count the racecourse! I expect to return there again, although next time I will be armed with a bottle or two of something decent.
Now, I have been ploughing through Herr Wankel’s notebooks in my spare time, and I would like to share another of his wonderful observations with you. I have been in pubs around Belfast, and indeed further afield, where Irish Music is played, and I found this one very interesting and informative.
Belfast 17. Oktober 1993.
I have been studying the native musical culture of Ireland for six years now. Six years – Gott in Himmel – there is still so much yet to be done! I feel that I will inevitably give my last years to the work. But I am in a position now to write with authority on the groß subject of Irisch Percussion, of which I have seen numerous examples on my travels. There are many different types of drum and percussion instrument in use throughout the Ireland, viz:
- The Bodhrán, or frame-drum;
- The Bones;
- The Egg and other miscellaneous objects.
1. The Bodhrán: I am reliably informed that the word bodhrán comes from the Gaelic word meaning ‘deaf,’ and bodhrán means ‘deaf person.’ Knowing the Irish love of joking, this seems a reasonable etymology. The bodhrán is usually made of goatskin (but sometimes a grey hund or deer is also used), which is stretched over a circular wooden frame like a seive sieve. The drum is held in one hand and beated with a short stick held in the other. Accomplished players can use both ends of the stick to make triplets &c, and can change the tone by pressing their hand against the skin.
The motion of the stick-hand is very interesting. I asked one very experienced player exactly how he achieved such complex rhythms, and he told me that the Irish phrase for playing the drum is ‘buail an craiceann’ as he showed me the hand movement. At first I thought he was making a joke of me, because it looked like a schoolboy gesture (also he winked at me), but when I looked in my dictionary, the Irisch phrase translated as ‘beat the skin,’ so I accept it. A few weeks later at the Connacht fleadh in Westport, he was talking to another drummer at the bar, and when he saw me he made the same gesture to his colleague and pointed at me. I am always encouraged when I see people are interested in my research, and was happy to buy whiskey for the two, who shared much of their considerable knowledge with me that afternoon. Unfortunately I do not remember so much and wish I had written better notes; my handwriting was ein bißchen shaky that day.
Use of the bodhrán is widespread in sessions, and sometimes there are many players. This causes problems because the noise can be wery loud. I remarked to one violin fiddle player in a session (where there were three drums all going at the same time) that they would make bodhráns of us all, but I don’t think he understood my joke. Maybe he thought I meaned that the guy would skin us like in the ‘Silence of the Lambs’ (great movie).
Nota Bene: There are many different styles of playing the bodhrán – another article needed on this. Pinging-style / ‘rim-shot’ / pouring Guinness on the skin – darker tone? Bunches of wooden kebab skewers for beating: not traditional, surely – maybe some Asian or Middle-Eastern influence? More research.
2. The Bones: two rib-bones, sometimes joined with a leather thong at the top, are held between the fingers and rattled together, sometimes with skill.
It is well-documented that the ancient tribal Celts of Central Europe would customarily drink beer from the skulls of their enemies, which they lined with gold and used as flagons (I love to imagine the München Oktoberfest in the ancient times!). I was told many years ago by a wery respected musician that the bones used in Irish music today are a relic from these times. I.E., the Celts would not only take skulls, but also ribs from their slain opponents and would make music with them. This was regarded as a great honour to a worthy adversary.
I find this very interesting, and I asked many players over the years if the bones they played were ancient / human – more in hope than expectation, natürlich. Mostly I have got silly responses, but on one occasion in county Mayo I was shown a worn, blackened, set of bones of great age, which were taken from one of Cromwell’s generals by the player’s ancestors after a great battle. I was given the great honour of being allowed to study the bones. Mein Gott! How excited I was when I held these precious artefacts in my hands. When I enquired, the owner told me that the general’s head was indeed taken, but it has not been seen for generations. It is fascinating to see how the ancient customs of the Celts remain alive today in the remote parts of Ireland. How wonderful if the skull itself would come to light, maybe lined with gold! But this is too much to hope for; my enquiries in the willage were only met with blank looks.
3. The Egg: this is something like the ‘Kinder Surprise’ but filled with sand rather than the cheap toy (picture the Irisch Easter: “Surprise, kinder! No schokolade! You must play it!”). I have seen some players shaking the Egg in one hand and playing the bones with the other. This is some kind of new development in Irisch music and has not become popular yet.
In some sessions I have witnessed people taking out two soup-spoons from their pockets, and playing a rhythm on their leg or arm. Some of the better spoon-players can do all manner of tricks, using the fingers to get triplets &c, and even playing off the other musician’s arms and heads. Mostly the players are older folks, but I once saw a teenage girl playing them wonderfully in Donegal. This is most entertaining and I wish I have seen more of it, but alas it is not so common.
I have also seen some old people knocking on the table with a coin in each hands, or on a pint glass, but this seems to be quite infrequent. Perhaps I am witnessing a tradition that is now becoming extinct..? Now that the Irish are more wealthy they can afford to buy the bodhrán, Egg &c. I often give thanks that I have been granted the opportunity to witness the old ways before they are gone forever.
- Write up other notes about bodhrán styles &c into article for publication & look into ‘kebab-stick’ beater possibilities.
- Drinking from skulls: the origin of Scandinavian ‘skol?’ Research etymology of ‘skol’ and customs of Scandinavian people when they say ‘bottoms up.’ Ancient Germanic – Celtic crossovers possible?
- Practice more with the ‘buail an craiceann’ bodhrán technique at home to make better triplets. I must improve further before I join the other drummers in a session.
Part 3 is here.