Friday, September 23, 2011


This was the cultural summit of my trip, a sit down with 10 fiddlers and one pianist and one bodhran player and another guitarist to bash some Scottish Strathsprays and Reels and Marches to death. By that I mean they play them until it becomes a kind of trance that you can't get out of. It has many similarities to drum circles but not as much to bluegrass or western swing where every instrumentalist gets a chance to solo/improvise. No, there's no improvisation in the Ceilidh because it's hard enough keeping pace with the group. It's like playing the first violin part of a 40 minute symphony in 90 seconds. This explains why I never did get any video of the foot stomping reels because I was trying to ignore the pain in my strumming arm as I struggled to keep up. This also explains why I put the camera on the ground trying to capture the essence of the rhythm as folks tapped their feet and succeeded in capturing nothing by shadows and audio.

The chords of the guitar parts are easy enough if I can see them on paper but this wasn't an option as memorization is key to the folk culture. So, a song begins. I establish the key and then try to harmonize the chord to the melody. It's almost always some variation of I,IV,V with a minor ii thrown in. Or else there is a mixolydian progression of V, VI, V, VI, I, V.

The guitarist praised my ear but I am almost tone deaf when it comes to harmonic and melodic dictation. These were my worst subjects in music school. I can analyze things to death but the natural recognition of notes that go up or down always mystifies me. I convince myself that it's e minor when it is simply G major.

This performance was at Rollies bar west of the ferry terminal along the shore in North Sydney. The musicians, by the looks of them (flip flops, tattered shirts), were amatuers...until they started to play. The music store owner who directed me to the bar was correct in saying this is the "Night Out" for the local pros. If I ever sit down with more talented fiddlers in my life it will be a miracle. When they all started trading CDs with some visiting fiddlers from Denmark I knew I was in the right place.

Fortunately, the guitarist and pianist graciously shouted out chords to keep me in the ballpark. "C...G...CGC...D....G....aminor.....CGC! Now the b section. G....G....GDG...."

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Man in the Van by Oggy Bleacher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.