MacCarthy's Pub, Castletownbere, Co. Cork [Photo: RMcC]
October 21, 2011
Well, I don't know about where you live, but around here it's getting very like winter – windy, cool and wet! The time a' year to find a nice cosy, warm spot and listen to some good music. Here in Belfast you can now choose from two monthly bluegrass sessions, lots of Irish music, blues, rock, jazz – you name it.
This weekend my wife is reading some excerpts from her two novels to date – an event which is part of the Belfast Festival Fringe – and my son, another friend and myself will be playin' a few songs, as well.
One of the great things about a session is that normally anybody can join in – that's the whole idea of a session. And, if ye happen to play the bodhrán, ye can slip in and play quietly at the back for a while. If someone notices you had a guitar, or mandolin with you, they may well ask you to get it out and play, or mebbe, "Do ye sing, at all – give us a wee bit av a song there, would ye?'" And, next thing ye know, ye're part of things. That's only the way it should be, of course!
In fact, if ye walk into quite a few pubs in Ireland with an instrument, ye'll likely end up bein' asked to play and sing. That happened to me once in Maddens, in the middle of Belfast, one evening'. I was on me way somewhere else, and called in for a pint – as ye might do! Next thing somebody's saying', "Can ye play that thing then? C'mon, give us a song. Do ye know any Christy Moore?" Luckily, I did so, next thing ye know I'm playin' and singin' and bein' asked for more songs.
One night a few years ago, we had our boat moored in Ardglass, Co. Down, and had played with a few people the night before in the Dock Bar – including a local singer/guitarist and a visiting Dutch sailor on mandolin. The second night my wife, Gerry, decided to stay on board and read and I headed up to the pub – just for half an hour or so. There was only myself, one guitar, and this local singer/guitar player, John, from the night before. But we kept takin' turns with the guitar and singing' a couple a' songs, until eventually we must have sung nearly every song we knew between us. As one would play, the other would remember another song to add in. By the time we finished, the sun was shining brightly again and there were only two other people left in the bar – the barman and the owner!
The same sorta thing can happen to ye anywhere – be it in Ireland, or abroad. My daughter and I were in Winnipeg, Canada, and were invited to a Native-run coffee bar in downtown Selkirk Avenue. It's held every week in a Polish Community Centre, not too far from the dodgy area, known as 'Moccasin Square Garden' – which should give you a pretty good idea of what goes on there at night! My daughter, Kelly, had never played the bodhrán before, but gamely lifted it and tapped out a beat as I played the guitar and we both sang a few songs.
It turned out that the Native Americans there were more into Country & Western, than Irish music – which seemed the wrong way around to me! But the fact of my daughter playing the bodhrán, which is very similar to the native hand drum, encouraged another couple of musicians – Bradley, who was Cree, and Veronica, from the Blackfoot nation – to get into conversation with us afterwards. We ended up meeting them for lunch next day, listening to some of Veronica's songs, which she'd written on the hand drum, and recording an interview on camera for the documentary we were in Canada to make.
Several times in Israel I've gone busking – in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv – sometimes just for the fun of it and once, in Tel Aviv, for the extra money to get to the airport in the morning! Busking is quite common in Israel – old men come out with fiddles and play classical music after the Shabbat is over on Saturday night. The best people to busk for are Israeli soldiers – who tend to look about sixteen years old! They usually throw notes in your guitar case, instead of coins. In Jerusalem once I remembered the Hebrew words of a Psalm I'd learnt phonetically many years before – 'Ha teesh kah ee shah-ah oo la'. A soldier came over and listened to me for a few seconds, then reported back to his mates, "This guys playing the songs of David", which is basically folk music in Israel.
I missed a train one night in Tel Aviv and had to wait nearly two hours for another one, so I got the guitar out to work on a song idea I'd had in my head. My guitar case was closed, but some orthodox kids came and put some coins on it as I played, then other people noticed them and added more. The owner of the fresh juice stand sent a girl over to see if I knew any Pink Floyd, and then sent me over a large fruit smoothie as I sang, 'Wish You Were Here'. By the time my train arrived I'd collected up quite a few shekels!
At a hotel in Beijing, China, I was playing that same song outside in the garden, with an American I'd met, when a lady called Whaley – owner of Whaley's Bar, behind the hotel – asked us both to come and play for her in the bar that night. That was pretty hectic – trying to be heard over a hundred or so noisy backpackers, with no PA system! We needed every free beer she provided – and still we were hoarse by the end of the evening! The moral is, I think – if you play an instrument, always have it with you. You never know what it might lead to?