Every body has memories that float to the surface from time to time. A lot of people have fond memories of their high school and college years, and a million other times that are filled with many pleasant memories. Nostagia has become a great marketing tool and the market place is rife with commercial attempts make money from the emotion. Just stop for a minute and think of the popularity of classic rock, the numerous tribute bands and fading rock stars on their last, and final, farewell tour. I am not immune to the emotion but my favorite nostalgic musical memory has nothing to do with the pop music of my youth. Rather it concerns a particular memory from the time of my immigration to Canada. In 1971 the transport method of choice to get to Canada from Australia was by boat (or is it ship?). In those days air fares were too expensive. I traveled on the P&O ship The Oriana from Auckland (New Zealand) to Vancouver with stops in Suva (Fiji) and Hawaii (USA). The trip was laid back and leisurely and although it was a nice respite from the rigors of road travel in New Zealand to this day I cannot understand why anybody would willingly imprison themselves on a luxury cruise ship. We arrived in Suva Harbor in Fiji on Thursday May 20, 1971.The sights, sounds and smells of Suva were like something out of the past, or perhaps straight out of the pages of a Somerset Maugham short story. After a little wander around town I headed back to the ship for the most memorable part of the day at departure time in the late afternoon. I had met a couple of Canadian Engineers who had been on the islands for a few months and to a man they all expressed the sentiment that they had to get out of there or as they said “they would never leave . This place is paradise”. Similarly, I have a friend, Gordon Rae, here in Cranbrook, who had spent time in Fiji, and any time Fiji came up in a conversation he would get misty eyed and mutter – “every young man should have a Fiji in his life”. Obviously the engineers on the deck of the Oriana that afternoon felt the same way. When the Fijian Police Band on the wharf played “Isa Lei” – the traditional farewell song – there were tears running down their faces. I thought they were going to jump off the ship. If you want to hear a South Pacific farewell song at its emotional peak then there is no better way than from the deck of a ship. To this day any time I hear Isa Lei I get really choked up. Here is the song as played by the Fijian Police Band
You can check any one of many other versions on YouTube but for me the one above is the most evocative. I can still see those Canadian engineers standing on the deck of the Oriana in the late afternoon sun with the tears running down their faces as the tune wafted up from the wharf.
The high emotional content of the song is understandable. In the old days when some one left the islands it was unlikely that they would ever return. Without a doubt it is one of the most beautiful tunes on the planet – bar none.
Here is another less traditional version that was recorded by Ry Cooder. It is good but for me it doesn’t quite match the emotional content of the Fijian Police Band
The Jason Buie Band at Studio 64, Saturday May 13, 2017, 8pm
This band is a “Power Trio” of lead guitar, bass and drums to accompany mostly blues/rock vocals. In Jason Buie’s words the trio plays “West Coast Rockin’ Blues”. The concept of the “power trio” evolved in the 1960s out of the Chicago Blues tradition of the likes of Muddy waters. The invention of electricity and the expanding virtuosity of musicians made the concept of a high volume, powerful trio viable. Prior to the electrification of the guitar the instrument was too quiet to make its presence really felt in most ensembles and situations. Electricity changed all that. With the vast increase in volume and the availability of numerous effect pedals the guitar trio came into its own in the 1960s. Now, here was a configuration that could hold its own in the largest of venues and circumstances. The concept went onto fame and fortune in the music of The Jimmy Hendrix Experience, Eric Clapton in Cream, and later on in the music of Motorhead, ZZ Top, The Police, Nirvana, Rush, the John Mayer Trio and many, many others. In the economically stressful times of today a three man unit is much more employable than larger bands and I think that is a contributing factor in the longevity of the format.
Jason Buie (guitar and vocals) resides in the capital, believe it or not, of West Coast Blues, Victoria B.C. Bass player Murf Martin is a local freelance musician who performs in many situations. I am not sure where the drummer Jimmy James calls home. Collectively they are a tight group performing mostly blues/rock material that dips deep into the huge repertoire of the genre. They kicked off the evening with an instrumental and followed through with a number of well known tunes and songs that included Randy Newman’s classic Louisiana and its unforgettable refrain “six feet of water in the streets of Angeline”. Considering the current flood situation all across North America this would seem to be a very appropriate song for the day. The evening featured a few originals (Drifting Hard) and lots of well known tunes such as Big Joe Turner’s 1955 hit Flip, Flop and Fly (“a tune to get you out of your seat and onto your feet”); Van Morrison’s Into the Mystic; Prince’s Purple Rain; Eric Clapton’s cover of Big Bill Broonzy’s I’ve got the Key to the Highway; The Band’s The Weight; Muddy Water’s I’ve Got My Mojo Working and a marvelous version of Carlos Santana’s melodic masterpiece Black Magic Woman. To sum it up my buddy Bill St Amand described the music as “Two O’clock in the morning music” and given our age it is not music we get to hear very often so the evening of loud free wheeling music was real treat for us old folks.
This was the last performance in the Stage 64 Spring Concert Series and the first one on the newly installed stage. As always the concert was a screaming success with another sold out crowd. The organizing committee would like to thank the Columbia Basin Trust, Telus and various organizations that made funds available for the installation of the stage. Thanks also to the Burrito Grill and B&B at 228 for the musicians food and accommodations and also the organizing committee and volunteers who have made this season another great success.
Basically I prefer instrumental music. Singer / Song writer music is fine but it is instrumental music that, for me, is a distillation of the real magic and mystery of music. I particularly like jazz and at every jazz performance I come away wondering “how did they do that” and the answer always escapes me. Its magic.There are also classical performances that amaze me with their perfection. Glen Gould’s recordings of The Goldberg Variations I have listened to more times than I could possibly count and it still sounds as fresh as the first time I heard it. Instrumental Celtic music falls into that realm of magic and mystery where one forgets the beginning and the end and gets lost somewhere in the middle. A perfect example of what I am talking about is this performance by The Blackie O’Connell Band featuring Cyril O’Donoghue on Irish Bouzouki; Meabh O’Hare on Fiddle; Blackie O’Connell on Uillean Pipes and, off camera, Eamon Cotter on Flute. Why do Celtic performances, and this one in particular, appeal to me?
Well here are some of my observations:
I like the tunes. Even some Irish citizens disparage the music as “diddly i-di-di music” and prefer more modern genres. I can see why some audiences, including my daughter in law, think that all the tunes sound the same. To begin with, to appreciate the tunes one needs to be able to hear the differences between the various dance forms – reels, jigs, slip jigs, mazurkas, hornpipes, marches, Strathspeys, highlands, slides, polkas, etc, and that requires a lot of exposure to the music over a long period of time. Being born into the tradition helps.
I like the repetition of the tunes and the repetition within the tunes. Celtic instrumental music is dance music and dancers demand and expect predictable repetition. The basic format of a dance tune is an eight bar segment, Part A, that sometimes has a repeated four bar portion within the eight bars. The A part is usually repeated in total before moving onto the second B part that may, or may not be, similar to the A part. The B part is usually repeated and this can be followed by a C part with repeats or even a D part with repeats, depending on how many parts there are in the particular tune. So, the basic format of the tune is AA BB played two, three, or more times depending on the whim of the lead musician. If there are extra parts to the tune the format can be seen as AA BB CC DD etc also played as many times as the circumstance permits. The tunes in this example are in the AA BB format.
I like the way musicians can string together a batch of similar or dissimilar tunes to create an extended performance into what can be heard as a seamless composition. For me the more tunes strung together and the longer the performance the better I like it. The idea is to create a musical grove. In this instances the tunes are The Mullingar Races , The Mountain Top and Lady Gordon. In this YouTube example the band kicks off with the first tune and plays the usual AA BB form of the tune until the Piper, Blackie O’Connell, gives a subtle nod to switch to the second tune. The Bouzouki player deftly slides the capo up to the fifth fret without missing a beat. I suspect that, for whatever reason, he wanted to keep playing a D chordal pattern as the band changed up to the Key of G and the way to do that was to slide the capo up the neck to the appropriate fret. On making the switch to the second tune the fiddle player gives Blackie a sly wink and a smile as she hits the tune in lock step with the other performers. And so the performance goes on until Blackie looks across to the flute player and the fiddle player and gives the nod for the change up to third tune. The Bouzouki player slides the capo back down the neck as every body makes a seamless switch to the new tune. The piper finally gives the nod for the end repeat and the run down to the finale.
I like the lack of false theatrics. There are no flashing lights, fireworks, fog generators and gymnastic leaps around the stage. The musicians just play the music. Anything else is just unnecessary distractions.
I like the fact that instrumental Celtic music is not guitar based. The guitar can have a place in the music but it is essentially in a secondary role. The predominant instruments tend to be strong melodic instruments like the fiddle, flute, accordion, harmonica, mandolin and Uillean pipes. This gives the music a sonority that is very different from the run of the mill pop music. In this performance I particularly like the “wailing” sound that comes with the blend of pipes, flute and fiddle. The guitar as a rhythm instrument is not present on this performance and has been replaced by the Irish Bouzouki. In other performances the Irish frame drum, the Bodhran, can add punch to the rhythm.
In a jazz or classical music sense instrumental Celtic music may not sound as harmonically advanced. Although, that may be because the music is based on modal melodies and concepts and perhaps we just don’t hear what is happening in a conventional harmonic way. Any harmonic elements present are usually very simple. Bouzouki players, guitarists and piano players may enhance harmonic sensibilities by playing complementary bass lines and counter melodies and unison playing behind the featured melodic instruments.
Melody is a prime component in this style of music and the melodies tend to have a flowing line with few gaps and significant spaces in the music. The exception to this generalization would be slow airs. Most Celtic melodies, but not all, do not readily lend themselves to improvised solo treatments and that may be the reason that when Bluegrass musicians play these melodies that just don’t sound Celtic. Bluegrass musicians just love to solo and that concept is largely foreign to Celtic music. Wide variations in the melody are not usual. There is a tendency to just play the melody as it is “written”. Having said that it must be understood that “written” versions of a tune may not reflect the actual way a tune exists in a particular performance. “Written” versions are just the scaffold of the tune on which to hang the performance and musicians will interpret the melody as they see fit.
Rhythmically, depending on ones point of view, Celtic music is more varied. Most Jazz, Bluegrass and pop music is 4/4 in nature. Every now and then a waltz or a 12/8 blues shuffle will sneak in but the 1-2-3-4 beat is the rhythmic underpinning of most of our familiar music. Variety is provided by the use of “swing” and syncopation. Celtic music, like most ethnic based folkloric cultures seems to rely on eighth rhythms and triplets rather than standard four rhythms. 6/8, 7/8, 9/8 and various “dotted” rhythm syncopation co-exist along with the familiar 2/4 and 4/4 rhythms.
Having said all of the above. Nothing is cast in stone and like all rules they are there to be broken. In one form or another Celtic music has existed for hundreds of years and the reason it continues to exist is that each generation of performers literally re-invents the music. As the traditional fiddle player Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh of the Celtic band Altan has often mentioned in interviews “When I play a traditional tune I don’t play it the way my father played it. That would not be possible. I have been exposed to too many other musical influences to be able to do that”. That is why the music keeps evolving.