(Slightly Tarnished) Silver Strings – Part 2

Last week I wrote about some of the early history of my violin playing, finishing my account on the eve of my departure for university.  The time has now come to bring my account up to date.

Prior to going to university, my violin playing in public (apart from playing it in a church band — which I’ve continued to do, along with various other instruments, to this day) was mostly confined to classical music.  When I went to university, and subsequently, my musical horizons expanded significantly.

Actually, as an undergraduate (maths) student in Nottingham, I didn’t do very much violin playing at all (at least publicly).   The mainstay of my musical life in Nottingham was the unversity’s early music ensemble, in which I played (mostly tenor) recorder and (mostly bass) viol.  I also played bass guitar in several groups, including a band from the Christian Union that played for various jazz café events.

For most of the time the CU jazz café band remained nameless, but we did eventually get named The Marvellous Mechanical Mouse Organ (at my suggestion — partly because I was just getting back into Bagpuss at the time and mainly to avoid some even worse names that had been suggested); I think that was just in time for our final gig.  Most of the time I played bass in that band (having earlier learned to play the bass mostly by learning on the job in a jazz big band) but I did play violin for at least one or two gigs, when there was another bassist available and we were slightly short of horns (OK, so the violin is not usually considered part of the horn section, but you know what I mean).

While at university I also got hold of some books of folk tunes, foremost among them The Fiddler’s Fakebook (by David Brody, published by Oak), and started to get more into folk fiddling, although still only in the confines of my own home and only playing on my own or with members of my family.  Previously I had played some folk music with my Dad from some books he had, but the Fakebook definitely gave a big boost to my interest in this kind of music (or rather, these kinds, since it covered quite a few different folk styles).

When I moved to Bangor to do my PhD, I decided to approach the music department to find out if there were any early music opportunities, especially as I was keen to continue playing the viol and I didn’t have one of my own (I still don’t, though I’d still love to get one one day).  At the time there weren’t, but one of the members of the department, Stephen Rees, put me in touch with the local folk music scene (in particular, regular Welsh and Irish sessions taking place in local pubs), which gave me a start on playing folk music with other people and also on learning tunes by ear rather than reading them from books. I’m firmly convinced that this is the way forward for folk music, although books can be quite handy as backup sources / memory aids for tunes.

I regularly played, mostly fiddle (with a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things), in both the Irish and Welsh sessions for several years, although gradually I drifted out of the habit of going to them as I got busy with other things.  After about a year of going to the sessions, I was invited by a couple of guys I’d met there to join them for a practice in one of their houses and quickly discovered that they were recruiting a new fiddle player for their twmpath (aka barn dance or ceili(dh)) band, Defaid Du (Welsh for “black sheep” (pl.)).  We got on pretty well and I soon found myself a member of the band (also playing a bit of tin whistle and occasional banjo or other things).  My first gig with them was all the way over in Lincoln and, over the next 10 years or so we played many gigs (some excellent, some less so) in many places, mostly across North Wales but occasionally further afield.  Lincoln remained the furthest distance I travelled with that particular band, but we did also go down to Exeter one time and to the Gower Peninsula (near Swansea) a couple of times, as well as a handful of gigs in the English midlands.

Apart from the great deal of pleasure I got from playing and hanging out with the other members of the band (to say nothing of the beer), one of the things I particularly valued about being a twmpath musician was the opportunity to travel to all kinds of obscure bits of North Wales (and, as mentioned, beyond) that I probably would otherwise never have seen.  Quite often, whether I’m travelling to or through, or just talking about, a place in North Wales (or sometimes beyond), I find myself saying “I played a gig there once…”.  Sadly Defaid Du came to an end a couple of years ago when our guitarist/gig-organiser/bloke-with-PA moved to the south of England.  We did, however, have a reunion gig the other week (for the wedding of a daughter of one of my bandmates) and we have another one coming up next month (for the wedding of the daughter of a friend of the band).  It’s been great to play again together, although it has made me realise how much I miss playing twmpathau.

I have occasionally moonlighted with other local twmpath bands (especially the ever-wonderful Aderyn Prin) when their own fiddler (or on one occasion their guitarist — although I played fiddle and their fiddler played guitar, as I knew the tunes better than the chords) has been absent, and doubtless I shall continue to do so. I’ve also played a few solo gigs of folk fiddle music, including one memorable one (for me, at least) when I stood playing Welsh folk tunes for an hour or so outside the Welsh Assembly Government’s tent (at their request) at the International Eisteddfod in Llangollen.

Most of my other public music-making in recent years, apart from a couple more forays into the world of classical music (about which more later), has been on other instruments — mostly basses of various descriptions. However, I have played a bit of jazz violin at jazz cafés hosted by my church (as with the Nottingham CU ones, I usually played bass for these events, but there was at least one when I could find another bass player but was short of horns). One of the other members of my new jazz band is also a bassist (as well as a trumpeter), so at some point I may get to play a bit of fiddle with the Jazz Knights if James would like to play bass.

Once again, this account of my fiddle playing seems to be growing somewhat larger than intended, so I’ll postpone the account of my classical playing in the post-university years to another post. It should only take one more post to finish bringing the narrative up to date, although I hope that I have several more posts worth of violin playing (in all kind of styles) to look forward to in the future.