Blood For Bouzouki
Colin Irwin hears of Andy Irvine’s lengthy fascination with East European rhythms.
It as 1968. The year of the assassination of Martin Luther King. Of Enoch Powell predicting “rivers of blood”. Of Manchester United winning the European Cup, Britain’s first heart transplant, the death of Tony Hancock and Bobby Kennedy. Twiggy and Flower Power and the d’Oliviera affair and the Beatles’ White album and the Mexico Olympics and Nixon in the White House and………..all kinds of madness.
No wonder any kid with half a brain and a song in their heart ducked out and hitch-hiked to India….
Andy Irvine, suddenly free of the frustrations of a struggling little life with Sweeney’s Men fancied a bit of overseas travel himself, as it happened. But not to India. Good Lord, no. You couldn’t move in India in 1968 without bumping into either some in comprehensible guru or a zonked out hippy from the Home countries. Sometimes they were the same thing.
No, Andy Irvine fancied somewhere…….different. For that reason and that reason alone he finally settled on Bulgaria, and it might have been Pluto for all he or anyone else knew about it in 1968. Except that it was behind the Iron Curtain and, as our daily newspapers regularly informed us, anyone who ventured beyond it would be instantly arrested, chopped up into little pieces and fed to eight foot soldiers in jack boots and fur hats.
Heavens to Betsy; life in the Sweeney’s Men must have been very tough………
“I suppose I was kinda nervous” Admits our intrepid explore 24 years on. “I had no idea what to expect at all. I didn’t know if they allowed hitch-hikers in or anything, and of course, there was no tourist trade of any kind then. So I rolled up to the border guards not being able to speak a word of the language and wondering if I’d be allowed in.
“In fact they were really nice. I had a mandolin with me so they had a look at that and I played a couple of jigs on it for them and then they fiddled with a dial on their radio to try and get some Bulgarian traditional music for me to hear but all they ever found was this dreadful crooner called Emile Dimitrov.”
He suddenly stops in wonderment at his own memory. “Now why on Earth that name should have stuck in my head for all these years, I just don’t know….”
Andy spent the next eighteen months having lots of adventures not only in Bulgaria, but also in Romania and Greece. He did get arrested once or twice for busking, but nobody chopped him up into pieces and fed him to jackboots and he fell deeply in love with both the music and the people. Mostly, though he developed a passion for its music.
“One day a lorry gave us a lift and the guy turned on the radio and this fantastic music came on and I thought ‘Jeezus! I know what that is and it is great !” So every time I was in a town or city I would find a local music shop and go and buy records. I didn’t know who they were or what they sounded like but there were some I knew wouldn’t be any good because people would be dressed in ‘Donald, where yer trousers’ gear or the equivalent. I loved the music but I didn’t quite understand it…it wasn’t exactly 1,2,3,4 so it wasn’t until I got home and listened to the records that I thought “Oh, I see what they’re doing! And after that I was hooked!”
So Hooked that he vowed there and then that one day…..one day….he’d make an album of Bulgarian music himself. It’s an obsession that has never left him and because something of a standing joke in Irish music circles as he intermittently slipped the odd Eastern European influence into whatever project he was working on at a given time. Planxty had a couple of blasts – Smeceno Horo was always a big stage favorite and his solo work since has been peppered with snatches of these exotic unfamiliar rhythms.
Now finally, in the year of our Lord 1992, Andy Irvine has fulfilled one of his deepest ambitions to make his own record of Bulgarian music. It’s called East Wind and, yes, it is unreservedly spiffing. Even more so due to the fact that the boy wonder Davey Spillane, a chap always game for a laugh, was coaxed along to share the challenge and equal billing on the album. The way Andy tells it, Spillane could hardly spell Bulgaria let alone play its native music when the idea was put to him………and that is precisely the kind of challenge that he finds irresistible.
Other notables of Irish Music were gently introduced along the way………producer and arranger Bill Whelan, Mairtin O’Connor on squeeze box, John Sheehan of The Dubliners on fiddle and Rita Connolly on vocals. Tony Molloy on bass, and the mighty Michael O’Suilleabhain, Paul Moran, Carl Geraghty, Ken Edge, Noel Eccles and to add authenticity, Bulgarian instrumentalist Nikola Parov and Hungarian singer supreme Marta Sebestyen of Muzsikas.
So now it’s here and Andy Irvine almost doesn’t believe it.
“It’s such a relief to get it out. We finished it eighteen months ago but there was all this crap that went on. Because it cost so much money to make, John Cook at Tara wanted to try the avenue of the big companies and that took forever because at first they’d be interested and then we’d hear nothing. It just went on and on. We’d decide to give up and put it out on Tara and then we’d get a telegram from some big company on the west coast saying “Hey, we’re really interested!” Until they discovered that they didn’t have a clue how to market it and that was the end of that. One letter we had from one of them said “Hey guys, this is one of the best records I have ever heard in my life, it’s really fantastic music……….unfortunately we’re going to have to pass on it.”
To make the acquaintance of East Wind you’ll have to skip the TV advertising campaign and burrow out Tara 3027. Andy is very keen for you to do that because two decades carrying this thing around in his head doesn’t mean he has got it out of his system. It means he is desperate to go right out and take the whole thing on the road. And he wants to make another album in the same vein.
“The thing is East Wind is not an attempt to play Bulgarian music. I asked Nikola Parov, the guy who played the Bulgarian instruments, what he thought, and he said “ Well, it is not Bulgarian music, but it’s very good.” And that’s exactly what we set out to do. I’ve heard lots of bands from L.A or wherever try to play Bulgarian music as Bulgarians would play it and it’s just not as good as the real thing, so I think we did the right thing by using the basic music and putting it to our own style.
But aren’t you afraid of huge Bulgarians being insulted by the idea of an Irishman playing their music and beating you into a pulp in retribution?
‘No. Bulgarians have always been flattered. Mind you, on the Rainy Sundays album I used a Macedonian tune with Romanian words translated into English. I played it to a Bulgarian friend and he said “it’s good but why use a Romanian song?” A couple of weeks later I was in Romania and someone said “Why you put a Romanian son to Bulgarian tune?” I thought, ‘oh dear these two countries will never get it together’
Andy Irvine’s solo bid to turn the whole of Ireland into a Balkan hotbed was given further inspiration by the curious and entirely coincidental rise to eminence in Irish traditional circles of the decidedly Greek bouzouki. This had it’s beginnings before Andy’s epic visit to the Balkans, after another Sweeney Man and future Planxty person Johnny Moynihan suddenly produced it.
“He introduced the bouzouki in 1966. He’d been given it or something and we all hated it. But he persevered with it and the first thing he discovered was that the big round back was difficult to hold, so he had this man in London make one for him with a flat back, which was the first flat backed bouzouki on the scene. After that it took off. I played one in Sweeney’s Men…….I was the second Bouzouki player in Ireland.
Later he was to spill blood for a new bouzouki………Literally !!
“ I remember going to Greece. I didn’t want to go to Greece because the colonels were in power there and I didn’t want to spend any money in Greece. I didn’t want to aid their economy in anyway. So I went as far as Thessalonki, Which is a Macedonian town near the Bulgarian border and sold my blood to pay for a bouzouki.”
You did what?!
“I just went to the Hospital and they take your blood and give you $20 or something. Enough to buy a bouzouki anyway. I new a guy before I left Ljubljana with five dollars in his pocket and by the time he got to Athens he had $150 and no blood. He was sick as a dog. Jeezus, I wouldn’t do it now. There were these awful stories about giving your blood in Turkey. You had to put your arm through a hole in the wall, so you never knew how much they were taking.”
Andy’s first tentative step towards putting the Bulgaria up Irish music was with Mominsko Horo on a Planxty album. He had an immediate and obvious ally in the ever –adventurous Donal Lunny, but the rhythms were seemingly so alien to the accepted Irish Tradition that he was nervous about overplaying it.
“I did Mominsko Horo with Donal Lunny, but it was a bit tepid. I think we were afraid to ask Liam ( O’Flynn ) whether he would play it on the pipes because he was a little bit…….well, you didn’t always feel capable of asking him to play something weird lest he gave you a withered look. So we didn’t ask him. But later, when we were recording Smeceno Horo for another Planxty album, I was kicking myself because he was delighted to play it and later he did play Mominsko Horo on stage and did it superbly, so I wished I’d had the courage to ask him earlier.
Doing Smeceno Horo was great – that was a real show stopper and it was around then that I was determined to make an album of that music with Irish musicians. It was like we’d learned a new vocabulary, but we were playing it in our own vernacular. Not everyone liked to play it. Arty McGlynn was not keen on it. He couldn’t quiet get the hang of it, which was great because that bastard can play everything else. And I always remember Matt Molloy, who could play it fantastically, before every gig he’d come up and ask me to remind him of the tune of Smeceno Horo. He didn’t really have a clue what he was playing ……..but he played it great. Most musicians see it as a challenge……….when you’re used to playing in 4:4 and 6:8, something like 9:16 is a bit of a bugger.”
Despite all this he has reservations about taking an Irish band to the Balkans to play the music. He hasn’t been to Bulgaria since 1984 and is nervous about the effects of capitalism.
“ I’d love to go back but these people……….OK, I know they were always having a hard time, but now they are having a hard time because of so called democracy and capitalism. Driving around the place – as I would be doing now as I wouldn’t be hick-hiking – I wouldn’t want anyone thinking I was using the place and lording all over them”
“I don’t know what the changes have meant, either. When I was before, they had fifteen minutes of traditional music on TV every night, I bet that doesn’t happen now. Change to capitalism liberates and I imagine that all the young people are all into Western rock music now and the whole ethos of America and the West, So I think that Bulgaria would be the last place on Earth that East Wind would be a hit”
“See when I was there before there was a great awareness of Traditional Muisc. It was a little bit like Ireland – people accepted it as part of the scene. I never did find any clubs, but on the campsites you would find it alright, though it tended to be a bit shylocky. I met this guy who said ‘Ill teach you to play the Kaval’. It is just a big hollow pipe, not with a mouth piece, but you blow it like a milk bottle. I couldn’t even get a sound out of it. So I went ‘Oh Shit, I’ll just listen to this’ , but as soon as I found that I could play Bulgarian music in my own way, that was it, and I was trying to get everyone else to play it too.
Not, though, that all the experiences were entirely wonderful. He took with him a small tent, about $200 and a mandolin………and it was the mandolin that got him into trouble.
“I was playing on the streets of Ljubljana and I was arrested for begging. That dreadful word. You stand there saying “I’m not a beggar, I am a musician!” But I had to go before the beak. It wasn’t a court, it was just a room. This woman had my hat with all the money in it and she said “Is this all the money you have or do you have more?” Now that was a tricky question. If I say I have more money the she’s going to ask why am I busking. And If I say it is all the money I have the she’s going to say ‘you’re a vagrant, I am going to deport you’. In the end I said that it was all the money I had, which was the right answer! She took half the money and let me go, but that was the end of my busking in Yugoslavia.
“Every Sunday I used to busk outside the Zoo in Bucharest. That was fantastic! I was always a nervous busker, I was very shy. I had my eyes clamped shut. But the first week I did it I opened my eyes and at the end and looked up and there were thousands of people around and the mandolin case was full of multi-coloured notes. You could always tell when the law was coming because the would be a hubbub on the outskirts of the crowd and this amazing avenue appeared between them and a very large, horrible man would appear and he’d be very angry. He took it as a personal affront. He’d be disgusted to see someone playing music for money.”
You must have been a curiosity……………..
“Oh by God I was! Nobody knew anything about Ireland and nobody had beards and long hair. So I walked through the streets and they’d shout ‘Hippy, Hippy’. Which really annoyed me. I d have felt better if they shouted ‘Beatnik’………Hippy was definitely below me.
“I must say I loved Bulgaria. I found the people friendly, pleasant people who were delighted to see something out of the ordinary. In those days, we always thought of communist countries as really heavy – well, I don’t know if the police just didn’t know what to make of me or what, but they weren’t heavy at all”
If nothing else it proves that Andy Irvine was way ahead of his game as far as World Music is concerned and unsurprisingly he’s slightly cynical about the relatively recent media discovery of the term.
“I always considered I was one of the first people on the ground to say hey, if folk music is to continue to be interesting to audiences we are going to have to bring in outside influences and different traditions and all this stuff that’s happening out there that people don’t know about. And then it did have and I was very excited, but it all quickly got put into pigeonholes and as far as I can see, when people talk about world music, what they mean is African music, or at least black music. Which is grand but why call it world music?
“It’s great music, but not too much of it makes me feel the way I did when I heard the radio in that Lorry in Bulgaria that time and recognized it instantly. Don’t get me wrong, I do like a lot of African music, but I tend to like tunes and melody and when you’ve got something that’s heavily rhythm-based then I’m not all that interested. The tunes on East Wind were picked largely because of the melodies.”
Chosen, too, with a lot of assistance from another Planxty cohort ( Albeit very short lived ) Bill Whelan. With Donal Lunny not in sight for once ( ‘I feel kinda bad about that – he’ll definitely be on the next one” ) Whelan effectively assembled the whole caboodle and it was his idea to put Andy with Davy Spillane on it.
The two had never worked together before and didn’t know each other too well, but both had their reasons for being tickled pink by the suggestion. Spillane because he loves to take those pipes into uncharted territory and Eastern European music was certainly that; and Andy Irvine because he’s nurtured a long and previously unspoken admiration for the work of Moving Hearts, the band Spillane graced with his inspiring pipe work throughout their existence.
“ When Nikola came over to play the Bulgarian instruments he didn’t bring his bagpipes with him because he realized the Uillean pipes are so much more sophisticated than the Bulgarian pipes. There’s a lot more you can do on them – and it’s the right sound. That Moving Hearts sound of soprano sax and pipes struck me as soon as I heard it because the sax gave it a slightly harder edge to the pipes when they’re played together like that. Yeah, Moving Hearts was a seminal band as far as I’m concerned. I saw East Wind as owing a lot to Moving Hearts.
I bet you’d have liked to have been in Moving Hearts……… “Jeezus , I’d loved to have been in Moving Hearts !” He’s having multiple orgasms at the very suggestion.
“What a band they were………so, yeah, I was delighted to get the chance to work with Davey for that reason alone. In fact, it all worked out very well between us. He’s an amazing player, he really is. He’s one of them guys who just likes to have a blow, and for someone who’d never played a Bulgarian tune in his life before, he did an incredible job.”
Andy Irvine has given us many classic moments down the years. All those imperious Planxty recordings, the collaborations with Paul Brady, a couple of terrific Patrick Street albums, some scintillating historical song writing (Forgotten Heroes anyone?) a couple of corking solo albums (it’s a shame his recent solo effort Rude Awakening is being overshadowed by the new opus) And let’s not forget, either, that in an intimate setting, few can caress and message a live audience the way he does.
But of all the things he’s done, the whole East Wind project is the one perhaps closest to his heart. That makes it very special indeed.
Written by Colin Irwin and used with permission.
Folk Roots magazine. August 1992.
Source: China2Galway.com (no longer exists)