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Pauline Lerner

Playing Music from Virginia (USA), Northern Ireland, and Countries along the Mekong River. Part II

July 25, 2007 at 6:52 AM

Continued from July 21

What a combination! Music from Northern Ireland, Virginia (USA), and countries along the Mekong River (Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and China [Tibet]) is quite an eclectic mix. These areas were featured in this year’s Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall. Besides music, there were demonstrations of other crafts and people explaining what they do and how they do it. You can read about the Festival at I did volunteer work at night time parties for the Festival participants. Instead of money, I was rewarded with interactions with the participants and opportunities to play my fiddle with them when they jammed. It was very interesting and lots of fun.

I had been looking forward to playing with the Irish musicians. There are a lot of people who play Irish music very well around here, and I expected crowds of them to show up, but they didn’t. The Irish music was the only music that disappointed me because I didn’t know their tunes and I couldn’t figure them out well enough to play along. When six or eight of them sat around in a circle, frequently only two or three of them knew and played a tune together. These were the obscure, authentic Irish tunes that are generally introduced with remarks like, “I learned this jig from an old Irish fiddler in a pub in County Armagh. I bought him a few pints of ale, and then he taught me this jig.” One Irish fiddler wanted some American musicians, including me, to play with him, so he chose well known tunes like Harvest Home and Down in the Salley Gardens. I enjoyed playing those with him. The Irish musicians lived up to their reputation for consuming a lot of alcohol. One night, I trailed along with a group of them looking for a place to jam, and we ended up in the hotel’s barroom. We all sat at one table, totally engulfed by loud voices. The jam began with one man singing and the others playing along. I had heard him sing earlier and was impressed by both the quality and the loudness of his voice. In the barroom I could scarcely hear him. I hung on for a few more tunes, but the din was unbearable, so I left. My work as part of the cleanup crew when the party room closed down (midnight to 2 AM) gave me further evidence of the affinity of the Irish for alcohol. There were more empty beer cans and nearly empty beer glasses where the Irish had sat than anywhere else.

When I first heard music from the Mekong River area, I didn’t like it because it sounded twangy and nasal. Then a friend told me, “Come see this musical instrument. It’s fantastic.” She was right I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s a mouth organ that looks like a pipe organ. It has a row of vertical, metal cylinders of varying lengths. It is played by blowing into a mouth piece which is horizontal. It sounded very pretty when played as either rhythm backup or as a melody instrument. Then I heard more instruments from that part of the world that I liked. There were bamboo flutes and some string instruments. One of the string instruments reminded me of the Chinese erhu, which resembles the violin. It has a gourd for its body, a long neck, two tuneable strings, and a bow made with horse hair. To play it, you sit down and hold the instrument upright, resting in your lap. There was a plucked stringed instrument with very high wooden frets which gave a very pleasant sound. The instruments and musicians were from Thailand.

Some of the Thai people did a ritual dance comprised almost entirely of hand and arm movements. It was beautiful, extremely graceful, and nearly hypnotic. It looked simple, but I couldn’t figure it out. One of my American friends had the Thai dancers teach her. She had lived in Japan and studied Japanese classical dance for several years, and she said that without that experience, she would not have been able to pick it up. I saw a young American man who learned it, too, and when I spoke to him, he told me that he was trained in both ballet and tap dance. The music was the high energy sort, and lots of people got up and started dancing around to it. Eventually they joined hands and made a long line which snaked around the room. I believe that all the ethnicities of the Festival were in that snake dance.

I saw an American man who plays string bass in serious conversation with a group of the Thai musicians. I envied him, because I was too shy to start such a conversation myself. Then they started playing music together, and my shyness vanished. I ran over to them with my fiddle and asked whether I could join them. The Thai musicians were delighted to have me. My American friend, who had spoken with them through a translator, briefed. Their music used a pentatonic scale with the notes G, D, C, A, and E. With only five notes, it was quite easy to pick up their tunes. I tried playing an octave higher or lower than they did occasionally, but it didn’t sound right. I read later that polyphony is avoided in their music. By the time we had finished one tune, people were snake dancing around us. Then the translator told us, “That was just a warm up. Now we have to play two more tunes,” and so we did. My American friend had spoken to them enough to have one of them play their fretted instrument so he knew more what kind of scale it was tuned in. He asked me what piece I knew in A modal and said, enthusiastically, “Red Haired Boy,” a lively Appalachian tune of British descent. We played that, and the Thai musicians joined us. It was a great jam! The music and the dancers went on and on. I felt like I was flying high.

Listening to different genres of music is always fun, but playing them is even more fun.

P.S. Check out my website.

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