Living on bodhrán time

Thursday evenings at 20.00, we applaud the NHS, it’s the new normal.
I’ve stood in the back garden, I’ve stood on the front porch, I’ve clapped, I’ve rung a bell.
Yesterday evening I stood on the front doorstep and played a bodhran solo.
My wrist hurts now… But it was worth it!
Thank you NHS, thank you front line workers.

Well, of course it wasn’t a solo was it, everybody else in the street was out there clapping and banging pots and pans and quite rightly too but I think I was the only one with a bodhran.
“A bodhran?” I hear you say, “what’s that, how do you even pronounce it?”
Well, a bodhran or more correctly bodhrán, to give the “a” its accent, is a traditional Irish “frame drum”, an open circular wooden frame with goat skin stretched across one end. The drum is held in one hand and played with the other using a short stick called a “tipper”, more advanced or adventurous players use the back of their hand and fingers.
How do you pronounce bodhrán? BOW as in the bow of a ship and RAWN, so it’s “Bow-rawn”.

Now to a slightly trickier question, why on earth was I playing a bodhrán?
Come with me back to the early 1990s, to the drab, dingy, stale-beer infused darkness of the basement of the Mean Fiddler in Harlesden High Street. There was a two-piece band called “Storm” who had a Sunday lunchtime residency, lunchtime to mid-afternoon. I used to go up there with a work colleague, Richard Kneba, who I  tagged in the Facebook version of this post in spite of the fact that he’s very rarely on Facebook, well, it’s not compulsory is it?

Anyway, Richard and I used to go up to “That London” of a Sunday afternoon and have a few beers in one or two of the Firkin Brewery pubs, the Friar & Firkin on the Euston Road was a favourite, not only did they serve really good beer but they brewed it on-site too, plus it was only a short walk back to Euston Square Station to get the train back to Chesham. One day I suggested that we break our journey to London by going to the Mean Fiddler, it meant getting off of the Met Line train at Northwick Park, walking across to Kenton Station on the Watford DC lines (now London Overground), getting the train down to Willesden Junction and waking up to Harlesden High Street. I’d read, somewhere, that they had Sunday afternoon ‘sessions’, musical sessions that is, and as we were young, fit and healthy, not to mention just a little stupid, that’s what we did.

Storm were, as I said, a two piece consisting of James McNally and Tom McManaman; James stood front and centre stage and played guitar, banjo, bodhrán, keyboards, pipes, low whistles and bass pedals and also sang. Tom stood in the shadows, stage left, with his head down and sweat dripping from his brow and played electric guitar. They played mostly rocked-up Irish music and as you can probably tell by their names they were part of the London Irish community. 

The first time, I saw those two on stage I was blown away by their sheer virtuosity, especially of Tom whose prowess on a number of instruments was, as I later found out, legendary, but, and here’s the thing, he played bodhrán like a thing possessed, he, and I’ve struggled to find a suitable adjective here, but he made it look sexy. Oh man, how I wanted to be able to play a bodhrán like that. Needless to say, the Sunday gig became a fixture for a while for Richard and I and when we were kicked out of the Fiddler, mid-afternoon, we got the train down to Euston and went to The Friar and Firkin.

At the same time as this was going on, I was back “into” folk music of all types, I’ve always liked folk music and had spent many happy hours listening to Radio 2’s “Folk on Friday” and later “Folk on 2” programmes. Add to this my interest in Ireland and things Irish, due to my, albeit, one eighth Irish descendancy, but Irish none the less. One of the artists I had grown to like was the Irish musician Christy Moore. I saw Christy in concert a few times, more than a few, and he also impressed me with his bodhrán playing.

Christy in concert was a magical event, I have a very clear memory of one gig at Hammersmith Apollo. The stage is dark, almost empty, a spotlight picks out a microphone stand, and Christy walks on in his trademark black trousers and black t-shirt. He sits on a stool and picks up his bodhrán. A hush falls. Silence.

Green grows the lily-o
Right among the bushes-o
A gentleman was passing by
And he asked for a drink as he was dry
At the well below the valley-o

He’s singing unaccompanied at first but then, very quietly he starts to play the bodhrán, almost inaudible at first but as the song progresses it gets louder and louder. By the end of the song he’s knocking the shite out of that thing. Oh man, I SO wanted to be able to play a bodhrán like that.

I bought a bodhrán, I bought two, one in London and a year or so later, one in Dublin.
I practiced until I had raw patches on my fingers.
I was never much good at it, I’m still not that good at it, but I can make a noise and almost keep a beat.
I can play single-ended and double-ended, that’s using both ends of the tipper to strike the skin.
I don’t suppose I’ll ever be very proficient on the thing, but I do enjoy it and I have even been known to play and sing.
I have to say, I do enjoy the craic

Once upon a time there was,
Irish ways and Irish laws
Villages of Irish Blood,
waking to the morning,
waking to the morning.

Shall I practice more? Shall I play bodhrán again next Thursday?
Ah go on, it’ll be grand…

James McNally and Tom McManaman – Storm
Christy Moore
Yours truly and Richard Kneba, one beer fuelled evening…

3 thoughts on “Living on bodhrán time

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