The new “trad” Irish folk ensemble

Since plenty of policy bloggers devote Friday to cultural stuff (and in one case fishing adventures), it’s time for me to play my hand. This is a story I reported on my personal blog about 6 years ago, and it still warms my heart. Every other week, Joseph’s friends gather at his house to play Irish “session” music, folk tunes which often go back decades or hundreds of years. But with Joseph, they have to gather in his yard, even on cold winter nights, because of his unusual instrument: a school bus.

A school bus might seem a might unusual for most musicians, but not for this group of friends, which started out 20 years ago with two fiddles, a tin whistle, and a squeezebox. They would meet after work, slowly working through traditional tunes they learned from albums of the Irish Rovers or Chieftains.

“There wasn’t no Internet then,” says Barry, one of the charter members and a fast fiddler. “No way to learn it except by ear.” He grins. “It was the dark ages, for sure.”

But the friends worked hard, convinced a local pub to let them have a corner to themselves on the odd quiet Sunday night, and slowly developed a reputation as a friendly place for beginning folk musicians.

And in the last few years the internet brought enormous sharing of resources., one of the main websites for those interested in traditional session music, now has thousands of tunes in its database. Sarah, who plays banjo and whistle, regularly brings her laptop and an LCD projector. “It’s easy to display a tune on the wall so everyone can follow along,” she says, “though sometimes it was hard in the pub to make out the notes against the background of an old IRA poster.”

Joseph wasn’t an original member. He joined seven years ago with drums, or rather The Drum, a traditional Irish bodhran (pronounced “BOW-ron”) with a goatskin head. “He was a fabulous addition,” said Sarah. “Great manners for a bodhran addict. Rarely played a note.”

“Until the bus,” she adds. “Now I’m sometimes wishing he’d bring out his bodhran again.”

“I took it up about four years ago,” Joseph says, “just after another guy started playing the pipes. I was worried that he would dominate the group, but it turned out he preferred PVC.”

“So I thought to myself, ‘Joseph, you’re bored with the bodhran, and you need something unusual. This group’s adventurous. It’ll go for it.’ I looked around for something that almost no one played in a session.

“And I found it.”

Joseph’s instrument of choice is a Freightliner Minotour, a smaller bus generally sold to preschools. “It’s a little easier to get on stage,” Joseph says with a wink. “And it gets better mileage.”

One recent Sunday evening, the group gathered in Joseph’s driveway and started playing—a few fiddles, a whistle, two flutes, a bodhran (not Joseph), a squeezebox, and Joseph, with his assortment of drumsticks, old bodhran tippers, and a length of rubber hose.

Joseph stays inside the bus while the others relax in a circle of lawnchairs. He bangs on the inside of the roof, seat frames, seat padding, the floor, and anything else that inspires him.

“The hose is for the windows. I tried the tipper with one of them when I first got it,” he said, “But the guys weren’t pleased with the sound.”

“I guess this is true friendship,” fiddler David says. “He’s a nice guy, even if he has a tin ear and the strangest instrument this side of the world.”

“And it could be worse,” he adds. “I hear that some guy in Newfoundland has tried to play the haggis. So a bus isn’t so bad. At least we’re used to diesel fumes.”

When asked if he’s ever used the bus to transport his fellow musicians, Joseph’s eyes light up. “Hey guys!” he shouts. “Let’s go on tour!”

(Reprinted from the Lilliput Times)

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