Whiskey Festival - January 25th
On Burns Night, 25th January, instead of our usual Scottish celebration, we were asked to play for the International Whisky Festival Malta at the Limestone Heritage in Siggiewi. This was out of our usual comfort zone as we would be playing to 2000+ people milling around enjoying their whiskey samples. We also needed a much larger sound set up than we usually used, given the size of the band and the venue. The organisers were very generous and provided our 12 piece band with a sophisticated sound system and a stage that fitted us all comfortably. We were given tokens and glasses so that we could enjoy a wee dram ourselves.
Our line-up this time included two singers, Alli and myself, who sang many of the popular traditional Irish choruses, along with some more poignant ballads. Our voices blended well and we really enjoyed the duets. In honour of the Scots, Duncan our drummer and Pete our bass guitar player donned their kilts.
The sound engineers were wonderful and shepherded us through the sound checks and the performance. The only slight problem was that we did not have quite enough foldback monitors to allow everyone to monitor their own output. Still we learn as we go along.
We were constantly surrounded by a large crowd of people who recirculated as the glasses needed a refill. We were not left out and the delicious hot toddies kept my vocal cords well oiled! The audience appreciated our music and the organisers asked if we would play again next year . We are used to playing as "background" music and can see the appreciation without applause - hard to clap with two whiskey glasses in your hands! - but the excellent rock band that followed us clearly were confused and a bit disappointed by the lack of applause. We packed up, listened to them, had some more whiskey and toddled home, very content.
The next event we had planned was a big St Patrick's night bash at our regular pub venue, the Hatter. Sadly it was not to be. The week before the gig, Coronavirus regulations hit Malta and many of us of a certain age and those who wanted to stay safe had to go into lockdown. We were not permitted to meet and social distancing was enforced. Masks came later. Our Sunday sessions had to be cancelled.
The duration of this pandemic in Malta was and still is uncertain, and there is a risk that groups, especially musical groups will disband never to reconvene once the problems are past, when there is an indefinite endpoint. So it was important to find a way for us - who are all great friends - to stay together as a group, at least socially, so we started a Slack group, where we post musical offerings, Youtube clips, interesting bits and pieces and generally just chat. Then came a revelation. Zoom arrived!
During the international lockdown, many ingenious musicians and singers found ways to play together, still being a participant in a whole band, orchestra, chorus or concert. With the expertise of sound engineers and the wonders of modern social media, these performances are quite marvellous. Below is a link to a tune written for the lockdown recorded in this way. Each musician video records their part to a defined beat and then the engineers collate it into a wonderful visual patchwork. Maxine, one of our fiddlers figures in one such international orchestral performance.
We wondered if this patchwork Zoom method might be something we could use to actually play music together in some way.
Our first attempt involved each of us leading a tune, which we broadcast to the others who only listened to the leader and each played along, so you could only hear yourself and the leader. Because of the different time lags of the signal to each of the players, it was not possible to play together. This felt a bit "thin" and we had more percussion and rhythm instruments than melody leaders, so they bore a heavy burden, especially if only one or two turned up. It also meant that we would be playing our most familiar tunes as there was no "safety net" to try out new tunes, and folk were getting a bit bored with the tunes which we had practiced ad nauseam for the CD.
So, we found another way. Comhaltas have 3 CDs which "lift" tunes out of their sets and play them as single melodies. A bit abrupt starts and finishes, given they have been snatched individually from sets, but many of these tunes are in our tunebook. I made a list of the tunes common to both the book and the CDs and made a playlist. So we now have about 50 new tunes to learn. One of us acts as DJ, plays the selected tune MP3 through a speaker in front of the mike connected to our zooming device. The others hear it, and play along either from the tunebook or by ear if not. Those listening get the feel both of playing with an experienced band - no wrong notes - and being with their friends at the same time.
An additional benefit is the use of the slow-down facility. Given the tunes are new to us, we can play them at a slower speed and when we know them we can ramp it up.
Old Friends and International Links
Another advantage of our Zoom session is that Moira and Peter Gutteridge of Dampiers Round have been able to join us from the UK. They run our yearly barn dances and we always miss them when they go back after their 2 week stint here. Now they join us every week, along with Sue, Sandy and Rob, also from UK. We now also have fiddler Mara from South Carolina and violyra player Kostas from Greece. Moira and Peter also run a folk band in England which Lawrence and I used to play with before coming to Malta. They also Zoom their session on a Monday, so we join our old friends there. This is probably the one thing about the lockdown we will miss, when we are permitted regular gatherings again. Given how international we are becoming, perhaps we will keep it up once a month once we are "let out".
2019 was a very busy year for Celtic Connections. We recruited more musicians including 3 accomplished fiddlers, a banjo player and a bass player. So 20 in all which makes it great in the session but a bit more complex when playing for gigs when we have to field a smaller group! Everyone wants to play!
2019 was a very busy year for Celtic Connections. We recruited more musicians including 3 accomplished fiddlers, a whistler/singer/dancer, a banjo player and a bass player. So 20 in all which makes it great in the session but a bit more complex when playing for gigs when we have to field a smaller group! Everyone wants to play!
January saw a repeat of our regular Open Night when we provide food and drink for our friends, who come to listen to our music and dance to our jugs and reels. Sequence dancing and line dancing it turns out match up very well.
In February we did the first of our charity gigs for the year. We played for the residents of Mount Carmel, our local psychiatric hospital, at Karnival. Everyone dressed up in colourful costume and seemed to enjoy our music, banging and crashing away on the percussion we had distributed to them, and dancing and singing to the disco which followed us.
March saw us play on the stage above the street in Strait Street (the famous "Gut") for St Patricks Night. It was a bit hairy getting up onto the stage with all our instruments and the PA equipment as we had to navigate a building site to get there. We felt a bit distant from the audience who were drinking in the street below, and tho' it was an experience to play on the flying stage, I don't think we'll be doing it again!
We had a quiet summer gig-wise, with only our regular Sunday meetings and many of us were away for a big part of it, so we just enjoyed the camaraderie and learned some more new tunes.
October was busy. On Saturday 5th we played at Casino Maltese for Notte Bianca again - a yearly event now. On that night all the buildings normally closed to the public are open to view. It is an Arts-fest also with live bands, musicians, mimes, actors, puppeteers and all manner of artists scattered throughout Valletta. It is very crowded in the streets and we were very happy being tucked into our usual space in the foyer of this grand club, which used to be part of the Treasury of the Knights of St John.
Then the following night we made our debut at the Hatter. This is a new Irish pub in Gzira. It is quite small, but we are all made welcome and although it is a bit of a squash, the atmosphere is very good and the landlords look after us extremely well. There must be over 200 hats of various kinds distributed throughout the pub, mainly stuck to the ceiling! We play there now on 1st Sunday of every month and on third Monday we have an ad-hoc traditional Irish session where whoever wants to can turn up and join in. Gerry and Shane the landlords have just put in draught Guinness which has doubled their sales, but they also do the best hot toddy! Huge thanks to Anne our low-whistle player from France who introduced us. One of the great things to happen this year.
The other major event was our first professional Recording at Temple Studios in Mistra Bay on 17th November.
Thanks here go to Pete, our newly acquired bass player, who made the introduction to David at the studio. We did not realise how lucky we were to have this particular studio until we realised bands fly in from all over Europe to record her and it is one of the major recording venues for Joseph Calleja the renowned "Maltese Tenor". This was great fun, if hard work and a bit daunting. David was a stickler for precision and was a bit taken aback by the concept of "off-beat" and he picked up the slightest problem, even Duncan slightly clipping a drumstick and me omitting a note because I could not flick the harp lever quickly enough. Once he realised that we were not a strict tempo band but more a session group, he relaxed a bit and went for effect rather than precision. We are still waiting to hear the master track but from what I can hear it sounds good. Decision now is whether to remaster so we can burn CDs without losing any quality.
On 15th December we played for the Lions Club in Palazzo Capua for their Christmas party. It was a jolly night with wonderful food which we were generously hosted to.
For our final major event in 2019 we finished as we started, with an Open Night for our friends. We had our biggest attendance ever with 70 folk present.
On 22nd we had a little band party of our own, pre-Christmas to celebrate a very busy fun year of music, friendship and fun. We were able to relax and contemplate our first truly major gig at the International Whiskey Festival on January 25th 2020 - anticipated 2000 attendees over the evening. EEK!!!
Here ends our 2019 musical journey!
Since the wedding at the Phoenicia, Celtic Connections was very busy in the remainder of 2018. In June, July and August we had a monthly residency at Palazzo de Piro in Mdina. In July we also played for a Rotary BBQ in aid of Dar il-Kaptan, a respite establishment which facilitates daily living and social skills, and helps to develop and encourage self worth, confidence and independence. We played outdoors under the trees and were extremely well looked after with splendid BBQ fare and drinks. Late in August we played at Castello Lanzun in Mensija for an engagement party for a friend combined with a celebration for a visiting group.
Then on October 6th we played our yearly gig at Casino Maltese for Notte Bianca, when Valletta opens its closed doors to the public, and were accompanied by the dancers who have "adopted" us. October 12th saw us play for another barn dance with our UK caller and his fiddling wife, our friends Peter and Moira Gutteridge. This was held in the newly refurbished Undercroft of the Anglican Pro-Cathedral with simple but delicious food and drink - an important ingredient for our events as we do not charge for our services.
On November 30th our splinter "easy listening" 4-piece band performed at the Intercontinental Hotel in St Julians for the International Women's Association Christmas Fayre. It was a long day but great fun. Our last performance was at Casa Arkati where we sang carols for the residents of that residential home again.
2019 was kicked off with a splendid Open Night, our best yet. Friends and family turned out to dance, eat, drink and be very merry. The mulled wine disappeared fast and the groaning food tables were decimated in short order. The serious Scottish dancers were pleased at the speed with which we accompanied them, but even with their added expertise, Strip the Willow degenerated into its inevitable hilarious chaos. Julie as always took care of everything non-musical with her usual cheerful aplomb. No-one was hungry and nothing but smiley faces. We even had an elderly visitor from Casa Arkati who wanted to hear us again after our carol efforts there.
Below, there are some photos from these events.
Barn Dance Ticket
Two fine Scottish dancers at our Open Night
(Click to enlarge)
Dar il-Kaptan BBQ - Music al Fresco
(Click to enlarge)
On 17th May Celtic connections played for an Irish Wedding here in Malta. One of the groom's friends was a bodhran player who had spent many hours in sessions in Ireland with our low whistle player Anne. As a present to the couple, he asked us to do an hour's set for them during the drinks after the ceremony, while everyone waited for the reception proper.
As most of the guests were Irish, there was much stamping of feet and singing along to the tunes, but the guest who seemed to enjoy it most was a 2 year old who danced to every single one of our tunes, with much amusement and delight all round. The band was joined by Mark, the groom's friend on Anne's bodhran and all in all it was a great success.
We were a bit concerned to begin with that we'd be playing in a carpeted room having had acoustic disasters before, but the stone walls and the height of the lovely room with its Oriel windows and doors, open to the terrace beyond made our worry unnecessary. It was novel to sit in such a big semicircle but in fact it worked well, and the craic was great.
When the guests sat down to dine, Mark had made certain that we were not forgotten and we tucked into some delicious sandwiches and wine. Everyone was happy!
As usual on 17th March, Malta went into full swing on St Patrick's night. There were several venues boasting traditional events, but as the only truly Celtic band on the island, we chose to stay in Valletta and played the Offbeat Bar in Merchant Street where we have had so many good nights. Quite a small venue, but very friendly.
The atmosphere was great, and the clientele was a mix of our friends, who danced the odd jig, locals, and tourist visitors. We fielded 13 musicians and with a few added songs from our guest singer Eugene, the craic was great.
We were joined on the night by Eugene who sang several well known Irish songs. Sadly we did not get many who knew the words to sing along, but he added a great deal to the atmosphere of the evening, and there was much clapping and general boisterousness.
The second part of our St Patricks weekend was spent at the Golf Club. Unfortunately we were in a side room with little view of those lunching, but we played on nevertheless. The atmosphere was lacking compared to the previous night at Offbeat. It was however a charity event and we felt we'd done our bit.
Sadly because of the natural darkness of the Offbeat bar and the way things developed speedily at the golf club, we have no pictures. We hope to get some from our friends who were there and if so, will add them later.
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