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!

Zooming in!

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.


Session Zooming

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".

Irish Washerwoman