Folk Trance

Folk music has many associations, not all of them good, most of them bad. English folk music in particular has a reputation for being lumpy, twee, parochial and terminally uncool, all beards and tankards and nit-picking over the finer points of tradition. We tend to think of folk as something conservative, something that holds and constricts, not something Dionysian and un-tame, that liberates and releases. And yet it is the trancey austerity of folk tunes that drew me to them in the first place (I discovered folk at the same time as I discovered rave). They have the power to elicit a curious atavistic feeling, to facilitate an undoing.

A good tune needs to be repeated many times. Not for me the Irish way of playing a tune twice then hopping to the next and the next. I want thickness and depth.

Like a mantra there is a delicious pleasure in hearing a tune again and again, a delight that unfolds from the tightly structured narrative of the 32 bar form: tension-release, tension-release, statement-development-resolution. A good tune is like a story. You never tire of hearing it even though you know the ending. And when skilled musicians extemporise, weaving variations and harmonies around the warp, their embroidery makes it something exceptional, a unique piece of folk art. There should be a sadness when it ends.

The bagpipes lend themselves to repetition. Their traditional role was not marching people into battle, but leading people into the dance. All across Europe, since the Middle Ages and probably from Antiquity, people have leapt and stepped in time to reed pipes, the textured layers of the drone and the rich timbres of the chanter carrying them onwards, urging them upwards. And when musicians and dancers start to forget themselves, lose themselves to the crowd and the groove and the tune and the repetition, something wonderful starts to happen. An intensity. A feeling of flow, that things are cooking, that this could happily go on forever.

There's magic in the music. Bagpipes are the original trance instrument - a design classic, still in use after 700 years.

To illustrate what I mean, here are some musicians playing on the Greek island of Karpathos. The bagpipe is a tsabouna, an unusual instrument in that you can only play 6 notes on it. The art is to play it almost as a percussion instrument. I also like the bells on the lyra player's bow which give his playing an extra bite. Art music this ain't. Listen right to the end and you'll hear that things go up a notch. Something starts to change. Somewhere a goat-footed god is starting to jig.


  1. Mmmm. Great groove. I;m glad to find your blog... I knew Telling the Bees had one, but not you. Especially fond of Greek music having spent eight years living on Samos in a small, mountain village, circle dancing at festivals by night and hiking on goat paths to paint by day. Something rises in me when I hear the old, hypnotic songs.

    I have a wonderful memory of a festival on the top ridge of the mountains in the center of Samos - an all night affair, dancing near a small chapel, while huge cauldrons of "yourti" - festival stew, for lack of a better translation - bubbled all night on top of 4 or 5 fire pits. THAT was one of the more ecstatic evenings communing with the spirits that I've ever had, though celebrated at the chapel of the Christian Saint Marina. I think its hard to take the pagan out of the Greeks, and I think that's why I stayed for so many years!

    I wrote you a ways back to say how much I love Telling the Bees. I play your music in class while students are working, and you've hooked quite a few of them!

  2. Oh wonderful...I'm exploring the paths from John Barleycorn, and I circle around and find 'Telling the Bees', and Valerianna is here too! I just had to say something about bagpipes...there is bagpipe music inscribed on my soul I'm sure, my mother plays the scottish great pipes and did all her pre-natal exercises to pipe music when she was pregnant with me. So they make me weep whenever I hear them. They are my favourite instrument, they move me more than any other.

  3. Hey Valerina - having only just become an 'active' blogger in the last month, it's taken me a while to find the 'Comments' button - like doh! - but anyway, thanks for your kind words about TtB past and present. Always a joy to know that people appreciate what we do.

    I love the decription of the festival in Greece - sounds amazing. Got a yearning to try and get to Bulgaria this summer.

    @mermaid - hello and thanks for commenting! It's never too late to release the bagpiper within, especially if you played flute already. I'd say managing not to learn to read music was a positive advantage... xxx

  4. Nicely put Mister L. We've been out doing a bit of trancing ourselves, me Chris, Eric H and Jules. Looking forward to getting in the groove with you at Ludlow. We might just choose one tune and play it all the time :)



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