Bob Bickerton is a stalwart member of the Celtic/Irish traditional music scene in New Zealand and a past chairman of Ceol Aneas – New Zealand’s traditional Irish music workshops that are held in Nelson each year.
A multi-instrumentalist performer, recording artist, composer, producer and recording engineer, Bob is also a past director of The Nelson School of Music who has encouraged the development of community programmes, with particular emphasis on children’s education. He has performed to over 150,000 students in schools over more than two decades and has received critical acclaim for the quality of his educational programmes as well as his ability to engage children in an inspiring way.
In the development of his personal musical capacities, Bob has studied Uilleann pipes, Irish flute and fiddle in Ireland. He was a founder member of the popular Irish group Gael Force, is currently a member of the exciting six piece Irish band Bana Nua and has performed at most major concert venues and folk festivals around New Zealand for over two decades. During this interview, Bob talks about the development of his passion for folk, traditional Irish and Celtic music, and how a career in the field of performing arts and music events promotion has blossomed alongside his own evolution as a musician. He also talks about the development of the traditional Irish music scene in New Zealand; of the evolution and future of Ceol Aneas, and offers insights into the history and evolution of traditional music in general.
This interview was recorded on Thursday June 14, 2007, two weeks after the annual Ceol Aneas weekend in Nelson. Our sincere thanks to Bob Bickerton – a man of many capacities and a generous heart – for kindly giving his time to record this inspiring and informative interview.
Shardul: Hi Bob – you’ve recovered from Ceol Aneas?
Bob Bickerton: Oh, I think so – just about. It was a full-on weekend, but good – very good fun.
S: A successful weekend?
BB: Oh yeah, it was great! We’ve found a formula that seems to work really well and people really get a buzz out of it. I guess because I’m involved so much, I get a slightly different feel on things as perhaps other people who’re from out of town. But yeah, it was great.
S: Excellent. We’ll get back to Ceol Aneas a little later. Tell us a little about yourself Bob – where were you born?
BB: I was born in Birmingham, England – spent my childhood there and then, I guess when I was about nineteen years old, I was getting itchy feet and wanted to see something else of the world. We actually had an aunty who lived in New Zealand and she used to send calendars of sheep and mountains – all that sort of stuff. And so, because I’d heard so much about this place, I thought I’d come and visit. I’ve been back to England on various occasions over the years, but it didn’t take me long to realise that this is a great place to live and it was where I felt most comfortable – felt I had a real connection with it. That was in 1974.
I guess I was twenty-one and it all started when a friend of mine decided to sell me her guitar because she wanted to upgrade. She said, “Look, you like listening to music” – which I did – “you should try and play it.” And so I bought her guitar.
S: Do you have a Celtic connection in your ancestry at all?
BB: English largely – might be a bit of Scots there going a long way back, but English as far as I know. Although it’s interesting – I guess it’s more fashionable now to look at your ancestry over there, but people didn’t think much about that thirty or forty years ago.
S: Did you grow up with much music around you at all? Was there music in the family, music in the house?
BB: There was very little really – very little live music. My father enjoyed listening to music and his tastes were in all sorts of easy listening music I guess you’d categorise it as – Hawaiian music, light jazz, Latin – that sort of thing. He had a ukulele and used to play a few George Formby songs on it but music wasn’t exactly a strong tradition in the family. So I wasn’t really exposed to a lot of live music as a child.
S: Kevin Crawford and Catherine McEvoy are also from Birmingham.
BB: Yep – all the best flute players are from Birmingham! (laughter)
S: Of course – and that’s becoming clearly evident and plainly obvious. (more laughter) Is there a strong Irish traditional music scene in Birmingham?
BB: Well in fact there is, but I was completely unaware of it when I was living there. But indeed there is quite a strong scene I understand. On one of my trips back to Birmingham I connected with a few sessions. They weren’t that easy to find but yes, they are there.
S: What kind of nationality mixture makes up an Irish traditional music scene in a place like Birmingham?
BB: I really don’t know that much about them but they would probably be either Irish people who emigrated over to England, which many did of course, and perhaps their descendants. A good example of that would be Kevin Burke who was here recently for Ceol Aneas. He was born in London of Irish parents who were very much into their culture and so Kevin was exposed to that. And of course summer holidays were spent in Ireland with the grandparents and that would have been reasonably common for the first generation of Irish people who were born in England.
S: I was just looking at your website and a few things on the net and you certainly are an interesting kind of a person. You’re a multi instrumentalist and are involved in a lot of different projects. When did you first become interested in Celtic music and in traditional Irish music?
BB: Well that happened for me in New Zealand actually. I guess I was twenty-one and it all started when a friend of mine decided to sell me her guitar because she wanted to upgrade. She said, “Look, you like listening to music” – which I did – “you should try and play it.” And so I bought her guitar. She was into Dylan and Donovan and was Scottish herself – she was into some of the Scottish folk songs, so I sort of picked up in that area and that’s how I started on the music route.
S: Wonderful. So you came quite late to music – a little like Pat Higgins. I think he was in his early twenties when he first became interested in playing music in Ireland.
BB: That’s right. And you know, playing music wasn’t a common thing amongst my friends. It wasn’t part of any sort of tradition. There was actually a piano in the garage of one of the houses we lived in and I tinkled away on that a bit, but I never thought of music as something I wanted to pursue in any sort of serious form.
S: That’s interesting – you’ve certainly made up for lost time. I mean, asides from the guitar, you play the Irish harp; you’re a vocalist; you play the Irish flute and tin whistle; the mandola and the Uilleann pipes – an instrument that the pundits say takes half a lifetime to learn. That’s a small orchestra right there!
BB: (laughs) That’s right. I think what happened with me was I’d started to play music – I wasn’t even aware of the existence of folk clubs at that stage, you know, when I was about twenty-one or twenty-two – and then I heard The Chieftains on the radio and I thought, “Wow! – what’s that?” I hadn’t really heard traditional Irish music before but I really enjoyed it. So I followed through on that and just sort of started to buy a few recordings. About the same time, in 1976 actually, I made a trip back to England and a very good friend of mine had started to go to folk clubs over there – and he dragged me along. This was very inspirational to me because I hadn’t been exposed to folk music before and there were people like Battlefield Band, The Watersons, Martin Carthy and I just really enjoyed that music – there was something about it that lit a spark in me. I didn’t really hear much in the way of live Irish music at that stage but it was the Irish music I enjoyed listening to on records and what have you.
S: How did you learn music Bob? Did you pick it up by ear or did you learn to read music?
BB: No, it was really by ear and I’m still much stronger at learning by ear than by reading music. I can read, but I’m slow. It’s a good memory aid sometimes, but I’d much prefer to rely on my memory if I can. On the other hand though, Kevin Burke made a very good comment during the recent Ceol Aneas. He said that he’s never yet heard anyone claim that being illiterate is an advantage.
S: I’m a bit like you in that I find I can learn much more comfortably by ear and then if I want to get the note lengths and so forth polished up – if you really want to be true to the composers original intension – it’s nice to be able to read the written music at least a little.
BB: Well I think, ideally, you can do both. In my experience, and I’ve had a lot of experience working with different music genres and working with different people, it often seems to be one way or the other. People may be very good at reading music but not very good at picking stuff up by ear – and it can be the reverse. But there’s a small group in the middle who can do both with great ease and of course that’s ideal.
S: After your introduction to the folk scene in England, how did things develop for you?
BB: About midway through 1977, I was back in New Zealand and I discovered there was actually a folk scene here. I was living in Dunedin at the time and The New Edinburgh Folk Club was very fervent and active in those days. So that connected really well with my musical interests and I became very involved. So I became more interested in the music. Just to backtrack a bit though, when I was about thirteen of fourteen, a family friend dropped in some records for me to listen to. They were classical music records and I really enjoyed them.
And so for many years I listened to classical music, orchestral music and then expanded my horizons into rock and what have you. Whilst I wasn’t playing music, I had a lot of interest and did a lot of listening and I think that helped. So when I came to New Zealand to begin with, I very quickly became involved in the Chamber Music Federation and helped with organising concerts. In fact one of the things that I have done over the years that is also a passion is the management and production of concerts and performing arts. That’s actually been my career.
I was never really ambitious with my music, you know, I started late and if someone had told me when I was twenty or so that I would be making a living from playing music, I would have thought that they were mad. So I was never really ambitious, but I really enjoyed it. An important factor for me right along has been the enjoyment and the social aspects of it.
S: That’s interesting. Was it just chamber music concerts where you organising Bob?
BB: When I first started it was helping to produce chamber music concerts in Dunedin, then when I became involved in the folk club, I joined the committee and set up concerts there and became involved in organising folk festivals. In 1983 I applied for a position with the Southern Sinfonia and became their general manager. I was general manager for three years or so and then moved to Nelson in 1987 as I had successfully applied for the position as the director of the The Nelson School of Music. So this had all been happening if you like in parallel with my personal musical interests.
S: What is it that makes you passionate about organising and promoting music events and the performing arts.
BB: I think it’s because of my experience – I believe I have something to offer in that respect. I am passionate about music anyway and I feel that if I can make more music happen, then that’s a great thing to be able to do. I’ve been lucky enough to have various experiences over the years going right back to when I first came to New Zealand. And I’m really happy to offer those skills to promote my real passion, which is Irish music.
S: Your wife Evey is also a musician – and Irish I believe?
BB: That’s right. Evey was born in Dublin and we met in Dunedin. She was very involved in the folk scene in Ireland – loved singing, going to sessions and playing the bodhran drum. Here in New Zealand, Evey sings with an all women’s group called Cairde – which is Irish for ‘friends’. They’ve been going for some 15 years now.
S: I think I’ve seen you perform on three separate occasions, but I saw you and Evey perform together at the Auckland Folk Festival a couple of years back.
BB: Yep – we perform together at concerts and now our daughter Ceara has joined us – she’s 15 and playing tin whistle and flute. We play as a trio now and are pretty busy around Nelson and Evey and I play at dances for people locally. They’re ceili dances really – barn dances with a strong Irish flavour. Of course that’s hard to do with two people but I’m into technology as well so I’ve pre-recorded a ceili band and we use this and it’s great fun – it works really well.
S: Well I have to say, I enjoyed seeing the two of you performing very much – you work very well together. I guess the thing that stood out to me was that you’re quite a character on stage when you’re performing – you have a lot of fun. You tell jokes and little stories, pull faces and move around. It’s a lot of fun actually – as well as being really good music.
BB: Oh, thank you. Yeah, well I suppose it’s part of my philosophy that reflects who I am to some extent. I was never really ambitious with my music, you know, I started late and if someone had told me when I was twenty or so that I would be making a living from playing music, I would have thought that they were mad. So I was never really ambitious, but I really enjoyed it. An important factor for me right along has been the enjoyment and the social aspects of it. And I’m really happy that I’m now playing music perhaps at a level where I can perform and people will enjoy the music but part of my personal philosophy is that when you’re performing music people really want to get to know the person on stage as well. So I try to be myself – it might be a slightly larger-than-life version of myself but I think it’s important to have a bit of character and to enjoy the process. There are many, many far better musicians than myself and I enjoy listening to their music, but I actually am sometimes disappointed if they don’t give anything away about who they are when they’re on stage.
S: I guess if the performer is having fun, there’s more chance that the audience will be too.
BB: Well that’s certainly my personal philosophy. And you know, when you look at the traditional Irish music, it was never really performance music – it was never music to be performed – it was always a social process. A possible exception was O’Carolan, the Irish harper, who composed specifically for performance to the Irish gentry. And so, the music can certainly speak for itself in performance. I love a really good band up there and the music’s driving along and it takes you into another space, but for me it’s also relating that music and trying to keep some sort of social process going even though I might be on stage and there’s a hundred people in the audience, it’s still important to talk to the people and to try and relate to them as though we were sitting in a living room around a fire somewhere. I think that’s just part of the process for me anyway.
And then I thought, OK, I’m going to do this properly and I went to a flute teacher and asked for a lesson. And when she saw the (wooden) flute, she said, “Nobody plays those things any more – go away!”
S: And it shows in your performances – most enjoyable. It’s interesting how a lot of conversations about traditional Irish music come back to O’Carolan. He seems to be a stopping point with Irish music.
BB: Well I think the difference with O’Carolan is that because he was working with the gentry, and because subsequent harpers then used his tunes, he is known and remembered. Most if not all other traditional musicians at that time are sort of unknown now. O’Carolan was in a very unusual situation. Obviously he was a brilliant person and a fantastic composer – apparently not as great a performer as some of his contemporaries – but he is remembered for those reasons. But really O’Carolan was no more connected to the tradition I guess than James Galway – or Pavarotti you might even say – because he was really working in a different realm. But what has happened is that his music has been adopted into the tradition – or some of it has – and so he’s very well known.
S: I guess much of the earlier music was lost Bob – whereas in O’Carolan’s time a good deal was recorded or consciously passed on.
BB: That’s right. I’m not sure how much of it was written down at the time, but the harping tradition had a very formal learning process in place which was as good as writing down – in fact probably better in many respects. The way harpers were taught was very formal and tunes would be passed down from one harper to another very precisely. And so that’s how the music survived and I think it was in about 1792 when Edward Bunting went to a meeting of harpers and recorded many of those tunes.
S: Turning from one great Irish instrument to another, what sort of wooden flute do you play Bob?
S: Do you have a favourite instrument of all those that you play or are you happy just playing them all?
BB: Well, no – I guess my favourite would be the flute.
S: Oh thank God! (laughter)
BB: Did I say the right thing?
S: Well I thought it might have been, but I had to ask…
BB: And I suppose your going to ask me why…
S: Well, if you want to tell me why… (more laughter)
BB: Well let me talk a little bit about how I started to play the flute – which would be interesting I think. I started on whistle mainly because I’d heard The Chieftains, and I said to myself, “What are those things – whistle? Yeah – ah yeah, I can buy one of those from the local shops.” So, I bought a whistle and started to play. And I was playing a few tunes there and another fellow in the folk club in Dunedin, Jeremy Brookes, said to me one day, “Look, there’s one of those wooden flute things that Matt Molloy plays in the second hand shop – you should buy it.” So I went to the second hand shop and saw this flute for seventy-one dollars and I bought it. This is probably about 1979 or 1980.
And then I thought, OK, I’m going to do this properly and I went to a flute teacher and asked for a lesson. And when she saw the flute, she said, “Nobody plays those things any more – go away!” So I really struggled and at that stage there was, as far as I am aware, only one other person playing wooden flute in New Zealand – at least in the Irish style – and that was John Allen who was living in Christchurch. He had a wooden flute but he mainly played silver flute and wasn’t really into the wooden flute in a big way. And so he couldn’t help me too much and I just struggled there for a year or two.
It wasn’t until I was in Ireland in 1981 that I went along to see Hammy Hamilton and took my flute with me and basically said, “Look, I think this is rubbish. I don’t know how to play it and maybe I should buy one of yours.” And he picked it up and played it, and it sounded pretty good to my ears, so clearly the problem was with me! And that was probably the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of playing the flute – to hear someone else play my instrument and to know that the instrument was reasonably good. It was never a great flute but at least I knew it worked and that I could get a lot more out of it. And that really helped.
I really have never regarded myself as being an expert on any one instrument, and I enjoy that – I enjoy the fact that I can knock out a tune on a few different instruments.
S: That encouraged you to play more?
BB: Yes it did. The flute then became the instrument on which I learnt tunes. I have played a bit of fiddle on and off over the years, but I’m not great on the fiddle, then I took to the pipes – the Irish pipes – probably around 1990 or so. Evey was over in Ireland and stayed with her brother Fearghal in County Kerry. He had a set of Irish (Uilleann) pipes that a priest had given him but he hadn’t taken to them himself so he’d been loaning them out. They’d just come back into the house while Evey was staying there so she rang up and said, “Would you like some Irish pipes?” – and I said yes! So I started to play the Irish pipes as well but the Irish pipes are pretty hard work so the flute is the instrument I’m probably most comfortable with.
S: One hears a lot of stories about how difficult the pipes are to learn and play – to maintain and so on. Yet the sound of the Uilleann pipes is quite extraordinary and unique.
BB: That’s right – they’re a fantastic sound. I guess the problem with the pipes is that they require total dedication. There’s a huge amount of maintenance and to get good on the pipes – there’s so much happening when you play the pipes – you really need to put in hours when your learning to play them. Well, hours, weeks and years really – you need to be at them all the time. One of the things I’m really strong on is trying to keep them in tune and making them sound good and that’s a huge achievement in itself – before you start to learn tunes on them. And quite often pipers here just haven’t got the time or the skills to try and get the pipes in tune. I find them terribly frustrating at times and I don’t have the time. I really have never regarded myself as being an expert on any one instrument, and I enjoy that – I enjoy the fact that I can knock out a tune on a few different instruments.
S: A ‘jack-of-all-trades and master-of-none’ then?
BB: I think so, yeah – and I subscribe to that. I mean – I just accept that. It doesn’t worry me that there are better flute players around, guitarists and harp players but I really love the whole process of learning and playing different instruments. And it’s actually quite useful because this is what I do as a job, you know, I’m a musician and it’s quite useful that I can play a variety of instruments.
Musician: Bob Bickerton
Composer: Bob Bickerton
Album: The Likes Of Us (2006)
Tune: After The Hunt
S: You go to schools a lot I believe.
BB: Yep – quite a lot of my work is in schools.
S: Watching a performer who plays different instruments and is a bit of a character, I think that would really capture children’s imaginations in terms of performance and in terms of perhaps inspiring them about instruments and music. I’d imagine that if kids see someone having fun on different instruments, they might be more inclined to say, “Well, let me try that!”
BB: Sure – and that’s very much part of what I do in schools. I have different programs but probably the most common program I use is essentially going in with about sixteen different instruments and showing the kids how they work. We have some fun and have some humour and it hopefully inspires the kids to get into music themselves.
S: Is it Celtic music that you play in the schools?
BB: Yes it is, it’s related to Celtic music – Irish and a bit of Scots.
S: For people that are perhaps not familiar with the different genres Bob, could you briefly explain the difference or perhaps the relationship between folk, traditional Irish and Celtic music?
BB: Well, in my personal opinion, when you talk about Irish traditional music, you are talking about a music form which has essentially been passed down from generation to generation in what you could argue is a continuum for as long as the culture has been evolving – which could possibly be thousands of years. Of course, the music itself would have changed vastly over that period of time and the melodies and tunes that we consider to be traditional music today would have been handed down for the past couple of hundred years maybe – and many of the music forms would have been around for longer that came in at different times. For instance, polkas came in later than the jigs and reels – polkas came over from Europe.
Now, having said that, the music is still evolving and changing, and I guess you could argue that it is changing more quickly now because the music is no longer just being passed down by generation but through media such as CDs, the internet and so forth. So there is a lot more access to the music than there used to be and these days we are far more influenced by recorded artists than we would be by our uncle or granddad or grandma. So there is quite a big change happening and, of course, in any point in time – and it doesn’t matter where on the time-scale you look – the way the music would have been presented would have been within the fashion of the day. If you go back to the 1920’s, the music would have been perhaps arranged with a piano backing; perhaps have ceili band settings with a drummer, and that would have been different to today. In the 1970’s there were groups like The Bothy Band introducing guitars and bouzoukis to the music form and these days, again, different workings like afro-celt for instance – still fragments of the traditional music there.
So at any point in time, it’s sort of OK that the music is performed within the context of the contemporary music of the day, but the core music is perhaps still there – the traditional music of the core tunes – the jigs, the reels, the slow airs. And many people who would perform the music in a contemporary context would also respect that tradition. And I guess, to answer your question, the modern concept of Celtic music is really just one method of interpretation that is current today. It is probably not a very good label to stick on it because the term Celtic is very broad. To my mind, Celtic music in a broader sense is more of – new age isn’t the right label either – but perhaps a slightly more ambient interpretation of music in which you can still hear traditional elements. And so it’s just one of many interpretations perhaps – that’s how I would view it.
S: It’s interesting how folk music has come into and out of vogue.
BB: Oh indeed. Again, folk music goes through cycles – it has traction and then it can be almost lost and then it comes back again. There was a huge revival in the 1960’s and 70’s with folk music and I think right across the western world there was an interest in that. There was a revival of English folk music and Irish folk music and I don’t think the revival ever lost its interest but it has changed during that time. And look what’s happened with Irish dance after Riverdance – again a huge revival. You don’t hear a lot or I haven’t heard that there was a lot of activity during the 1930’s and 40’s, but there was a burst I think in the 1920’s when recorded material became accessible to the public.
S: I was listening to some of your music samples that are on your web site and I noticed that you quite a New Zealand flavour – both in the lyrics and the way you play the songs. It’s very nice actually, you’re singing about New Zealand events and even the All Blacks get a mention. It seems that your love of being here – of being a New Zealander, which you mentioned earlier – certainly comes forward in your music.
BB: Yeah – very much so. I think it’s important that the music we play reflects who we are and where we are – and it needs to be meaningful at least for the performer and hopefully for the audience as well. Over the years I guess I have written songs and tunes that may reflect little stories that I’ve heard about people normally with an Irish connection in New Zealand. So hopefully there’s some sort of a bridge there that makes sense to some degree. Perhaps not the best tunes in the world, but hopefully they are significant and they have meaning for some people. And I guess that’s what I find when I perform. Different people may come up and comment about different songs that related to them in different ways – and that’s what it’s about. I’ve also enjoyed the challenge of writing material that relates to my experience here but within a genre that I really enjoy which is the traditional Irish music.
And then I guess, one event that changed music in New Zealand to some degree was when the House Band came here and people like Jimmie Young (of Rua fame) and Davy Stuart came to live in New Zealand. And they were inspirational characters as well. And then things developed more – Wellington became strong with the likes of Pat Higgins and Ruairidh Morrison. The Wellington session scene is very strong now.
S: Progressing from the folk scene, or with the folk scene, but moving more into the realm of playing Irish music in more recent years, did you begin to find other people who were interested in Irish music as well Bob?
BB: Sure. For me a lot of that was revolving around the folk scene and there were all sorts of characters around. Barrie MacDonald is a very good friend who’s a fantastic musician. He’s been a great influence and a great comrade with the music over the years. People like ‘Jock‘ – or Peter Walton (box player) as he’s properly known. And there were people on the scene like Marcus Turner and Jeremy Brookes, Adie Leng and Erin Morton – and all these people were in the Dunedin scene which was a hotbed of music down there. The session scene there wasn’t really that active – it was more folk club, sharing tunes, and songs were very much part of that whole process as well. So it wasn’t a purely tunes based thing. And there were pockets of people playing the Irish music right throughout New Zealand but the people we knew about were attached to folk clubs. There were other people as well – Charlie Montgomery (a very good fiddler originally from Belfast) for instance. Charlie was playing up in Auckland and there was another fellow by the name of Joe Cooney who was someone we discovered in the eighties who was in his eighties then. He was playing the fiddle. And so there were these characters around but they weren’t particularly a part of the folk scene so we didn’t get to know them.
S: It was very fragmented.
BB: Yeah – it was really. Well the folk scene wasn’t fragmented but it really wasn’t connected to other people who may have been in the community playing Irish music. And then I guess, one event that changed music in New Zealand to some degree was when the House Band came here and people like Jimmie Young (of Rua fame) and Davy Stuart came to live in New Zealand. And they were inspirational characters as well. And then things developed more – Wellington became strong with the likes of Pat Higgins and Ruairidh Morrison. The Wellington session scene is very strong now. So I guess the scene has evolved and has changed quite a bit. When I look back to the mid 1970s when I started to get involved, I don’t know where you would go for a session. You might have had a bit of a ‘jam’ at the folk club but there wasn’t a session as such. So things have improved a lot I think over the years.
S: Again, for people who may not be familiar with the terminology, tell us the difference between say folk or jazz musicians playing music together and what is known in Irish traditional music circles as a session.
BB: Well, an Irish traditional music session; a jam session; a sing-along at home or in the pub, they’re all similar animals. They’re all doing the same thing – it’s a musical social interaction and I guess the only difference is the material that is being played and perhaps some of the rules that are implied. As an example with Irish traditional music sessions – generally speaking, you’ll be playing mainly dance tunes with various items in between. I would argue that more traditional sessions in Ireland would probably have more songs than some of the sessions we have over here in New Zealand. There’s room for that to happen.
S: By songs, you mean actually singing?
BB: Yeah. The best sort of session I would say is one where it is highly social where you’d be playing a set of reels and a set of jigs and then someone would be asked to sing a song, which would probably be a solo item and everyone would listen – carefully. And then you’d be off on some more dance tunes and then a guest may be asked to play a tune or something – it could be a recitation. Maybe they’re sitting there and they can’t join in the tunes because they play clarinet so they might be invited to play something on their instrument. So that would be my ideal sort of session where it’s very social. But to come at this question a different way, when you’re playing dance tunes, the whole idea is that you are playing the tunes pretty much in unison and the variations tend to be subtle and largely to do with variations perhaps with grace notes – gracing – and small harmony variations. Whereas in a jazz or ‘jam session’ it’s probably appropriate to improvise more widely. So what doesn’t work to my mind is say an Irish music session and you might have a brilliant jazz musician sit in on it and they’ll do all sorts of interesting lines but it won’t fit because it’s out of context. And likewise, if there was a bit of a jam session going and someone was playing Summertime and an Irish musician came in and played a reel on top of it, it really wouldn’t work.
Ceol Aneas something which I think nurtures the music and gives a real focus for the music but in a sort of way that you might find in Ireland at events like the Willie Clancy Summer School which is a mixture of tuition – so you can learn if you want to – but it’s also a very strong focus on the social side and on the sessions.
S: Tell us a little about your involvement with the Nelson School of Music.
BB: The Nelson School of Music was established in 1894. I got involved very much wearing my performing arts management hat although one of the things I was interested in doing with the school was to develop its community status and contacts. It was quite strongly classical music oriented before I came and we tried to change that and opened it up to jazz and folk and Irish and what-have-you – which was successful I think.
S: You were also involved in starting the New Zealand Uilleann Pipers Association too I believe.
BB: Yes – I was! I’ve been quite involved in starting a number of things over the years. But the Uilleann Pipers Association came about as a result of the fact that Martin Nolan – who’s a great piper – was touring here and we just connected with a few pipers and decided to organise a weekend, which is called a tionol by the way – Irish Gaelic for ‘gathering’ And a bunch of people turned up, which was great, so we thought we’d do it again and we formed a pipers club. And it’s still going today – although I don’t have so much contact with the pipers club these days. I’m afraid they take it all too seriously and that’s not what the music’s about.
S: Turning to Ceol Aneas, both Pat Higgins and Brendyn Montgomery told me that it was something you suggested over a quiet pint a few years back.
BB: Well I’m not sure I can take very much credit for this because it was really just a sensible thing to do. We were in Kitty O’Sea’s pub in Wellington and I remember there was at least Pat Higgins and Ruairidh Morrison and myself, and it was a bit like a joke, you know, there was an Irishman (Pat), a Scotsman (Ruairidh) and an Englishman (Bob) sitting in a pub and they heard about this flute player – Alan Doherty. And I said to Pat, “Look, we should really see if we can get a session from him, you know – some tuition or something.” And Pat thought this was a good idea and so did Ruairidh and the idea developed into, “Well, why don’t we make a weekend of it?” And because Pat and Ruairidh wanted to get away for the weekend, we decided to make it Nelson and we got the word out and were blown away by the number of people who turned up for the first one – I can’t quite remember now. There is a famous photograph of the group [right] – fourteen or fifteen of us there I think – and all playing flute. We thought this was fantastic! And the weekend has grown from there.
He (Kevin Burke) just gave such an insight into the music – it was invaluable. And in a sense, I learnt more about the fiddle in the two and a half hours with Kevin than I had in the last twenty years! But I wasn’t touching the instrument at all. Just hearing this person and being inspired by the things he was saying.
Ceol Aneas is something which I think nurtures the music and gives a real focus for the music but in a sort of way that you might find in Ireland at events like the Willie Clancy Summer School which is a mixture of tuition – so you can learn if you want to – but it’s also a very strong focus on the social side and on the sessions. So you can immerse yourself in the music, for a week in the case of the Willy Clancy, whereas Ceol Aneas just goes for a three day long weekend. And that’s the idea, so that people can come along – you can go to workshops if you want to or you can go to a concert or to a dance – but the main thing is that you can immerse yourself in sessions.
S: It often seems to me that the inspiration one gets from the process of immersion can do more than just learning a lot about technique and so forth. Is that the case with Ceol Aneas?
BB: Oh, that’s right. The main thing about the weekend is inspiration. A good example of that was this year in fact. We had Kevin Burke as fiddle tutor. He’s ex Bothy Band and one of the leading Irish fiddlers in the world. I decided to do fiddle this year and he was so inspirational – and yet we didn’t really play anything. He just gave such an insight into the music – it was invaluable. And in a sense, I learnt more about the fiddle in the two and a half hours with Kevin than I had in the last twenty years! But I wasn’t touching the instrument at all. Just hearing this person and being inspired by the things he was saying.
S: That’s extraordinary!
BB: Yes – it was amazing but it wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Some people didn’t like that style at all. They were there to learn technique and how do you do this note and that note. But for me, his style was just fantastic.
S: How many people did you have along to Ceol Aneas this year Bob?
BB: We had around about eighty I think.
S: That’s a lot!
BB: Yeah. We had a bumper year in 2005 (120 participants) when Lunasa was here, but that was expected. I think 80 is our natural size at the moment. This year was really interesting. It was successful but we are going to run with some new ideas for next year I think – some of which are trying to broaden the sessions to make them more accessible; and also to perhaps have workshops for more beginners level people – which I think will be really interesting for folk.
My daughter Ceara is one example – she just loves going to sessions and I think that bodes well for the future. Getting young people involved is to do with falling in love with the music – getting exposed to it and then falling in love with it.
S: Do you have many young people – teens for instance – coming along to Ceol Aneas?
BB: Well, we have a handful. One problem with Ceol Aneas is that at the moment the classes are pitched at intermediate and advanced level, so we’re really saying that you need to be playing jigs and reels pretty much at speed before you come along. The reason why we do that is because we want to offer a high quality level of tuition and we would encourage beginners to learn in their local community and then come along to Ceol Aneas when they’re at that stage. Let’s face it – if you haven’t touched a tin whistle before, to walk into a class and survive a weekend of workshops is pretty hard work. So we’re reviewing that for next year because maybe we should offer opportunities for beginners and, at least from an inspirational point of view, help get them started and then encourage them to find someone in their community who can help them.
S: Are there teachers in their communities though? New Zealand’s not like Ireland where there is a huge culture of sessions, teachers and players about and the Fleah Ceol with that whole system of music competitions. I would have thought that was really lacking in New Zealand in the local community sense.
BB: Well your quite right – the community is small. But in most of the Centres I can think of there would be someone who would be at least capable of starting someone off on the tin whistle. As to whether they’re willing to do that, I don’t know. But the people are there and maybe that’s something we could encourage as a group as well – to encourage people to teach folk locally. Its happening in Nelson – we’ve got Brendyn Montgomery here now and he’s very busy teaching. But there generally are opportunities around and people are happy to help if you put up your hand. Maybe that’s the process we need to encourage.
S: How do you see the Irish traditional music developing here in New Zealand?
BB: Well, I don’t think it will ever be like Ireland in the sense that there is so many musicians there, but I think in a way it will have a different life but a stronger life here – and I believe it is growing. My daughter Ceara is one example – she just loves going to sessions and I think that bodes well for the future. Getting young people involved is to do with falling in love with the music – getting exposed to it and then falling in love with it. And I guess that happens when people bump into it in the street or in the concert hall or in the pub and they hear the music and say, “Yeah, that’s really good – I want to play it.” When you look at what’s happened in the last thirty years, there’s been quite a shift in the traditional music scene from very much performance based in folk clubs to a continuation of that but also now you find the music being played in the pub sessions. Not common, but it is sort of happening. So I think it will always be a small scene here but hopefully it can be a strong and positive scene.
S: Is traditional Irish music in New Zealand developing it’s own kind of flavour or interpretation or do you think it’s staying quite true to the original stuff that the tunes that people are learning and the way that they are interpreting them and playing them?
BB: This may be simplistic, but my observation is that there are two processes happening here. Probably the strongest one is that people will hear the latest Grada or Lunasa CD and say, yeah, we want to learn those tunes. The other process is where people will hear a tune played by someone else and want to learn it. For me, I don’t learn a lot of tunes, but if I learn tune, it’ll probably be because it’s associated with an event – with a session I was at somewhere or with someone I like and they played the tune and I said, “Well, how does that go?” So there’s sort of a personal process happening but also a process of learning the latest flash tune of somebody’s CD. For me, I feel much more comfortable with the personal association and that’s just more meaningful for me.
S: How different is the older traditional music to some of the more contemporary music that is being played by bands like Lunasa and Grada?
BB: In terms of the tunes’ structure, a lot of it is quite similar and in fact of course, bands like Lunasa play old tunes – it’s not all new music. There is a tendency with some of the bands that are linked to the Afro-Celt type of process where some of the tunes you hear are, in my opinion, made up more of riffs rather than a solid tune structure. This is not something I have studied – it’s just an observation. And some of those tunes don’t do it for me but as I said, the tunes that I enjoy most are ones that have some sort of connection through a person or through an event or experience.
I don’t perceive any difference between a social conversation and a musical conversation. A true session for me is a bunch of friends – and they might be playing music – but they might also be telling stories or they might be singing a song. And the language is almost unimportant – whether it’s a song or a story or a tune.
S: You mentioned before that you’ve spent a little bit of time in Ireland Bob. What sort of things did you do in terms of your own musical development while you were there?
BB: When I’ve been in Ireland, I’ve tried to take advantage of any opportunities there. I’ve only been in Ireland for periods of a couple or three months at a time, but I’ve been to the Willie Clancy week for instance and the South Sligo Summer School, which is a great place for fiddle and flute music. I’ve been there twice I think and really enjoyed that. But also just to meet people there. Evey was pretty involved with the session scene over there before she left and her brother Fearghal plays the fiddle. He lives down in Dún Chaoin, which is at the end of the Dingle Peninsula. Whenever we have visited we’ve often played in sessions and been influenced by that music. And for me that’s been pretty important but, it’s interesting, we were there last year and maybe it was just the luck of the draw, but I sort of felt that the scene was changing and that we actually didn’t strike what I regard to be a real session. There were a lot of sessions where the core group of musicians were paid to be there and it was slightly artificial.
So the scene is perhaps changing, but underneath that facade – the tourist facade if you like – the music still happens. The best session we ever had was the night after our niece’s wedding at Krugers pub in Kerry. And by crickey, the roof was totally lifted off and it was a fantastic night. They reckon it was the best session in Kruger’s pub in twenty years – which is really saying something. The pub scene’s changed a lot in Ireland. No smoking and they’re very strict on drink driving now – I think it’s zero tolerance – and so the scene is very much changing. Most of the sessions that I went to there were microphones and it was more of a performance.
S: Martin Doyle was telling me that he likes going to the house sessions with people he knows and friends that he likes to play with these days. He was saying that these sessions sometimes go all night with people playing music, singing and telling stories into the dawn.
BB: Absolutely. And just to add to that, with regards to the music, I don’t perceive any difference between a social conversation and a musical conversation. A true session for me is a bunch of friends – and they might be playing music – but they might also be telling stories or they might be singing a song. And the language is almost unimportant – whether it’s a song or a story or a tune.
Musician: Bob Bickerton
Composer: Bob Bickerton
Album: The Likes Of Us (2006)
Tune: Paddy Galvin’s and Old Cardrona
S: Who are the flute players and musicians that have inspired you along the way Bob?
BB: I guess very early on there was Matt Molloy – he’s right up there. I very much enjoy Kevin Crawford too. And one person who I really respect and who has influenced me I think is June McCormack – we had her at Ceol Aneas for two years running – and I just love her flute playing, fantastic flute playing. I had the pleasure of sitting in her classes for a couple of years. There are other musicians as well – not all flute players. I really have enjoyed Declan Masterson – the piper. And local people like Barry MacDonald, who plays the accordion, and David Kidron who plays fiddle. And perhaps not so much from a musical point of view, but from a social-come-musical point of view, people like Dave Cloughley who was a fiddler living in Dunedin and Terry Carroll – a piper who lives up in Auckland. These were people who influenced me before I was really playing or at an early stage in my playing. And also people like Andy Irvine who is a ballad singer. His music has very strongly influenced me.
S: In what way?
BB: Oh, his passion and the songs – and the stories in his songs – and the musical combinations he’s worked with over the years.
S: It seems to me that Ceol Aneas is going from strength to strength and obviously you are all very committed to it’s development and evolution. How do you see the future for Ceol Aneas?
BB: Well, I think that I’d like to see it growing, not to get huge as a workshop weekend, but we’ve been talking about how we can get the Nelson community to own it more. We’ve always talked about it being a bunch of workshops with some add-ons and I think we might swing that ’round and start to talk about a festival – without really changing the context of what we do. And with that perception, then there could be a lot more public interest in it.
S: Nelson’s a great place to host that kind of festival I would think. It’s that kind of community.
BB: Absolutely – people enjoy festivals here. But we haven’t really pitched it that way in the past. In a strange sort of way, we’ve already reached the pinnacle of the workshops. I mean, we’ve had Kevin Burke; we’ve had John Carty; we’ve had Hammy Hamilton and Lunasa – and these people are just top shelf. So we’re already doing that – although I have to say, our ambition is to get Matt Molloy here.
S: I was going to say, do you have a wish list and is Matt Molloy on it?
BB: He certainly is and we are talking to him!
S: Matt Molloy is a stunning player – his passion for the tradition and his technical capacity as a flute player are incredible.
BB: He’s an amazing technician and he’s certainly on the wish list.
It’s the heart and that’s so important in the music. There’s a tendency for people to think that they have to be the best technicians and the best at learning all the tunes, but actually it’s to do with who you are and not what you play.
S: Anybody else? I guess you can only go one step at a time really and if you are going to Matt Molloy, that’s a pretty good step.
BB: Yeah. But having said that, it’s interesting you know. We don’t actually need headline acts. I mean, June McCormack for instance. She’s not a headline act – June and her husband Michael Rooney are not well known as performers but they were fantastic teachers. They were amazing – you couldn’t ask for better in fact. But I think Matt Molloy would be a bit different because of his status – he is just amazing.
S: And for you Bob? What are your plans for the future?
BB: Well part of my problem is that I’m absolutely happy with what I do so there’s not a great incentive to do more – or at least to do new things. I do enjoy my work in schools. In more recent years I’ve been more and more involved in the technical side of things. I run a recording studio and I do live sound for various festivals and concerts in Nelson – which I also enjoy. And musically, I have to sort of almost force myself to organise concert tours to get out there and perform my own music to adults and I thoroughly enjoy that when I do. And I quite enjoy writing music as well. The last album I did was all self penned and that’s something I really enjoyed as well, so I guess performing music with other folk and writing material.
S: Do the schools look forward to you coming Bob – is it like a regular circuit?
BB: Yeah – I guess so. There are a lot of schools out there and there are also a lot of people offering performances. Some schools ask me back each year, which is great, but I don’t expect to be asked back each year because it’s good for the kids to see different people.
S: You travel up and down the country?
BB: Yes, Auckland right down to Invercargill and I’m doing probably a couple of hundred performances a year in schools, which is quite a lot, and I’m happy to continue to do that. So it’s all carrying on and I’m doing all these things, which I find absolutely fascinating and interesting. And I feel very lucky to be able to have this as my work and my hobby and my pleasure all rolled up into one. It really heartens me when I see people who are totally enthused about the music like Brendyn Montgomery and Adam Guyton, who’s a very hot whistle and flute player living down in Dunedin these days – it’s fantastic. But also for me, it’s the social process, you know. It’s like that good friend of mine Jock, who I mentioned before. If I’m ever in Dunedin and doing a spot at the folk club, Jock’ll be there playing and he might not have all the notes, but he’s got all the energy and it’s always a pleasure.
S: All about the heart!
BB: It’s the heart and that’s so important in the music. There’s a tendency for people to think that they have to be the best technicians and the best at learning all the tunes, but actually it’s to do with who you are and not what you play.
For more information or to contact Bob Bickerton, kindly visit Bob’s website.
- An Interview With Pat Higgins
- The Wooden Flute in New Zealand – by Pat Higgins
- An Interview With Brendyn Montgomery
- Cultural Biodiversity: Finding A Sense Of Place – by Brendyn Montgomery