Young Concertina Players:
Country Review, Britain, 2018
Partway through my initial “country review” for Britain in last year’s launch of The Concertina Journal, I mentioned that
I would not think it an exaggeration to say that a good majority of current players in Britain have been influenced to some extent by the ramifications of this “folk revival”… 1
It is, obviously, notoriously difficult to define the boundaries of what the word “folk” means, but overall I certainly still believe this to be true, and it is pertinent here to preface this piece by saying that, over the last few months, most of the folk gigs I have attended – ranging from Irish fiddle player Martin Hayes’s current quartet to the lively, raucous energy of the duo “the Old Time Rags”, or the traditional focus of “Granny’s Attic” (mentioned again later) – were attended largely by people well over fifty years old; grey-haired or (like my own) bald heads made up a large part of the audience. Now, not all of these acts use a concertina, but the same is definitely true of the specific “concertina” events, some of which I mentioned last year, too.
To open the door to this 2018 piece, then, may I permit myself one other quote from my 2017 “Review”?
There IS a question about the age demographic of the concertina, but there are signs (a slowly increasing number?) of younger players.
With this consideration in mind, the following piece focuses primarily on three players in particular who are all aged under thirty, or were at the time of writing. In the last months of 2017, I circulated questions to a few “young” players I knew, or knew of, and was encouraged and impressed by the enthusiasm that most of them showed in responding quickly, fully and thoughtfully. The whole idea of contacting young concertina players is fraught with the concern that it will be construed as patronising. If it comes across in that way, then my apologies are offered to Mohsen Amini, Alex Wade, Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne and to Rachel Fairhurst and David Linton (the last two of whom I contacted following recommendations from Alex and Michael Hebbert, respectively). There are, of course, many others, some of whom I have tried to contact, and probably many more I am unaware of. All five of the musicians named here have a strong commitment to the concertina, to the point that, for the first three, at least, it is not only their chosen instrument, but at least a part of their livelihood: they are, in effect, full-time or part-time “professional concertinists”, each making a notable impression in his/her own distinctive way.
The purpose of this piece is not to boost the careers of the musicians who participated, but to present an important and exciting element in the current British concertina scene. I begin with introductions: Alex Wade I have known for many years. She plays English system, and, as part of her work as a qualified music teacher, gives concertina lessons in schools. A brief quote from Alex’s website seems a fair point to start:
. . . renowned for her dynamic and energetic playing style. She is an experienced dance musician, playing and calling regularly with ceilidh bands. 2
Away from our topic slightly, but still part of the picture, Alex is also
. . . a knowledgeable and experienced woodwind player and teacher.
Cohen Braithwaite-Kilcoyne (the youngest of the three primary players here) plays both the Anglo concertina and the melodeon, increasingly in solo performances, often in folk clubs and festivals, but, as his website says,
. . . is probably best known as a member of BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award nominated trio “Granny’s Attic”. 3
Mohsen Amini, a ferocious Anglo player based in Glasgow, was chosen as the “BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year” in 2016, and “2018 Musician of the Year” in the BBC Folk Awards, and has a string of other prestigious awards. He is best known as founder and member of two bands with burgeoning reputations, “Talisk” (with “deep connections to Scottish traditions”)4 and “Ímar” (which plays Irish, Scottish and Manx traditional music). Unless stated otherwise, all the comments attributed below to these five musicians were in response to my questions to them for this report.
Most concertina players in the country have encountered &/or been influenced by the “folk scene”, so I begin with a few points upon which the players have parallel points to make in connection with the “folk world”. Cohen states that
. . . much of what I do is centred around English folk music – traditional songs and tunes. . . . I have recently completed a music degree and for that I had to explore much more complex repertoire and taking the Anglo away from its natural habitat. Much of my final years at university were spent exploring Baroque material, by composers such as Bach, Handel and Pachelbel. And I’ve explored other types of music to a lesser extent, some modern popular music, some Victorian music and the occasional piece of ragtime.
When I was at university and studied performance, I was given guidance from staff on broader musical techniques which I have adapted for the concertina.
Cohen’s training and influences are certainly reflected in his fine, meticulous, precise style of playing.
Similarly, Alex writes:
I also play some classical music on the concertina – Victorian and early 20th-century music written for the instrument, and Bach particularly.
Mohsen remains more within the traditional music field, with “traditional Irish music, and as I grew older this spanned into Scottish music”, even though his use of chords and idiosyncratic riffs do present a clear step away from that tradition! The Ímar website has the following:
Amini is also surely unique, among that instrument’s exponents, in citing the contemporary classical pianist/composer Ludovico Einaudi and celebrated film composer Hans Zimmer among his key musical influences.5
These, then, are all musicians who look beyond what many would today see as the “home ground” of the concertina.
Having opened the door with the initial three concertinists, I was directed to Rachel Fairhurst and David Linton. Rachel, studying at the prestigious Chetham’s School of Music in Manchester, the youngest of the five, has “. . . done some gypsy jazz and even classical music”, and David plays “at least once a week at various sessions around London” writes that “left hand chords are my default accompaniment and I will always figure out a chord sequence that fits with a new tune”, something that is far from the thoughts of many of today’s folk-influenced concertina players. He also states that
I think you can definitely hear the piano player in me as I will default to chord shapes on the left hand and the tune on the right . . . [having been] primarily a piano player before.
David initially made a conscious choice and opted for the MacCann duet concertina, and clearly agrees that this has shaped his approach.
One cannot necessarily extrapolate from the five musicians presented here, but there is evidently a broad range of interests and approaches. The questions of keys and the element of accompanying a melody (e.g. with chords) are fascinating, too. One cannot help noticing that there is interest from both Mohsen and Cohen in extending the perceived limitations of the Anglo. Cohen first:
The home keys . . . (C and G) are my go-to keys generally. But I am interested in exploring . . . in performance I play pieces ranging from 3 flat key signatures up to 4 sharps. I am also working on composing a set of pieces that use all 12 keys. It is nice to explore all of the available keys; each one has a slightly different sound and makes me play the concertina in a slightly different way.
Cohen later states,
With the exploration of baroque music I have moved away from vamping chords into playing several contrapuntal lines simultaneously. It isn’t easy, but I find it to be thrilling to do.
Mohsen mentions the challenge of playing
. . . in every key as chromatically as possible as the concertina I play is centred around G and C. Generally I would play in anything but F# Major is a bit tricky!
I asked all five participants about a problem which besets all concertina players: the cost of a truly playable instrument. Cohen has clearly thought about this:
Although with violins it is possible to spend well into the thousands or even millions (and I have never seen a concertina for more than around £8000 [U.S.$ 10,000]), the cheapest instruments [violins] are at least playable and last well for beginner or intermediate players. When you compare this with concertinas, you are unlikely to get a good playable instrument for less than £1000, which surely is a great barrier for many potential players.
David Linton writes, “If I was starting out now I’m not sure I would take the plunge on a concertina”, but adds, “On the other hand, duets at least are cheaper than Anglos or English.” Alex agrees, stating,
I think the cost of instruments is the single biggest obstacle to young people. I have tried running concertina lessons in school and the lack of functional instruments at a reasonable price is the real problem.
In a 2015 article for Concertina World, she expands on this:
I feel passionately that if we are to successfully encourage young people to take up the concertina on a wider scale, we need a playable, durable, low-cost instrument, in line with the entry level models available for other instruments. Judging by the buzz of post-concert excitement as they pack the instruments away, there is no shortage of enthusiasm for the concertina amongst these young people. 6
Often, a century ago, when there were many, many more concertina players playing a wide spectrum of genres up and down Britain, many of what one might call the “traditional” musicians in this country could not read music. Some probably could not understand or use even the most basic terms of music theory (“key”, “notate”) but they could play! Of the players presented here who are making their way today, most have a high level of knowledge and experience in this area. Rachel could read music long before taking up the instrument; David finds
. . . reading music really useful for learning tunes . . . musical training comes in through the way I play chords and the like.
Alex and Cohen have both completed university degrees in music. For Cohen, both reading and theory play
. . . a great part in my playing. Having learnt the violin and studied music through to university, I have a good background in music theory. When I started on the concertina, I played almost exclusively by ear, but as I progressed, playing from written music has become much more important, particularly as I’ve tackled more complex repertoire.
Mohsen learned much through classes with the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann in Glasgow, and says that theory and written music had been
. . . something I wouldn’t ever consider looking into as you can develop a great level of playing without . . . but when it comes to recording and arranging they both come in incredibly useful by way of Midi guides, harmony playing and general improvisation.
Mohsen had formal lessons in both Irish music AND concertina playing in that context, but Alex had
. . . very little tuition directly on the concertina . . . most of my development on the concertina was time spent playing in my bedroom for fun. It was probably more appealing because it wasn’t something I had to practise, and so had more freedom to develop my own style.
In the same way, Cohen “. . . had almost no concertina tuition. I have been to a handful of concertina workshops but otherwise I am completely self-taught,” and David simply says,
I haven’t had any formal lessons.
Another question I asked was about the attitude of peer group and others to this “minority” instrument. Here, again, there is a certain amount of agreement. Mohsen, again:
It used to be seen as a bit weird to a lot of my friends in school,
and Cohen writes,
Concertina was hardly a normal instrument for a twelve year old.
Alex perhaps goes further:
Friends outside the folk world and colleagues (non folky musicians) view it mostly as a novelty/eccentric activity, I think. I never mentioned the concertina or folk music to anyone when I was at school, except very close friends.
To return to the three young musicians I began with, and to pull a few strings together, though their approaches to music and the sounds they produce are absolutely and unmistakably their own, there are present, in the background, a fair number of common elements which they reveal here. That loosely delineated form “folk music” is an important common thread, but it is treated and developed very distinctively by each of the three. Though they all have different aims and objectives, obvious in the way they perceive the music they play, it is fair to say that they all demonstrate a powerful, heartfelt enthusiasm and a rich, deep passion for what they do, and for the role of the concertina in that genre, as well as envisaging the possibility of it being the means to enter other musical spheres.
I recognise that, in this respect, the situation in neighbouring Ireland is very different, and that there are also great young Irish concertina players in Britain – such as, for instance, Brogan McAuliffe, of the “London Lasses” – who take part in the activities run by the Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann branches throughout the country, and sometimes in their competitive events. It still remains true that, for reasons we have touched on above, a large majority of players in Britain of the various different kinds of concertina are well past an age when they might be considered as “young”. However, I am giving a picture here of a dynamic minority which cannot be ignored and which will influence and perhaps shape the future of the instrument in the country. Add to this a less obvious number of players, some well-known whom I have been unable to contact, some who do not (yet?) have the public profile that Mohsen, Alex and Cohen have (and may not want it), who may play quietly at home, in the occasional session, or at small functions, and there are perhaps grounds for hope that an exciting and uncharted future is possible.
- “10 children, 10 weeks, 10 concertinas”, Concertina World #462 (June 2015) See also: www.grannysattic.org.uk and Cohen’s degree recital: livestream.com/uol/final-recitals-17/videos/157705262.