Between the Beats: Six days at a Bodhran Camp in Ireland

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Two years ago when I purchased a bodhran (an Irish drum pronounced “baren”) during

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Kathy Jordan playing the Bodhrán with Dervish at the Birmingham 2016 TradFest. Photo: Bob Singer

travels in Ireland, I was also told about Craiceann (pronounced “Cracken”) an annual summer camp for bodhran and aspiring bodhran players on Inis Oirr, the smallest of the Aran Islands.  It sounded like an experience not to be missed.  I swore to myself that in two years I would return as a participant. I did just that last week with a much better bodhran in my possession and enough online experience to qualify myself as an advanced beginner.

I arrived via ferry to join about 90 other souls coming together to celebrate this instrument which provides the percussion part of much of Irish music.  The bodhran is a rapidly evolving instrument that began as a img_2669goatskin over a wood frame, beaten with the hand. Now it’s evolved to a more sophisticated, tuneable drum that is played with a tipper, or beater made from wood or bamboo.  Currently, it is finding its way out of Irish traditional music into other genres. The better players perform solo as well as part with of a band.

Ireland is a land full of soul, spirit, rich history and culture. All of that comes out in its lively music often with some sort of combination of fiddle, guitar, mandolin, concertina, accordion, penny whistle, bodhran, singing and sometimes more. I wanted to play bodhran simply to be able to be involved in Irish img_2711music sessions, which are informal gatherings of musicians playing Irish music- usually in a pub.  As I am not skilled enough on guitar I thought this percussive instrument would be a relatively quick avenue in. Well, yes and no. As with any simple looking thing, there is a myriad of complexities to be mastered not to be seen at first glance.

The week far exceeded my expectations.  There were three-hour classes a day taught byimg_2726-1 some of the finest players in the world, plus special lectures and performances.  I met students from all over the world including the UK, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Czech Republic, Hungary, Japan, Germany, Brazil, and all over the US. Quite surprisingly there were a fair number of older women as myself coming solo.  It was an easy place to make new friends. At night if you had the energy the three pubs on the island were full of musicians playing traditional Irish music and you were welcome to drum along. In Ireland music is not just a spectator sport. I saved my energy for the last night and rolled into bed at 3 AM exhausted and bleary-eyed for the last day of classes (as with everyone else).

img_2729-1.jpgThe island of Inis Oirr was a delight in itself. It is only 4 miles in circumference and has about 200 permanent residents. Irish is the first language of many of the residents. Like the other two Aran Islands, it is made of limestone and is divided by a web of limestone “fences”  that serve both as enclosures for livestock as well as places to deposit rocks when fields are being cleared. The weather was fine and sunny during the week giving the opportunity to take many scenic walks and explore ruins from pre-Christian to early Christian times.  The wildflowers were blooming, some being only native to the islandsimg_2728-1 like the pyramid Orchid. There was a lovely swimming beach and on the last morning, despite my late night, I went for a swim in the chilly, turquoise water of the North Atlantic – a spiritual end to my stay.

On my return, I am trying to digest the huge volume of information picked up from over 15 hours worth of lessons and presentations.  This Tuesday night I will return to the Irish session I’ve attended at a local pub hopefully a better bodhran player. I will never be a great player but that’s not my intention. Learning and playing music with others is the goal.  I traveled thousands of miles to become more proficient but also to be with people of like mind who appreciate this instrument and Irish music.   It was magical.

Now being a part of the music at home and keeping the beat is enough for me.

P.S. To see videos of Craiceann performances go here 

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