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About Bodhran


Bodhran players need thick skins.

Make that two thick skins. One to play on - some Irish and Scottish bodhran makers report that the thicker home-reared goat hides produce far better results than the thinner ones imported from warmer countries; and another to let the banter bounce off.

You know the sort of thing: a bodhran player with a pager is ... an optimist; a bodhran player with a mobile phone is ... a fantasist; a bodhran player with a van is ... a roadie.

Not that this website holds with such cheek - well, maybe just a little bit - because although styles of playing have changed out of all recognition, the modern-day bodhran player is upholding a noble tradition that stretches back to 3,000 BC. There are also bodhran variants all over the world, in the frame drums of Lapland, where in days gone by they were made of fish skin, in the doira of Afghanistan, and in countries throughout Africa and Asia.

The bodhran's history in Celtic music is, however, a bit misty. The odds are heavily against, for example, a bodhran having been carried aboard the Titanic as part of the family's home-made entertainment gear, let alone being played in the style heard in the movie - that kind of virtuosity seems to have developed only in the past forty or so years since Sean O Riada, the father of the 1960s Irish music renaissance, introduced a bodhran, played by Ronnie McShane, into his group Ceoltoiri Chualann, the forerunners of the Chieftains.

Before that, the bodhran's role was likely to have been much more functional. Some theories give it a military role, both in accompanying the fife and in rousing armies to action, a notion supported by the fact that makers of Lambeg drums, those delightful time-keepers favoured by marching flute bands, were already making bodhrans in the early days of the instrument's relatively recent rise to prominence.

There is also strong evidence of an agricultural connection. In Scotland, where military use connects a Fifeshire militia band bodhranning away good-o in the style of their cousins in Revolution-era France, Scots Gaels used a "dalloch" - a goat skin stretched over a wooden frame - and its pierced version, the "crerar", as sand riddles and wheat winnowers.

The Irish used a "dallan" for the same purposes well into this century and the English and lowland Scots had their "wechts", which doubled as baking trays and were also used, allegedly, for storing haggis. The image of an English farmworker keeping time on a wecht with a white mealy pudding may be a little far-fetched but the habit of turning implements into instruments for rural shindigs is almost universal.

There is also another delicious possibility. Since bodhrans at one time were used so sparingly in Ireland that they only came out on the Feast of St Stephen, to avenge the saint's betrayal by stunning his betrayer, the wren, on the one day of the year when wren hunting was permitted, what Good King Wenceslas - good Irish name that - may actually have said was, "Gathering winter fuel? I'll give you .....", thereby unwittingly starting the aforementioned bodhran player joke tradition.

Whatever its true lineage, by the time Sean O Riada cajoled Ronnie McShane into playing one, the bodhran player was definitely a rarity, although certainly not extinct. When Paddy Moloney was putting together, in 1962, the first album for Claddagh Records out of which grew the Chieftains, in his keenness to find the right players, he tracked down a bodhran player called Davy Fallon. Fallon, a farmer, was then well into his seventies and much to his wife's chagrin, played bodhran "in the old style", with his fingers and not in a showy way.

There are tales of extrovert bodhran players from earlier times, including one Paddy Kelly of Ballymore who incorporated head and elbow "strokes", but the bodhran virtuosi really began to develop with players such as Johnny 'Ringo' McDonagh, of De Dannan and later Arcady, who patented the highly effective 'rim shot' style of striking the edge of the bodhran, and Tommy Hayes, who numbers bodhran alongside a whole catalogue of exotic percussion instruments.

The path to such mastery had been laid by trailblazers such as Peadar Mercier, with the Chieftains, Robin Morton and Mike Whellans, with the early Boys of the Lough line-ups, and those inveterate experimenters and seekers of new means of expression, the much maligned but utterly invaluable Corries.

Robin Morton remembers his first bodhran as, in keeping with the "agriculturalists", being constructed from a sand riddle. As bodhrans became more familiar, through the sterling work of Christy Moore, who was among the first to use the bodhran to accompany songs, Donal Lunny and De Dannan's Colm Murphy, and the bodhran became an accepted "Irish" instrument through its elevation to All-Ireland Championship level at fleadhs, bodhran availability and technology improved.

Woods used vary. Some makers prefer willow or redwood; others, including Eoin Leonard from Orkney, whose daughter Aimee plays bodhran professionally and until recently featured with Irish-Scots-Cornish group Anam, prefer ash.

The wood is steamed to allow it to bend and the skin (which is usually goat hide but donkey and even - dog lovers may wish to look away - greyhound hides have been known to give a good tone) is stretched over and tacked or glued in place. Some bodhrans now include a tuning device, comprised of wood wedges or Allen keys to adjust the skin tension, although many players routinely incorporate pitch bending with the "holding" hand into their techniques.

Whereas "finger-style" was the traditional method of playing, these days its much more usual to play with a knobbed stick called a "cipin" or "tipper", while players such as the great Jim Sutherland of Edinburgh's late lamented folk/swing masters the Easy Club have incorporated a brush style in the manner jazz drummers use on ballads - and then some.

Generally speaking, there are no rules to bodhran playing, other than making sure you're on the same tune and in the same tempo as everybody else, and players develop their own styles, using influences from the - apparently - original intentions of imitating step dancers to the Indian tabla style which can be heard in Mel Mercier's highly sophisticated playing.

For some players, including the instrument's clown prince Gino Lupari, formerly of Four Men and A Dog, the bodhran is an extension of their personalities and the bodhran feature has become every bit as inevitable as the drum solo in rock music and jazz, only - at the risk of hate mail from the Rock Drummers' Union - much more dependably musical.

The Chieftains' Kevin Conneff, Nomos's Frank Torpey, Flook's John Joe Kelly and Sine E's Steafan Hannigan are, along with those already mentioned, among the outstanding players today, while budding bodhran players - unless they just bought them to hang on their walls - include Bob Dylan and ... Al Gore.

A bodhran player in the White House? Now, that's the sort of possibility that could really mess up the election process.

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