Battling the bodhran

IMG_1133Growing up I never had the opportunity to learn music, let alone take up an instrument. While I “inherited” a good tenor voice like my Dad’s, and have enjoyed belonging to a variety of school and church choirs, I never learned to read music, either. I learn vocal pieces solely by repetition and memory.

Thus, I rather surprised myself when, a couple years ago, I purchased a nice bodhran (bow-rawn). I like traditional music from the British Isles, such as that recorded by the great ensemble “The Chieftains.” There’s something about the rhythm of such music, and the way in which instruments used to play it are woven into a tapestry of sound.

The bodhran is an Irish frame drum that evolved from the tambourine in the mid-Nineteenth Century, a time period to which I am attracted, for a number of reasons. Percussion instruments like the bodhran are found in cultures the world over. It features a goatskin head fastened to one side of a wooden frame.

The underside is open, so pitch and timbre are controlled by means of a hand placed against the inside of the head. The bodhran can also be played with the tipper, a wooden stick tapped against the head. The bodhran player is seated, with the instrument held against the thigh to steady it.

IMG_1134How does one learn the bodhran? I think practically anyone that has attempted to take up a dizzying variety of common instruments has been exposed to Mel Bay method books. Mel Bay (1913-1997) was an accomplished guitarist. After World War II he composed instructional guitar music for returning veterans under the GI Bill. When the major New York publishers turned Mel down, he founded his own company. Mel Bay’s first guitar book, published in 1947, is still in print today. Titles in the Mel Bay line are written by acknowledged experts for the instruments in question.

Today’s Mel Bay instructional books are likely to come with CDs, containing a selection of short tunes to demonstrate the material in the book. I find these to be very helpful. Of course, YouTube offers any number of videos (some helpful, others less so) that show how to handle the bodhran.

As with any instrument, mastering the bodhran requires more than good intentions: constant practice is the foundation for eventual success. I’ll admit that I have yet to follow through on this imperative. I don’t expect to be found drumming any time soon in my local Irish pub, but there’s always hope!




refugeesAnyone exposed to the mass media is likely to feel as though a steady drumbeat of celebrity deaths characterized the year 2016.

There were actors (William Christopher, Carrie Fisher, Robert Vaughn, Gene Wilder); sports figures (Muhammad Ali, Joe Garagiola, Gordie Howe, Arnold Palmer); musicians (Leonard Cohen, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, Paul Kantner, George Michael, Leon Russell); literary and broadcast media personalities (Edward Albee, Umberto Eco, Gwen Ifill, W. P. Kinsella, Harper Lee); and public figures (John Glenn, Shimon Peres, Elie Wiesel).

There was another category of losses last year whose members were not celebrities. Identified by numbers, they were rarely named. I’m referring to the people – mostly Syrians – that crossed the Mediterranean Sea, in a desperate bid to escape civil war, terrorism and governmental oppression in their native lands.

Regardless of whether they were extended families or individuals, these people paid exorbitant amounts of money to often unscrupulous middlemen for places on overcrowded small watercraft of various types. Prey to uncertain seas and weather, and “equipped” with fake life preservers, the boats were often swamped or capsized en route to Europe.

The result? In 2016 over 5,000 refugees drowned attempting the passage (100 on December 30th alone), up from 3,770 the previous year.

The massive influx of refugees crossing the borders of a host of European nations has resulted in a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions. A human migration this size hasn’t been seen in modern European history since the end of World War II, when millions of Nazi concentration camp survivors and forced laborers, and prisoners of war, crossed the continent on foot, returning to their places of origin.

In the midst of governments’ struggles to provide shelter, food, medical care and social services to refugees, other people warn darkly that untold numbers of jihadists trek alongside genuine unfortunates, with the intention of sewing mayhem in their host nations. Such prognostications have tapped into the growing populist and nativist sentiments in several countries – sadly, including my own. This is happening, even though refugees hoping to be granted asylum in the United States are subject to vetting and background checks that can take as long as two years.

With the refugee crisis, as with any number of the grave challenges facing humankind nowadays, it is easy to feel overwhelmed, as though individual people are incapable of taking action to mitigate the severity of the problem. I agree that this outlook is a realistic one.

I advocate concerted action on the part of groups of like-minded citizens, people that don’t attempt to solve everything, but who address one dimension of a problem, on a local or regional level. “Gee,” you’re likely saying, “that ain’t rocket science!” Nope, but it does give folks the hope of making a difference.

Want a concrete example? In my area, Christians, Jews and Muslims have banded together to give cleared Syrian refugees the help they need to settle into what is, for the majority of them, an alien setting. First of all, the newcomers are made to feel welcome. They learn how to navigate the complexities of American society, and are provided a furnished place to live, familiar foods, translation services and ninety days’ cash. Will every case be a success? Of course not, but I believe just about all of them will.

This month I will undergo training to take part in this effort, about which I will write in the future. It ain’t rocket science, but it is a start.