I have always felt proud of England’s heritage of music and dance, and I’m very pleased to be part of its continued exposure and development. So much so that I recently began to wonder whether I was betraying my ‘roots’ by not sticking to a consistently English repertoire when I play in Skylarking. When I really started thinking about this dilemma, it did not take me long to find a way to put my mind at rest…
When I’m not thinking about, or listening to, or playing music, I like to go birding: I started doing it at about the same time as I first played in a band. My wife introduced me to the subject and I soon realised that it’s an interest that is best shared – just like music. After a while, we found that we’d seen lots of British birds, and wanted to look for something different: to broaden our knowledge, to experience the excitement of coming across something new, or maybe just to come across birds we were familiar with in a new and interesting setting.
So we began to go birding abroad, to mainland Europe - nowhere that we might encounter strange and exotic species; I know that I would find that too confusing. I’m happy with things that are familiar to me but different enough to make them interesting: I need points of reference, rather than finding everything new and strange.
And over the years, the same has happened with my interest in music. Having spent many years playing English tunes, I felt that I wanted to broaden my horizons – but not by listening to music so foreign to my ear that it made no sense or simply wasn’t enjoyable. Led by members of the bands, past and present, in which I have played, I came to appreciate folk music from further afield – most commonly France, Spain and Italy: it is different enough to make it exciting to play, familiar enough to make it comprehensible and comfortable to work with.
That is why, when listening to Skylarking performing, someone with a knowledge of English folk music might think ‘They’re playing a jig’ when, in fact we’re playing a Spanish muiniera, or it might be an Italian tarantella. ‘Is that an English reel?’ No, it’s more likely to be a French bourree or a Spanish Paso Doble. ‘This one’s in 3-time. A waltz?’ Sorry, no. It’s a jota! And so on.
So our music is familiar enough to the ear that it works as either a listening or a dancing experience, yet it is made up of elements that will be unfamiliar to most people in our (English) audiences and at our dances. I doubt if I will be able to persuade you to take up birding, but I hope that you’ll enjoy the experience of dancing to Skylarking’s unusual, probably unique, repertoire.
And, yes, I still go birding in England, and I still love English traditional music.