Seán Laffey talks to Andries Boone of MANdolinMAN.
We know the story. It echoes time and again like a clarion of bells: in the mid-twentieth century traditional music was dying, folk music was on its last legs, much of the music was lost, literally in many cases, carried in the heads of the older players many of whom had become displaced during the war, those that survived came home to shattered communities, rural villages emptied and folks moved to towns in search of work, the modern industrial life left little time for simple pleasures like music making and social dancing.
As the century reached its 60th year you could have written off indigenous folk music in much of Europe. However, as we know that didn’t happen, and if we are to believe our ears today, we can safely assume that music has never been healthier, there are more chances to hear those traditional tunes, better players, more music education available to them and education has led to a widening appreciation of folk music.
None of this would have happened without a few people (I really mean a few people). Folks who got up and did something to preserve, collate and share folk music. The international giant must be Alan Lomax, like many collectors he was a player and performer. In Ireland we had Seamus Ennis who collected for the folklore commission and then there was Breandán Breathnach who’s work on the tune repertoire was the crowning achievement of a century of collecting directly from living players, his Ceol Rince na hÉireann books had an archive of 7,000 tunes he had amassed behind them
In Britain there was Bert Lloyd a man who compiled the very influential Penguin Book of Folk Songs, he was a singer, organiser and an activist in the folk revival. England also had the controversial Peter Kennedy, born into a very influential family of folk song collectors, his Folk Songs of Britain and Ireland (first published in London by Cassell in 1975) was a snap shot of regional repertoires recorded live on tape when he was with the BBC in the late 1950s.
Equally there are champions of tradition in Europe and the CD “Old Tunes Dusted Down” by the Belgian group MANdolinMAN pays homage to one man who has done so much to revive traditional music in Belgium. The story behind the album is the story of Hubert Boone and his son’s wish to bring the tunes to a new audience in the 21st century.
Andries Boone is the leader of MANdolinMAN, he is the son of Hubert, Andries grew up at a time when Hubert was intensely involved in fieldwork. Hubert was determined to search for local traditional tunes in the Brabant region of Belgium. Andries tells me “I was brought up with traditional music all the way. In the 1980's, when my father did his last fieldwork, I sometimes went with him so I have a lot of good memories of meeting musicians and hearing them play their old tunes.”
Hubert Boone was born in 1940 in the small village of Nederokkerzeel some 16km north east of Brussels. He received his first music lessons from the brothers Mil and Jean Penninckx, the local tailor and butcher. I asked Andries would this have been in classical or in folk music and what instruments would it have been played on?
“It was of course music that was played in the local brass band, because the teachers at that time who where in the villages were almost always from the brass bands. The elite and professional music schools were in the big cities and it was a long time before my father moved to Brussels. His first instrument was a cornet, which he played in the Sint-Stefanus village band. Hubert still enjoys playing those tunes today, although he now favours the violin and the bagpipes. He has had a career as an academic, as collector and compiler of catalogues of traditional music, but I think he gets the most out of performing the traditional music he grew up with.”
I asked Andries what was the state of traditional music in Belgium when Hubert began collecting the tunes in the 1960s and what inspired him to put in the effort?
“Folk music in Belgium was a blank page in the 1960’s when he began noting down the tunes, at the time there was nothing collected, it motivated him even more to write it down to save it from disappearing altogether. In the 1960’s folk music was almost completely gone in Flanders/Belgium and due to a couple of people like Hubert they have saved some of our traditional heritage of folk tunes. Of course some of the tunes were written down in collections, and I think he got perhaps 40% of his archive from printed sources. The rest around 60% were taken down form the older players and people who recalled the melodies from their youth.”
I asked Andries to fill me in a little on the social geography of tune collecting by Hubert.
“Well as you know there are Flemish and French speaking communities in Belgium and Hubert collected the most from the central area of Brabant, a middle region which is now called Vlaams-Brabant, today Leuven is the regional capital. The communities where he worked were Flemish speaking and the music itself is certainly Flemish folk music. I’d say the music itself is reasonably similar to Czech and German traditional music. The areas where Hubert collected the tunes are Flemish, although close to the linguistic border, as modern day Vlaams-Brabant lies next to the Brussels metropolitan area, but the current regional boundaries were only established in 1995, so my father was collecting in areas that were culturally distinct at the time even if they didn’t appear to be so on a political map. As you probably know Flemish and Walloon culture are totally different, and so is the folk music and the dances, the repertoire on MANdolinMAN's first CD is definitely Flemish.”
I recalled visiting a Belgium country-dance once before (it’s in Folkworld if you want to know how I got on). I asked Andries did he know anything about the musical and social contexts behind the tunes? For example we can guess that The Polka Elewijt and Waltz Eppegem were used for some kinds of social dances, but when were these dances held, and are they still happening in Belgium today? (There is a video on You tube called Wals 'Onder den Toren' - Hubert Boone if you’d like to see how the dances are held today).
“Dancing was of course very important and some dances where danced at special occasions. These tunes were bal tunes. Elewijt and Eppegem are the villages where Hubert found people where he got the tunes. He named the tunes after the place where he found them. Polkas and waltzes were common dances at bals, in that time these bals were like discos today. Bals were regularly organised, the entire village came out to have fun on Saturday nights.”
Can you tell us something about how the band MANdolinMAN came together? Who instigated the idea? How do you arrive at a choice of tunes? How do go about arranging the pieces?
“I contacted the musicians to come and participate in the project. I knew them because Belgium is, shall we say, very small! I chose the tunes and it sounded so nice playing them together that we were convinced to go for it. To be honest the record’s first main goal was a surprise for my father’s 70 birthday! It started as a one off gig and CD. But the story went its own way. Today it has become an international story.”
Andries fills me in on the MANdolinMAN quartet’s personnel. “Dirk Naessens is mostly known from playing with Urban Trad. Maarten Decombel is known from his solo work and of course from the folk bands Snaarmaarwaar and Naragonia Quartet. Peter-Jan Daems played with Snaarmaarwaar untill January 2013. They all have clocked up an impressive service in folk music. Maarten is also one of the best guitar players in Flanders. Dirk received a 'government medal' on fiddle at the Brussels conservatory and played with many excellent bands in Belgium, though Urban Trad was the best known.”
I was intrigued by the range of mandolins on the album, from a vintage 1920’s Lyon and Healy B Style, to a modern bluegrass instrument, a Weber from 2010. When selecting the instruments I wondered did they spend hours agonising over the voicings you could get from the different types of mandolin?
Andries says, “We always searched for the best sound combinations from the mandolins. It is when mixing the different types of mandolins that a broad sound is created. Also, and this may sound strange but is perhaps obvious when you consider it, the choice of plectrums can really alter the sound an instrument can make. One advantage of having a range of mandolins comes at the mixing stage as you have all these different voices to work with and that adds so much more character to the recording. It also helps us to build a big sound from only four instruments.”
One refreshing aspect of the album is the band’s willingness to use instruments that are in the price range of the ordinary hobby player, for example they have a 2003 Trinity College Mandola, they retail for under €500 and would be seen as a well made improvers model. Andreis tells me the instrument has a really good sound and it worked well in combination with the other instruments. “We could have gone out and bought all sorts of very expensive mandolins, and as a solo player or a hobbyist who plays for themselves at home, that would be a temptation, but we knew what we really wanted was a sound from the ensemble and you know we didn’t have to spend thousands on getting the sound we wanted. As the idea was to set up a one off project, it was not the intention to spend too much money on the instruments.”
So Old Tune Dusted Down is a re-working of some saved traditional Flemish melodies, played on non-traditional instruments. As a birthday present that was something special, but what does Hubert think of the album? “Well, yes he likes it a lot, but his first love is to hear the tunes in the traditional set up.”
Old Tunes Dusted Down might have been a one off, but MANdolinMAN are still together and are ready to release a second album, and it isn’t full of tunes form Brabant. No it’s a bossa-nova album, exploring a Brazilian repertoire. Check out the video footage on the band/s web site to see how they are at ease with this Latin jazz.
If you are playing mandolin at home why not get together with a few other players, like MANdolinMAN did? You’ll be amazed at what you can do with a mandolin ensemble and it won’t cost you the earth!
Photo Credits: (1)-(2) MANdolinMAN, (3) Snaarmaarwaar, (4) Naragonia (from websites).