So this is a bodhran or frame drum of Irish origin which comes with a story or two.
A few years ago I worked in Newsham Centre for adult education. It had many delights, mostly the staff and students but especially the music group which met most Friday mornings. In the last week before I took early retirement, two of the students from the music group, Ruth and Katie, recorded an interview for me about the experience. Making music, as they described it, had such significance for them – a reason to get up in the morning through struggles with poor health, a source of joy, a challenge to learn and to delight to share. Ruth told how music had filled her life and widened her horizons. On one occasion she played her bodhran in the centre of Bold Street, a prominent shopping area in Liverpool.
An Afro-Brazilian group – Ile Aiye from Salvador de Bahia – had come to Liverpool to take part in the Africa Oyé yearly festival and had asked for a group of people under 16 or over 60 to join them, learning and sharing music. They had specified those age groups as they wanted people keen to learn, open to different approaches and “not too full of themselves.” They were right – the group who joined them excelled. Ruth described the delight of being accepted as a fellow musician by young black Brazilians – not the sort of people she’d ever met before. To all their varieties of drums she brought along that bodhran of the story, which Ile Aiye found fascinating. Her delight was even greater when they played Samba in the street and looked round and found the Brazilians had stopped playing and were smiling with pride at the old and young Liverpudlians playing on their own.
Ruth was a very remarkable person. My youngest son had a work experience placement at the centre. I said to him this morning “do you remember Ruth who used to play the drums in the centre?” He had met her once, many years ago, but instantly said “Curly Hair” and he smiled. He didn’t need to put into words, but that smile spoke volumes of how she affected people. Perhaps it was her gentle friendliness, her acceptance of people of all ages and backgrounds and her sparkling-eyed interest in the world. She enjoyed learning in general and was tireless in encouraging other people to keep learning, as an example, one a lonely soul, a recent widower told of joining classes as a result of her advice.
Her involvement in adult learning had started when she had a wool shop in the area and decided she needed to know how to knit herself to answer customers’ questions. Her interests grew from that as she learnt languages, cookery, crafts and more. Enrolling for courses was a famous ordeal at Newsham, but Ruth parked her car outside the building and with the small camping stove in the boot of the car, she and her friends made bacon butties for the queues of people waiting outside the building to sign up to learn. In her later years, her love of music took over. When my brother-in-law, Gerry, started the Friday morning sessions, she was a very active supporter and participant, learning all sorts of instruments. She spoke of occasions when, short of space, Gerry’s group formed a recorder consort in the student kitchen with music propped on the kettle and dish racks. But her passion was for drums, including the bodhran. She rang our local radio program, asking if anybody had a drum kit to spare for a lady in her 60s and her enthusiasm brought her the present of a drum kit and new friends who were enchanted that a lady several generations older than themselves shared their passion for drums.
When she died, she left many of her instruments to Gerry.
I’d lent my own bodhran to another student, we couldn’t locate it, so this week I contacted Gerry for help in finding it, which we couldn’t, but he reminded me of Ruth’s bodhran. I needed a bodhran for Helen to play at a ceilidh and that’s the next part of the story. It’s not relevant, but as a coincidence both Helen and I have sisters called Ruth.
Helen is a music teacher and a musician. She’s been a great help providing music at many events and in a variety of projects. She’s done interviews for me on radio and I remember describing her as “mostly cheerful, often cheeky but always charming to listen to.” She has a very easy manner and makes friends easily with people of all ages. Now I think about it, she’s got the same sparkle, fascination with other people and timeless interest in the world that Ruth had.
Helen found an abandoned accordion once in the flat where she lived and added it to her musical armoury, learning to play all sorts of delights: classics, ballads, gypsy jazz, chansons, French, Irish, Scottish and English country dance. Nowadays she is teaching less and performing more, both solos and with a variety of groups.
With characteristic panache, this year she announced that she was off to join the circus.
She been invited to play accordion in a circus band and that led to her needing a bodhran, as the circus band are going to finish the tour with a ceilidh. Bodhrans aren’t essential to ceilidhes, but Helen had a particular sound in mind.
So Gerry agreed that Helen should have Ruth’s bodhran. It seems very fitting that the next part of its life is playing in the circus. I think Ruth would have loved that.
Gerry added: Really nice, brought back happy memories. I’d forgotten about the (short-lived/kitchen-based) recorder consort. Interesting how it evolved into its later form. Ruth, Katie, Alwyn, Kate (Butterworth), Ken, Dave, Reg, Arthur, Tom, Frances, Bill and others, whose names I can’t recall, were a great bunch of people who were a delight to work with. They were eager to learn practical music skills and theory, open-minded in trying out new material, often suggesting tunes (although some of Ken’s ideas could be a little too much for some other members!) and they were capable of pulling off good performances in all kinds of venues – Newsham, St. Lukes, St George’s Hall, Museums, libraries, etc.
and Helen added:
Just a quick thank you again for the bodhran drum.
I’m fairly sure I’ve done this already but life has been a bit of a whirlwind and I’m not sure if I told you how much I appreciate your kindness on sorting this out.
We had a great night in the end – the drum was well used and people danced with joy to it!
Hope you’ve had a great summer!