Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sharing the Fire - Campfires, candles, fireworks

Toast with strawberry jam and more familiar faces in the morning cavalcade of colors and voices - what a perfect way to start the second day of the conference! And we had a lovely keynote teller to go with it: Susan Klein. "Storytelling is not for sissies" she said, and we all agreed; the elegant and sassy lady on the stage told us to behave ourselves because we are special, and that's always a good thing to hear. Her wit and humor and wisdom kicked off the first day of workshops and fun...
Did you realize how troublesome it is to choose one and only one workshop from all the amazing topics that are at the same time? Seriously, I spent half of my morning pondering about it.
Finally I ended up in Diane Edgecomb's workshop about Kurdish tales - and it turned out to be the best choice of the morning... The lady with the long braid and the long skirt told us about her amazing adventures and work with Kurdish storytellers, and how her book came to be (and yes I bought the book and it's worth every penny) (penny? I'm still not used to American coins...) She is doing an incredible job with the collecting and publishing and she is just that original kind of wandering storyteller who goes to the other side of the globe to rescue the stories she loves... cheers to her!
For the second round of workshops, I picked Ann Shapiro's workshop of storytelling and literacy, hoping that I'll learn some effective answers to The Question (I know, 42) (nah, not that question): Why hire storytellers in schools? I just see it coming, once I go back home, I'll really need all the training I can get... and Ann is a wonderful teacher. We played some games and we learned some answers, and I had much more confidence about telling in the classroom than before the workshop... yay!
Last round of the day, and I was pondering again - finally my vote went for Rabbi Rachmiel Tobesman (the third good choice of the day - not that I think that any other choices would have been less good...) and his Tales to touch the spirit... And they did. Listening to him telling those amazing stories and talking about how it does not matter what your religion is as long as you can find a message in them that touches your soul - I was thinking all the time "yessss, this is what religion should be about for everyone." He was wise and funny and entertaining, and I spent the whole 90 minutes going "True. Yes. Exactly. Wow."
And so ended the series of workshops for Saturday - and so began the Saturday night OLIO...

Sharing the Fire - The first spark

What a nice name for a storytelling conference, huh? You imagine nice friendly candles, colorful Chinese lanterns, lamps with flickering flames, torches in dark hallways of castles and campfires surrounded by moths and stories...
Well, for me, it was rather like a badass bushfire.

I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's Stradust - the most fascinating part of the whole book is the fairy market at the beginning. All kinds of miracles, people in colorful clothes, elves, goblins, faeries, wizards, flowers, colors, voices, music, stories stories stories...
Well, this is pretty much the same picture as the one that greeted us when we arrived at Crowne Plaza in Nashua, NH. Outside it was a miserable weather with puring rain - inside, well.... inside it was the inside of a very fancy hotel completely taken over by storytellers and so turned upside down. I just arrived to the front desk when I got run over by a whirlwind which was yelling "Csenge weeeeeee" in the voice of Meg Gillman, closely followed by a second, tiny and elegant one, Karen Chace. Felt like coming home.
(*humming* "Csenge got run over by the tellers...")
Check-in, greetings, finding my way across the corridors of the hotel; and then it was time for dinner, cheese and fruits (hey, I'm a college student, I eat whatever is free, and I have no problem refilling my plate). I was handed from teller to teller, introduced to dozens of people, and repeated the story of my life way too many times (although it got shorter and shorter with every telling, sic transit gloria mundi).
And then the fun began. We got some Irish music, and lots of greetings; then we got some storytelling, of course of course, young children of all ages can't go to bed without their bedtime stories...
Said stories were presented to us by five great tellers: Simon Brooks (and he just rocked. Every guy with a bodhrán rocks. Especially when he has a great story to tell), Meredith Bird Miller (fun story well told - we all just love the tales when the animal people can send their eyes out of their sockets), Uncle George Radcliffe (now he is a master, isn't he - he told the Tiger's Whisker from a female point of view, and we didn't care for a second), Jean Armstrong (lovely funny single lady), Roberta Burke (tell me more wonderful tales like that granny!) and finally Cora Jo Ciampi (and hearing her version of Cinderella we all just wanted her to be our Fairy Godmother...).
After applauding till our palms turned red, it was time for the open mike - more stories, more tellers, more fun (I like open mikes because you can never know what you'll hear). And when it was over too, I got introduced to another new person, a guy called Tony Toledo - Karen told me he is completely harmless (next think I know, he scared the hell outta me with the yelling and the jumping up and down - yeah, well, he is a true trickster) and we got invited to the secret storytelling evening meeting, with beer that bit back and pretzels filled with peanut butter, and lots of chatting and laughing and telling stories.
By the time I got back to my room, it was past midnight and my head barely touched the pillow before I passed out...
And so began the 27. Annual Sharing the Fire Storytelling Conference.
And the flames rose high...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Long way from Clare - Irish jam session

“Well, they should be somewhere… back there… at the bar.”

That’s what the waitress answered me at City Steam Café when I jogged in, asking for the Irish Jam Session. I wondered what kind of place can be where a waitress doesn’t know where exactly they have put 15 Irish musicians with full gear…

“Somewhere back there” turned out to be a half-lit small corner behind the bar and the tables crammed with people; I elbowed my way through the crowd and finally arrived to the small but cheerful island of Irish culture, where the jammers were just tuning up to start. Chairs were arranged in a circle; when I found one for myself and sat down to do a quick headcount, I came up with a following list: 3 guitars, 4 accordions, 1 violin, 2 Irish bouzoukis, bones, 1 wooden flute (12 people). When I looked around two minutes later, it was all mixed up and I just gave up the idea of keeping a proper list. Partly because there were new people coming in all through the first hour of jamming (finally there were 16 musicians, plus a baby – “she does the jig”), adding more and more instruments to the band (1 bodhrán, 3 harmonicas, a tin whistle, spoons, guitars, bouzoukis, a double bass and more accordions). I was quite happy to realize that except for the Irish harp and the uilleann pipes all traditional instruments were there for me to watch and listen…

And I listened.

First they just played medleys, one short piece after another; they were talking to each other while playing, and once in a while someone would stop to tune his or her instrument, or switch to another. Somebody went to the bar to order beer (Guinness I guess, judging from its color and the fact that we are talking about Irish musicians…) – the jugs and the glasses were put down in the middle of the circle and finally everything was ready to start…

The group was quite mixed, and people from various places just came to join in; but it did have a leader, and he played no instrument, but he started the songs with clapping and shouting, and he was the lead singer too. Once the jamming started, English and Gaelic songs got added to the program, and it went like this:

Someone (people took turns) would start a melody; then the whole band would join in, paying the same melody over and over again till everyone managed to pick it up and play correctly (sometimes the others would clap to help them adjust to the rhythm – sometimes some of them would even stop playing so the others can hear the bones or the clapping better). When everyone picked it up, they would play the piece for a while before someone came up with a variation or a new song; times like that the leader would point him/her out, and the others would stop playing or quiet down to listen and pick up the new melody, and then it started all over again. Sometimes during a longer piece, the leader would point out someone who would then play a solo (it was usually either an accordion or the flute) while the others continued playing the same tune. There were dozens of variations and solos during a medley (especially because the pub itself was so noisy that sometimes they couldn’t hear each other at all, and the two halves of the circle would start playing two completely different tunes before realizing where the dissonance came from…)

The songs were a completely different matter – someone would ask for one by title, and then the leader (or someone else) would start singing; the others would join in, and some of the instruments would follow, but only as background music – the emphasis was clearly on the words and the act of singing together as loud as possible with human throat and lungs, louder and louder till the final chorus.

Audience participation was limited to say the least (means I was the only one who actually went there just for the jam session) but highly encouraged (means the leader would show me what rhythm to clap, and sign me to join in during the singing too) and extremely enjoyable (means I kept clapping and slapping my tights all through the 3 hours straight – and I have bruises of nice shades of black, blue and green on both of my tights to prove it).

The essence of the jam session was the socializing part. The whole event was totally informal; people would talk, laugh and drink while playing, would pass instruments around, pass the poor baby around, walk away to talk to other people and then come back. They would start playing songs and then agree on something else. There seemed to be some kind of hierarchy in who could decide what to play – I only guessed that because the two youngsters in the group, two high school guys, were only allowed to start a song at the end of the whole 3-hour session (but it was greatly appreciated, and they played very well).

I talked to some of them at the end of the session (by that time they seemed to accept me as some kind of “clapping person”, sitting on the edge of the group and enjoying myself, dangling my legs from the barstool and drumming on the table with a huge grin). They gave me several addresses and dates for other sessions in the Hartford area, including “slow jam” – that means the place where new musicians can pick up the basic tunes and learn how to “Irish jam” (they told me that most of the jammers came from different Irish bands and music groups – means they are professionals – as well as from other jam circles, just like the youngsters who were picked up by the band leader at a high school concert).

All in all, it was a great experience – not only because of the amazing music but also because of the nice little community that gathered to spend an evening together, singing and drinking and making music. Irish music.