Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.
I am thinking that when great silence descends upon all and everywhere, music will at last triumph.
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
Henry Miller, Tropic of Cancer
email@example.com – Dec 4, 2013
Robin Bullock never set out to make a name for himself as a Christmas musician — but here he comes this weekend, returning to The Palace Theater in downtown Maryville to perform his annual Celtic Christmas concert. “I always loved Christmas music, and I always loved the season; I’ve been doing an annual Christmas concert with my old group, Helicon, but that was as far as it went,” Bullock told The Daily Times recently. “One year, on Christmas Eve, my parents asked me if I would play Christmas carols on my guitar at their church, and I got so much response to it that I wondered if it was something that might work on the concert stage.
“I started doing some shows — The Palace Theater was one of the first — and it just took off, far beyond any expectation I had. It immediately became something popular, and these places wanted me back the next year and the next, so then I started making Christmas CDs, and those have been my top sellers. This is my busiest time of the year.” That’s saying a lot, given his litany of accomplishments and various endeavors that rival those of his old friend, national flat-pick guitar champion and Palace Theater owner Steve Kaufman. Bullock began playing guitar when he was 7, initially inspired by Doc and Merle Watson, Norman Blake and John Fahey. His apprenticeship years were spent at fiddlers’ conventions, bluegrass festivals and Irish seisuns, mastering the subtleties of a half-dozen instruments in both American and Celtic styles. Today, he’s recognized as one of the few musicians who can successfully blend the ancient airs and dance tunes of the Celtic lands with the roots music traditions of the contemporary music.
His holiday shows, which occasionally feature fingerstyle guitarist Steve Baughman, feature a variety of holiday classics, all with a Celtic touch, on any number of the instruments he specializes in: the six- and 12-string guitars, cittern, mandolin, piano and bass guitar. It’s an intimate, soulful performance that’s become a holiday tradition for Bullock, he said. “I look forward to it every year — coming back to these places about the same time every year and seeing people who have been coming for years and new people as well,” he said. “It’s been wonderfully rewarding.”
Tradition is a valuable commodity to a man like Bullock, who embraces musical ones and treasures personal ones. He grew up in suburban Washington, D.C., and his parents still live in the house in which he was raised; until he moved overseas to live in France for 13 years, he spent Christmas there, attending the Christmas Eve church service at which his holiday concert tradition was born.
This year, he’s come full circle, he said: His marriage recently ended, and he moved back to the United States. After years of spending the holidays overseas with a group of other expatriates who heralded the holy day’s arrival with revelry, he’ll be back in D.C. this year, in the house in which he grew up.
“I’m sort of reinventing Christmas for myself, and in a way that’s going to be bringing things full circle,” he said. “For me, this is a year of casting off old things and starting new things.” Something else new: His show this year is a solo affair. In years past, he’s brought Baughman with him, but this year, he wanted to get back to the style of performing that improved his technique and virtuosity in the first place. “Years ago, I decided to focus on beauty and depth and grace and intimacy rather than power, and since deciding to focus on that, I’ve had people tell me the most amazing things,” he said. “I think they’re saying these things because the music I’m playing taps into something very deep in people, and I see myself as a vessel for it and not as somebody entitled to take credit for that. I’m simply the instrument through which the music is flowing. “For me, music has been my anchor for years, and the same thing appeals to me about Celtic traditional music as it does Christmas carols: simplicity, the strong sense of melody, the power. It’s the directness of a really straightforward, powerful melody that goes right for the emotions, and when you combine that with the celebration and traditions of Christmas, you get something very deep.”
Maryville (TN) Daily Times, December 5, 2008
[EDITOR’S NOTE: With apologies to Esquire magazine, we continue a semi-regular feature: “What I’ve Learned,” a chance for some familiar faces to share with readers their wisdom and insight on music, art, life and whatever else they may choose. Inspired by the monthly feature in Esquire magazine, we thought it would be an ideal opportunity to give artists we’ve interviewed in the recent past, or whose stories we’ve told repeatedly, the chance to speak to our readers directly.]
[Three-time Washington Area Music Award winner Robin Bullock is a prolific composer and virtuoso multi-instrumentalist on 6- and 12-string guitars, cittern, mandolin, piano and bass guitar. A founding member of the innovative acoustic world-music trio Helicon, he’s toured extensively throughout the U.S., Canada and Europe and appeared on more than 50 CDs. Classical Guitar magazine calls him “a musician whose technical skill and stylistic expertise are second to none … a time-served folkie of the highest caliber,” while Guitar Player simply describes his work as “Breathtaking.” His holiday concerts have sold out at The Palace Theater for the past four years.]
I consider myself a practitioner of an ancient and honorable trade, that of the traveling musician — a direct descendant of the bards and minstrels of earlier times. Live music, like live theater, is one of the oldest human rituals, and is such a primal human need that it’ll never disappear, no matter how advanced technology becomes. I agree with the bluegrass dobro pioneer Josh Graves, who once commented that he felt he was in a stable profession since people would always need music. As for whether it’s a “respectable” profession — what could possibly be more respectable than bringing something of beauty into this world of ours?
Playing music that’s hundreds of years old and that’s been passed down aurally from generation to generation is both humbling and inspiring. This music carries incredible power. It’s survived through the centuries because it’s still as meaningful today as when it was first created. (As the great Irish fiddler Kevin Burke says, “It’s not good because it’s traditional, it’s traditional because it’s good.”) And all of us who play traditional music are links in a mighty chain that will continue on long after we’re gone.
A musical tradition belongs to anyone who loves it enough to devote themselves to it. There’s no reason you have to be from Ireland to play Irish music, from Louisiana to play Cajun music, from the south to play bluegrass or black to play the blues. Four of the best Irish musicians I know are French.
When people ask me if I’m self-taught on guitar, I tell them nobody’s self-taught. I didn’t go to conservatory or study under a mentor, if that’s what you mean, but I learned from every guitarist I ever heard, and still do. My guitar teachers included Doc and Merle Watson, Norman Blake, John Fahey and John Renbourn — none of them were aware of it, but I learned a huge amount from all of them just the same.
A flute player friend of mine once said there are two kinds of musicians in the world: those whose playing says “Look at me, I’m a great player,” and those whose playing says “Listen to this tune, this is a beautiful tune.” I never forgot that, and I try to live up to being the second kind.
Some people approach the music business as just that — a business, complete with market analyses, sales quotas and so on. My own strategy, insofar as I have one, has been to bypass all that as much as possible. What I do is play music that speaks to me, that takes me to a place of harmony and transcendence; I play it as truthfully as I know how to, and then I try to find people to play for who feel the same connection to it that I do. That’s all there is to it. It’s a much simpler approach than trying to be the Next Big Thing, and it seems to work.
There are those of us who are just by our nature misfits, rebels and outcasts. I’ve never fit into any kind of group, organization or society I’ve tried to belong to, and I finally realized I was just going to have to create my own path and follow it, because I was incapable of following anybody else’s. Once I accepted that and made peace with it, things began to blossom in my life in ways I could never have predicted. And interestingly enough, I’m finding more friends now than ever before, by following my own path.
The experience of living in a country other than your native country is a profound one. Things you always took for granted simply because you’d never known any alternative are suddenly called into question by the revelation of other norms — not necessarily better or worse, but different, and equally valid. You come to realize how many preconceptions you carry from your own culture, you begin examining them more closely, and in some cases you let go of them and adopt new ways of looking at the world. And gradually you become a more independent — and I would say more complete — human being. (Not that you have to live abroad for this to happen, of course, but it does seem to speed up the process, or at least it did for me!)
In the words of one of my favorite writers, Henry Miller, “I am neither a pessimist nor an optimist. To me the world is neither this nor that, but all things at once, and to each according to his vision.”
Dirty Linen #115, Dec 2004/Jan 2005 – David Bromberg, Aoife Clancy, John Mayall, Angelique Kidjo, Robin Bullock, The Kennedys, Rosalie Sorrels, The Cucumbers, John Roberts & Tony Barrand, Beautiful Dreamer – The Songs of Stephen Foster, The Reel World, Unpacking the Panoply, concert reviews, recording reviews, holiday reviews, book reviews, video reviews, news.Dirty Linen #115, Dec 2004/Jan 2005 – David Bromberg, Aoife Clancy, John Mayall, Angelique Kidjo, Robin Bullock, The Kennedys, Rosalie Sorrels, The Cucumbers, John Roberts & Tony Barrand, Beautiful Dreamer – The Songs of Stephen Foster, The Reel World, Unpacking the Panoply, concert reviews, recording reviews, holiday reviews, book reviews, video reviews, news
Dirty Linen, December 2004/January 2005
The guitar is a wonderfully versatile instrument, second only to drums in its nearly universal presence within the world’s traditional and contemporary musical styles. In Celtic music, however, the guitar is a relative newcomer, taking a significant role only recently. One musician who has played a major role in advancing the cause of Celtic guitar is the much-traveled multi-instrumentalist Robin Bullock, a tall, affable, thoughtful man with a contagious grin who grew up in the Washington, D.C., area and who now lives outside Paris. His recordings and concert performances over the past 20 years — solo, in various duos, and with the trios Helicon and Greenfire — have displayed a rare combination of technical virtuosity and emotional nuance. He has a deep appreciation of the power of music to touch people’s hearts, and the skills to make that happen when he plays.
Bullock can pick out a ripping jig or foot-stomping reel with the best of them, but he’s best known for delicate, captivating compositions that gracefully blend Irish musical themes with touches of Appalachian and new age seasoning, graceful meditations that have been known to leave some listeners in tears. He talked about his music last July during a teaching residency at the University of Rhode Island, where he was among the instructors in an annual multicultural music and dance program called “World Voices, World Visions.”
Bullock was born in Washington in 1964, and while he studied classical piano as a child, his first real love was bluegrass. “I knew I wanted to play guitar from the time I was seven years old,” he recalls. “I saw Glen Campbell playing guitar on TV, and I thought, ‘That’s for me!’ The first music that I got really passionate about, that spoke to me on a deep level, was bluegrass and American old-time music by way of people like Doc Watson, and later Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe, the straight bluegrass crowd. And that’s what I did for most of my teenage years, cut classes and listened to Norman Blake and Ralph Stanley and their old songs, and on weekends I went to bluegrass festivals.” Another influence was local icon John Fahey, through whose innovative and often eccentric music Bullock first learned the art of fingerpicking.
Bullock’s interest in bluegrass remains strong, and he’s a mean bluegrass picker, but in his late teens, his focus shifted to Ireland. “When I was about 17 or 18, I heard The Best of the Bothy Band in a record store, and the same thing happened — that was it, that’s what I want to do. It was the most incredibly powerful music that I had ever heard, and it combined everything I was looking for. There’s a sense of tradition, a sense of rootedness, incredibly beautiful, exciting melodies, and a great hard-driving groove. And all of that in music that was several hundred years old and still sounded as fresh as when it was created.”
At that time, in the early 1980s, the guitar as a melody instrument was still rare in Celtic music. Then, as now, fiddle, flute, accordion and pipes ruled the genre. “When the guitar appeared,” Bullock explained, “kind of as a result of the folk boom back in the 60s, it was considered as an accompaniment instrument, partly because it’s a low- and mid-range chorded instrument, and so it was capable of carrying harmonies and support that way, and partly because in a session, if you try playing a melody line on a guitar, you’ll get eaten alive! So guitarists tended to play mostly rhythm and chord backup.
“But a lot of us who were taken with the beauty of the instrument, as well as being taken with the beauty and power of Celtic music, decided that there must be a way to use this instrument in this repertoire and have it carry the melody line. And I suppose some of us just got tired of being in the background all the time, letting the accordion players and fiddle players get all the glory. There’s quite a few Celtic guitarists out there now in both fingerpicking and flatpicking styles – Tony McManus, Chris Newman, Steve Baughman, Duck Baker, Al Petteway, and, of course, John Renbourn.
“I try to do both, flatpicking and fingerpicking, because I’ve always done both, and when I discovered traditional Irish music I tried to use those styles and techniques to play jigs and reels.” In addition to guitar, bouzouki/cittern and mandolin are Bullock’s other primary instruments these days, and he also plays piano, electric bass, and some fiddle and banjo when the situation arises.
Bullock’s professional career began in earnest with the Baltimore-based instrumental trio Helicon, which also included flute/whistle/bagpipes player Chris Norman and fiddler/hammered dulcimer player Ken Kolodner. Named after the Greek mountain that was the home in myth of the muses, it was one of the first “world music” fusion bands.
“Chris and Ken had an album called Daybreak,” Bullock said, “and I heard it and loved it. When I met them in 1986, I was looking to get out of bluegrass and play some Irish music, and they were looking for a guitar player, so we hooked up, and I spent the next 11 or 12 years pretty much full-time touring with the band. We toured like madmen. We accomplished a lot, and it got all of us into the business on a serious level. We got together playing Celtic and Appalachian music, and along the way we decided we liked playing music from other traditions as well. So eventually in a typical concert we’d play tunes from China, Eastern Europe, and South America, and Irish and old-time Appalachian music as well, sort of running through our musical influences.”
After a run of more than ten years, Helicon wound down. “It was a lot of fun, but along about ’97 or ’98 we all got involved in other things that were more interesting to us individually, and I think we were a bit burned out on Helicon by that time. There wasn’t any conscious decision to break up, but we did our last gig, other than our annual winter solstice concert in Baltimore, in June 1998. We still enjoy playing together, but our individual schedules got so busy, it precluded Helicon activity, and I guess we felt that Helicon had said what it had to say. We still do an annual winter solstice concert, and it’s been very successful for us over the years.” Bullock appeared on four Helicon CDs and has also contributed to the other members’ solo projects.
Following Helicon’s halt, Bullock worked briefly with Kolodner and fiddler Laura Risk in another instrumental trio, Greenfire, and among other affiliations he has also played with the Footworks Percussive Dance Ensemble and the John Whelan Band, as well as with Washington-area neighbors Al Petteway and Amy White. He released his first solo album, Green Fields, in 1993, a collection of largely traditional Irish tunes played on 6-and 12-string guitar, bouzouki, fiddle and bass, frequently overdubbing two or three lead instruments in the studio for a richly melodic effect. Four other solo albums have followed to date, including his latest, a holiday disc called A Guitar for Christmas that was released this fall.
As the years have gone by, Bullock’s repertoire has increasingly featured delicate melodic interpretations rather than blazing, fast tune sets. That’s been the result of a growth process, he said. “I think I underwent something of a life change six or eight years ago now. I was in a very unhealthy, very dysfunctional relationship, as well as some professional affiliations that were not that healthy either. When I came out the other side of all of that, I found that – perhaps as a result of the turmoil in my personal life – I was drawn to quieter, more intimate things, both as a listener and as a player. So that seems to be the direction I’m going in. And interestingly enough, that seems to be the kind of material that most resonates with my audiences. It hasn’t been a deliberate marketing maneuver on my part, but I find that after concerts – and I do try to combine the faster things with the more intimate pieces – almost invariably the ones that people say really meant something are the quieter pieces like ‘The Secret Waterfall’ and ‘Between Earth and Sky.’ So I’m comfortable going in that direction. The world’s full of flashy guitar players. There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s plenty of other people to do that, and what moves me, what I’m really interested in bringing to an audience, is the sense of beauty and serenity that kind of music brings.
“I’ve been trying to figure out for a long time who I am as a solo performer and what I have to offer. I think that only in the last couple years I’ve gotten a handle on that. And it seems that what I can do with an audience at my best is take them to a place of beauty and peace and grace for a while, or rather the music takes us all there. I’m happy with that!”
Like most contemporary Celtic instrumentalists, Bullock performs a mix of traditional and original material. For him, composition is a combination of focused craft and spontaneity. “It can be sudden inspiration when I’m out doing other things, or it can be sitting down with an instrument and noodling and something pops out, or it can be deliberate effort. From my time playing with John Whelan, and he’s a very prolific composer, I saw that you can write on demand. He would write a lot of tunes when he knew he had a recording project coming up. There have been times that I needed such-and-such kind of tune to fill out an album, and I will deliberately write that, but most of the time it’s inspiration. It comes from a feeling, generally, that I can’t really put into words or even explain very much.
“I was just reading the Rodney Crowell article in this month’s Dirty Linen [#113, August/September 2004], and I really liked what he said about how you have to bypass the brain, let the heart do the speaking, and just get out of the way, because the song is already fully formed somewhere. You just need to let it take root. So that’s what I try to do. My wife, who’s an actress, calls it walking on two legs – balancing the intuitive heart side with the conscious craft side. So when I’m working on a piece, I might get a melodic fragment or two as sort of a gift from the universe, and then I’ll call up the left-brain conscious side to figure out how to piece it together with something else or how to expand on it. It’s really hard to explain. I don’t fully know how it works. But it seems to be a matter of throwing oneself open to the universe and allowing that energy to come in, and then when it comes in, grabbing it and doing something with it with the conscious mind.
“I’ve written my share of traditional-style tunes, where it’s just a two-part or three-part jig or reel written to sound like a traditional tune as much as possible. But my solo pieces tend to be a bit more complex than that, simply because I want them to have a sense of progression and go somewhere. I might have an A part and a B part in the traditional style, but then there’ll be a middle part that goes in an unforeseen direction and gradually wends its way back to the original theme, just because as a listener I find it a bit more interesting for it to be a bit deeper than a traditional jig or reel.”
Many of Bullock’s arrangements utilize open guitar tunings, which he feels are an important tool for shaping a mood. “Music in general goes to a very deep place in humans,” he said, “but I think there are certain sounds that have a specific impact on the human organism, African drumming being one, drone being another. It’s known all over the world – in Celtic music, in the Australian didjeridu, in Indian music, in Appalachian old-time music. There’s something very powerful and primal in that. And I think the sound of the guitar, the sound of the plucked string resonating against the sound chamber, can hit people in a powerful, physical way, especially if the guitar is in an open tuning, because the guitar resonates more deeply, and the strings are usually tuned lower, so they’re more relaxed and deeper-sounding. The resonance creates a real impact.”
In addition to his solo work, Bullock is involved these days with two duos based on opposite sides of the Atlantic. One musical partner is French flute and whistle player Michel Sikiotakis, with whom he released a delicate, evocative duo album called The Irish Girl in 2003. “I met him through mutual friends when I moved to France,” Bullock said. “He said, ‘There’s a session this Saturday, come on down.’ So I walk in and it’s ten or twelve people and he’s in the middle of it, and I thought, what an incredibly beautiful, solid player. He was one of the best flute players I ever heard, and I knew that from across the room. And it wasn’t that he was particularly flashy; it was that everything he did was so perfect. He had just the right groove, just the right lift, completely controlled and relaxed. Once I got settled in town, we started getting together and played the odd gig, and we decided we had a really nice chemistry, both musically and personally. So we did the one album and a bit of touring, and we’ll see where it goes.” Unfortunately, Bullock added, current United States visa regulations affecting foreign performers make an American tour with Sikiotakis unlikely in the near future.
Bullock’s other current partner is California fingerstyle guitarist Steve Baughman, with whom he released a collection of intricate guitar duets called Celtic Guitar Summit in 2002. “That’s the performing context I’m really most excited about these days,” he said with a smile. “Steve and I met at the Swannanoa Gathering – there seems to be some sort of magic vortex there! We sat down to play a few tunes, and the next thing we knew four or five hours had gone by, because what happened was, when we first played together, it sounded like we’d played together all our lives. This is one of those mystical things that happens sometimes when you play music. And it was unexplainable because there was no particular effort on either of our parts, and we have very different playing techniques. But for whatever reason there was this groove that we both fell into naturally and effortlessly. So we thought this is something truly magical, and we need to document this. The next thing we knew, Acoustic Guitar magazine had picked Celtic Guitar Summit as one of their top CDs of the year. And that gave us the kick in the pants that we needed to start taking it more seriously.
“We’re touring as much as we can, given the fact that he lives in California and I live in France. It’s been very interesting to watch the audience reaction, because people are responding to the music on a really deep level. The things that people say to us after concerts, and the energy that we feel in concerts, indicates that it’s going far beyond just a pleasant evening of entertainment. We seem as a duo to be touching something really deep in people’s emotions through the sounds of two acoustic guitars playing this ancient Celtic repertoire. It’s almost like it’s a calling, that we have to pursue this duo because it’s so deep, so special, so magical. I haven’t felt this way since Helicon – that I’m part of something bigger, that’s very important, that needs to be out there.”
Aside from performing, Bullock also teaches his craft, primarily at music camps and workshop programs. “I’ve been doing these camps in the summer for about ten years now. I enjoy teaching, and if there’s any particular strength I bring it’s that I approach the music as an oral tradition. I try not to write things down. I make my students learn the tunes by ear because that’s the way the tradition works. There’s nothing wrong with writing things down, but in the last twenty years or so there’s been a worrisome trend in teaching and learning traditional music. We live in the information age, and there’s tons of books and videos out there. That’s great, but the danger is that I see more and more people learning exclusively from tablature or written sources, and I don’t feel they’re really getting at the heart of the music.
“A written source doesn’t carry the whole story. It gives you the notes, but it doesn’t tell you how it should be played – how to give it lift, how to add your own variations. I see people taking tablature too literally. So I make people learn by ear, and if they’re really tab-addicted it’s rather a violent awakening! And along the way we discuss the way the tradition works, how it changes and evolves from one person to the next.”
In the summer of 2000, Bullock moved to France to join the woman who is now his wife, and they live in a country village about 60 kilometers outside Paris. “She’s an actress, and her career is based entirely around Paris, whereas my career is based on being on the road, so it didn’t matter where I lived. It’s been interesting, musically. When I first got over there, I thought I was going to have to start all over again with the career and build it up from ground zero, so I played with anybody who would call. After a while, I realized there was no reason I couldn’t still have a career in America even though I was living in France. There’s the Internet to communicate with, and it’s an eight-hour plane ride every once in a while. So it’s really the same as it’s ever been.”
Bullock will tour in the northwest United States with Baughman in November, followed by solo gigs in December in support of his new holiday CD. “I’ve been spending my Decembers mostly in the States,” he said, “because I’ve been doing more and more Christmas concerts. I’ve always loved the Christmas season and the music that goes with it, and I think it sounds beautiful on guitar. So I started doing Christmas concerts to see if anyone was interested, and it has grown and grown over the years. I love the music – too bad I only get to play it one month of the year. But maybe it’s better that way. It becomes more magical and ritualistic.”
Meanwhile, Bullock continues to enchant audiences with the simple charms of solo guitar. “At this point in my life, I’m just not interested in playing loud, thrashy music…except once in a while to blow off steam,” he said with a laugh. “I’m more into seducing the listeners and taking them to a magical place. Just last week at the Swannanoa Gathering, I spent some time in the company of [fiddler] Martin Hayes, who’s just my hero in Irish music these days, and I saw what he does onstage with an audience. He doesn’t try to sledgehammer them; he seduces them and takes them to a really magical place that they couldn’t get to otherwise. And watching him play, I thought, that’s what I want to do with the guitar.”
(Column originally written for Acoustic Musician Magazine – used by permission)
If you’ve spent any time at all around Celtic music, you’ll have noticed the frequency with which citterns, bouzoukis, octave mandolins, mandolas, mandocellos and even blarges show up. You might be wondering what exactly these strange creatures are. Even if you’re aware that they’re all midrange members of the mandolin family, you might well be confused what the distinctions among them might be. And your confusion, alas, will not be helped by the fact that there isn’t a great deal of nomenclatural consistency among those of us that play, um, those things. And so, with fear and trepidation, here I go riding heroically into the valley of befuddlement to try to sort it all out… First of all, the mandolin. We’re all agreed what a mandolin is, right?
Eight strings, frets, tuned the same as a fiddle? Good. Well, it seems that around the turn of the century, the Gibson company began making and selling other mando-instruments whose tunings corresponded exactly to the other members of the violin family – the mandola (tuned CGDA, low to high, a fifth below the mandolin), the mandocello (CGDA, an octave below the mandola), and even, God help us, the mandobass (EADG, the same as a string bass or electric bass, and a million laughs to try to actually play). Gibson’s terminology was only slightly confusing at the time, owing to the fact that there already was an instrument called a mandola, used in 19th-century classical mandolin ensemble music, and it was tuned GDAE, a full octave below the mandolin. Gibson clarified this at first by calling their viola-range instrument a tenor mandola, but as it became more popular the older mandola was pretty much forgotten about and the term mandola came to mean Gibson’s CGDA instrument. Still with me so far?
Fast forward to the 1960s, when a young Irishman named Johnny Moynihan discovered the Greek bouzouki. The bouzouki has a ribbed, bowl-shaped back (similar to a small lute), a long skinny neck, three or four pairs of steel strings, and a rich, proud heritage in the music of Greece. It so happened, however, that it fit right in with Irish music as well. Moynihan showed his new toy to his pals Andy Irvine and Donal Lunny, who went on to form the group Planxty. Planxty was arguably the first great post-Beatles revivalist traditional Irish band, influenced untold numbers of musicians to come…and had two bouzouki players. (Irvine and Lunny individually also showed up in later, equally influential bands like the Bothy Band, De Danann, Moving Hearts and Patrick Street, but that’s another story.)
However, by this time, these guys and the players who followed in their footsteps were playing newly-made instruments that had flat or arched backs, more like big mandolins than genuine bouzoukis. Some continued to call them bouzoukis anyway, while some took the suggestion of legendary luthier Stefan Sobell and started calling them citterns. (Cittern seems to have been a loose family name during the Renaissance for smallish, double- or triple-course, wire-strung fretted instruments. I played a concert with Helicon a few years back at the Shrine to Music Museum in Vermillion, South Dakota, where I got to see some authentic Renaissance citterns…and they didn’t appear to have a lot in common with one another.)
Thus began the confusion: with two terms floating about, people understandably assumed that there was a difference between the two, especially since by now there were both eight- and ten-string variations on the theme, as well as short necks and long necks. Furthermore, those who played eight-string versions usually (though not always) tuned them an octave below a mandolin, more or less – remember the old “mandola” tuning? – and some folks started calling them, quite reasonably, octave mandolins. So now we have citterns, bouzoukis (which may or may not be the same thing, but are not to be confused with real Greek bouzoukis, the only player of which in Irish music that I know of is Alec Finn of De Danann), octave mandolins, mandolas and mandocellos, eight strings and ten, short necks and long, and nobody agrees which is which. I am going to take a deep breath, stick my head out on the chopping block and attempt a few statements as to what’s what, based on my own years of observation and playing.
It seems safe from all of this, and the lack of any standardization of the whole thing, to make the following general statements: If it’s a mandolin-like instrument, basically teardrop-shaped, flat- or arched-backed, more or less the size and range of a guitar but with eight or ten (or twelve…all right, all right) paired strings, then it can be called either a bouzouki or a cittern with equal historical
inaccuracy, given that both terms were borrowed from other instruments in the first place. (I suppose a case could be made for “cittern” being marginally less inaccurate than “bouzouki” since “cittern” refers to an instrument family while “bouzouki” is the name of a specific instrument, but let’s not split hairs.) “Octave mandolin” is only accurate if it has eight strings and is tuned an octave below a mandolin, and the safest thing to do with “mandola” and “mandocello” is continue with the aforementioned Gibson definition of those terms, since those instruments have found a new home under those names among bluegrass/new acoustic musicians. And if you want to call it a “blarge,” go ahead, but you’ll do so without me.
The best story I’ve heard about all this comes from my pal Beth Patterson, bouzouki (or whatever) player with the New Orleans Irish group the Poor Clares. At ZoukFest (yep, there’s a whole week dedicated to these things) in Weston, Missouri last summer, she told me that one night she had just been asked “What’s that instrument called?” one too many times, and replied in all seriousness, “It’s called a tractor!” The rest of the band picked up on the joke, and were asking for more tractor in the monitors and so on for the rest of the night. Just goes to show: we’ve got to call it SOMETHING, and given that it’s a bit of a musical mongrel, there’s no point in getting too hung up with the nomenclature.
Like to hear some cittern/bouzouki/octave mandolins (or CBOMs, as they’re sometimes called on the Internet)? This is going to be an absurdly incomplete list, of course, but as an accompaniment/ensemble instrument, check out anything by Planxty, anything by the Bothy Band, anything by Altan, anything by the Tannahill Weavers, and flutist Matt Molloy’s self-titled first solo album (with bouzouki by Donal Lunny). As a lead/solo instrument, Gerald Trimble’s First Flight, Roger Landes’s Dragon Reels…and, of course, anything of mine!
3-17-17 Robin and Aoife Clancy
3-17-17 Robin and Aoife Clancy
3-17-17 Robin and Aoife Clancy
3-17-17 Robin and Aoife Clancy
2-24-17 Robin at Cellar Stage
2-24-17 Robin and Aoife
2-24-17 Robin and Aoife
2017 cellar stage RB only
1-2-17 Robin and Aoife Clancy
Dickens recited to Robin Bullock music 12-29-16
12-10-16 Robin and Steve Baughman– Pierce Chapel, Macon, GA
12-2-16 Robin and Steve
12-1-16 Robin and Steve
10-29-16 Robin and Steve
10-7-16 Robin and Aoife in Sheppardstown
9-23-16 Robin and Aoife – Sheppardstown
9-17-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy
9-16-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy- ISIS
9-16-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy
9-14-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy
9-14-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy
Common Ground-Maryland Wine Festival
7-10-16 Celtic Week Staff Swannanoa Gathering
Guitar Week Staff Swannanoa
Mando Banjo Swannanoa Staff
6-17-16 RB music played on Radio
6-2-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy
Robin and Aoife Clancy – White Horse
3-5-16 RB music played on Radio
2-4-16 Robin and Aoife Clancy/Sheppardstown/Robin plays with open band at dance
12-29-12 Helicon’s music played on radio
5-27-11 Robin and Steve (with nice videos)
3-13-11 RB music played on Radio
6-13-10 RB’s music played on Radio
10-31-09 RB music played on Radio
Radio show 5-6-16
3-5-16 March Mando Concert
Robin on Thistle and Shamrock – from Vinyl to mp3
1-3-16 with Maggie and Andrea at Rams Head
1-3-16 with Maggie and Andrea at Rams Head
12-3-15 Robin and Steve Baughman
2015 Common Ground on the Hill
radio show 9-10-15
4-15-15 Robin tours with Janis Ian and Tom Paxton
Robin, Ken, Elke
Little Lake Hill House Concert Series
12-14-14 RB’s music on radio
12-13-14 Robin and Steve
12-10-14 Robin at Swannanoa Solstice
12-8-14 Steve and Robin
2014 tour with Janis and Tom
12-5-14 RB, Ken and Elke
8-5-14 Robin and Steve Baughman
3-25-14 RB with Tom Paxton and Janis Ian
12-3-12 Robin, Ken Kolodner, Elke
8-4-11 Diana Worthham Theatre
Steve Kaufman Kamp
video of Kennedy Center Performance 8-3-10
Robin with Al and Amy
Robin’s music played on Thistle and Shamrock (archives)
Memphis Acoustic Music Association 3-17-07
Barnes and Noble pre-release Greenfields
Robin and Steve
11-28-06 Robin and Steve
12-4-04 robin and Steve in video playing Silent Night – Douglas Theater in Macon, BA
3-22-04 Australian review of Robin and Steve
Master Anthology of Fingerstyle Guitar Solos Volume One –
Featuring solos by the world’s finest fingerpicking guitarists including Robin Bullock on ‘Lost Hollow Lament’ See more at: http://guitarissimo.com/master-anthology-of-fingerstyle-guitar-solos-volume-one#sthash.XJup3aFS.dpuf
5-2000 Master Anthology
Robins music played on BBC
Robin and Michel Sikiotakis (flute & tin-whistle) 2003
FolkRoots, 251, May 2004
Folkworld, the online music magazine The Irish Girl in question is, of course, red-headed, like Rossetti’s “La Ghirlandata” which adorns the CD cover. It is also the title of a reel recorded by James Morrison (and by Michael Coleman as well, but he called it “The Wild Irishman” – strange things happen). Featured on this disc is also the slow air “An Cailín Rua” meaning the red-haired girl. So far, so good. – American Robin Bullock (guitar, bouzouki, mandolin, keyboards) met Michel Sikiotakis (flute, whistle) in Paris, a Frenchman of Greek extraction but an All-Ireland champion too. So, there is no need to hide for Robin & Michel. Michel executes dance tunes as well as slow airs with the same finesse. Robin’s rhythm guitar backing and his fingerstyle guitar (on Carolan’s harp tune “Kitty Magennis”) is sensitive; his mandolin picking is gypsy-hot (“La Valse des Niglos”). Both are composers as well. The album finishes off with a haunting slow air written by Michel; and “The Depth Charge” is a vivid jig by Robin: The title is a souvenir of his wilder days; a depth charge is a drink consisting of a shot glass of whiskey dropped (glass and all) into a pint of beer. Slainte!
Walkin’ T:-)M • FolkWorld (02/2004)
Sing Out, Winter 2004
This is a gorgeous collection of (mostly) Irish instrumentals from well-known string wizard Robin Bullock and former All-Ireland Champion flutist Michael Sikiotakis. Bullock’s playing, on guitar and bouzouki, is subtle enough to let the whole range of flute dynamics through. Sikiotakis is, simply, a genius!
All Music Guide All Music Guide, Nov. 2003
If you think Sikiotakis is kind of an unusual last name for an Irish flute player, you’re right. And if you think Michel is an unusual first name both for an Irish flute player and for someone whose last name is Sikiotakis, you’re right again. But if you think that being a Frenchman of Greek ethnic extraction has any adverse effect on Michel Sikiotakis’ mastery of Irish flute and whistle technique, you only have to hear this album to see that you’re dead wrong. American guitar and bouzouki virtuoso Robin Bullock is given equal billing on The Irish Girl, but Sikiotakis is the center of gravity here, his warm, woody, and lilting tone and joyfully virtuosic delivery inviting both admiration and awe. The repertoire is weighted just a bit too much toward the familiar — Sikiotakis plays “The Musical Priest,” “Rocky Road to Dublin,” and “Carolan’s Welcome” beautifully, but doesn’t necessarily bring anything new to these frequently recorded tunes. On the other hand, the overdubbed flute choir on a gorgeous Scottish lament called “Flight of the Eagles” is both unusual and tasteful, and the Ed Reavy composition “Lane to the Glen” is a melodically twisting surprise. Highly recommended.
Gallery of Robin and Michel photos
Robin, Al Petteway and Amy White
Robin, Al Petteway and Amy White
8-3-11 Robin, Al Petteway and Amy White
2004 – Robin, Al, Amy
Oxford Handbook of Music Education – World Music – includes description of trio Helicon
12-18-15 Mark Steiner Show radio pod
Helicon with John McCutcheon 12-11-88