It’s amazing how far a smile can take you when words don’t. Sael Bernal had Steve working overtime translating Spanish into German for the audience, but had he and his Veracruz colleagues from Los Pajaros del Alba (The Dawn Birds) been without an interpreter, Last Friday’s edition of the Folk Club Bonn would still have been spellbinding.
I know that it’s become a habit to begin my Folk Club reviews about the ever expanding audience numbers, I know that I also always advise people to ‘come early’. So why do I always arrive five mere minutes before the start to begin defending my 14 square inches of living space at the bar? Make a note for self: Read my own advice!
This evening was obviously going to be a busy one audience wise though since in effect we had not one, but two special guests from abroad. Chances of a 10pm finish were slim, chances of an enjoyable evenings music on the other hand were fat indeed.
There were lots of chairs being hauled about over ducking heads so a bit of law and order seemed very appropriate, and consequently John Harrison’s opening volley was just the ticket. Blind Blake’s ‘Police Dog Blues’ concerns a man whose amorous ways are curtailed when the object of his affection buys a police dog. His name is ‘Rambler’ by the way (the dog, not the man). ‘Stack-a-Lee’ is of course a bad man indeed – he shot Billy Lyons dead over an argument about a Stetson Hat. The police got him, though whether a police dog was involved is not recollected in the song. John looks quite menacing this evening too, his steel guitar even flashes in the restaurant lights as he brandishes it. Thank goodness for the jolly ‘Oh Well, Oh Well’ to defuse the atmosphere, and by the time John has tenderly interpreted Michael Chapman’s ‘Rabbit Hills’ all the chairs are on the ground and order has well and truly been restored.
This would normally be where the first walk-on appears of the evening. This evening however there are no walk-ons and indeed, with the rehearsal room chock full of Mexican gentlemen they would have nowhere to lay down their guitars anyway.
It’s already time for the evening’s first special guest. Isaac Tabor is born in Holland with American roots and an Irish backing duo. It’s worth seeing Isaac live just to enjoy the artwork on his brightly acrylic painted acoustic. The Peace sign and Krishna logos on the front and the equally eyecatching World Map on the back that most people never even got to see. It’s also worth hearing Isaac Tabor live. His sound can be soothingly soft as when he sings about hurricane Katrina and laments that “Nothing takes the place of my home” or Dylanesque as on ‘Somethings gotta change’ but he’s best enjoyed this evening when accompanied (very ably too) by Bean Dolan’s stand-up bass and particularly Neil Fitzgibbon’s jaunty fiddlework as especially demonstrated on ‘Arkansas’. (Arkansaw).
We had timely reminders in German and English that despite our Autumn coats it Was indeed May with the help of Günther Peters on piano and Ingrid Stachetzki in sing-alongs to ‘Komm Lieber Mai’ and ‘Hail, Hail the first of May’. Seeing Günther was indeed a reminder of how far Bonn Folk Club has come. He was one of the first musicians at the first ever Meet and now he’s graciously keeping the atmosphere going during the break and raffle on piano. An unsung hero of Bonn Folk Club – take a bow Günther Peters!
The nearest to a walk-in this evening would have had a long ‘stroll’ to get here. His name is Miguel Centeno and he’s not just Mexican by name and origin but also by musical nature. He has a sunny smile that immediately lights up the first four rows of seats and by the end of a short set that has elements of ‘La Bamba’ in it has reached every row, seat and corner of Haus Müllestumpe. So much so that everyone is clapping along happily with Miguel barely having to break sweat it seemed.
Los Pajaros have barely had time to touch down in Europe before they touch down in front of an enthusiastic audience this evening, and if Miguel Centeno’s smile seemed broad, it now almost seems like a ‘warm-up’ grin when Sael Bernal arrives. He might not know much about the German language this Sael Bernal, but he knows much about how to capture human hearts and attentions.
With Steve busy interpreting from one non-native language to another he tells us how wonderful it is to be here, and how it doesn’t matter that we cannot communicate so easily in words because we all share a common language, every one of us in the room this evening – the language of music. It’s a language that Sael and his colleagues are all fluent in too. Their ‘voices’ come so eloquently from instruments that, in contrast to Isaac Tabor’s ornately decorated guitar, look almost thrown together. Sael, together with Chopo Garizosa is playing a Jarana. It looks like a tiny guitar but actually has more strings than it’s famous counterpart. To Sael’s right is Nazario Martinez Amaro who has a smile similar to Sael’s and a similar instrument too – except it’s a Requinto. It seems to have five strings in comparison to the ten string Jaranas and at this point I’m thinking that John Harrison should be writing this review. Steve did give the instruments a ‘twang’ during the break but it only led to hot debate over exactly how they were tuned. John will I am sure concur though that DADGAD wasn’t involved.
Rounding the instrumental extravaganza off was a young gentleman named Alberto Vasquez who I, from a distance, had assumed to be sitting on and playing a Cajon. I did notice on closer inspection though that it appeared to have metal strips stuck out at the top which made me fear for his fingers. I discovered (again at the break) that these strips were not only unavoidable but actually desirable if you wish to play a Marimbol. These metal strips are tuned to different pitches, and are plucked. This is actually a replacement bass guitar in effect. I can’t see Phil Lynott getting much use out of it for ‘Jailbreak’ but it does make a remarkably smooth and satisfying rhythm backing.
Having gone into so much detail about the instruments I don’t want to forget the most important element of Los Pajaros del Alba – the players themselves. What other band have you come across that not only offers to teach members of the audience to dance but offers to sell it’s instruments to them (not Joe Bonamassa at any rate).
Whether there were any takers for the instruments I don’t know, but one young lady couldn’t resist that smile of Saels when it came to requests for a dancing partner. They did a very creditable Mexican dance that had the inevitable knock-on effect of having a large portion of the audience also on it’s feet, and where space didn’t permit, tapping said feet energetically. For the completists amongst you dear readers they played (I’m told by Steve) First spot: Maria Cuchena, Butaquito, La Bruja. Second spot: El Balajú, Pájaro Cú, La Morena, El Ahualuco, La Guacamata, El Buscapes, La Bamba. Of which only the last was a part of my musical knowledge before this evening but the other numbers – traditional arrangements from Veracruz, were all magical. A mix of Afro/Spanish/Indian sounds that you had to be there to appreciate but how could you describe it afterwards? A tiny bit La Bamba but ‘Son Jarocho’ as the music is called stems from Colonial times and has it’s own distinct rhythms and emotions.
The evening had, as usual, long overrun its official finish. I was putting on my coat after Los Pajaros del Alba had taken a long and deserved applause. “Not off yet John?!” said Mr Harrison from the bar-side. “ We’ve got Jock Stuart to come still”. ‘Jock Stuart’ with Mexicans, Marimbols, Jaranas, steel guitar and a double bass? My coat remained on it’s hook. I passed Fiddle player Neil Fitzgibbon at the bar holding a wellearned pint and he looked content to watch from the sidelines. Somehow John and Steve explained to their Mexican guests that at Bonn Folk Club we had this funny habit – people wouldn’t believe it was over until everyone had got up to sing ‘Jock Stuart’. Jock what? Must have been the reaction. Get up and indeed play up they did though, and what an incredible sight and sound they made. Isaac’s multi coloured acoustic duetting side by side with Sael’s more modest wooden Jarana. John switching between vocals and beer glass, Barry jogging around the scene with cellphone set to ‘movie’ mode, Alberto plucking the metal strips of his Marimbol with a smile, and there, at the end of the musical line-up, Neil Fitzgibbon had replaced his pint glass with a fiddle. Jock Stuart is a man you might meet once a month these days in Bonn, but a line-up of devoted musicians and smiling faces like that you don’t meet every year, never mind every day.
When I left Barry was sharing a piano stool with Miguel, Ralph Haupts was learning to play Miguel’s Marimbol and Steve was enquiring about tunings with Sael. The only language anyone could safely rely on was music.