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Mandos and Bouzoukis: Kissing Cousins

I’ve been playing my octave mandolin for 27 years now and I’ve long since given up trying to get sound guys to stop calling it a bouzouki.  Actually, in my current band lineup, playing alongside mandolinist Paul Kotapish in Wake the Dead, it’s probably easier to distinguish between mandolin and bouzouki when asking for more or less in the monitors.  And I only mention it because a new CD I received this week got me thinking about real bouzoukis and their place with mandolins in Celtic music.

Greek bouzoukis appeared in Irish sessions in the mid-60s, first played by Johnnie Moynihan in Dublin and Alex Finn in Galway and quickly gaining popularity all over Ireland.  They were wonderfully flangy and easy to chord under the jigs and reels and added a new drive that we’ve been enjoying in the tradition ever since.

In response to demand, luthiers all over the British Isles started making their own versions of teardrop-shaped mandos, with six or eight or ten strings, sometimes octave pairs on the bottom, sometimes unison, and tuned every which way (only rarely to straight fifths).  Some had long necks to imitate the Greek bouzoukis, some had shorter ones.  It was open season, stylistically, and within a short time most double-course instruments larger than a mandolin in the Celtic sessions began to be referred to as bouzoukis.

But real Greek bouzoukis are relatively rare in the Celtic scene and I think this is sad.  Alec Finn, who co-founded the influential Irish band De Danann in the 1970s with fiddler Frankie Gavin, was by any measure the greatest exponent of Celtic-Greek bouzouki during the Great Celtic Revival of the 70s and 80s.  He embraced the simplicity of the 6-stringed instrument, always preferring intricate single-note arpeggios to the flangy full chords, and giving De Danann their signature sound.

So it was with real delight that I sat there tapping my foot to the new duo CD “Polbain to Oranmore” (Greentrax CDTRAX239), featuring Scots mandolinist Kevin Macleod, with Alec Finn switching off between bouzouki and some snazzy slide guitar.  The mostly Scottish (and mostly rarely-heard) melodies are well-chosen to ring happily on Macleod’s mandolin.  And then there’s Finn’s singular bouzouki accompaniment.

It had been a while since I really paid attention to what Finn does, and this set of tunes shows him as utterly relaxed and fluidly inventive as ever.  In a world where many Celtic mando enthusiasts seem to choose between playing melodic lines or rocking out with driving chordal rhythm, Finn has found the Middle Way—combining melodies, harmonies, and drive—which plays beautifully to the strengths of all double-course instruments.

I’ve transcribed the Scottish jig from the CD, aptly named “Nothing Can Sadden Us”, for this issue, noting both the melody line and a rough approximation of the bouzouki line Finn plays under it.  Like so many cool Scottish tunes, “Nothing Can Sadden Us” is in a joyful A-major, and the implied chords are the normal 1-4-5 in the A-part, with a dark passing flatted 7 appearing in the B-part.  Readers may remember my recommending the Scots tune book “Kerr’s Third Collection of Merry Melodies” in my last column.  This is another great tune that Kevin Macleod learned from that under-utilized resource.

You may be struck by the bare simplicity of the transcribed bouzouki line.  That’s precisely the point.  The best Celtic tunes don’t need muscle  or power chords behind them to drive them forward, the drive is built in.  As much as possible on my octave mando tuned to fifths, I’ve tried to maximize Finn’s use of open strings and loping hammer-ons to keep the instrument ringing while the melody tugs against the tonic before returning to A at the end of each phrase.  Have fun with it.

And if, after scaring up a copy of “Polbain to Oranmore”, you still hanker for more of Alec Finn’s work, there’s the entire De Danann canon still available plus last year’s lovely solo CD “Innisfree”, available through Claddagh Records. 

I’d love to hear a new wave of Alec Finn clones in the sessions again.  Restraint, refusal to be hurried, and really listening to the melodies… it’s so nice to be reminded of his approach from time to time.



summer 05

Click thumbnail for printed tab notation for “Nothing Can Sadden Us”



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