Early the next afternoon, head still throbbing but spirit unrepentant, I wandered south of the Liffey to a little music shop called: The Music Shop. The first thing I spotted as I entered was a sawed-off version of the bouzouki Fiaich O Brun had played the night before hanging on the wall. An actual Greek bouzouki, in all its mother-of-toilet-seat glory, hung on a peg next to it. I took down the un-Greek instrument and started plunking on it. Within 30 seconds I knew I wouldnt leave without it.
I asked the proprieter what he could tell me about it and he replied that it was a bouzouki. I indicated the Greek thing on the wall and said I knew that was a bouzouki, but what was this? He insisted it, too, was a bouzouki. I persisted, pointing out that one had six strings, this one had eight, that one had a tater-bug back, this one a flat back, that one a long neck, and this one a short neck. In the end, the proprietor bent to the point of admitting that I held in my hands "a short-necked, flat-backed, eight-stringed bouzouki," but that was as far as hed go. I bought it and have called it an octave mandolin ever since.
Im still playing that same octave mandolin. Its the instrument I noodle on, coming up with amusing Celtic tunes to share with you in this magazine. And going back to that wonderful Dublin evening, I recalled the first tune I learned from the playing of Fiaich O Brun. In learning to play the tune, I was also learning my way around the new instrument. While both octave mando and fiddle are tuned to fifths, the scale length differences require totally different fingerings, of course. And since my only fret experience was with guitar, I was coming into the mando more as a mutant guitar than an expanded mandolin. Then, as now, I favored using my thumb to fret the bottom two courses of the opening A-modal chord. But its hardly required.
So heres this cool tune, "The Tipsy Sailor," that was certainly a hornpipe until these guys straightened out the syncopation and delivered it with a strong rock and reel drive. As it happens, straightening hornpipes is pretty common on both sides of the Atlantic. The first version of "Fishers Hornpipe" I ever learned was a Texas setting that was all reel and a yard wide.
But this one, while played pretty straight, rhythmically, shouldnt be played too fast. The shift up to the fifth fret in the third part is a lovely little musical moment. And the unexpectedly varied arpeggios in the fourth part need to be clear to be fun. There are no tricks to the fingering, other than the way I like to shift up smoothly between the second and third parts of the tune. I play the high A with the little finger, then slide up from the fret below with the third, then second, then index finger. Its the way Fiaich O Brun did it, so heres to him.
Slatterys, alas, is no longer a folk music club. But Irish tunes still retain their magic in Dublin. And as long as this tune is played in sessions, we can keep a little of that magic for ourselves.