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Chris Smith: Words & Music

Essay: ZoukFest 99

(Chris Smith)
ZoukFest '99

ZoukFest's Wild Ride: Weston, MO, June 1999

The 2nd Annual "ZoukFest" for players of the Irish bouzouki is held in Weston, Missouri, a town just north of Kansas City and the Missouri River, whose historic district predates the Civil War. It happens that it's also the home town of American bouzouki virtuoso Roger Landes

The festival had its genesis in the online Internet mailing list called CITTERN-L, a discussion group maintained from the Netherlands by Han Speek (located at whose topic and focus is the instrument known variously as the Irish bouzouki, cittern, or octave mandolin, which was adopted into Irish and Scots traditional music in the early '70s by players like Alec Finn, Johnny Moynihan, and Donal Lunny. In October of 1997 a discussion was brewing on the "Cit-list," of the sort that often grows between people with common interests but who are frustrated by wide geographic separation, on the need for some kind of international gathering that would bring all these players, ideas, and resources together. Roger Landes, a master at translating the traditional idiom of pipes and fiddle to the modern Irish bouzouki, a former member of Scartaglen and now a solo artist who also duets with vocalist Connie Dover, and a man of astonishing organizational focus, posted a message saying "all right, I give in, I'll do it," and within 3 hours had received more than 80 positive responses. As Roger tells it, "I figured, well, if even only a quarter of those people actually make it, we'll be able to afford it," and at that the race-horses were out of the gate. Thanks to an incredibly dedicated support staff (Lisa Wright, Jennifer Krug, and Jean Denney) with experience at staging other Midwestern festivals, a publican (Sean O'Malley) whose venue and whose hospitality and appreciation for great music are what every musician prays for, and his own disciplined attention, Roger was able to pull off an immensely successful first meeting in July 1998.

This year 21 students, some previous attendees and some "first- timers," assembled for an opening Sunday night orientation in the courtyard of O'Malley's. To be part of this gathering, they had come from all over the Continental U.S. (New England, the Midwest, the Southwest, Florida, and California), and from Canada, England, and New Zealand as well. Sean O'Malley laid on the Guinness and the Kansas City-style barbecue, and Bob Reeder, who holds down a weekly gig there, gave a lovely capsule history of the pub and its environs. O'Malley's is the oldest brewery west of the Hudson River, and stands over several levels of arched underground cellars built by African-American slaves who were master stonemasons. Then Roger gave out the schedule, day-by-day and for the balance of the week, and introduced the members of the staff.

The staff assembled by Landes drew on players from diverse musical communities in Kansas City, Washington, D.C., Taos, New Mexico, Bloomington, Indiana, and the Pacific Northwest. They included Stanley Greenthal, a master of accompaniment and a breadth of bouzouki styles "from Brittany to the Balkans;" Joseph Sobol, a folklorist, songwriter, and solo cittern fingerpicker of staggering virtuosity; the brilliant young percussionist Paddy League; Alabama-born multi-instrumentalist and singer Chipper Thompson (a great player on, among other things, the slide bouzouki); Beth Patterson (of the Poor Clares and Legacy), whose polyrhythmic power made Donal Lunny sit up and take notice, and your humble correspondent. Adjunct staff who offered classes in a range of topics from step and set dancing, to bouzouki first aid, to regional fiddle repertoires, included stepdancer Jean Denney, Patterson's duo partner Justin Murphy (flute), fiddler Tes Slominski of Paddy League's group Roaring Mary, and multi- instrumentalist Gerald Trimble, who certainly qualifies as, in Landes's terms, the "Indiana Jones of the bouzouki." It was Trimble's early '80s records on Green Linnet (several produced by Johnny Cunningham) which convinced many players that the bouzouki could not only accompany, as had been shown by Lunny, Finn, and Moynihan, but could also hold its own as a lead instrument on the jigs, reels, and strathspeys of the Irish and Scots dance music traditions. It was fitting that 16 years after those seminal recordings, Trimble himself should be present at the festival which owed a major debt to his early inspiration. The state of the luthier's art was also represented, in both the various instruments employed, and in the presence of builders Stephen Owsley Smith and David Bucher; Smith had coined the marvelous and generous idea of donating a custom-built mandola to be raffled as a ZoukFest fund-raising activity, a raffle to which Bucher and luthier Phil Crump also contributed instruments.

The Daily Schedule would begin with "Fundamentals of an Aural Tradition," a class aimed at developing ear-training and tune- learning skills. This was followed in the late morning by a "Jump Start Bouzouki" class for new players taught by Landes and Sobol, with an alternative option of Greenthal's "Brittany to the Balkans" repertoire class. After the lunch break, participants could select between League's "Percussive Rhythm for Accompanists" class a kind of crash course in hearing, playing, and understanding rhythmic patterns and cycles or "Celtic Accompaniment for All Instrumentalists," a course in the theory and practice of improvised backup. The late afternoon brought classes in accompaniment: Patterson's "Irish Bouzouki" (a self- described "Riot Grrl" approach) and Greenthal's "Traditional and Contemporary Song Accompaniments" offering. Over the course of the week, evening workshops would explore "Troubadour Lore," a multi-instrument and multi-ethnic tour-de-force lecture/ demonstration from Gerald Trimble; "Celtic Techniques and Ornamentation," in which Landes broke down his astonishing translation of piping techniques to the bouzouki; a Students' Open Mic; and Sobol's master class in "Fingerstyle Cittern and Open Tunings." Later in the week Sobol, Thompson, and Steve Smith hosted workshops in composition, "Non-Celtic Bouzouki Styles," and instrument care and set-up. Concurrently with these bouzouki- oriented evening workshops were others offered for guests and accompanying family members in set and step dancing and in regional fiddle repertoires. Each evening concluded with sessions, which might at a given moment feature solos or duets, a freight-train bouzouki-powered rhythm section of Landes, Sobol, Patterson, Trimble, and Greenthal, cut with great melody playing from Justin Murphy, fiddlers Jenny Williams, Andrew Townley, and Tes Slominski, and, on the final evening, Roaring Mary-ites Sara Nisenson and Rob Greenway.

Incredible moments came not only during sessions and classes but also during the informal evening concerts: League and Landes ripping it up in O'Malley's basement on a set of reels on bouzouki and bodhran; a Cape Breton set of marches, strathspeys, and reels from fiddler Jenny Williams and percussionist League that started powerfully and ended white-hot; one student's sidesplitting improvised impersonations of each of the instructors in turn; and an fantastic suite of music from Trimble and company which segued from Turkey to North India to Donegal and back again.

More special memories: flutist Justin Murphy's boot heel, driving into the O'Malley's floor on night after night of blazing reels; Patterson's long blond hair flying as she laughed aloud and pummeled the polyrhythms; Thompson and partner Mason Brown's "Appalachified" takes on old ballads and the New World Celtic music "that might have been" (or, as Thompson put it, "there's no end to the damage a hillbilly can do to a good song"); Greenthal's generosity, humility, and heartbreaking poetry; Sobol's staggering polyphonic settings of session standards; League's "justifiable ubiquity" as everybody's percussive pinch-hitter; pub owner Sean O'Malley seeing us off from the sessions at 2AM and greeting us 6 hours later with the coffee already brewing for the morning class; the last blast of ceol in the O'Malley's cellars on Saturday night with players packed elbow-to-elbow and Jean Denney and Leela and Ellie Grace clattering out improvised sets just behind us; the climax of the Saturday festival on the grounds of O'Malley's: Trimble, Chris & Dan Grotewohl, League, Patterson, Landes, and Townley splitting the night sky with another patented Donegal-to-Istanbul express, climaxing with the Jean Denney and the Grace sisters improvising a new language from tap and step dance, as the band hammered out "Lady Anne Montgomery" with Trimble's Indian sargam vocals soaring over the top of it all; Landes's quiet grin as he surveyed the jammed and joyful sessions that himself had made possible.

ZoukFest is the first and only international gathering for players, builders, and lovers of this "new" instrument, the Irish bouzouki, and it still holds that air of excitement that results when individuals separated by great distances discover common bonds. Something very special happens that 2nd week of June in Weston: a beautiful, picturesque town which is the home of a small but incredibly vibrant community of musicians and artists and is very supportive of ZoukFest, a wonderful environment in which to begin to grow an international arts event. While the focus at ZoukFest is on the bouzouki in its Celtic aspects, that focus is also moving outward, as it did at Willie Week or the St. Louis Pipers' Tionol, from the instrument alone, to the worlds of culture and expression of which the instrument is a part. More than 50 per cent of the participants in ZF98 returned in '99, as did all the staff, while at the same time that the circle expands and moves outward. It's a magical time and place, with a collection of brilliant people who as a result of the event are enabled to recognize common interests and individual greatness.

And credit for that goes to many people, but overwhelmingly and finally to one person: Roger Landes, "The General," the person who recognized the possibility for a critical bit of creative fusion, and supplied both the spark that lit the flame and the focus that fanned it. There is a palpable feeling of joy and fellowship at ZoukFest, a sense that together we are on the verge of an extraordinary discovery. Whatever happens in the future, a spark has been lit.