FOLK MUSIC / The art of noise: Anyone can play. David McKeown sterilises an old penny-whistle and ambles down to his local pub in Lympstone

Click to follow
I used to play jazz most of the time, until a friend sent me some Irish jigs and reels. Straight away I could see that jazz standards like 'I Love You' couldn't hold a candle to 'O'Carolan's Receipt for Drinking' and 'The Old Woman Tossed up in a Blanket'. So I sterilised an ancient penny-whistle and set to work sight-reading my way through the 1,000 tunes in O'Neill's Music of Ireland. Later on, my kitchen sessions were supplemented by a set of uilleann pipes, the uniquely Irish form of bagpipe. Obviously, this posed something of a threat to the delicate balance of domestic harmony. I had to find a place where like-minded souls made the same sort of noise.

The venue is the Redwing Arms in Lympstone, set between rolling green hills and a boat- bejewelled estuary. This may be Devon, but it looks like it's been towed over from Ireland for the occasion. It's my first Irish folk session, and I'm nervous. There are at least 2,000 tunes to choose from and I know around 25.

There they sit in an untidy circle, scraping frantically at fiddles, hunched over squeeze-boxes and throttling guitars. On the tables, pint glasses and overflowing ashtrays jostle for position with bows, cases, discarded strings, plectra and suspicious- looking lumps of rosin. Music and conversation come in equal measure, each running seamlessly into the other. This is traditional dance music, but no-one is dancing. There is no audience . . . just plenty of spectators.

I make my first mistake: my half of lager stands out like a lighthouse among the serried ranks of Guinnesses and Dartmoor Bitters. The drink on the house is for musicians and I haven't played a note yet.

Three tunes in and 'The Wise Maiden' comes to my rescue. I know that one. Four tunes later, and I've heard that jig somewhere before. I play the first half, and wave my fingers around self- consciously for the rest. Half an hour later, things are warming up. I get my sax out and the flute player packs up. Is this a coincidence? The bodhran is rumbling away like a distant storm, the chap on melodeon is demonstrating an advanced form of facial gymnastics and there's an elderly woman dressed in a subtle shade of banana coaxing tunes from a matching plastic recorder. We end the evening with a rousing rendition of 'What a Friend We Have in Jesus.'

Paul, the melodeon player, is Head of Maths at the local comprehensive and a man who lives for sessions. He once played in O'Connor's Bar in County Clare. 'It was the biggest mistake of my life. There were all these All-Ireland champions trying to outdo each other and there was no rapport. Most sessions are social occasions and the choice of tunes includes everyone. We've never turned anyone away.' 'Even when four bodhran players turned up last month,' adds Russell, an artist who turns his hand to fiddle, mandolin and a spot of whistle. Nick the piper, a carpenter by day, nods in agreement. 'It's a chance to make mistakes.'

'This whole Irish thing is ludicrous,' suggests Paul, inspecting the posters advertising 'Live Irish Music'. Most of the music we play started life as English Morris tunes. Nowadays people just like to put cultural labels on music. Anyway, no-one here is Irish.'

I think I'll learn a few more tunes before admitting to being born in Belfast.

Regular folk sessions are held at: Redway Arms, Lympstone, Devon, first Thursday of month; Nags Head, Holloway Rd, London N7, every Wednesday; The Bay Horse, Boroughgate, Otley, W Yorks, second Tuesday of month; Rose & Crown, Warwick, every Saturday

(Photograph omitted)