The Folk Train

How would you like to go back to the days when train travel was an exciting adventure? Travelling somewhere new, you could watch the scenery, chat to fellow passengers and perhaps meet someone interesting. Put away your phone, what you need is a journey with live music. Where could you find such a phenomenon? Try Sheffield!

Try the 19.14 from Sheffield to Manchester on the fourth Tuesday of the month. It’s not any old train. It’s the Folk Train! Musicians sing and play alongside the crowd of regular commuters and folk music enthusiasts on a good-humoured, friendly journey. I was there in 2009 with a group of student ethnomusicologists*. This was our introduction to fieldwork. The band sang and played to a packed carriage, and when we reached Edale, a village in the Peak District surrounded by lush, green countryside, the musicians, followers and our lot got out and went to the pub. What better way to motivate a bunch of students! 

Folk Train small

The music continued at The Rambler Inn. It was a warm evening and the band played in the open air, a happy throng spilling out of the bar to enjoy the tunes against the backdrop of the hills. At about twenty past nine, we walked the few yards back to the station platform and all piled back on to the train for more music all the way back to Sheffield. What an entertaining introduction to fieldwork and to the music-making of this friendly city.

Folk Train1 small

I would love to go back one day. Does anyone know the name of the band pictured here? Or do you know of any similar musical train journeys? I’d love to hear about them.

So far, I’ve heard about the Buxton Line Blues Train, the Glossop Line Folk Train and the Manchester to Hathersage Folk Train – all running from Manchester Piccadilly. 

* I was studying for the MA in World Music Studies at University of Sheffield. I would recommend this course to anyone wanting flexible part-time study of a wide-range of music. It was great fun too!

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Anne-Isabel Meyer plays Bach at Edinburgh’s Fringe

For three weeks every summer, you can feel Edinburgh buzzing as the International Festival and the Fringe take over the city. Just yards from the noise and bustle of the street, I found a gem of serenity in St Cuthbert’s Church, at the West End: a recital of all six of Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied Cello performed by Anne-Isabel Meyer, over three consecutive days.

Despite the grandeur of its ornate decoration, St Cuthbert’s feels like an intimate setting for unaccompanied cello. Its acoustic is resonant but clear and Anna-Isabel Meyer obviously loves playing here. This London-based cellist has a calm demeanour and she played with a warm tone. Each day, I felt even more privileged to hear how she allowed Bach’s music to speak with precision and clarity – no adornment or over interpretation here. Throughout the performance, the intricate melodic patterns of the preludes flowed freely, as did the dance-like quality of the allemandes, sarabandes, minuets and gigues. The famous bourrées of the third Suite just danced for joy.

Her performance of the Sarabande of Suite 5, for me, epitomised her sensitivity to Bach’s score. The music of this movement is apparently simple, no chords, no accompanying figures, trills or dotted rhythms. Meyer simply let the natural rise and fall of the phrases create their own meaning, allowing us to make what we would, of Bach’s perfectly crafted melody. I found it profoundly moving.

The sixth suite, written for a five stringed cello, truly tests the cellist. Playing this on a four-stringed cello, you have to create the higher sounds using the thumb in place of the extra string. She explained to the audience how at first this is painful and can lead to a blister on the thumb – I’ve had that blister too! Watching closely from the front row, I observed her meticulous technique, as she created the chords and inner harmonies and allowed the melodies to dance above them.

“Playing Bach’s cello suites is like going on a journey” Anne-Isabel Meyer tells us, “and next time it may be completely different.”

Here is a cellist with a deeply musical sensitivity. I look forward to joining her next year when she returns to St. Cuthbert’s to make that journey with the Bach Suites once again.

Gnawa Trance Fusion at Edinburgh’s Festival Fringe 2019

“Do you want trance or happy?” Omar Afif asks the already happy crowd in Edinburgh’s Nomad’s Tent, (a shop by day turned venue by night). We are surrounded by their wares, colourful rugs and wall hangings. “Happy”, we call back. “I only do trance”, he says, plucking the strings of his guembri, a three stringed bass made from a carved-out log. “Andy does happy!” Andy Cooke plays his customised Ugandan xylophone, baladinda, its sound and style deceptively playful.

Omar leads the band Gnawa Trance Fusion, their rhythms tapped out on qraqeb (traditional iron castanets) by Mohamed Lkhanfoufi. A mouth harp adds to the timbre and already a few people have been lured from their seats by this enticing music, to join dancer Heather Muchamore, who plays a shekere (beaded gourd) and just can’t stop smiling.

So is Gnawa Trance Fusion happy or trance? It’s both, and there’s jazz in there too, as Steve Kettley, picks up his sax and melds a soaring improvisation over the sounds of Gnawa* music, with its repeated rhythmic riffs, and call and response melodies. This evening’s line-up includes Ghanian musician, George Ato Williams on drumkit and Allal Yamine, also known as the ‘Mad Nomad’ playing a dome-shaped drum made from a calabash.

Some songs begin with the bass sounds of the guembri followed by a gently tuneful thumb piano, the Ugandan ndongo. Then Mohamed wanders into the crowd, with his qraqeb clattering like horses hooves. The heartfelt vocals and the whole percussive array build up momentum, and more people join in the dancing. This global mix works well, the musicians, blending instruments and voices, create a feeling of celebration. Someone unfurls a Moroccan flag to the delight of Moroccan-born Omar who clearly enjoys sharing his musical culture with band and audience alike. A cheer goes up in appreciation.

It’s a warm evening on the last weekend of the Edinburgh Fringe and the proprietor brings a tray of glasses of water for the sweltering audience. The atmosphere is buzzing, driven by the cumulative rhythms and expressive singing of the whole band. Omar switches to a smaller, higher-pitched guembri, there’s time for one last number and almost everyone is dancing or clapping along to this fusion of good feelings, joy and happiness. We are at one with the world.


Find out more:

Omar Afif

Gnawa Trance Fusion

The Mad Nomad

The Nomad’s Tent

*Gnawa music is a North African traditional music associated with ritual poetry and dancing. It combines a unique mix of Berber, Arabic and Islamic rhythms. Its characteristic instruments are the three stringed guembri and the iron castanets known as qraqeb. This music, with its use of repeated rhythms and chant-like vocals can inspire feelings of euphoria, originally forming part of a ritual to induce a spiritual trance.

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Peter Hudler – ‘Cello on Fire’

When Peter Hudler plays his cello, “it almost sets on fire” he says, “it’s a question of cost!” The pizazz of his playing, strikes you from the moment his bow lands dramatically on the lower strings at the beginning of his opening piece, Stonehenge by Peter Pejtsik. It’s clear we are in for an exciting show.

His repertoire spans from the 18th century, with a piece by Giuseppe Dall’Abaco, (in Hudler’s opinion a ‘more sensual’ Bach) to the present day, with a contemporary jazz piece by John Zorn. Hudler’s cello becomes a flamenco-style guitar in one piece and bluegrass fiddle in another. The next moment it takes on a flute-like quality for Debussy’s Syrinx. Hudler’s choice of programme highlights the cello’s expressive range. His virtuoso skill and his sheer enjoyment are on display, as his bow bounces or rocks across the strings with ease and rapidity, his fingers whizzing along the length of the fingerboard. His tone ranges from warm and velvety to whisperingly soft. Special effects come from flutey sounding harmonics, percussive bowing, percussive finger-tapping, and detuning a string in some pieces to create chords with powerful pedal-notes.

His enthusiasm and warm personality shine through the whole performance and he even invites us to meet him after the show if we have any questions. There was just time for an encore, Song of the Birds (based on a Catalan song arranged for cello by Casals) a simple melody, alternating with trilling bird sounds.

Cello on Fire at Edinburgh Fringe at the Space Triplex, 18.15 until 24 August.




Musical Instruments from around the World – at Ray Man Music Shop, London, UK

Mrs Man For Blog
Mrs Man selecting some silk strings for my erhu, helped by her son (arm just visible).

Wandering through London’s Covent Garden in the mid 90s, I noticed a display of unusual stringed instruments hanging up in an open shop doorway. Inside there were drums of many types and strange looking percussion instruments. It was my first encounter with Ray Man’s music shop and long before I had begun to study ‘world music’. When I went back some years later with the notion of buying an erhu, I couldn’t find it. I asked around and was relieved to discover that the shop hadn’t closed down … it had moved to Camden.

Now, located close to London’s Chalk Farm tube station, Ray Man’s shop is a rare and unusual find. What’s so special about it? It is one of few shops in the UK where you can buy a guzheng, a gong and a güiro. Don’t know what they are? Just ask. Ray Man and his family are a fount of knowledge of instruments from many parts of the world and specialists in traditional Chinese instruments, Chinese music and Cantonese music in particular. They are friendly and helpful, giving you advice on choosing an instrument, how to tune it and how to learn to play it. Ray Man Music Shop is more than just a shop – it’s a valuable resource on musical instruments from China and beyond.

Ray Man's Instruments erhus
Stringed instruments from India, China, Vietnam and Laos. Two harmoniums in front.

There was nothing like it when Ray Man came to London from Hong Kong in 1955, arriving with little more than his musical talent. He began performing and teaching Chinese music and started a Cantonese Opera club. He soon became popular in Chinatown for his musical expertise and his amiable personality. He opened his first musical instrument shop in 1972 and has devoted his life to passing on his cultural heritage, running weekly classes and giving individual lessons.

Ray Man coconut fiddle
Ray Man playing a coconut fiddle.

Now in his eighties, Ray Man’s enthusiasm and interest in music is as lively as ever. He has to be persuaded to have a rest. His wife and sons now run the shop and although there’s no online shop, I did buy an Egyptian oud by telephone and it was carefully packaged and sent to Edinburgh, arriving in a box the size of a fridge!

At a future date, I shall bring you more of Ray Man’s story, including his memories of childhood in rural Hong Kong and his early days in London. In the meantime, if you want to take up a musical instrument but are not sure what, take a look in Ray Man’s music shop for some inspiration. Like many high street shops these days, Ray Man’s has to compete with the internet and its specialism is a niche market. But this is a unique treasure trove – so anyone who is involved in teaching children, or who wants to encourage their child’s (or indulge their own) musical curiosity should have a look at their selection of delightful instruments: thumb pianos, frog scrapers, gigantic seed pods, tiny bells, and thunder tubes to name a few. If you want to know about any Chinese instrument, from the smallest bamboo flute to the most gigantic gong or if you happen to be in Camden and want to buy a ukulele, Ray Man’s the man.

Ray Man's shop violins
Singing bowls, violins, strings and accessories.
Ray Man drums
Chinese drums, Indian drums (tabla) and bongos.
Ray Man's percussion
From tambourines, African pod shakers, maracas and opera gongs to agogo bells, kokirikos, cocoa seed pod and fruit shakers: a tempting feast of percussion instruments.

Ray Man Music Shop is located at: 54 Chalk Farm Road, Camden, London NW1 8AN

Ray Man Music Shop Facebook Page