Dan Walsh Visits India: A Musical fusion and Metaphor for our time.

Dan Walsh LeftCentral interview.

Image © Sean Elliot

Dan Walsh has been described, as the best clawhammer banjo player in the UK and if you have seen his amazing live performance than you will surely agree with this.

He is an artist with an immense reach, a vast genre busting range of music at his fingertips and is a hugely versatile musician. He is as happy playing Egyptian tunes as he is a Scottish and Irish Medley. Or, indeed when playing funk or a Northumbrian Medley and if this doesn’t get your feet tapping, then we should not forget that Dan is specialist player of Bluegrass music. He can also make a banjo sound like a Sitar.  He is an outstanding live performer, who also happens to be highly articulate. Following that noble tradition of British folk music he is politically progressive with an international outlook. He agreed to talk to LeftCentral about his recent trip to Kolkata in India.

LC: Why did you go to India?

DW: It was a joint venture with the British Council and the English Folk Dance Song Society and I was invited by Neil Pearson to join three other British musicians in a music and cultural collaboration with six other Asian artists (two Indian, two Pakistani and two Bangladeshi). The trip was an attempt to bridge cultural gaps and share experiences, while learning from each other. The main objective was not the gig at the end of the week but to share music but as performers we inevitably became focused on this. The trip was an opportunity, a free license to learn from each other.

LC: What were your initial impressions of the country?

DW: Well we were based in a Hotel resort, somewhat marooned but we did go on several excursions to Kolkata City. The first thing that struck me was the way people stared, a cultural artefact I found difficult to get accustomed to. I also discovered it was not just because we were western although largely connected to this. I found Kolkata exciting, disorganized and manic with vendors adopting a forceful sales approach. In the midst of major economic development there was evidence of much poverty and while I have travelled all over the UK, have never before seen such stark examples of affluence and poverty in such cheek and jowl proximity.

LC: Can you tell me about Moni?

DW: I was initially paired off with him an amazingly talented Indian singer, who collects thousands of songs – many of which are inspired by the sea, outlining the experiences of the fishermen and boat people in the locale. He had no interest in writing songs and was simply anxious to preserve existing ones. From this point of view he was protective of his songs but he was anxious to share them with everyone including those from the West. He was an encyclopedia of organic songs and when he sang about the sea he really aimed for a rhythm that resembled the sea, songs with deep spiritual meaning. Both he and Waqeel, another singer on the residency, follow an oral tradition, where music was transmitted purely through singing and not through writing verse down – although Waqeel is also an accomplished song writer so different to Moni in that respect.

LC: Did you notice any other differences in style and approach between the British and Asian artists?

DW: The British musicians on the trip were noted for working in an unstructured manner. Well we thought this was the case until we worked with the Asian artists! They would jam for hours with a range of interpretations for the same song, utilising an assortment of unwritten guidelines that were clearly very different from our own.

LC: How did you overcome these difficulties?

DW: In a variety of ways but largely through the endeavors of Suhail who had a real understanding of western culture, a musician with a profound appreciation of Indian music which went some way to bridge the gap.

LC: You describe one session which mixed bluegrass, Welsh and Indian music -a heady mix– how was this achieved?

DW: Well this was another example of Suhail`s outstanding contribution to the project. Suhail, like me is very open about musical influences and does not adopt a proscriptive approach. He had never heard of Bluegrass before but he was taught a melody and he nailed it immediately – which says much about his skill as a musician and his willingness to engage with other musical traditions and genres. It was pretty amazing a world first, as he played Bluegrass on his sarangi instrument.

LC: You mention a song by Suhail which sounded like a British folk tune – can you tell us more?

DW: This was a very old Indian song but it did sound like a Scottish reel. This could possibly be linked to the British Empire as many Scottish regiments were based in India but it’s perhaps more likely a common thread that runs through music. They say that music is a universal language – this is a view I do not share but music is a universal communicator and a powerful one at that.

LC: How did the gig go?

DW: It was pretty amazing and will stay with me for a long time. We performed before an audience of about a hundred people and I played a solo in an Indian Raga – playing my banjo creating a sitar sound. I was as you can imagine, very nervous about this but the response from the audience was brilliant. We also performed a Bangladeshi song to wide acclaim.  But the best moment in the gig was when we all performed a 1970s British folk song called `John Ball` a song which has beautiful sentiment attached to a message of unity and togetherness. Despite all the difficulties in communication and cultural differences we achieved a unity of purpose a good way to finish and a good metaphor for our times.

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