INTO THE MUSIC – by Tom Oakes

I’ve always had a bit of a problem with humanity’s desire to place someone based on fairly rudimentary questions: Where are you from? Errm.. What kind of music do you play? Errrrm. What’s your favourite album? Favourite guitarist/flautist? Or my particular favourite (sarcasm intended): Where did you ‘get into’ the music? Almost never implying music in general but a particular pool where ‘outsiders’ are at best unexpected and at worst unwanted. From getting ‘into’ ‘the’ music at the unfashionably late age of 14 in the very unfashionable location of South Devon it was for a long time a source of anxiety, doubt and an overwhelming obsession with ‘proving myself’ somehow (usually with the outcome of drinking too much, acting like a bit of a **** and generally playing a lot worse as a result). I lied a bit at first because it was easier; “Err Irish Family” (true distantly yes but with absolutely 0% of the reasons why I love Irish music); “Been playing since I was 3” (again I guess I had a Ukelele or something but in terms of playing properly a fairly late developer which is again incredibly unfashionable), “Born in a bog and raised by Matt Molloy’s sheepdog” (actually that one is true). You get the point..

I was raised (musically at least) mainly by the radio. John Peel, Andy Kershaw, Steve Lamacq, Mary Anne Hobbs ‘Breezeblock’ and occasionally (when we could could get the reception) long-wave radio from Ireland. Unfortunately the first Irish music I heard wasn’t in a family bar sitting on my grandad’s knee sipping a neon club orange but Dervish and Sharon Shannon alongside Sekou Keita and Y’ssou Ndour on Andy Kershaws radio show blaring out of my sisters bedroom whilst I tried to memorise all the words from ‘The Bends’ in a fit of arty teenage angst. My mum’s Pogues records. My Grandma’s John McCormack. A period of extreme boredom following multiple leg operations (and being rubbish at the borrowed megadrive) combined with a tiny G tin whistle lying around the house and the easiness of replicating Spider Stacey’s tin whistle solos (sorry Spider) began an obsession with and a love of a music as if it were my own. But was it? Probably not but then again who owns music?!

Skip forward a couple of years and I’ve all manner of flute and whistle recordings on tape, learning really niche traditional styles from all over and attempting to pronounce slow airs properly in Irish (still rubbish at that). At the same time I’m learning to DJ (sort of) – obsessed with Underworld, DJ Shadow, Radiohead, Iggy Pop and everything to come out of Glasgow’s ‘Chemikal Underground’ record label. I’d seen Trainspotting and had signed posters of Mogwai on my walls whilst my peers were obsessing over Oasis (urgh), but I never really saw that as a Scottish influence as such. It was just a culture and a mood that I liked and in the case of Mogwai and the incredible Arab Strap a sound and a rage that I definitely wasn’t getting from playing the tin whistle. Soon after that I saw Martyn Bennet’s Cuillin Music in a double header with Shooglenifty at Sidmouth Folk Festival and everything changed. For a really weird (and that’s complimenting myself big time) teenager seeing Martyn and Angus Grant bare chested, sweating like mad and looking like they would be too hardcore for the Hacienda (yet somehow getting a fairly twee English Folk Festival feeling like Ibiza in it’s heyday) was frankly incredible. The shy, awkward teenager who could barely speak to himself in the mirror was suddenly moshing like it was his last day on earth at the front of a gig.

What that moment did for me was to bring the two worlds of what I played and what I listened to together and though I guess at that stage I had no idea what the future was going to bring and where I would end up (both physically and musically) there was certainly a seismic shift. Something had changed.

I guess without going into a complete life history (available over a pint to those crazy enough to be interested) my path became one of collaboration and travel. A desperate hunger to explore other traditions not as some means of cultural appropriation but to add new ingredients and flavours to my own ‘tradition of me’. ‘Fusion’ hasn’t ever really been the aim as such. I’ve always been more interested in the techniques, riffs, tunes, chord progressions and message of everything I hear. I’m an addict and a mass consumer of music and over the years it has all fed (to one degree or another) into hundreds and hundreds of compositions some good, some terrible, some transcribed, some recorded and many lost to the mists of time. I used to rather eccentrically listen to DJ Shadow and try and copy the drum programming with triple tonguing on the flute/whistle (innuendo unavoidable). Huge amounts of my early chord sequences and riffs were based on ideas not really from ‘folk’ guitarists but from Radiohead and Mogwai, Buena Vista Social Club and The Commodores. I guess one advantage of not being ‘at the source’ was not having to drink from it. Though I made many the pilgrimage, travelling age 16/17, by bus (and hitching. Don’t tell my mum) around Ireland learning tunes from old guys in desolate bars and trying to find my way in a tradition that filled my heart.

Amazing opportunities to collaborate came in my student years through the various Ethno programmes (Google them and go) where huge groups of young, mad folkies from all over the world would meet and swap tunes and songs. We all benefited hugely through Erasmus (EU Student exchanges) as many students of all disciplines have. Indeed my first proper touring band was based half in Newcastle and half in Finland. I twice visited Morrocco for residencies after graduating and made music not only with Morrocon traditional musicians (Berber and Gnawa) but also with Arabic Hip Hop and Jazz. Was it a great collaboration? Possibly not but it did change the way I write music and think about it. The residencies came about because of an amazing couple and their passion for unity and peace. Terre Sans Frontier was set-up because the autocratic state of Morocco wouldn’t allow artists to travel to collaborate. In fact it was necessary at the time at least (and maybe still is) to have written permission from the King in order to leave the country. They had no rights, no freedom of movement but the music, the expression and the fight was stronger than ever.

Today I’m sat here in Edinburgh (where life led me eventually) after witnessing a house of commons showdown where I still don’t know if I will lose my freedom of movement due to our ridiculous and never-ending class war. Thinking though that without freedom of movement my ‘tradition of me’ wouldn’t exist and neither would the Irish, Scottish and the European traditions that I’ve loved and become somehow adopted by. Somehow I’ve gone from not feeling like I had a musical ‘home’ anywhere to feeling like music makes the world my home. I can’t wait to travel and learn more.