Best Hurdy Gurdy Recordings?

image_thumbA friend of mine was purchasing a selection of hurdy-gurdy music, and it got me thinking of great Hurdy Gurdy recordings.  First of all, a disclaimer: As much as I love traditional French music, the kind of hurdy-gurdy playing that really excites me are the albums where performers create something new and personal, with more relevance (presumably) to the modern communities they live in.  This might mean playing with other unusual or underused instruments (clarinet, button accordion), or playing in a band, sometimes even with electronic instruments.  Not all of those experiments can be called a success, but some of them stand the test of time.  These CDs are becoming easier and easier to find as iTunes and other services begin to take notice.  I’ll list Amazon links for the albums when available, since these are DRM free MP3s that will play on any device, and can be listened to before purchase.  As an aside, I use an online subscription service that lets me hear just about any recording on demand.

As always, your opinion may differ, so please let me know what you think in the comment section below.  Who have I left out?  For further reference Alden and Cali Hackmann (Olympic Musical Instrument) maintain an exceptionally detailed discography of Hurdy Gurdy recordings at: http://www.hurdygurdy.com/info/disc.htm and I owe it to Alden’s hurdy gurdy mail list and the folks at the yearly “Over the Water Hurdy Gurdy festival for help discovering several of the disks listed below.

Solo Performers:

These are recordings which put the Vielle A Roue (the much more euphonious French name for the hurdy gurdy) in the forground. There are two living French players who top the list: Gilles Chabenat and Patrick Bouffard. Both are excellent.

#1 Patrick Bouffard

Musiques pour vielle à roue en Auvergne et Bourbonnais

Musiques Pour Vielle A Roue en Auvergne et Bourbonnais

Fantastic playing, great arrangements, and traditional tunes make this a stand out recording and a great place to start listening.

Amazon sells DRM free MP3s of this album at the following address:

http://www.amazon.com/Musiques-pour-vielle-Auvergne-Bourbonnais/dp/B001VEOG9U/ref=sr_1_13?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1295750830&sr=1-13

You can also listen to short snippets of the pieces without purchase.

#2  Gilles Chabenat

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Musiques Pour Vielle A Roue “Belu Nuit”

These are original and traditional tunes.  They represent some of the finest modern arrangements for hurdy-gurdy and associated instruments (French bagpipes, violin, clarinet, etc.).  There are some vocals on the album which interrupt the flow a bit.

Amazon sells DRM free MP3s of this album at the following link:

http://www.amazon.com/Musiques-pour-vielle-roue-Bleu/dp/B0026WL2G6/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&s=dmusic&qid=1295749560&sr=1-6

Well worth checking out!

#3  Nigel Eaton (and Andy Cutting)

Panic at the Café

Hurdy gurdy and button accordion in some insanely tight arrangements.  Eaton is an award winning English player who first came to my attention from his participation in the English dance band Blowzabella (see groups below).  I love this recording – the connection between Eaton and Cutting is palpable, the playing fast and the tunes excellent.

Amazon sells DRM free MP3s of this album at the following link:

http://www.amazon.com/Panic-At-The-Cafe/dp/B002G38IJE/ref=sr_shvl_album_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1295751282&sr=301-2

Of course, you can sample the music before you buy.

#4  Gregory Jolivet

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alt’ o solo

This is a new discovery to me, and to be honest a few months ago it would not have made it on this list.  I’ve been playing the CD a lot in the last month, and have begun to to really like it.  It’s filled with modern, complex show pieces that exercise the features of the unusual instrument that Jolivet plays, and at first I was put off by how busy it all seemed.  He is clearly a great player, (and I love what he has done with Blowzabella in recent years) but I  was put off by how chaotic and busy these tracks were.  The disk has grown on me over time and I now listen to it regularly.  I put him into the list as an example of a new performer who is still pushing the limits of the instrument.  I found no sources for the CD but did turn up a number of fine You Tube videos.  Here’s one: http://il.youtube.com/watch?v=JBI6eW5Eyt4&feature=related.image

The maker of the unusual instrument on this CD as well as the instrument in the video is Philippe Mousnier.  More information can be found on his site: Philippe Mousnier.

Another unusual instrument by Philippe Mousnier, from his online catalog.

Groups and Bands:

This is even more subjective.  There are so many cds by so many great musicians, and there is no way that I could hear them all.  But I still have opinions – don’t we all!  If I miss a good one, let me know in the comments below.

#1  Blowzabella

http://blowzabella.com/

For me (as an English speaker) it all starts with Blowzabella.  I encountered the band in 1979 in London (Several band members attended the London College of Furniture Instrument Building program in Whitechapel at the same time I did), and attended some of their dances in the basement of the Cecil Sharp house in London. The band transcends genre and ethnicity, mixing originals with traditional tunes from many sources.  Many of their original tunes have become standards in the folk community.  There is a new recording where the band gets back to their roots called Dance.  So many great hurdy gurdy players have played with Blowzabella: Starting with Juan Wijngaard, Sam Palmer, Nigel Eaton, and now Gregory Jolivet.  Distinctive features are prominently placed hurdy gurdy and bagpipes, loud wind instruments like sax, often electric bass, and button accordion.  Accordion and hurdy gurdy provide the driving rhythm for the best dance tunes, particularly in the later recordings with Nigel Eaton and Andy Cutting.

The best starting place is probably this CD:

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Compilation

This is a collection from the earlier Blowzabella albums, and gives a good portrait of the band and it’s varied styles. The hurdy gurdy is featured prominently on many of the tracks.

Amazon sells DRM free MP3s of this album at the following link:

http://www.amazon.com/Compilation-Blowzabella/dp/B00000B0N5/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1295821685&sr=8-2

Listen and be amazed by the Blowzabella wall of sound!

#2 Malecorne

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Malicorne IV

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Malicorne_%28band%29

Malecorne falls solidly in the camp of folk rock, and hails from the decade of 1975 to 1985 that was the high point of the genre.  I’d go so far as to call it the best of any folk rock band – the instrumentation was creative and unusual, and the orchestrations and arrangements brilliant.  What puts them on this list is the use of hurdy gurdy (and bagpipes) on many of the classic tracks.  There is a compilation CD (legend) but I have not heard it, so I am just picking my personal favorite out of a field of great recordings.  I don’t think that any of these CDs will disappoint.

This CD (and many others) can be ordered from Gabriel’s web shop:

http://www.gabrielyacoub.com/boutique/index.php

and downloads can be purchased at:

http://www.leroseau.net/catalogue/liste-des-produits.html

In fact, I see some odds and ends that I ‘m going to download as soon as I’m done writing this post!

#3  Hurdy-Gurdy

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Nordic roots and very modern, almost techno arrangements of original and traditional tunes.  The band promotes the instrument as a “medieval synthesizer”, generating percussive effects and odd sounds.  This CD contains recordings that have been cut up and re-arranged into the pieces you hear.  “Our world of wood, gut strings, cranks and laptops might seem pretty small, but we are proud of it” says Stefan Brisland-Ferner.

The CD is available used from Amazon associates.  Unfortunately no samples are available on line, and the record label NorthSide is not promoting it.

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The Tiny Tim Effect

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In Jim Beloff’s book, The Ukulele, A Visual History, there is a table that contains the yearly number of ukuleles produced by the Martin Guitar Company.  It provides an interesting glimpse into a half century of (mostly) American popular musical history, and of course provides a view into the popularity of the instrument.

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The major high and low points of the last century are represented – The great depression and World War II both have a significant impact on the popularity of the instrument.  Cultural milestones appear as well – the growing American fascination with Hawaii and the flapper era coincide to create the first boom in uke sales.  The second big boom coincides with Arthur Godfrey’s rise and his popularization of the instrument.  This boom lasts fifteen years.

The popularity of rock and roll and a backlash against the uke fad drive numbers down in the 60’s, but the instrument still seems to do fairly well until 1968, when just before the end of the graph, something amazing happens.  Production numbers crash to double digits, a place where they have never been (other than the first year of production).  What happened?

A lot happened in 1968 – but only one story includes the uke as a major player. This story:

 
Tiny Tim on Laugh In
 
 

This was the year that Tiny Tim hit the national stage.  He recorded an album for Reprise, and Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In introduced him to America.  Although the album reached the #5 spot in the charts, for once fame did not translate into ukulele sales.  What Jack Benny failed to do for the violin, Tiny Tim did for the uke.  His second appearance is really what he is remembered for.

I’m a huge Tiny Tim fan, but even I did not rush out in to purchase an instrument in 1968.  After that performance, the uke went into a death spiral outside of Hawaii where it was too much a part of culture to fade away. 

People as influential as George Harrison continued to play and popularize the uke, it is only in the last 10 years that the instrument has seen a renaissance, and now, only after a slow, steady recovery are there great players popularizing the instrument again.

I’ll leave you with a couple of favorite uke videos:

What do you think of the uke?  This post? Tiny Tim? Leave your comments below.

The Hurdy Gurdy

 

I’ve been wrestling with the challenge of introducing the hurdy-gurdy to blog readers. I’ve lived with and around the instrument for most of my adult life, and simply don’t know where to start.

I first saw the instrument in 1972 in the collection of a music store just outside of Washington DC.  It looked much like the guitar shaped instrument pictured below.  The store owner was happy to take it to a back room and let me examine it – at the time there was little written about the instrument and even less recorded, and it took research in the Library of Congress to get an idea of what the instrument was and how it was played.

A while after that (1989) I traveled to London to study instrument building in the Early Woodwind program at the London College of Furniture.  I met Sam Palmer, who was a maker and player of the instrument and a student in the stringed instrument division of the school.  Through his associates in the band Blowzabella and through my friend Mac McCreary, I was introduced to the contemporary folk music associated with the instrument.

Here’s the deal: while most Americans have never heard of the instrument, It has been among the most popular instruments of the last 1000 years. Europeans get this – they don’t think that history started in 1776, and they have the advantage of being surrounded by surviving instruments and folk traditions that reflect this long history.

Organ_grinder_with_monkey

This is not a Hurdy Gurdy

This is a great picture of an organ grinder, monkey, and barrel organ.  Not a Hurdy-Gurdy.  Although confused in the last century, particularly in popular culture, the two instruments have nothing to do with each other.  Not even the monkey.

Another confusing reference is Donovan’s song, Hurdy Gurdy Man.  The song is vague and does not really describe any existing instrument, but on the other hand, it’s a great song.

So, what IS a Hurdy Gurdy?

The hurdy gurdy that most people play today is a style that became popular in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and was manufactured traditionally in France until the early 1900s.  It experienced a revival in the 1970s, along with many other folk traditions, and is now built by several excellent makers in Europe and the US.

It is a stringed musical instrument, played using the keys that you can see in the first illustration above. These keys touch the melody strings (instead of your finger-tips) which allows you to play melodies.

louvet_drehleier

  • It is a drone instrument.  This means that in addition to the melody strings, there are drone strings that (not surprisingly) produce a drone to back up the melody.
  • The strings are not plucked or bowed, but made to sound by rubbing against a wheel that is treated with rosin, much like a bow.  This produces a constant sound, much like a quieter version of a bagpipe, where the drones and the melody strings sound all the time.
  • Perhaps the most distinctive part of the hurdy gurdy is a “buzzing bridge”.  One of the drone strings goes over a specially shaped bridge that buzzes when the wheel is sped up slightly. this allows the player to create a complex percussive accompaniment to the tune being played, and is one of the features that makes modern hurdy gurdy music so compelling.

To get a better idea of what the instrument can do, listen to it’s master players.

YouTube has some amazing performances, like Gregory Jolivet above .  A more traditional example of hurdy gurdy playing can be found on the album Musiques pour vielle à roue en Auvergne et Bourbonnais by Patrick Bouffard.  Follow the link to hear clips of the album on Amazon – all of the tracks are exceptional so start at the top and work your way down.

I’ll list some more of my favorites in a future post.  After you listen, add a comment and let me know what you think –  Like it? hate it?  If you have a favorite, be sure to add it in the comments below.