The English band Blowzabella has been a force to be reckoned with on the European traditional dance scene for many, many years. Recently, the band celebrated 25 years of making music, albeit with a little down time between 1990 and 1996. In 1990, after years of intense touring, the group officially disbanded. After a bit of a rest, some of the members began to perform again as Blowzabella in 1996 with a more restrained schedule.
Blowzabella — New Tunes for Dancing is a fabulous collection of 130 tunes that have been composed by various members of the band over the years, and is supplemented by a wealth of other information: a history of the group, dance instructions, personal histories by ten musicians, photos, discography, and a membership history (complete with a listing of instruments and makers). It is a volume both dancers and musicians will appreciate.
I began by reading the first page (always a good place to start, I suppose), which gives publishing, credits, and copyright information, presented in paragraph style. Normally, a page like this wouldn’t need to be mentioned, but about half way down, there is a short paragraph that states the following: “We hope that the musicians will enjoy playing these tunes. The music is free to use for the purposes of amateur music making including the teaching of music. In these circumstances please credit the composer and give the correct title of the tune.”
I want to point this out specifically and thank Blowzabella for being clear and logical about the use of the music in amateur and teaching settings. Commercial usage obviously requires getting permission, royalties and the all the normal procedures, but in so many cases people are simply trying to learn how to dance or play. To have this material available to use without guilt is wonderful and helpful.
The “Introduction” gives the reader a thorough understanding of the band’s attitude toward their music and also encourages musicians and dancers to be creative with their applications of the material. Thankfully, they do not say, “This is how it must be done!” The music is “written out to express the basic melody” rather than transcribing performances. As a music teacher, I applaud this approach. It’s much easier to understand the basic melody first and add ornamentation later, rather than backtracking from an elaborate performance to the original melody.
The catalog of tunes is arranged by type: jigs, waltzes, hornpipes, mazurkas, schottisches, polkas, 2/4 bourrées, 3/8 bourrées, and miscellaneous. The printed music is clear and easy to read with varying levels of musical complexity — something for everyone. The composer/members who contributed tunes includes Paul James, Jon Swayne, Nigel Eaton, Cliff Stapleton, Jo Freya, Andy Cutting, Ian Luff, and Dave Shepherd. Sampling these tunes makes me want to go back and really learn some of them. Not being as familiar with their discography as perhaps I should be, I was able to play through melodies and not be influenced by what might be on any recordings. What I discovered were some really interesting pieces — unexpected melodic turns and great chord changes in amongst familiar motifs you would expect in a dance repertoire.
In the section of dances, there are wonderful statements by Dave Shepherd and Jo Freya relating the band’s philosophy of minimal “calling,” allowing the dancers to key in on the music and the fun of dancing more fully than is often found in English “ceilidh” dancing. Their experiences in other European locations observing and playing for dance audiences at alternative festivals, particularly in France, started them on their way to becoming the band on the leading edge of the traditional dance world, where they still are. There is a dance description or two for each of the dance forms (waltz, jig, etc.). I’m not a dancer, but I was able to work my way through some of the descriptions without much trouble, so I imagine those with more experience wouldn’t have a difficult time. It’s always tricky trying to put dance moves into words. Will there be a video next?
A history of the band follows, accompanied by photos. Starting with founder Bill O’Toole, a series of personal histories appears from many, but not all, of the various musicians who have been a part of Blowzabella. It is excellent reading and more than a glimpse of how the group came together, worked together, quit, and picked up again. Any fan of the group would certainly find all the text interesting, and those not familiar, but fascinated by how people meet and create, would also be absorbed by the stories.
Finally, there is a listing of all the members, the years they played, what they played; the discography, photo credits and two indexes. The first index is by composer; the second is an index of tunes in alphabetical order. These indexes in tandem with the contents arrangement by tune/dance type make it extremely easy to find what you’re looking for. It’s the little things that make a book so user friendly!
Blowzabella — New Tunes for Dancing is dedicated to Dave Roberts, who died in 1996. He played with the group from 1979-1988. It was a bit surprising that more of his personal history was not included beyond the dedication and a few sentences in the band’s history. Be that as it may, this book should be on the wish list of every traditional European dancer and musician. For anyone from any other culture that wants to get started in the form, this would be an excellent first step.
Congratulations to Blowzabella on this spectacular volume and hearty thanks for all the long hours and hair-pulling it took to put it together.