CURIOUS how your sense of smell’s such an evocative thing. An unsolicited whiff of something can spirit you back to your childhood in an instant. Or maybe somewhere else. Might be a spice, a perfume, maybe a Christmas tree, and, bang, you’re back at some point in your life you hadn’t thought about for yonks.
Kero does it for me. Sends me back to my old granddad’s place up at Mitta Mitta. Fire-driven fridge, combustion stove, turkeys in the backyard, pony in the front, cows out the back, the Angelus at midday — Angelus Domini nuntiavit Mariae, groan — and kero heaters, of course. All comes rocketing back in a flash.
My late mate Robert Ditterich used to tell me his favourite day in his old bluestone workshop down the bottom of Pako was when he made up the lacquer for his fiddles and cellos and violas and bull fiddles. Gums and oils, shellac and tinctures, combined with the rosins and their powdery dust already permeating the place, made for a rather euphoric sensation, he confided.
You can feel for those poor souls who the pandemic robbed of their olfactory faculties; not that there aren’t a few pluses to that. Funny how, when the restrictions came down, one of the first things to hit me was a bit like Robert’s trippy experience.
Met up with a clutch of muso mates for a session for the first time in months. When we opened the fiddle cases, whack, there it was; that odd timber pong and the pungent aroma of the white powder mix that pulverised rosin makes when you rosin up your bow — and which drops all over a violin as you play the thing.
And don’t ask why but it’s always reminded me also of Dave Bromberg’s song, Cocaine Blues:
“Along came Sally with her nose all tore,
“Doctor said she can’t sniff no more,
“He says cocaine’s for horses, not for men,
“He says it’s gonna kill me but he don’t say when … “
Fair to say the poor old music industry’s copped it during COVID. Belted senseless is a better description. So many people worked right over. No gigs, no JobKeeper. No practices or rehearsals. For a good many, it was so demoralising they just shoved their guitars under the bed and moped about on Netflix, trying to forget their addictions to creativity and performance.
A few put their nose to the grindstone, teaching students on Zoom. Some tried sessions and jams on Zoom too; they didn’t work. Some ambitious souls tried to live-stream gigs, which were well received but kind of clinical and just not the same.
So it’s been like a serious fix throwing ourselves into a swag of belting Paddy, bluegrass, French-Canadian, Russian, Scottish, Italian and Bulgarian reels and jigs and breakdowns and general thumpers. Almost felt like hooligans.
Might have been fully unplugged but we were way too amped to play anything quietly or slowly. Our regular teak and leather surrounds at Fyansford’s Door Gallery even smelt different.
Everything sounded — felt — new, different. The March of the King of Laois, Pointe au Pic, the Narcoleptic Gnome, Andropov, Quinn, Esperanza, the Mexican Circus Monkey, Breakfast at the Methes … even a gaggle of old fowl-inspired tunes we’ve gone a bit silly on: Jenny’s Chickens, The Hen’s March to the Midden, The Cock and Hen, Cluck Old Hen, La Poule à Colin.
And so, yeah, the sessions are revving up again. Good to get among the strings again. Down the years I’ve fooled about in these bashes with guitars, mandolins, fiddles, bouzoukis, banjoes, citterns, fiddles, mando-cellos, ch’ins, bandurrias, balalaikas, instruments I can’t even name.
These sessions see a fair array of the weird and wonderful. And a surprising amount of talent.
Took along a 10-stringed charango I picked up in Peru once. It’s like an armadillo crossed with a butternut pumpkin and I wasn’t sure what to do with it. A mate picked it up and played Mozart’s Rondo a la Turk on it.
The musical collaborations can take some curious turns, too. A fair musical Babel, actually. But now the scent’s back in the nostrils, I’m expecting our old Eskimo tunes alongside Django Reinhardt, Mark Knopfler and Dean Martin in succession, Normie Rowe, Daddy Cool, medieval Dutch tunes for dancing bears, Tennessee waltzes and Russian troikas.
Can be emotional, you know. Some of those haunting old Irish airs will get you sniffling. Might even have to get the tissues out.
This article appeared in the Geelong Advertiser 4 May 2021
Image: The Door Gallery, https://www.facebook.com/407978659383230/videos/200417111107198