Dan Evans Live at The Artrix, Bromsgrove
I've discovered that, when you tell people you're going to see a concert of dulcimer music, most people react by asking 'What exactly is a dulcimer?' Dan Evans, reportedly the UK's only professional dulcimer player, demonstrated the instrument admirably well in the cosy surroundings of the Artrix Studio in Bromsgrove last night. Some of the audience, it seems, had never seen or heard the instrument before. For my part, I've been trying to play one for nearly 30 years so I'd gone along hoping to pick up a few tips and to reassure myself that I hadn't been playing it in completely the wrong way all these years.
I was comforted to find Dan played in a similar style to my own, finger-style rather than strumming. I much preferred his renditions of some lovely traditional tunes -- Columbine and Blow the Wind Southerly among them -- to his choice of cover versions, and his original guitar piece The Garden Waltz was a particular delight.
My own relationship with the dulcimer has been a rather troubled one. When I lived in Brittany back in the early 80s I came into contact with traditional Breton music and a character (who was seldom sober) who rejoiced in the nickname Guinness. Guinness introduced me to the instrument and, captivated, I bought one from a music shop in St Brieuc.
I began teaching myself to play and compose tunes on it but, after 20 years of loyal service, my poor old dulcimer started to misbehave. Some of the frets had become very worn and the poor thing refused to stay in tune. A music shop offered to 'set it up' for me but, sadly, had no idea what they were doing and the dulcimer sounded unhappier than ever. So I traded it in for a new model from the excellent Hobgoblin shop in Manchester. It was only then I discovered, for two decades, I'd been playing the dulcimer back-to-front! My original instrument had been strung for a left-handed player so everything I had ever learnt now had to be inverted and relearnt.
Just to make it more interesting, I was persuaded to exchange my old three-string dulcimer for a four-string instrument. This opened up a whole new world as my new dulcimer is capable of lovely mandolin-like sounds (two of the four strings are paired in unison.) I used it on the album Untangle the Strings and my friend Phil Richards took a series of remarkable images for the album featuring puppets with the dulcimer (see above left) .
For an old battle-weary dulcimerist like me it was very heartening to see people turn out on a cold Saturday night to watch Dan Evans play, and it's inspired me to take my dulcimer with me — and give the guitar a rest — next time I go out to play on an open mic night.
I must, finally, point other dulcimer aficionados in the direction of Dan’s excellent website, which, among other things, finally helped me to understand why other musicians have always struggled to keep time with my playing. It seems it's due to a phenomenon called rubato which Dan explains is ‘rhythmic give and take’. As he puts it, ‘this gentle ebb and flow of the rhythm adds depth and interest to the music, making the song breathe and so come to life.’ So now you know.