Saturday, September 3, 2011

Hammered Dulcimer Music at the NY State Fair

Many of you good folks out there know I moved up to Syracuse, NY two months ago. Here's a article I wrote yesterday for a class on some really unique musicians I met at the New York State Fair. Normally I don't post class articles, but this was pretty cool.

Amid the chatter, buzzers, rings, dings and whirs of the New York State Fair, there’s another sound that floats out onto the midway. It’s the sweet sound of the hammered dulcimer, a string instrument dating back to the Persian Gulf around 2,000 B.C.

 For the past 12 years, nationally recognized hammered dulcimer player Dan Duggan, along with friends and accompanying musicians Tom Hodgson and Henry Jankiewicz, have been bringing traditional music showcasing the dulcimer to fair crowds from across the state.

 “The sound comes right up at you,” Duggan said. That’s one quality that attracted him to the instrument when he first heard it in college. After 25 years, the dulcimer is Duggan’s full-time gig.

 He loves the uniqueness of the instrument. That uniqueness is also appealing to many fair-goers. They wander by the Agriculture Building, where the trio will be stationed through Sept. 4, and get a look and a listen at an instrument somewhat unfamiliar.

 “We get to play for people we normally wouldn’t play for,” guitarist Tom Hodgson said of the “eclectic mix of people” who stop by.

 For Duggan, it’s a chance to spread the word about the dulcimer, particularly because it doesn’t have a home in more modern mainstream music like rock or country.

 Audience members will hear primarily traditional music, fiddle player Henry Jankiewicz said. He also said an important distinction to remember is that traditional music comes from a variety of countries and regions like Ireland, Canada, Scandinavia, not just the American South.

 Or as Hodgson put it, “It’s the music passed down through oral tradition.”

 Traditional music isn’t everything, though. Duggan has numerous albums in his catalog, some solo works and others collaborations featuring his own compositions, both traditional and modern. His music can be heard in films and even on Paul Simon’s 2000 Grammy-nominated studio album, “You’re the One.”

 “Writing for the dulcimer isn’t any different than any other instrument,” he said, “it’s a little bit more percussive.”

 “Dan’s very open to having other musicians play with him,” Hodgson said of the collaborative nature of their work. “He’s very well known among musicians.” Typically, Duggan will put together an ensemble based on an event or project.

“It’s as much about the informal playing as it is professional playing,” Hodgson said. “Some of the best music is made around kitchen tables.”

 That sense of community is also part of the basis for Duggan’s latest album, “For Love of Friends. ”All the songs were “written with people in mind,” Duggan said.

“They’re for all the friends who supported us [he and his wife] through neck cancer treatments.” 

Duggan was diagnosed with neck cancer in early 2009. He and his wife Peggy Lynn started a blog and friends helped out, even to the extent of raising money. But as Duggan blogged in September of that same year, “After ten months, three surgeries and 35 radiation treatments, several chemotherapy treatments, six and a half months with a peg tube... I am cancer free.”

 The radiation made it harder to grow back his once bushy beard, but otherwise he is doing fine. “I looked like a teenager trying to grow a beard,” he said.

 Now it’s back to traveling from show to show and bringing the story of the dulcimer to the masses. 

“It’s wonderful to enlighten them,” Hodgson said. Weaving history into the set, Duggan told the crowd,

“This is the instrument the West was won with. They weren’t hauling pianos out there.”

 He also told the crowd dulcimer players have an old joke. They spend half of the time tuning their instruments and half of the time playing out of tune.

No comments: