Tommy, Moya and Fionán Sands Concert Review, Saturday March 26 2011
By: Rob Gavin, Irish Balladeer
Sometimes at a live concert, the performers, audience and room acoustics come together to create a memorable experience. This is what happened last Saturday night when Tommy, Moya and Fionán Sands took the stage at the Rockhurst’s Rose Theater. The concert benefitted the Irish Museum and the Children for Peace in Ireland Program.
Certainly music has been used for centuries in Ireland to summon patriotic spirits on both sides of the Irish Struggle. Many Irish performers use Rebel music to teach audiences about the courage, commitment and sacrifices made by generations of Irish Patriots. Although I have known of Tommy Sands for many years and perform several of his songs, I had never understood the real essence of his music, which is to bring peoples together. Tommy is known as the Bard of Peace. His song; “Music of Healing” is the official song of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It has caused Loyalist leader David Irvine to comment,” Tommy is the only man without a private army that can intimidate me.” Tommy employs his music to reconcile the hurt and anger between the Loyalist and Nationalist communities in the north of Ireland.
The concert Saturday night was uplifting. At the conclusion, it was the same feeling you get walking out after midnight Christmas Mass wishing everyone a Merry Christmas. The small but “quality audience” as Tommy phrased it was treated to Sand’s original songs and stories masterly told by this legendary performer. Accompanying him was his enchanting daughter Moya, whose persona and never ending smile charmed us like a siren luring sailors to the rocks. Her violin/fiddle performance added beautifully to the music matrix as did her haunting tin whistle and heart pounding bodhran tipping. Moya also used her talent of step dancing to add percussion to several songs and her “broom dance” was light and flawless.
Tommy’s son Fionán is a bit more reserved. However, he can play banjo and mandolin runs like Ricky Skaggs or Earl Scruggs. His ornamentation of the simple folk arrangements added the Irish character that brought the music to life. Together the family troupe had tight harmonies and was an absolute joy to the ear. To listen to Tommy perform his own work; “There were Roses”, a true story about his friends, one protestant and one catholic that were both senselessly killed in the Troubles was heart wrenching. Tommy ensnared the audience into singing along to “The Lagan Side” or “Send for Maguire”.
If you ever get the opportunity to experience this group in the future, jump at the chance. Until then go out and get their CDs, you will not regret it.
Tommy Sands - The Music of Healing
You know it's there but you can't put your hands on it
All we can hope to do Is follow its footprints
- "The Music of Healing," by Tommy Sands and Pete Seeger
Arriving in San Antonio for the Kerrville Folk Festival, I was lucky enough to ride in with Irish folk legend Tommy Sands. Even at the airport terminal, he was impossible to mistake - a troubadour's shirt with flared green sleeves, curling shoulder-length hair, and a certain grace. What impressed me most about Sands was a pervasive, sincere gentleness and a consistent pattern in all the activities he does surrounding music.
We got acquainted on I-10 in a conversation about teaching. He described a program he'd recently done at a juvenile detention center in in Reno, Nevada. Sponsored by the Sierra Arts Foundation, he worked with 17 and 18 year olds at Whittenburg Hall, helping them to write songs which they would sing for the judge at their placement hearings. Based on their testimony, they would be released, sent to treatment programs, or remanded to prison as adults. Sands worked with over 70 youths, helping them to write their life stories in the form of songs.
He began by telling them a traditional Irish tale - "The Boy Who Had No Story." In Ireland, to have no story to tell is not to exist, and this boy, tired of being ostracized, runs away. Of course, his adventures paradoxically leave him with quite a tale to tell - the best in the county. Young people have a hard time seeing the story in what they consider their ordinary - or less than ordinary - lives. But they began to see differently.
Sands began by asking a few questions: "Where were you born? What were you like as a kid? When did things go wrong for you? What is your plan for the future?" Verses can grow easily from these. He also talked about the cellist, Vedran Smailovic, with whom he has been performing off and on for the last four years. Smailovic became an international folk hero for his stubborn courage during the seige of Sarajevo.
After bombs destroyed the theatre where he played in the symphony, Smailovic took to playing his cello out in the street, through the bombs and gunfire. I was struck by the way music, simple music, can become politicized by context, can be made into a powerful force for change by the intent of those who play it. Living in Northern Ireland, Sands has learned this truth. In a way, using rather than writing songs is his true artform.
Ireland - Catholic and Protestant - met to play music together, to test and prove the bonding power of their shared music. Later, the musicians brought leaders from their parties with them; they would open these discussion sessions with music, "to create an atmosphere of neighborliness and humanity." The discussions were often heated, but never dissolved. According to Sands, the Citizen's Assembly which, in 1996, began to hold its "consensus sessions," grew out of these musical exchanges. Led by Peter Emerson, a key thinker in the group, the Citizen's Assembly looked for new ways of solving conflict and new ways of decision making - moving from "majoritarianism" to a concensus approach - a true democracy where instead of 51% of the people being happy, everyone is. Each voice - even minority voices - are heard, considered, and made part of the final decision. Instead of the up/down referendum, they used the "preferendum," where representatives rank alternatives. Ex-prisoners from both the IRA and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) acted as referees or facilitators in fashioning solutions that took all points of view into account. Sands said it was his own son, Fionan, who came up with the idea that each party in the talks should be represented by one man and one woman. It was this Citizen's Assembly which was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the Good Friday Peace Accords, which remain a source of hope for lasting peace in Ireland despite continuing problems.
A last episode. The media were euphoric when the talks leading to the Peace Accords were being set up. Every day there were articles about the obstacles being overcome, the differences being set aside. It was high drama. However, once the peace talks were underway, the media found themselves in the age old quandary - peace does not make good ink. They began looking for cracks in the talks, interviewing factious extremists and trying to find drama in conflict. It was the kind of reporting that gradually breeds mistrust and polarizes the public. Sands knew that what the press needed was a "storm." So he decided to create one for them.
He wrote a song, taught it to a group of 40 children - 20 Protestant and 20 Catholic - and they marched, singing, to the building where the talks were being held, accompanied by lambeg drummers. It was a simple song:
Carry on, carry on
You can hear the people
Carry on, carry on
and peace will come again
The politicians poured out into the street and joined in the singing. And the press had their storm. The Music of Healing events continue to go on each year. Tommy Sands has his own weekly radio show, which often includes guest politicians - he says he often gets them to sing. And I never asked him what happened to the youths in Reno who sang for the judge. But my guess is that it's hard to throw the book at a boy who can sing the story of his life. Check out Tommy Sands' website at: http://www.tommysands.com and his weekly radio show (live Sat. 6-8pm (1-5pm Eastern) plus archives) at http://www.downtownradio.co.uk
May the road rise up to meet you - and all that,
Hugh Blumenfeld, Editor
A Songman's Journey Across The Musical Sands Of Time
Wednesday 20th April 2005
Tommy Sands is an old-hand at a good yarn, as his mesmerising new memoir The Songman proves.
In his career as broadcaster, raconteur and singer-songwriter, Tommy has mixed with everyone from hunger-strikers to prison-officers, diplomats to clergymen and those betwixt and between in all arts and parts of the world. The master of the bon mot was reared in the foothills of the Mournes, as he puts it "with a Fenian fiddle in one ear and an Orange drum in the other".
I once left a scarf behind when I was doing an interview with Tommy. He returned it with a graceful poem on a card, hoping it would keep me "warm for many winters to come". Nothing the man does is ordinary and nor is his book.
The Songman chronicles Tommy's international circuit, as he plies his songwriting trade, as well as the people he has met and the tunes he has written about his experiences all along the way.
In the book, his opening question from RUC man Ivan Ross is an arresting start to his tale: "Are you the son of the man that pulled my granny out of the coffin?"
It turns out Tommy and Ivan were childhood friends who had worked together on the harvest near Rostrevor. Now Ivan is stopping Tommy, who is en route to sing to George Mitchell at Stormont Peace Talks. The two have moved many miles apart since they tied corn stooks four decades previously "on the back hills of Turnavall". The anecdote involves Sands' father's unsteady behaviour at the wake for Ivan's granny Elizabeth Maharg. Ross is the man who christens Tommy "The Songman" as he waves him up the long driveway to the Parliament buildings.
Tommy traces his rural childhood in south Down and a country way of life that was well nigh obliterated by the savagery of the Troubles. The political turmoil divided the boy in his mother's "Irish Catholic kitchen" from the "Glennys, O'Haras, Reids and Cowans, neighbours good and Protestants all". It marked the retreat of both communities back amongst their own and Tommy's short recruitment to the Fianna Eireann at the start of the 1960s, truncated to his relief, by the 1962 IRA ceasefire.
Sands frankly outlines his own point of view on politics since: covering the path from Civil Rights to his own efforts for peace.
He recounts the poignant killings behind his There Were Roses song in its eponymous chapter, which has a photo of his "Da and Ma on fiddle and box" (acordion). The roses in the title were planted by his mother and nurtured by his father and were very much part of his home-life and history. In 1973, the scent of the roses was strong and the sound of explosions and the number of sectarian assassinations was increasing. Tommy attended Isaac Scott's funeral at the Presbyterian church in Newry and rumours were rife around the area of reprisals. Eventually, Tommy was on stage at the Irvine festival in Scotland when word came through that Sean McDonald had been shot to even a sectarian score. Sands took a long time to write his song to commemorate or mark the killings, not only to bring out the sorrow of the loss but to "leave a space in the soul where love might return". He includes the lyrics in The Songman and reveals in a later anecdote that Gusty Spence likes the lament.
In 1978, he made a Christmas programme for Downtown Radio involving everyone of note in religion and politics, from Doctor Paisley to the two Archbishops in Armagh and politicians including Paddy Devlin and Harry West. The disparate group was recorded separately telling jokes and singing to make a real feel-good "party" broadcast.
The Ulster Special Constabulary Association issued a statement that December, following its broadcast: "The Association feels that after tonight's get-together with Tommy Sands and the Ulster politicians, Northern Ireland can never be the same again. Tommy's presentation has done more to foster good will and understanding than all the Westminster and so-called peace initiatives out together."
The programme has been repeated many times subsequently by many radio stations, but another 22 years passed before Tommy turned his programme into another "political party" post Good Friday Agreement.
Sands also reveals details of a potentially lethal German stalker, who blighted a large section of his life, as well as the births and deaths that map out any family history, including the tragic loss of his brother Dino in a car accident in Germany. He ends up at Stormont, where he started the memoir. Asked by an English reporter if he was a Roman Catholic singer or an Ulster Protestant singer, he replies in typical manner: "Both and neither." He ends by seeing the birth of a child called Peace. It slips and stumbles on its way to walking and he hopes it survives to dance to his music.
TOMMY SANDS "To Shorten The Winter" Green Linnet Records GLCD 1212
Tommy Sands does not know HOW to come up with a bland and colourless album. But that said, having listened closely to this CD all the way through on several occasions, I am forced to admit that I am left with a sense of disappointment. Perhaps, were he not such a compelling LIVE performer, one would not hold out such high expectations for his CDs: but he IS, and we DO. And this CD just leaves one feeling one's hunger FAR from sated. The album consists mainly of self-penned songs and, if it has a theme at all, it could possibly be said that it is a celebration of what UNITES the Irish people: and it's an album that particularly rejoices in the improved "Security" situation.
Whilst none of Tommy's songs really stood out for me, a couple of tracks really blew me away. Both were old favourites: but the first rarely heard in a Folk Club. A Whiter Shade of Pale always WAS, of course, high-class HOKUM. But wonderfully heady stuff, as performed by Procol Harum. Surely, they laid down the definitive version, some 35 years ago? Well, yes. That is what I always thought. Until I heard this. Lordy, Lordy! Instead of the organ break, you have Liam O'Flynn's uilleann pipes. Golly, you don't need to read the liner notes: as soon as he arrives on the scene, from the first note you just KNOW it is O'Flynn! His fingerprints are all over the place. His searing, soaring, authoritative sound, is like WHAT exactly? [Thinks] The nearest I can get to it is to liken it to the Parting of the Waves. Apocalyptic. And wondrous. And lo and behold, O'Flynn does it again just four tracks later with Raglan Road. I had thought it time for a moratorium on new recordings of this song, but this one proved that there is still new life to be gotten out of it. Not just the uilleann pipes, but also persuasive guitar accompaniment stand out here. (It's probably unfair to highlight just O'Flynn, for there are several eminent backing musicians who all do a fine job.)
Of Tommy's own songs, the best by some distance is The Mixed Marriage, a witty song highlighting the problems of marrying into the Other Tribe in Northern Ireland. On this, he is joined by Dolores Keane. One final note: I know not whether it was the typeface or the colours used in the liner notes, but gosh they were difficult to read at times. Dear Green Linnet: try black on white. For tiny print, it is an UNBEATABLE COMBINATION. As is, for making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up, Sands and O'Flynn.
This album was reviewed in Issue 48 of The Living Tradition magazine.