Mohsen Amini - Easy squeezy for concertinist
There was a moment during the Young Scottish Traditional Musician of the Year final in January when Mohsen Amini thought everything was going to fall apart. On the first word he uttered the concertina player from Glasgow heard his voice wavering. With a split second to collect his thoughts he pressed on, charmed audience and judges alike and walked off with the title.
“It was a massive thing to be in the final,” he says. “Even though we’d won the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Award with Talisk the previous year I felt it was really important to go for the Young Trad because it’s a prestigious title to have. I wasn’t too worried ahead of the final because I’d decided to look at it as like any other night. My idea was to just put on a show as usual but I felt a nervous excitement as I walked onto the stage. Fortunately, I managed to overcome that and I must have played okay.”
The Talisk he talks about is his trio with fiddler Hayley Keenan and guitarist Craig Irving. It’s one of a number of bands that are keeping Mohsen’s diary full. So busy is he, in fact, that the annual Young Trad tour, showcasing the current title holder, his or her fellow finalists and the previous year’s winner in venues across Scotland, has had to hit the road without him.
As we speak he’s on tour in Germany, having flown back to Europe direct from an Australian tour, and he reels off a schedule of album launches and tours with the five-piece Ímar - the band he formed with musicians from outfits including Mànran, RURA and Barrule - and Fourth Moon, a German-Austrian-Italian-Scottish quartet. He’ll be back in Scotland for his slot on the Scots Trad Music Awards next month, however.
Concertina and a combination of Scottish and Irish music aren’t the first musical connections that you might make with the son of Iranian and English parents. It was actually his sister’s involvement in Irish dancing that piqued Amini’s interest.
“I went along to one of the competitions she was in when I was about ten and I got chatting to someone from Comhaltas, the organisation that promotes Irish music, song, dance and language, and they told me they were doing music classes on the south side of Glasgow for £1 a night,” he says. “I thought, that sounds interesting but my mum said, you could do karate, if you like. I didn’t fancy karate so I chose music.”
Starting with tin whistle he worked his way through all the instruments Comhaltas were able to offer until a concertina arrived.
“I got tunes out of it straightaway and they told me to keep it,” he says, adding modestly that they weren’t particularly difficult tunes. With no concertina teacher available to begin with he turned to the internet and found a veritable store of great players, all with their own styles. The great traditionalist Noel Hill showed him what’s known as the pure drop and Niall Vallely, son of Armagh Pipers Club founder Brian and a member of the free-spirited band Buille, gave an insight into how to push the boundaries.
“Eventually I had lessons for about a year but initially I gorged myself on all the players I could find,” he says. “I loved the more traditional approach but I also liked the people who were taking the tradition somewhere new. I wanted to find my own way of playing and I’d learn all these fast weird tunes that didn’t go down all that well in Ireland. In fact, they hated me there for a while. It’s like any other instrument, though: you copy other people and try to figure out what they’re doing until you get to the stage where you’re playing like yourself.”
A similarly organic process lies behind Talisk, whose live performances possess so much energy that audiences appear to be physically lifted out of their seats to dance.
The group developed out of a quintet that began to shrink as a gig they’d accepted at Partick Folk Club got closer. When they were down to a trio just days ahead of the concert, they suggested that the club cancel the gig or try to find a replacement. The club organiser was having none of this and stood her ground.
“We’re really glad that she did now,” says Amini. “The day before the concert we sat down and planned a running order and rehearsed the set. When we played the gig we really weren’t sure how it would go down because it was quite wild but it went really well. We’ve had a few years to work on it since then and the sound’s changed over time but I think we’ve retained an edge that audiences respond to.”
From The Herald, December 2, 2016