Leaving that famous royal mile, the narrow ridge that defines the tourist heart of Edinburgh, with its wall to wall tartan and cashmere shops and sinister themed tours, we descend the steps in search of the real Edinburgh. Down the stairs of Castle Wynd which hug the old rampart walls to the first terrace, then further on to another level or two until we find Forrest Road. Looking back up at the narrow terraces as they climb that ancient mound gives one a better appreciation of Edinburgh’s architecture. We wander a little further along to the home of celtic music sessions, Sandy Bell’s pub. It’s a tiny single fronted place with a cluster of chairs here and there and a designated spot down the back for the musicians.
A session in a pub refers to the music played by those who arrive to play celtic music, that is, jigs and reels, at a set time. A good session will go for four hours or more, improving along the way as the participants get to know each other. It is assumed that the musicians are competent in their chosen instrument. There will usually be a leader, often an older player, who sets the tone and keeps the session running smoothly. A good leader will open the set, determine the pace, and show, through a series of hand gestures, when a shift in a set is about to take place. In the session we attended at Sandy Bell’s, an older gentlemen playing two mouth organs at once set a rigorous pace. Other players included a guitarist, three fiddles, then later a uilleann piper and a pianist.
Singing is not usually a feature of a session, though a song or slow lament might be sung by a single musician between sets. This was certainly the case in the many sessions I had the pleasure of hearing in the pubs along the West coast of Ireland some years ago and it was also the case here in Edinburgh. The guitarist quietly sang a solo of ‘Ranting, Roving, Robin‘, a most unusual Robbie Burns tune, during the break.
The aim of a session is to practice and share music; it is not a performance and so clapping is not usually appropriate. Posturing or grand standing by individuals is also frowned upon: personal musical virtuosity is less valued than the collective effort. Most participants in a session understand this etiquette.
We stayed at the session at Sandy Bell’s for four hours and with each tune, the group became more cohesive and the music intensely enjoyable. It had nothing to do with the pints consumed, I swear.