The Irish are one of the most musically inclined nations on Earth. Even their numerous accents, which may all sound the same to the untrained ear, exude a mellifluous musicality. So what better place for a musician to go to try to get a handle on the intricacies of Irish music?
California-born Tel Aviv resident Daniel Hoffman is an accomplished violinist. Trained in classical music he eventually veered off into the various strands that make up klezmer music which, among many other ventures, he explored in the making of the At The Black Sea album he recorded, with Trio Carpion, in 2012.
But this was something else. He was going to get down and dirty with some of Irish music’s finest, to see if he could get a decent grasp on the genre, and all within the space of a single week. The preliminaries to, and results of, that commendable – and possibly foolhardy – escapade are captured in a new documentary intriguingly called Otherwise, It’s Just Firewood. The film will be premiered in Israel at the Inbal Theater in Tel Aviv, at 8:30 p.m. on February 20, with further showings lined up on numerous American public TV channels next month, around St. Patrick’s Day.
The film title is a quote from Niall Keegan, flutist and director of the undergraduate department of the Irish World Academy, at the University of Limerick. The observation was made about how the fiddler has to invest his or her creative abilities in their playing, thereby imbuing the instrument with “character,” Keegan noted, succinctly adding, with a twinkle in his eye: “Otherwise, it’s just firewood.”
As both Keegan and Hoffman note in the documentary, the violin is one of the most versatile instruments around, and is played by people from numerous countries and cultures. Hoffman himself has bowed his way through many genres and disciplines, including jazz, Arabic and Roma music, flamenco and Moroccan Andalusian works.
It was the latter exercise that eventually pointed the way in the direction of the new documentary which, in fact, Hoffman hopes is the first of a whole series of films about violin music in cultures across the globe.
“This whole project started when I went to Morocco, almost 20 years ago,” he recalls. “A friend of mine had been there. He was a
musician and he’d really gotten into the music from Marrakesh, which has an interesting blend of Berber music and Arabic music.”
The friend’s tales of his musical exploits sparked Hoffman’s curiosity and he also made his way over to Morocco where, after getting food poisoning, he happened to attend a show of traditional music at a fancy hotel.
“It was the first time I’d ever heard anything other than Western music,” he explains. Suitably intrigued he arranged to have a handful of lessons from a local music teacher, and followed that up with a couple of weeks at a bona fide music academy in Fez.
Although Hoffman did not quite become a skilled purveyor of Arabic music, it gave him a taste for music from outside his natural cultural comfort zone. His road to multicultural exploration beckoned.
“I just fell in love with the sound and I thought, this is a violin, exactly the same instrument I play, but it sounds completely different. I was fascinated by that.”
The seeds for Otherwise, It’s Just Firewood had been well and truly sown.
“I came back home and I had this idea in my head. I thought, what if I spend about a week, or a month, in different countries and made documentaries about that, about trying to learn to play the music the place in a month, or maybe a week.”
Still, it’s nice to have some grand and honest notion, but it is often a very different matter to put it into tangible, funded practice. The years flew past and Hoffman got married, had kids and got on with his own musical pursuits and keeping the wolves at bay. A chat with a fellow musician, former Jerusalem Post employee and ethnic music percussionist Gabriel Fisk, paved the way for the necessary financial backing.
“I told him about my idea and he asked me if I’d heard about Kickstarter,” says Hoffman, referring to the global funding platform for creative projects. “I’d never heard about it. It took me about a year to get going, but that’s what I did.”
But Hoffman was, and is, a musician not a filmmaker, so there were plenty of potholes and mines to be navigated en route.
“I didn’t know anything about making documentaries and I had a really steep learning curve to go through,” he says. There were also some cold, hard facts on the ground to be factored in.
“I didn’t have a lot of time – I was already a parent – so I decided I would start with Ireland, and go there for a week and make the movie.”
That may be far easier said than done, but the end product makes for interesting and highly entertaining viewing.
Hoffman headed for County Clare in the southwest of the Emerald Isle and got himself some private tuition with master fiddler James Kelly. Hoffman goes through an emotional, and instrumental, wringer and also meets up with a bunch of leading lights of the Irish music, and culture, scene.
If you’ve never been to Ireland and would dearly like to go, or miss the heady days around a decade-and-a-half ago when the Tel Aviv Cinematheque hosted annual Irish music festivals, and Celtic music was all the rage here, Otherwise, It’s Just Firewood will give you a taste of what makes the Irish tick, individually and as a nation, a musical nation.
For someone who had never played Irish music before, or made a film, Hoffman does himself proud. Hopefully there will be more in the way of documenting fiddling in foreign climes from him, through his Violin Around the World venture, before too long.
Otherwise, It’s Just Firewood will be screened at the Inbal Theater in Tel Aviv, at 8:30 p.m. on February 20. The program includes live Irish music, with a performance by the Triola band. For tickets and more information: (03) 517-3711 and
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