Sing a song of Sands

Ben Sands – singer, songwriter, instrumentalist and member of the renowned Sands Family from County Down – presents traditional Irish songs.

Sands 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Sands 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Ben Sands had the best possible upbringing for a musician. After all, music played at the highest level – regardless of the genre – should be a storytelling expedition. Not only was the Irish singer-songwriter born into a musical family, he also grew up in the best possible default conditions for developing his skills as a talking and singing raconteur.
“We lived on a farm in Northern Ireland with no electricity,” says Sands.
“So when the day’s work was done, we’d all gather around and someone would tell a story before the music started.”
Patrons of this year’s Jacob’s Ladder Festival at Nof Ginosar by the Kinneret (May 19-21) can expect to enjoy a generous dosage of musical and non-musical yarn spinning at Sands’ two shows, on May 19 (6 p.m.) and on the morrow at 4 p.m.
It is a thread that, traditionally, runs through much of the Emerald Isle and, especially among families such as Sands’.
Sands lives in Newry, County Down in the southeast of Northern Ireland, not far from the border with Eire. He was the fourth born, in a family of five boys and two girls, on a small farm near the village of Mayobridge, in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains.
His branch of the Sands clan has a long history of music, singing, and storytelling and his father, Mick, was a legendary character whose songs and fiddle playing were spiced by a wealth of wit and adventure.
His mother, Bridie, a fine singer and accordion player, was the daughter of the noted poet, Owen Connolly, whose wife was related to the Bronte family.
Even though the Sands family was not exactly blessed with material comfort, Ben says there were advantages to be had, and he is very appreciative of his somewhat sequestered childhood, and of the kick start it gave his eventual line of work.
“We didn’t use money much then. We had a barter system with our neighbors and we didn’t feel poor. In those days people seemed to have time, time to tell and listen to stories, and to be together. These days it is sometimes difficult to keep people’s attention for more than 10 seconds.”
THANKFULLY, THOUGH, Sands and three of his siblings are doing their best to keep the musical and storytelling traditions going and they periodically gig together.
“We performed in Germany recently and we just did a concert here, in Ireland,” he says in this telephone interview.
“Mind you, we’re all keeping busy and it’s getting hard to get us together in the same country at the same time, let alone to actually play together.”
Sands’ singer-songwriter brother Tommy is also doing his best to sustain his artistic lineage, and performs with his son and daughter, Moya and Fionán Sands.
One of Ben’s own immediate family relationships spawned his latest album, Take My Love with You, although the title song from the CD had an uncomfortable first airing.
“I wrote the title song for my daughter, to play for her at her wedding’” Sands explains.
“In a moment of recklessness I thought, wouldn’t it be nice to make her a song as a wedding present. Then I developed that a bit further and decided to sing it to her on her wedding day.”
In the event, it was quite an ordeal.
“It was bordering on madness. Having my daughter getting married was emotional enough for me anyway. I was really nervous about playing it to her and, as the coffee was being served, I thought that maybe I should forget it and just give a speech like everybody else.”
In the end, however, the seasoned professional got his act together.
“It was one of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life but I managed it. My daughter was moved by it, and so was everyone else at the wedding.
Mind you, afterwards my younger daughter said that if she ever gets married she doesn’t want me to do a song for her,” Sands laughs.
The album was subsequently recorded and Sands says he has received a lot of positive feedback to that wedding gift.
“A lot of people, all over the world, have asked me for the words and the music of that song. Some said they wanted to sing the song themselves at their own daughter’s wedding. I wouldn’t advise it. It’s quite an emotional challenge.”
The storytelling genes are clearly maintaining their potency as Sands’ son Michael recently put out a book about Gaelic culture and history.
“There’s lots in it about faires,” says the proud dad.
“The Irish, and even more so the Jews – the Bible is basically a collection of stories, isn’t it? – value storytelling.
In my family, music and telling stories was always the same thing.”

For tickets and more info about Jacob’s Ladder Festival: