The history of Blowzabella. Got any old photos, recordings, posters, memorabilia or stories to share? firstname.lastname@example.org
The story of Blowzabella
In the beginning there was the drone…
Since they began in 1978 Blowzabella’s music has evolved from simple performances of traditional English and European dance tunes to more complex arrangements of tunes composed by themselves. Over the years the line-up of the band has changed, and the signature wall of sound has evolved too, while staying true to a set of basic principles that were there from the start - the use of drones and unusual instruments, memorable tunes, an emphasis on strong rhythmic playing and improvisation around the melody, harmonies and rhythms so that every piece can develop over time through live performance.
Blowzabella was formed in Whitechapel, London in 1978 by Bill O’Toole (bagpipes, flutes) from Sydney, Australia and Jon Swayne (bagpipes, flutes) from Glastonbury, Somerset. The first musicians they invited to join them either came from London or were living there at the time - Chris Gunstone (bouzouki, tapan); Juan Wijngaard (hurdy-gurdy, flemish bagpipes) who taught the band some of the first tunes they played; Sam Palmer (hurdy-gurdy) who took over from Juan in 1978, and Dave Armitage (melodeon, bombarde, percussion). Dave Roberts (melodeon, percussion) joined in late 1979 when Bill returned to Australia.
When the band began Jon, Bill and Dave were studying woodwind instrument making and Sam had just finished studying fretted instrument making at the London College of Furniture in Commercial Road, Whitechapel E1. Jon and Sam lived in an area of run down tenements rather optimistically called Fieldgate Mansions near the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the East London Mosque and the men’s hostel where Joseph Stalin once stayed. When Jon finished college and returned to Somerset, he passed on to Dave Armitage his flat at 14 Fieldgate Mansions, Myrdle Street, Whitechapel, London E1 which was Blowzabella HQ for the next five years or so. Chris lived in Blackheath and was heavily involved in Balkan music and dance. This led to there being a Macedonian “wing” of the band called Izvoren who played with Balkan dance groups around London. Australian multi-cultural music guru Linsey Pollak (macedonian gaida, kaval, saxophone) was in London around that time and played balkan music with some of the band and Peter Lees, a wonderful hammered dulcimer player, who they met at the College, did a few gigs with Blowzabella in the very early days.
What’s in a name?
Blowzabella is the name of an English jig tune from the late 17th century. It may have its origins in Italian music and the Commedia del Arte, which were popular in London at that time. Bill came across it in Wrights “Complete Collection of Celebrated Country Dancing” while trawling in the Vaughan Williams Memorial Library at Cecil Sharp House for one octave English tunes to play on the bagpipes. The “blow” and the “bella” seemed to describe the sound they made and the name stuck.
Bill had been playing zurnas (loud double-reed woodwind instrument) on stilts in Australia and had the idea of literally elevating the band. The first public performances in 1978/79 were at festivals and fairs with Blowzabella drawing attention as an energetic stilt walking dance band in bizarre costumes. The line-up was Bill O’Toole, Jon Swayne, Chris Gunstone, Sam Palmer and Dave Armitage. Bagpipes were very much to the fore playing the tune, with the hurdy-gurdy close behind and a driving rhythm being supplied by the bouzouki and percussion - usually a Balkan double-headed tapan or a side drum. The repertoire was a mixture of English, Balkan, French and Flemish traditional dance tunes. Bill made the first sets of bagpipes the band used, Sam made hurdy-gurdies, Jon made flutes and recorders and later went onto pipe making and Dave Armitage made curtals and bombards. This was partly because they could, and partly because there were so few others making the instruments they wanted to play at that time. Since then the band have continued to work with a number of instrument makers and the band’s sound is partly the result of their work.
In the early days the band played at alternative festivals including the Festival of Fools, the Albion Fairs, Barsham, Rougham Tree and Hood Fairs, in the street, at parties and college gigs. Those festivals were unusual in the way they brought together such a wide variety of alternative entertainment - street theatre, all kinds of bands, stand-up comedy, improvised music, new circus, free poets, performance artists, pagans, bikers, locals and people of all ages. From 1978 onwards the band also went every year to a festival in central France in a small village called Saint Chartier. In its early days the festival was predominantly about the traditional music, dances and instruments of central France particularly the bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy and accordion. The alternative festivals with their creative atmosphere and eclectic mix of contemporary, independent artists and Saint Chartier with its great musicians and all night playing and dancing were major formative influences on Blowzabella
1980 to 1990
The next phase started with the arrival of Paul James (bagpipes, saxophone, woodwinds) and Cliff Stapleton (hurdy-gurdy) in late 1980. Paul, Cliff and Juan Wijngaard had played together since about 1975. Cliff’s theatre company The Mountebank Zanies did many performances in the mid to late 1970s with Juan, Paul and others, and later, the first Blowzabella line-up providing the music. Paul soon became the band’s organiser and Dave Armitage, who had left in 1980, rejoined in late 1982 playing bass curtal and percussion. Dave Shepherd (violin) - who knew Dave Roberts and Dave Armitage and had played in the folk rock band Dr Cosgill with Paul since 1977 – was invited to join in 1983.
This was a period when the band started composing their own tunes and when they played at all the major European Festivals including the main stage at Glastonbury Festival. It was also the hey day of The Three Daves (Armitage, Roberts and Shepherd) - all great players, dancers and enthusiasts for traditional English dance music. In the early 1980s John Offord (violin) and Guy Crayford (guitar, mandola) occasionally sat in when one of the regular members was unavailable. Also during this time the band struck up a long-standing friendship with the singer Frankie Armstrong which culminated in the album Tam Lin in 1984 and some live performances in Britain, Europe and Canada. Recordings from this period : Blowzabella (1982), In Colour (1983), Tam Lin (1984) and Bobbityshooty (1984). Book : Encyclopaedia Blowzabellica. Blowzabella tune and dance book.
The next phase started with the album Wall of Sound in 1986 and finished when the band split up in 1990. This period saw a major line-up change with the arrival of a very young Nigel Eaton (hurdy-gurdy), Ian Luff (cittern, bass guitar), English folk singer Jo Freya (vocals, saxophone, clarinet) who was perhaps best known then as a member of the Old Swan Band, and then another astonishing young player - Andy Cutting (diatonic button accordion). They injected a lot of new energy, ideas and major musical talent. This line-up was able to build on everything that had gone before, greatly increase the amount of music composed by the band, and hone the sound and reputation of Blowzabella as a powerful live band. During this period they travelled widely across Britain and Europe, touring East Germany before the fall of the iron curtain, around Brazil and a tour that took in Sierra Leone, Ghana and Nigeria. Recordings from this period : The B to A of Blowzabella (1986), Pingha Frenzy (1988), A Richer Dust (1988), Vanilla (1990).
Since 1978 the band have developed an enormous repertoire and can play for dancing continuously for hours and hours without repeating themselves. Despite making many albums, much of their earlier repertoire never made it onto record. In the early days the band borrowed traditional tunes from all over England, Europe and the Balkans and adapted them to their needs and instrumentation. Soon though this wasn’t enough to keep them occupied and the ability of band members to compose and arrange their own material grew in importance and started to define what the band was about.
British and European traditional dance rhythms are pan-European. The local and regional differences are akin to accents and dialects of the same basic language. These differences are best expressed through local variations in instrumentation, tuning, phrasing, tempo and the style of tunes. A polka from Poland and a polka from Ireland sound far apart in character but they obey the same basic rules of time signature and rhythmic emphasis. From the outset the band realised that there were far more similarities than differences in the music across Europe and it partly explains why they became equally popular in all the European countries where they played. They had a knack of sounding familiar enough to be accessible and foreign enough to be interesting to audiences both at home and abroad. Possibly because they mostly concentrated on dance music the most basic language and one which needs no explanation or translation - they were able to build an audience of people of all ages with very different musical tastes. The line-up has always included musicians who are also good dancers and dance teachers Dave Armitage, Chris Gunstone, Jo Freya, Bill O’Toole, Dave Roberts and Dave Shepherd. They showed the audience how the dances went and because they were also musicians in the band, rather than a guest, they were able to influence the way the band played in terms of tune structure, tempo and the inner rhythms that make dance music work. In addition, the band made a conscious effort to engage with their audience by staging an annual Blowzabella Workshop Festival (1984 onwards) which introduced large numbers of people to playing and dancing and that contributed to the formation of bands in several countries. This whole approach proved to be influential and many European bands who wanted to experiment beyond the boundaries of “folk” music cite Blowzabella as a major influence.
The usual pressures associated with constant touring led to the decision to disband in December 1990. The band members stayed in touch and would sometimes play together in twos and threes, while also moving on to do their own musical projects. In 1996 Dave Roberts tragically died. Dave was a great musician with an encyclopaedia of tunes and dances in his head. He had a special gift for being able to instantly play virtually any kind of tune, even if he’d never heard it before that moment, in any key, with any kind of musician, even those he’d only met 5 minutes previously. A natural musician with a great technique, he was also a modest person who never sought the limelight and was often happiest providing a solid and reliable platform for others in the band to build on. In 1995, Ian persuaded Jon, Andy, Nigel and Dave to play a gig in Bath and from 1996 to 2001 they played a few gigs each year as Blowzabella.
Ian Luff sadly died in January 2017. Although he hadn’t played with the band since 2004 he was regularly in touch with the band. He is remembered as a gentle man, a great player and composer of some classic Blowzabella tunes such as 'Willow Runnel’ and ‘Go Mauve’
In 2002 Paul James contacted everyone with the idea of marking the 25th anniversary of the band in 2003 and the line-up of Andy Cutting, Nigel Eaton, Jo Freya, Paul James, Ian Luff, Dave Shepherd, Jon Swayne played some memorable gigs including a huge, hot and atmospheric performance at St. Chartier Festival in central France in July 2003. The band had a lot of new material and enthusiasm and decided to carry on, although Nigel Eaton stepped down in 2004 and Gregory Jolivet from Bourges (hurdy-gurdy) was invited to join and Ian Luff decided to leave in early 2005 to be replaced by Barnaby Stradling (bass guitar).
Blowzabella is Andy Cutting - diatonic button accordion. Jo Freya - clarinet, saxophones, vocals. Paul James - bagpipes, saxophones, vocals. Gregory Jolivet - hurdy-gurdy. David Shepherd - violins. Barn Stradling - bass guitar. Jon Swayne - bagpipes, saxophones.
This line-up has been the most stable and consistent in the history of the band and has been touring recording together since 2005. They plan to keep playing, composing and recording and continues to be a band that celebrates music with a European outlook.
I collated this over several years from the memories and diaries of most band members past and present. It’s no more or less typical a story than any other band history. It’s been joyous, messy, complicated at times and sadly two members, Dave Roberts and Ian Luff, died too young. We’ve travelled around the world, played a zillion gigs and met a lot of wonderful people, many of whom became, and still are, great friends. The things that have been constant throughout are great tunes, drone instruments, lots of dancing, an independent spirit and a DIY ethic. You make your own luck.
Paul James. 2018