Second service: Jason O'Rourke on new album The Northern Concertina - The Irish News
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Second service: Jason O'Rourke on new album The Northern Concertina

Concertina player Jason O'Rourke
Robert McMillen

JASON O'Rourke is a servant. He's very civil but he's not a civil servant.

Instead, he is at the service of those who want to indulge in the austerity-sidestepping, life-affirming activity of dancing, a concertina player who thrives in that sweet space in a musical Venn diagram where performer and audience become one.

Although he will be playing all over Europe this summer, Jason can usually be seen and heard playing at the Tuesday night session at the Errigle Inn on the Ormeau Road in his adopted home of Belfast, a long journey away from the home counties he grew up in.

Was it a case of growing up in a household easing nostalgia for the auld country by immersing themselves in trad music? Nope.

"My grandfather was Irish and although my father never really took up an instrument, he did want us to play, explained Jason over breakfast at Bia in the Culturlann this week.

"So, when I was about nine, he duly sat us down to learn the tin whistle but to be honest, I just didn't have the brain for it. I threw the whistle down and stormed off in a huff.

"My mother met me on the stairs and asked me what had happened. 'Oh, I suppose you're just not musical, then,' she said."

The reverse psychology worked a treat. Jason picked up an old melodeon his mother had and taught himself how to play it, which in turn led him to accompanying his Hammersmith-born mother who was part of a clog-dancing troupe (she had trained with the Royal Ballet as a child).

The young Jason loved the excitement of playing music for people to dance to and later at school he became a drummer in a rock band and its from playing music for dancing and driving a rock band that has led him to believe in the primacy of rhythm in music making.

"One of the things that tends to get lost in Irish music is that connection between music and dance," he says.

"That connection is very, very important. Playing to a couple of hundred of people while they're doing The Battering Step, there's nothing like it in the world."

Jason went to Queen's university to study English and Welsh – although he says his Cymraeg is pretty rusty at the minute – while still playing in a fairly lively Irish music scene in Oxford.

In 1991 however, he decided to come to Belfast to Queen's University to study English and Welsh and fell in love with the city, mainly because of the music scene here.

"Coming to Belfast was great for me because of the way people were playing here, foot to the pedal, rhythmic, pumping, joyous, gutsy music and that suited me down to the ground. The craic was 90, the music was fantastic and the bars were great."

He recorded his first solo album, The Bunch of Keys, in 1999 but it has taken him until now to get the follow-up into the shops.

After the complications that life can throw up with marriage, parenthood, a mortgage, a job in the financial sector, the loss of a job in the financial sector all leading to a rocky period in his life.

The writing of the tunes on the new album, The Northern Concertina was slightly cathartic for Jason.

In the end, he has produced a wonderfully balanced collection of well-known Irish tunes, a pair of mazurkas and tunes written by Jason himself.

While each element of each of the 14 tracks is a thing of beauty, the album comes across as a unit, a complete whole.

He explains: "As a unit, I was trying to get a balance of 4/4 and 6/8 time signatures, jigs and reels. The hardest thing about making an album is getting the material together. Most of the tunes I composed were to go specifically with other tunes or other pairs of tunes."

These include The Frozen Mouse Polka and To Hell with Austerity!

But Jason isn't the only one on the Northern Concertina. Joining him are guitarists Stevie Dunne and Tim Edey, Teresa Clarke on fiddle and piano and Seonaid Murray on tenor sax who add energy or subtlety as required.

"I'm hoping to get a 5.1 surround sound version of the album so that people can really hear how simple but complicated the album is and the great musicianship that's on it," he tells me.

"It's great to listen to music in the car but I'd love people to sit down and do some focused listening because although the music is complex, it doesn't sound complex.

Jason is first and foremost a musician, he's talents also lie in the literary field with a website dedicated to stories about life in Belfast called Vernacularisms.com.

"I'd been walking around Belfast for years and years and the first vernacularism was based on something I observed on my way to Queen's, a melting radio playing Disco Inferno and I thought I have to write about that one day," he explains.

"Then, in 2012, I decided to give myself a birthday present so I started writing stories for vernacularisms, vignettes about everyday life in Belfast because I love those little details of our lives."

  • You can get The Northern Concertina via Jasonorourke.info, Claddagh Records or from good music shops.
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