Trad/Roots: Tom Oakes's improvised inspiration

Tom Oakes 

YOU know what I love about traditional music? The fact that it can shape-change into the avant-garde and back into a rip-roarer without losing its fluidity or breaking its stride.

A recent example of that is the new album by Tom Oakes, Water Street, which highlights Tom's own shapeshifting from a bed-ridden tin whistle player to multi-instrumentalist to sound engineer, teacher and performer.

Tom hails from an unlikely Mecca for traditional Irish music, Totnes in south Devon on England's south-west peninsula, where his family had ended up after moving to Leeds at the time of the famine in the 1840s.

"My main influence was my Aunt Dorothy Kavanagh, whom we called Dodo," Tom tells me.

"Her married name was Dorothy Good and she lived in Cork when I was very small but she used to send over those Soodlum's Irish ballad books and I'd learn all those songs off by heart.

"But I damaged my hips when I was 13/14 and spent about six months bedridden. And there wasn't much to do it was pre-internet. So I took up the tin whistle and, and just got really into it."

The passion for the whistle continued while Tom also became adept at the guitar, mandolin and, most importantly, the flute but when it came to choosing a university course, he was inclined to study English literature... until he was "kidnapped."

I'll let him explain.

"Well, I applied to six different universities for English literature apart from one, which was a degree in folk and traditional music that was just starting in Newcastle upon Tyne and I knew quite a lot of people that were applying," he recalls.

"My granddad had had given me a few quid to look around all these universities, Then a pal of mine called Gillian Tolfrey - who has a Donegal background but who grew up in Jarrow near Newcastle - basically kidnapped me when I went up to look around the course.

"I ended up staying there for a week and ended up blowing it all in Newcastle. And I loved it. I went out and played loads of tunes and I ended up deciding to do that course."

It helped that Niall Keegan was teaching the flute teacher, and he loved being taught by great professional musicians and so his musical career began.

"Flute as first instrument, singing a second, but I've never really had the confidence to sing in performances, it's not my my thing. And I feel like I can do a better job of the same melodies on the flute," says Tom.

"What I've done a lot, and a little bit with the new album, is to take the songs that I love and turn them into airs. I know that's something that people have always done, but I'm kind of doing it with with English traveller songs.

"So rather than English folk music, it's more a kind of Romany stuff, because that really interests me. So I'm working on a bit of that to put alongside the sets of Irish dance music."

The esoteric as well as the home-grown is also something that attracts Tom. In the past, he has worked in genres as diverse as Arabic hip-hop and Moroccan Gnawa (which he encountered in Marrakesh and Casablanca); contemporary Americana, Indian traditional, classical and bhangra music (during a residency in Mumbai), Scandinavian traditional music, jazz and on projects with the Northern Sinfonia, Mr McFall's Chamber and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra.

Things were going well until a double disaster struck in 2020.

While performing on stage in Switzerland, his favourite instrument, a Grinter, shattered on stage - due to humidity, he believes - and this was just before the lockdown shut down life as we know it.

However, artistic people seem to have an advantage over 'normal' human beings in that they can dip into a well of creativity which can sustain them when times get tough. And so it happened with Tom.

"My wife is Icelandic and she was looking up an 'Icelandic people in Scotland' Facebook group when she saw this flat in a building called Lamb's House, which is a 16th century merchant's house in Leith, but was completely decimated.

"A group of architects took it over and restored it to how it would have been and they and we got the opportunity to live in this tiny little flat in the corner of it."

Now he had a new acoustic space, he had replaced his Grinter with a new flute, a Rudall and Rose (the Stradivarius of the flute world if you will), and with lockdown, lots and lots of free time to compose and arrange the music that features on Water Street.

The title track illustrates, I think, one aspect of what Tom Oakes is about. As he explains in the sleeve notes: "This piece started life as a 3am improvisation in a sparsely lit and hugely atmospheric corner of Lamb's House.

"I added layers of flute harmonies, processed them to form a kind of brass section and added texture before scrapping the original and writing the main flute part over the background sounds. This 'self-collaboration' is inspired entirely by instrument and place. A flute made in 1845 and a house built in 1610."

So the flute that Tom now plays was made around the time his ancestors were fleeing the famine in Ireland in a kind of musical continuum.

And if fits into Tom's musical journey that he is working more and more in sound design for theatre, filling spaces with an atmosphere created by music and technology.

Another great 'soundscape' on the album is Debussy and the Low B on which Tom uses a flute given to him by Cathal McConnell of the Boys of the Lough fame but other tunes are quite well known from The Ace and Deuce of Pipering, Junior Crehan's The Mist Covered Mountains and a favourite of mine, an instrumental version of Sé Fáth Mo Bhuartha.

"My daughter's two now, so at the time, she was just a baby and I spent a lot of time walking around cycle paths in Edinburgh, just pushing her around trying to get her to sleep with these the 40-odd tracks I'd written in my headphones. So I had it all recorded. And then I I chose the ones that I thought fit together well," says Tom.

"I never really meant to include sort of improvisation alongside Irish Trad but it just sort of ended up that way. And it felt like it felt like it fitted, as if I'd found the right place for them."

You can find out more about Tom Oakes at

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