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  • › Linsey Pollak discovers passion for Community Music through Bamboo Flutes

    24/Oct/2020

    INSIDE THE MUSICIAN. Linsey Pollak: Improvising My Way through Life - an article written for Loud Mouth's E-Zine by Linsey Pollak, PUBLISHED OCTOBER 2, 2020THE GROWING EDGE.

    What do a bamboo grove, a broken down VW kombi, a vinyl album of Macedonian folk music and following your lover up to a small country town in Queensland all have in common? They are all fragments of a series of random events that created my diverse musical journey.

    When I look back over the years ….there was never an ordered plan or roadmap about what would come next. It seems as if I have just stumbled along, embracing a series of random opportunities as they presented themselves. And maybe ‘embracing’ is not even the right word. Perhaps the opportunities grabbed me. Because at the time I wasn’t even aware of making the choices that have had huge impacts on my path. It feels as though I’ve sort of improvised my way through life and in many ways that is how I approach the music that I make.

    Random Event no.1 – the bamboo grove. (How I became an instrument maker)

    As a 19 year-old living in Sydney I had taken a year off after leaving high school and before starting a SCIENCE degree (teenage dreams of becoming a neurophysiologist). However, during that year, amongst other things, I discovered a bamboo grove. Not a big deal, but for some reason I decided to cut a length of bamboo and I made my first musical instrument – a bamboo flute. That was it. I was hooked  ….I’d totally fallen in love with the process of making a musical instrument. I wasn’t even a flute player. At that stage I’d been playing clarinet for about 8 years (due to another random event – my Mum finding an ad in the local paper for a second hand clarinet selling for twenty pounds when I was in primary school).

    Anyway, I taught myself how to play the bamboo flute and started making bamboo flutes in earnest. I researched flute design with various books from Fisher Library (Sydney University) and then sat on the ground outside the library with my flutes spread in front of me on a rug –  ‘For Sale $5 – $10’. It was also at this time that my passion for community music was ignited. I started running bamboo flute making workshops with kids in inner city Sydney. Then in 1973 when I travelled to the Aquarius Festival in Nimbin to run flute making workshops and perform with the White Company I decided that it was time to defer my science degree (it’s still deferred) and get into instrument making full time. Now I really had the bug. I wanted to make flutes in timber, so I taught myself wood turning and bought a wood turning lathe and started making renaissance flutes. My instrument making addiction had become even more serious and I wanted to learn more about early wind instrument design and so I travelled to Europe (with the help of an OzCo grant) to measure early wind instruments in museum collections throughout Europe. One of those museums was the Horniman Museum in London.

    Random Event no.2 –  an old treadle lathe in a watchmaker’s shop in London (why I set up a flute-making workshop in London)

    While staying in London I was walking through Clerkenwell with my girlfriend Janet. Looking into a watchmaker’s shop I saw an old cast iron treadle woodturning lathe. (Like the clarinet my Mum had found it was for sale for only 20 pounds). It was a bargain. So without a second thought I bought it. Now what to do? Janet and I were backpacking around so it was totally impractical. We decided to find a workshop space (for both of us – Janet was a double reed maker) and ended up living in London for another 2 years. I set up a renaissance flute making workshop and made three sizes of renaissance flutes mainly supplying The Early Music Shop as well as individual musicians.

    But now we need to step back in time a little as there is a parallel story.

    Random Event no.3 –  sampling Huffy’s record collection. (How I fell in love with Macedonian folk music)

    Let’s go back to about 8 months before I travelled to Europe. I was staying with my friend Huffy in Sydney and checking out his record collection (this was still in the days of vinyl) when I came across an album called Macedonian Folk Dances (by Pece Atanasovski). It was ‘love at first listen’. I was completely entranced by the sound of the gaida (Macedonian bagpipe) and knew that one day I would have to play this instrument. I immediately made a cassette copy of the album. This was just before embarking on a three month trip down the Murray River with 13 friends on rafts that we built ourselves. Every day of that rafting river trip I would listen to the Macedonian Folk Dances album at least once until it was in my blood. Eight months later I was in London.

    Random Event no.4 – I come across a Macedonian folk band in London that is short of a gaida player

    Because of my love affair with Macedonian gaida, soon after arriving in London I looked around for people that were involved in Macedonian dance or music and very soon discovered the Živko Firfov Dance Group who taught and danced dances from all over Yugoslavia. Imagine my amazement when I discovered that attached to this group was a band of musicians playing Macedonian folk music with traditional Macedonian instruments (tamburas, kaval, tapan) except that they were missing a gaida player. Ken who led the group had a gaida I could borrow and now that I had my workshop set up I made a copy of his gaida and completed the group.

    Random Event no.5 – Our VW kombi breaks down on the Yugoslav coast (How I find Lazo – my gaida teacher)

    After playing gaida for nearly a year I decided that I really needed to spend time in Macedonia, find a gaida teacher and immerse myself in the music and culture of Macedonia if I wanted to continue playing this music. Adam (the kaval player in our Macedonian band) and I decided to travel together and we bought a kombi van so we would have somewhere to live when we arrived in Skopje. Great idea ….except the kombi broke down on the Adriatic coast. We tried unsuccessfully to import a replacement motor and ended up finishing our journey to Skopje by bus. This was the best thing that could have happened. If we had lived in the kombi I would never have found my gaida teacher Lazo Nikolovski. It was because we were looking for accommodation that we met Lazo who had a granny flat in his back garden. On top of that he played gaida and was a great player. He had recently retired, had plenty of time and was willing to teach me. We ended up living in his backyard for 3 ½ months and Lazo would spend three hours every day playing and teaching gaida. It was a dream come true. Thank you Lazo!

    I returned to London for another six months and then the whole Živko Firfov Dance Group and band were invited to perform at Macedonia’s major folkoric festival ‘Ilindenski Denovi’ in Bitola. At this festival I met Destan Destanovski who was an incredible Romani (Gypsy) zurla player from the town of Berovo. He invited us to visit and stay with his family which we did on a number of occasions and we became very close friends. It was during these visits to his town of Berovo (near the Bulgarian border) that I first discovered Macedonian Romani brass band music. This was music that was quite different to the traditional Macedonian folk music that I had been learning on gaida even though some of the traditional melodies were reinterpreted and played by these bands of magnificent improvisors. Over the years this music has influenced my playing, improvising and composing greatly and I have run many community music workshops in this style of music. More recently I organised and composed for a community street band in Maleny, Qld called The Unusual Suspects, using arrangements and compositions of mine that have been inspired and influenced by Macedonian Romani brass band music.

    Once back in Australia I lost contact with the Destanovski family. However decades later with the advent of the internet I would randomly Google ‘Destanovski Berovo’. I finally got a hit and connected with Milo Destanovski, Destan’s son (who also played zurla). After a break of over 30 years I finally returned to Berovo in 2013 and found the connection just as strong and the music better than ever. Two years later in 2015 I managed to bring 19 of these wonderful musicians (three different bands – Uskar Kan Orkestar, Etno Maleš, Maleševski Zurli) to Australia for two weeks of incredible concerts thanks to the Woodford Folk Festival.

    Random Event no.7 – Busking outside Hoyts (connection to the Macedonian Community and my eyes are opened)

    On returning to Australia at the end of 1978 I wondered how relevant my newly acquired skill of playing gaida would be. I had no idea really about an Australian context for this music. Also I had no money, and so, as I had done in London, I went busking. I busked outside the Hoyts Cinema Complex in George St, Sydney and late one night while I was playing the gaida a group of pretty tough looking guys surrounded me and formed a circle and …suddenly started dancing to my music. When I finished the piece they bombarded me with questions “How do you know our music?”, “How did you learn?”, “How come you speak Macedonian?” etc etc. Through talking with them I learnt that there were dozens of Macedonian bands in Sydney, dozens of Macedonian dance groups and they invited me to come along to one of their Macedonian cultural organisations. When I left Australia I had already fallen in love with the music, but I was ignorant of the cultural context and had no idea of the Macedonian community in Australia. Over the next months that totally changed and as I was wholeheartedly welcomed into the community. I also learnt a lot about the community itself.

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    Linsey has become famous for making unusual instruments (even Carrot Recorders!), and if you would like to read more and view videos on how to make Polypipe Duduks or Curly Clarinets, new wind instruments (especially the Cylisax and the chromatic duduk), or just listen to Linsey play them, you can find links and read the rest of his article at https://musictrust.com.au/loudmouth/inside-the-musician-linsey-pollak-improvising-my-way-through-life/.