Chris Brinn: Irish Piano Accordion

Chris Brinn taught piano accordion for a weekend at MFC several years ago. In 2020 he is BACK and will be teaching during the newly established accordion track for the June week, June 21-26. here are Chris’s own words!! – bill o.

I started playing the trumpet when I was about seven years old. I was extremely lucky that both my parents and teachers always encouraged music. Both my grandmothers played piano, and my grandfather on mother’s side (who was from Wicklow, Ireland) played in a harmonica band when he was in the army. In school though, the headmaster always played guitar and had us all singing during weekly assemblies. I think this was where I first heard, and became hooked on, folks songs and folk music.

We moved from Bristol to Cornwall when I was ten. Mum was originally from Padstow, a small fishing town on the North Coast, but we settled firstly in the village of Dobwalls near the farming town of Liskeard. I switched from trumpet to cornet and started playing with a local brass band (as common in Cornwall as male voice choirs are in Wales). But folk music was always in the picture. Because mum was from Padstow, we’d gone down for the local May Day celebrations every year without fail (to this day, I’ve only ever missed two). Padstow has a long history of traditional music and song, and the accordion became a major part of this throughout the latter part of the twentieth century. Long story short, my dad sort-of played the accordion and had a spare, and asked if I wanted lessons, so I took a couple. Unfortunately, this teacher wasn’t a good fit for me. He was keen on competitions, and accordion bands, and all the other stereotypes that have made the instrument so loved. I was really only interested in being able to play in the pubs for the singing, so I didn’t go back to the formal lessons. I finally took the instrument up in earnest after hearing one of my mates (best mate actually, but didn’t know that then) playing a set of jigs in the pub. I was thirteen at the time and we were now living in Liskeard itself.

The failed accordion lessons were not without benefit however. I knew some scales, knew how the keyboard was set up, and had a reasonable idea of what the bass did, often a part of the accordion that eludes people. I started learning by ear, teaching myself some popular marches, all

the old songs from WWI and WWII, and many other popular songs that have been assimilated into Cornish pub culture. I also started listening to more folk music, particularly The Dubliners. My daily paper route furnished me with enough money for a new album every week, and although I was still listening to many of the great ‘80’s bands of the day (apparently musical tastes stay fixed after age 35), a steady stream of Irish music was now added to my record collection. The Chieftains were a revelation, along with the great accordion players Dermot O’Brien, and Mick Foster. We moved to Padstow within the next year, and I became fully immersed in the local music and culture.

The next few years were filled up with leaving school at sixteen (quite normal in Britain back then), working in the fishing industry, and music. The local Cornish gig rowing team was always a great source for sing-arounds, and together with a couple of mates, I was playing in the pubs most Saturday nights. Folk festivals and local folk nights were prevalent throughout the summer months providing me with a plethora of opportunities to join in songs, and backup other musicians, as well as playing the dance tunes that became a firm favorite around the community. I was lucky enough to have wonderful mentors in some of the local musicians, always encouraging and willing to share their knowledge. In October of 1994, I met my wife Carol. Well, she wasn’t my wife then of course, but I moved to the US in March of 1995 and we got married in May of the same year. We moved to Seattle in 1996, and another life chapter began for me, as well as a musical one.

We spent four years on the West Coast, two in Seattle and two in Spokane, and I became immersed in the Irish music scene. Sessions in Ballard and Fremont Pubs, St Patrick’s Day marathons, and finding new music through expanded sources were all part of my time out west. I met Tom Cregan, Dale Russ, Finn McGinty, Conor Byrne (collectively The Suffering Gaels), and my great friend Hanz Araki, a major influence and all round good egg. I discovered Sharon Shannon, Phil Cunningham, Silly Wizard, Alan Kelly, and the great Jimmy Keane who has become a great friend, mentor, and another major influence. I became a founding member of a session that still happens in Spokane, and met many more fantastic musicians. But with the end of Carol’s medical residency, we hankered for a return to the East Coast, and decided that Maine would be a great place to settle. We moved to Rockport in 2000. Our son was born in August, and we have made Maine our home for the last twenty years.

Maine is full of marvelous musicians and I’ve been fortunate enough to play with some of the best of them. I’ve been to some brilliant sessions in Portland, Rockland, and play regularly at the session in Darby’s Restaurant, Belfast. Mat Smith, Randy Billings, and myself will be celebrating our twentieth year as The Napper Tandies this fall. Over the last ten years I’ve started repairing and tuning accordions as a hobby, and have recently started learning to play the harmonica. I’ve been lucky enough to be a stay-at-home dad, and witness my son becoming an amazing young man. I’m also lucky enough to be in love with, and married to, the same woman for the last twenty five years (well, twenty five years in May 2020 that is). I’m ever fortunate to call Searsmont Maine my home.

In writing this, I’ve tried to look back at all the influences, both musical and personal, that have shaped where and who I am as a musician and a person. The two go hand in hand. The accordion is sometimes not always a polite instrument, and I have been told as much on a couple of occasions. The great fiddler Frankie Gavin, when giving a Master Class (find it on YouTube), told the participants to play as loud as they could and that they’d have more fun with the jigs and reels than slow airs. I’ve tried to modify how I play based on the setting, but I can’t help but feel most at home with a whole mess of musicians tearing it up over a couple of pints, so I’ll finish with my favorite quote from The

Chicago Poems by Carl Sandberg, pretty much a philosophy to live by.

HAPPINESS

I asked the professors who teach the meaning of life to tell me what is happiness.
And I went to famous executives who boss the work of thousands of men.
They all shook their heads and gave me a smile as though I was trying to fool with them.
And then one Sunday afternoon I wandered out along the Des Plaines river
And I saw a crowd of Hungarians under the trees with their women and children and a keg of beer and an accordion.

Here’s to family, good friends, and lots of music. Cheers!

Chris Brinn came to the U. S. from the small fishing port of Padstow on the North Cornish coast in the UK. He now lives in Searsmont with his wife Carol and their son Declan. Chris has been playing piano accordion for over thirty five years, specializing in Irish music and songs, as well as the music of Cornwall. His connection with Ireland stems from his grandfather, born in Wicklow and raised in Dublin. Since coming to America, Chris has been able to immerse himself in traditional Irish and Irish-American music and is heavily influenced by the great Jimmy Keane of Chicago. He is a member of a number of locally based Irish bands, but plays most regularly with Matt Smith and Randy Billings, Maine’s best Irish Pub Band, The Napper Tandies.

Chris plays a G Verde Lite IV 37/96, LMMM tuned with about a 12 cent tremolo. He also has a G Verde Giga III 30/72 MMM with a slightly wider tremolo. Both accordions have been configured for Irish music.

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