Sunday 25 Sep 2016

Irish
David Simmonds

We all know the world is getting smaller. And nowhere is this more true than in music.

You may have heard that the best bluegrass banjo players in the world are the Kroeger Brothers - from Switzerland! They didn't let a lack of inbreeding, and a home far away from Kentucky, get in their way.

The same thing happened - almost - to a couple of brothers who live in the little Polish town of Glotny, just a few kilometres away from the busy port of Gdansk. Vlad and Lech Jesvekov were young twins who both loved to listen to music on their marine band radio. And the music they liked was - you'll be surprised by this - Irish pub music. "Once you got the hang of one tune, you got them all." Vlad put it somewhat wistfully.

The precocious teenagers suddenly realized there was a ready made market for their music in the hundreds of Irish sailors who passed through Gdansk . "We'd go down to the docks as the ships unloaded and strike up 'The wind that shakes the barley'" recalls Lech. "And the amazing thing was, they all seemed to know who we were. As they came down the gangplank, almost every sailor would mention our last name with a certain passion - Jesvekov, Jesvekov, Jesvekov. Right then and there, we knew we had hit a nerve."

The brothers mortgaged almost everything they could get their hands on - a letter from a young Cardinal Karol Wotyla congratulating Vlad on some minor church award, a photograph of Lech Walesa with Dick Clark at TImes Square in New York, and a shirt from a member of the famous Polish national soccer team that finished fourth in the 1992 World Cup.

"We bought fisherman's sweaters and tam o'shanters." says Lech, "as well as a guitar and a whistle and a one way ticket on a freighter bound for Dublin".

"When we got there, we were miserable" recalls Vlad. "We couldn't speak the language, and we had to mimic the words in the songs we played without having a clue what they meant., But as they say, an Irishman is never so truly happy as when he's miserable, and maybe we tapped into that vein".

Not knowing the language, they couldn't come up with a name for the group that reflected their heritage, so they just stuck with the obvious one - "The Jesvekov Brothers". And again, they were amazed. "People would chant our name - we'd get up and play our hearts out - and they'd shout our name even louder - so we'd keep on playing".

In a few short months, the boys had outgrown the pub scene and managed, thanks to some careless custody of a case of Bushmills, to wangle an invitation to the prestigious annual Festival of the Little People, held in Cork.

"We wanted so badly to do well" recalls Lech. "So we asked ourselves: how can we be more Irish?" And they came up with what they thought was a killer idea (which it turned out to be). In every Irish band they had seen, the members sported noses that were a bright red, under-laid with stripes of a striking purplish blue. The brothers realized their handicap: the others had enjoyed a 20 year head start on them in Guinness consumption. There was only one thing they could think to do: apply makeup.

It was a bright Friday morning in July as the brothers walked on to the festival stage to do their sound check, cheerfully acknowledging the few dozen fans who called out their name. But by performance time, the clouds had turned a dark grey. And with what in hindsight seems like a heavy dose of irony, the heavens opened during the second chorus of "A Walk in the Irish Rain". Red and purple streaks and smudges started to appear on their faces. And an audience that had started chanting their names suddenly started laughing.

And that, they realized almost immediately, was the end of their Celtic music career. "We knew that no entertainer can survive derision," said Vlad. So, they packed up quietly and flew home. And never played a note of Irish music again.

Today, both are happily married with children, looking to break into the world of high stakes internet poker. They will occasionally play a Val Doonican or Van Morrison record. But what do they do when they encounter someone form Ireland? "Just remember the good times" the brothers respond in unison "and call out our name to them the way our audiences did to us."

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Some readers seem intent on nullifying the authority of David Simmonds. The critics are so intense; Simmonds is cast as more scoundrel than scamp. He is, in fact, a Canadian writer of much wit and wisdom. Simmonds writes strong prose. He dissects, in a cheeky way, what some think sacrosanct. His wit refuses to allow the absurdities of life to move along, nicely, without comment. What Simmonds writes frightens some readers. He doesn't court the ineffectual. Those he scares off are the same ones that will not understand his writing. Satire is not for sissies. The wit of David Simmonds skewers societal vanities, the self-important and their follies as well as the madness of tyrants. He never targets the outcasts or the marginalised; when he goes for a jugular, its blood is blue. David Simmonds, by nurture, is a lawyer. By nature, he is a perceptive writer, with a gimlet eye, a superb folk singer, lyricist and composer. He believes quirkiness is universal; this is his focus and the base of his creativity. "If my humour hurts," says Simmonds,"it's after the stiletto comes out." He's an urban satirist on par with Mike Barnacle, Jimmy Breslin, the late Mike Rokyo and, increasingly, Dorothy Parker. He writes from and often about the village of Wellington Ontario. Simmonds also writes for the Wellington "Times," in Wellington, Ontario.

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