Not All Greek – Frank McNally on Mohammad Syfkhan and the Irish bouzouki

He whipped the audience into a frenzy and kept them there longer than seemed possible

This time last week, I had never heard of Mohammad Syfkhan. Then a friend bought us tickets for his Friday night concert in a bar in Dublin’s Portobello, which was packed out for the occasion.

Since when, I have also read Aoife Barry’s fine interview/profile piece on Syfkhan elsewhere in this paper (Arts, April 2nd). And now I’m glad I scrambled onto the bandwagon while there was still room.

Two or three songs into his set, already mesmerised by the sound he was making with just a voice, a bouzouki, and a beatbox, I asked the woman beside me – who clearly knew him: “Where’s this guy from again?”

“Carrick-on-Shannon,” she told me. Which is true, because that’s where he has lived – now with Irish citizenship – since arriving in this country as a refugee in 2016.

But before that he was Kurdish Syrian, a dangerous thing to be then in the war-ravaged city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State brutally murdered one of his sons and forced the rest of the family to flee.

So his rhythms are still more Levantine than Leitrim. But they seem to be just as infectious here as there.

Writing of Syfkhan’s debut album, Aoife Barry issued a challenge: “Just try not to start moving when you listen to ‘I Am Kurdish’.” Whatever about the album, anyone at the concert who was trying not to dance – and there were a few of us early on – gave up eventually.

Most of his songs were in Kurdish, I think. But there were a couple – including one borrowed from the great Lebanese singer Fairuz – that set the Egyptians, Moroccans, and Syrians in the audience singing as one.

There may be 20-something different dialects of Arabic, but they all knew the words and joy was universal.

When he first took the stage, the dapper, diminutive man in a grey suit looked more like an insurance salesman than a weaver of musical magic.

And although he must be well used to the reaction by now, there was something about his facial expression throughout the show that suggest he was surprised – if not alarmed – at the effect he has on people.

But he was clearly enjoying himself too. Having whipped the audience into a frenzy and kept them there longer than seemed possible, he went off-stage briefly sometime after 11pm before returning for what I assumed was a short encore. Then he played for another hour.

Many in the audience had to bail out early to catch last buses. But whenever they left, like Joe Dolan, he sent them home sweating.

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Strange to say, although fans of Planxty and the Bothy Band will know this already, the bouzouki is an Irish instrument. Well, it’s Greek originally, of course. But a version of it settled in this country about 60 years ago now and has since gone native.

The credit for introducing it here is variously given to Johnny Moynihan of the 1960s folk group Sweeney’s Men, or to a friend from whom he bought it after the friend gave up trying to play it.

But another Sweeney’s Man, Andy Irvine, was a big influence on the bouzouki’s naturalisation in these parts, not least because he gave one to Dónal Lunny, who restrung it to suit his left-hand playing and so doing localised the accent.

Irvine and Lunny then conspired to make the instrument part of the seminal group Planxty, and – with help also from Alec Finn (later of De Dannan) who introduced another version – the Irish bouzouki was born.

The story of how Andy Irvine first acquired his is an important part of the Irish origin myth, not least because it involved blood as well along with the usual sweat and tears associated with mastering instruments.

As explained in an interview with music writer Tony Bacon, it was 1969 and Irvine had hitchhiked from Bulgaria down to Thessaloniki. But Greece was ruled by a fascist military regime then and he didn’t want to contribute his foreign reserves to the economy.

So in a compromise, he sold his blood locally and bought a bouzouki from the proceeds before hitching straight back to Bulgaria with a clear conscience.

It was this “blood money bouzouki” he later gave to Lunny when, trying it out, the latter got the hang of it so quickly that Irvine said: “Take it, take it”.

Mohammad Syfkhan speaks admiringly of the Irish appreciation “for music of all kinds”, from which he is now benefitting.

But the bouzouki’s local history may help explain why his debut album has struck such a chord here, selling more than any previous release by the Leitrim label, Nyaah Records.

Of course, there are common threads between the folk music of all countries, as the Chieftains never tired of demonstrating.

In a different context, for example, the word “Nyaah” could look African or Middle-Eastern. Around Leitrim, meanwhile, it’s the quintessential sound you have to be able to make before applying for your licence as a sean-nós singer.

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