GP interview - Dr Lambourn's mandolin, mandocello and bouzouki

Dr Robert Lambourn plays in a ceilidh band and has appeared as a musician in a television adaptation of a Catherine Cookson novel.

Dr Lambourn (right) with members of the ceilidh band

How was your ceilidh band, Real to Reel, established?

We got together 15 years ago as a bunch of friends, with an ambition to form a Northumbrian ceilidh band. I'd known Lynn (piper), Annie (our first fiddler) and Simon (guitarist) for a number of years through playing pub sessions around Northumberland and in local clubs, such as the Northumbrian Pipers' Society.

We wanted to have fun, but also to play at public events. We were keen to have a Northumbrian piper as a key element to our sound - it is a unique instrument, native to our part of the country.

Real to Reel has a sound based in the Northumbrian tradition, but incorporating great tunes from anywhere.

Are ceilidhs a part of local Northumbrian heritage?

Ceilidhs are a part of Northumbrian tradition. I was brought up in a family keen on folk and traditional music; my great-great-grandfather, a turnpike keeper and shepherd in Worcestershire, sang for Cecil Sharp, who collected folk songs around England at the turn of the 20th century.

My mother's family was involved in Worcestershire Morris dancing before the Second World War, although the team died out (literally) during the war. I was brought up attending folk clubs and festivals with my parents. I learned to play guitar, pennywhistle and mandolin, and played in a number of bands.

The most memorable was a band of employees at QE11 hospital at Welwyn Garden City, called 'Folk-in-Hell', who performed rowdy versions of Pogues songs.

When I moved to Northumberland to complete my GP training, I was surrounded by a wealth of traditional musicians keen to hand down their tunes and musical knowledge.

Why did you choose to learn the mandolin, among others?

I play the mandolin, mandocello, bouzouki and whistles. I enjoy stringed instruments, as they can play melody, harmony, accompaniment or bass lines. Our sound is based on the Northumbrian pipes and fiddle carrying the melody, with guitar and mandolin weaving underneath.

When playing for dancing, it's important to have a strong melody and rhythm to begin with; then, when the dancers are in full swing, we can break down and add harmonies, counter-melodies and syncopated rhythms. When playing for ceilidhs, we play some listening sets too, to give the dancers a break.

My mandocello is a 100-year-old American Gibson. I'm having a custom guitar-bodied bouzouki made by Roger Bucknall of Fylde guitars, in Penrith, who also made my mandolin. The whistles are by the late Bernard Overton and Misha Somerville of MK Whistles, two of the leading producers of handcrafted whistles.

I've been able to accumulate some fine instruments, although I'll never be sufficiently accomplished to do them full justice.

Do you also dance?

I enjoy dancing (although I rarely have the opportunity) and being able to perform the dances fluently means we can play melodies and rhythms which complement them and help them run smoothly.

We nearly always work with a caller - the emphasis being to help the dancers have fun.

Do you see yourself as a GP first and a musician second?

I enjoy band practice and gigs tremendously - it's a way of life. I've been involved in playing for ceilidh dancing for about 25 years and enjoy the interaction when people are dancing enthusiastically to our sound.

But it has to fit around practice and family life. All of the band members have day jobs. We limit our bookings, or it would be every Saturday night.

My wife is also my practice partner in our small, remote, rural practice in north Northumberland and we have two young children. We are a training and teaching practice, as well as a research practice, and I am chairman of the RCGP North of England Faculty and one of the English members of the Rural Forum Steering Group.

Are there any gigs that stand out in your memory?

About 80% of our bookings are weddings and it's satisfying to help a couple's big day go with a swing. We also play private parties and corporate events.

Some 20 years ago, I toured Slovakia on a cultural exchange, just after the Iron Curtain had come down. The Slovakian people were welcoming and keen to learn our dances, despite the language barrier.

Another interesting experience was playing pennywhistle in a Catherine Cookson TV film. I am still not sure whether lead actor Nigel Havers' dancing was more impressive than my playing.

We recently played for a Scottish-Romanian wedding where the bridal party wanted to incorporate Romanian tunes and dances. It was tremendous and possibly the first time Romanian dances have ever been performed on Northumbrian pipes.

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