Modern day minstrels, the Banquo Folk Ensemble is about to release another CD.
BASKING IN THE PACIFIC NORTHWEST’S balmy insistence that October is still summer, I’m on the patio of the Steamship Grill on Belleville Street, anticipating my lunch meeting with Amy Reiswig. You know her as a veteran writer for Focus who adroitly covers local literature (alas, you’ll find her farewell contribution in this month’s edition), but did you know this multi-talented woman’s musical sideline has her wearing Elizabethan gowns and rockin’ out on potato slicers as a professional percussionist in an ancient music band?
Personally, I need to know a lot more about all of these hijinks, so with the glorious, sunbathed Inner Harbour as a backdrop, I impose on Amy to reveal the behind-the-scenes info on Banquo, Victoria (and Mayne Island)’s very own folk ensemble specializing in collaborative, creative riffs on ancient tunes. Their latest CD, Whither Are They Vanished, is set to be released at their November concerts, and though only one member has been there from the start, this tight band’s joyful devotion to making ancient music a living, breathing thing through their playful, toe-tapping shows hasn’t wavered in 20 years.
Banquo, l-r, back: Eric Reiswig, Lael Whitehead, Bill Jamieson. Front: Gwendolyn Jamieson, Amy Reiswig
Amy is one of many musicians who have been part of the Banquo family over the years. Keeping the band alive has been easy; the group’s passionate founder, sibling Eric Reiswig, is a skilled multi-instrumentalist and seasoned performer who attracts a steady parade of top talent to the group. Eric grew up in Montreal (as did Amy), and moved to Victoria in 1996, then founded Banquo in 1998. The deft and handy musician plays (and builds) a smorgasbord of sound-makers, including bagpipes, cittern, mandolin, dulcimer, recorders, whistles, flute, hurdy-gurdy, vocals, and percussion. I recall encountering Eric at Irish music sessions when I first moved to Victoria in 2004— it was always a delight to have the plaintive notes of a skilled Uilleann piper lending some much-needed texture to that vast sea of fiddles.
A veteran performer of Irish traditional music, Eric’s “jam session” sensibilities are a large part of Banquo’s creative process in making their music. The arrangements are not assiduously historic; neither are their instruments (or costumes, for that matter). Their process is organic, Amy says, “melding the Irish session with the classical…historical interest and quirky weird instruments, playing everything by ear and seeing what bubbles up in that soup.”
It’s a savoury soup indeed. Listening to Banquo’s latest recordings elicit several types of giddiness in me, from revelling in a thick, lush wood, surrounded by nymphs singing in a forgotten tongue, to laughing with a bunch of tipsy troubadours at a 13th-century watering hole. This ease of musical escape can only be facilitated by great chops. Banquo’s five musicians are so skilled, one can go along with whatever visions, pranks or diversions they offer. And let’s face it, by virtue of their timbre alone, some of these medieval—and found—instruments Banquo throws into their Macbethian cauldron are simply hilarious.
“I’ve played a kitchen slicer,” Amy confesses. I ask her if the slicer happened to be a mandolin. We laugh. “No, it’s kind of like a knife, like a wavy potato chip. I’d hold it by its handle, and it made a sound like a wooden fish or frog, but ping-ier because it’s metal. A lot of what we do is serious, but we have a playful side…we’ve used bird whistles, [a “moo can”], other things. It’s always an adventure.”
This amalgam of playful spirit and stellar musicianship is what attracted Bill Jamieson to the group four years ago. Bill founded the Ancient Music Society of Victoria, and is, Amy says, “our most historically inclined member.” A scholar and French horn player with a classical background who also plays in A Great Noyse, a group of symphony woodwind players performing ancient music on historically accurate instruments, Bill had to shuck off some of the rigour of those other idioms to join in with the fun and frolic of Banquo. Is the looser, interpretive approach sometimes just too much for him? “We’ve informed each other’s approaches and languages; it’s a great collaboration that way. Bill did get concerned at first about historical accuracy, but it brought us up in our level. Ultimately, it wasn’t about what was appropriate. It’s about what sounds good…we like to put percussion on it, and a bottom end, and rock out sometimes.”
Banquo’s costumes on stage follow a similar spirit. “We have the tickle closet at Eric’s house,” Amy reveals with a smile. “Shirts, skirts, bodices, vests, coats, circlets, belts—there’s quite an array, with lots of mixing and matching going on.” This melange of elements can conjure regal lady and nobleman, troubadour and fool. “[It’s] not historically accurate, it’s just a way to participate in that time. Sometimes I love wearing a beautiful gown, sometimes I just want to wear something multicoloured and a little bit crazy, like a joker.”
“One of the things we love to do is remind people that old music is not stodgy music,” she says. “People are constantly reinterpreting it, making it relevant, and having fun. When we played at the Folk Club recently, watching people dancing in their seats was such a thrill.” When the group convenes, either on Mayne Island or in Victoria, it’s always in a room full of instruments. “We joke that we all have a bad case of GAS: Gear Acquisition Syndrome…if you play something on a different instrument, it has such a different mood.”
All five in the group contribute vocals, but Lael Whitehead and Gwen Jamieson are featured. “Gwen studied at the conservatory with Nancy Argenta, and Lael is endlessly writing countermelodies. The tunes come out in a new line, never before heard…but sounds for all the world completely right for it. Lael and Gwen bring very different vocal traditions; when they sing together, it’s so beautiful.”
These two ethereal, pure sopranos weave many beguiling textures on the CD, evoking ancient scenes. “We try to take people out of time,” Amy explains. The Banquo mission is to transport their audiences to “a time when music was more important, when gathering around music was what people did…it was part of life. We want to remind people that music is a community builder. It’s brought us together—that’s what we want to create for those two hours.”
The bells of the carillon tower suddenly burst through the air as we wind up our lunch on the deck. I shiver with delight, knowing I’m sharing that moment with all the other people in town who happen to hear it. Yes, Amy is right. Music is a community builder, and it’s so worth gathering for.
Banquo Folk Ensemble’s 20th anniversary concerts and CD release: Sat, Nov 17, 3pm, St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Sidney; Sun, Nov 18, 3pm, Oak Bay United Church; Sat, Nov 24, 2pm, St. Mary Magdalene Anglican Church, Mayne Island. Tickets at Munro’s, Ivy’s Bookshop, Tanner’s and at brownpapertickets.com. Also see www.banquo.ca.
Mollie Kaye is a writer, musician, communication specialist and community builder who also tries to embrace the joy—and hilarity—in all things.