Greek music captures an Irish soul
As an "honorary" Greek, Irish Australian Paddy Montgomery moves his audiences with his mastery of Hellenic instruments and love of Greek music
Anyone who saw the reprise of Cafe Rebetika! may have been surprised to discover, that the bouzouki player in the band is named Paddy Montgomery. If, after the show, they had gone to congratulate him on his playing, they may have been even more surprised to hear the locally born Irish Australian speaking Greek. Paddy Montgomery was born into a family of music lovers.
The story goes that his parents realised he was a musical soul while still an infant: to sooth him when he was crying, all they did was play music, he went quiet immediately. His father is a guitar player. Paddy showed an interest from an early age, so his father began teaching him. It wasn't long before he needed his own instrument. "I got my first guitar when I was about four years old, maybe even younger. Two years after that I started playing mandolin." As a child, he listened to folk music but soon he became interested in non-western music. He began listening to Indian classical music, then discovered the Turkish sas. Intrigued by the instrument's modal sound, he scraped together some money to buy one, and began exploring it.
A musician friend saw his burgeoning interest in Middle Eastern music and introduced him to the oud and the laouto. He also told him about Ross Daly, an inspired musicologist and performer who's lived in Greece for about thirty years. "He told me about this guy, Ross Daly, who plays all these different instruments really traditionally and captures the essence of them all. That appealed to me because I've always liked playing different instruments and not focusing on one, and I liked the concept of him embracing the whole culture as part of that."
Shortly afterwards, Montgomery was in a music store. He saw a CD cover with a picture of a laouto on it. It was by the George Xylouris Ensemble. He asked if he could hear the CD, and was mesmerised. Within thirty seconds, his world turned upside down.
"It was a Cretan laouto, which is bigger and is tuned a lot deeper. It kind of growls. I heard it and it changed me, defined my path. It was the perfect music for me, I became obsessed." Later that year, Ross Daly toured, and while in Adelaide, he was invited to a barbeque at the Montgomery household. "We had a barbeque at my parents' house. I met him and thought 'this guy's going to teach me a million things'. Then I told him I'd been listening to George Xylouris. Ross told me they were neighbours in Crete, and play together a lot." From there, he flourished.
He began learning about different regions of Greece; Thrace, Epirus and the islands, and tried to pick up some of the language. "I was absolutely mesmerised. The music had everything inside it that I like. The melodies were intense. I didn't speak Greek at the time but there is this incredible lyrical content." His mother recognised that something important was happening and offered to take him there. Daly had invited them to visit, so they did. Towards the end of his stay, he also met George Xylouris who took him out to buy an instrument and gave him some lessons. He's never looked back, and these two continue to inspire him. "Five years later, after listening to this music extensively, the two musicians who have remained most influential for me are Ross and George, even though I found out about them independently."
So Montgomery kept playing, and studying and visiting Greece. He's been three times now. Then, when he was last there, something lovely happened. Womadelaide, the internationally famous festival of world music, had sent out an invitation. "Ross said 'Womad have given us the green light and we're going to bring George down and you can play with us if you like. And I thought 'Wow, that's great, my two favourite musos at this festival.'"
And sure enough, that's what happened. In 2010 in Botanic Park, Paddy Montgomery joined his two musical idols on stage with some other exceptionally talented performers, Kelly Thoma and Bijan Chemirani. "The festival I most wanted to play at in my life was Womadelaide. It's in my hometown and it's the most spectacular festival. I've never been more nervous in my life. It was very special, the most incredible privilege." Along the way, he decided to learn the language. Initially he began by teaching himself, but then thought perhaps he should do it properly, so he enrolled in university. Now, after a few visits and being around native speakers, reading books and the like, and he has become quite proficient.
"People respond really well to it," he says. "It can be nerve-wracking at times, a bit intense, a westerner's take on this kind of thing, but all the responses have been really warm and I've met some beautiful people." Early this year, he moved to Melbourne permanently. Since then he has made a lot of good friends and is playing music full time.
After Cafe Rebetika!, he's not sure which option he'll pursue next, but from his description of the unusual musical instruments he's collected, his path will undoubtedly be an interesting one.
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