Albert Alfonso:
bodhran swami

It's a little unsettling to be talking bodhrans with someone you've just met -- and then realize it's Albert Alfonso.

Alfonso, for those who've never talked drums before, is one of the top bodhran makers in the United States. People describe his brass-fitted drums in hushed whispers. And here he was, telling me about his new line of instruments in the Green Room at the Celtic Colours Festival Club.

What's that, Albert? No more goatskin???

Let's note first that Albert Alfonso has a touch of madness about him. Try talking to the man about religion, food, punk rock or personal finances for a while and you'll see what I mean. Besides, he's got that jutting beard shot with gray and a wild look in his eyes that hints at a barely restrained fire in his soul. (Don't refer to him as "a little insane," though. He doesn't like it.)

It's probably important to note, also, that Albert -- born in New York, living and working in Texas -- can stand proud with the drummers for whom he creates his instruments. And, since he creates very good instruments, very good musicians want to play them. (If you're confused, let me simplify: he's a good drummer. I know this not only because he performed admirably with singer Michael Black and, a few days later, fiddler Jerry Holland on the Festival Club stage, or because he played in several pickup bands in the Green Room, but because I also sat next to the man, both of us drumming, at a midweek house party at the home rented by the Wisconsin contingent to Celtic Colours.)

So here's the scoop for bodhranists. Alfonso is dispensing with goatskin on his newer models, opting instead for baby-soft, nearly translucent calf. (Fans of his popular "red drum" need not fear, he noted; those are still and will continue to be 100 percent goat.) Tuners on the new calf drum are button dials built into the sides. All of these bodhrans are uniformly 15 inches in diameter and 4 inches deep. Most importantly, it sounds great, and he loves it as much as a performer as he does as its maker. "I feel like I'm being unfaithful," he said, explaining that he'd shelved his favorite drum over the past dozen years in favor of the new calfskin model.

After giving two of his new drums a try at the house party, I was fervently wishing I had the $500 necessary to take one home with me. They play like a dream, and I told him so.

"It's not me," the bodhran swami said, with uncharacteristic modesty. "I'm just doing God's work."

Wait -- didn't he say just yesterday he was agnostic? Confronted with the question, he responded: "In fact, I am an agnostic-theist. ... I prefer to live my life as though there was a God, that is to say, with a sense of grace."

Well, as long as he keeps on making drums, I say amen, and amen.

[ visit the artist's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

10 November 2007

what's new