Penzance Cornish Music Session is one year old

It’s been a phenomenal year for the Penzance’s Cornish Traditional Music Session every Thursday night, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub. Time for some thank yous, foremost to John Gallagher, session leader and founder for introducing us to incredible music and creating wonderful set lists; to Chris Morgan, landlord of the Benbow, for your hospitality and support, to Russell, manager of the Benbow, for looking after us too; to fellow musicians for being dedicated to turn up even in the coldest, darkest evenings; to the dancers for adding a bit of magic to the music; to our audiences who have come from far and wide but especially our regulars from our community whose support is so valued; and thanks and admiration to Lee J Palmer for documenting the session from its wintery beginnings to its summer madness. Enjoy these timeless images as we reflect on the last 12 months.

Join us!

Join the Penzance Cornish sessioners at their anniversary knees-up on Thursday 10th October, 8-10pm, at the Admiral Benbow pub, Chapel Street, Penzance. Free.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing some standing and audience sitting.
All are welcome, and its free (Lee J Palmer)

Already featured in Time Out magazine, Penzance’s weekly Cornish Trad Music Session at the Admiral Benbow pub in Chapel Street, has developed a bit of a cult following. Since starting up one year ago, the Thursday night Cornish Session has attracted hundreds of tourists and locals to the town’s most enigmatic Treasure Island themed boozer. 

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub, showing violins, recorders, melodeon.
Wrapped around the nauticalia of the Admiral Benbow pub (Lee J Palmer)

“I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury”

Over the last year, happening upon the session has surprised and delighted. “I’d rather be here than at Glastonbury” one punter visiting from Truro said. From modest beginnings huddled in the downstairs bar, the Cornish Session has grown in popularity with the busiest nights in the summer attracting upwards of 50-60 people with anywhere between 6 and 12 local musicians joyously playing the night away. Session organisers estimate nearly 1,500 people have enjoyed historical and contemporary Cornish tunes (and the odd song) in its first year.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing a torn Cornish flag in the background.
Fiddles, melodeons, concertinas, whistles, mandolin all feature regularly at the session (Lee J Palmer)

“I never knew Cornwall had its own music”

It all started on 4th October 2018, when a group of friends who played melodeons, fiddles, mandolin, bouzouki, concertinas, whistle and recorder, autoharp, and occasional guitar gathered in the Admiral Benbow on Chapel Street in Penzance to play Cornish jigs, furries, reels, marches waltzes, polkas and airs. Many people are surprised to hear that Cornwall has a distinctive musical tradition that is part of the wider world of Celtic music. The repertoire of tunes is large and varied, some of them new tunes inspired by Cornish people, places and themes, others deeply historical.

“’I never knew Cornwall had its own music’ is a phrase we often hear. People express surprise that we have our own music and that we are part of a living tradition. They often think it must be Scottish or Irish. We might play one tune that is over 200 years old followed by one composed for the tradition only a few years ago.”

Tom Goskar, one of the session organisers.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing a packed out room with musicians clapping, dancers dancing and audience smiling.
Packed out with musicians, dancers and punters in the height of the summer (courtesy of Lee J Palmer)

The session was originally the idea of local musical legend Len Davies, who sadly died in 2015. His friend, melodeon player John Gallagher, approached fellow musicians Tehmina and Tom Goskar in the summer of 2018 to see if they were interested in supporting him in starting a new Cornish traditional music session.

“I’ve loved the Celtic music traditions of Ireland and Scotland all my life and when, more recently, I discovered that there is an equally rich Celtic music tradition right here in Cornwall, I was determined that it should be explored and celebrated where I now live in Penzance.”

Session leader John Gallagher.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of dancers dancing to musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub.
Local Cornish dancers joined by visitors (Lee J Palmer)

“Cornish traditional music is normally heard at Cornish festivals such as Golowan, Montol, St Piran’s Day, feast days, and at small dance-led events in halls across the Duchy. We wanted a public and easy to reach venue. We didn’t hesitate to go for the Benbow, with its unique maritime décor and a destination for visitors to Penzance. We knew our ‘Cornish soundtrack’ could make the place come alive.”

Tom Goskar. 

Chris Morgan, landlord and owner of the Admiral Benbow, offered them a Thursday evening slot. 

“It’s great to see the Benbow rocking again to some lively and fun Cornish music. People come here for the salty dog maritime vibes and the Cornish Sessions are a really good fit.”

Chris Morgan, Landlord of the Admiral Benbow.
Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub showing two fiddlers, mandolin player and drummer and audience looking on.
Sometimes the musicians get up for a dance too (Lee J Palmer)

“Better than the Fishermen’s Friends”

The often fast and foot-tapping music is regularly accompanied by spontaneous dancing, either freeform or in the style of traditional Cornish dancing led by local dancers, making the event into a lively evening reminiscent of the troyls and dances that took place across Cornwall in years gone by.

The musicians have evolved into a group with a distinctive ‘trad’ style whose sound has captured the imagination. “Better than the Fishermen’s Friends,” a merry party from Birmingham cheekily remarked to us after one particularly lively session. Many of the musicians also play for other Penzance groups such as the Raffidy Dumitz band, Golowan band and dance groups Tros an Treys and Penzance Guizers.

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub for Cornish dancers.
Spontaneous and instinctive (Lee J Palmer)

“Most of us are not formally trained in music, we have learned our instruments ourselves and play for the love of the tunes. I love our instinctive way of playing together. Sometimes we sound like a great big crashing marching band, and other times we sound almost orchestral. The fact we mostly play back to back tunes in sets of 2,3 and even 6, creates a soundscape that is truly unique.”

Tehmina Goskar, session co-organiser.

“I just followed the music”

The Penzance Cornish Session is voraciously photographed and filmed, particularly by visitors from abroad. Session organisers have estimated people from over a dozen nations have experienced their music, including France, Belgium, Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, USA, Canada, Spain, Italy, Australia, New Zealand and China. Two film students from University College London visited in August especially to film the session in 360 degrees to share the experience with elderly people in care homes. It has even featured in a German radio broadcast made by visiting sailors on a round Britain tour.  

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of dancers dancing hand in hand to Cornish music by musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub.
I just followed the music (Lee J Palmer)

“I’d heard about it but I didn’t know where to find it, and then I just followed the music,” a traveller said.

Local photographer Lee J Palmer has become a fan of the Cornish Traditional Music Session too. Since the cold early months of 2019 when the session was held next to the fire at the front of the pub, Lee has created a unique visual documentary. In stunning black and white photojournalistic style, his photos capture the joys and realities of this very Cornish event. 

Black and white photograph by Lee J Palmer of two musicians playing at the Admiral Benbow pub, one a fiddle, the other a whistle.
Standing up to the Duke of Cornwall’s Reel (Lee J Palmer)