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The Loss of This Man is Everybody's Loss
A Tribute to Derek Fleetwood Bell
by William Ramoutar
His mother's grandfather was said to play the bagpipes so beautifully that when he played them in his boat out at sea, seals would jump in the boat to listen to him play. His mother and father were told when he was two, that he was going blind and they should buy him musical toys so he could concentrate his sense of hearing. Did these things play a part in how his life came to be such an extraordinary one?
When he was eleven years of age, he had written a concerto of which he wrote to the B.B.C, the British Broadcasting Company, and told them, he thought they should get violinist Yehudi Menuhin to play it on the radio. He never did anything that surprised me because he was Derek. A true individual. Eccentric? No, just genius.
In all the years I have known Derek, he has never failed to make me laugh at either a letter he sent or a meeting or a phone call. His letters came addressed, Sir William and Lord William at first, then came King Billy, William Tell and the Lord save us, William of Orange!!! I asked him what if I had a Republican as a postman? He said buy him a drink! What kind of a world is it going to be now that he has passed on?
One thing is for certain - Heaven is a brighter place for all who end up there. When The Chieftains went to meet the Pope, Derek in true Derek style shook his hand and told him he thought he was doing a good job as Pope! Dear God, I know you have Derek up there with you. Isn't it grand to have him by your side?
He would ramble into a room more than walk. Everybody who recognized him clamoured over seats and people to greet him. He never avoided a soul that I noticed.
I often wondered how he and I got to be such friends. In recent years I have read more and more of his life because he was so unassuming about it. His father's name was William and both our birthdays are in October and we both have a great love for music. Not only Irish music, but I sent him many different types of music on which he would write to me with an opinion. I have read glowing reports of his classical endeavors, his work with traditional music on which he was finally recognized by no less than the Queen with an award of the M.B.E for services to music both classical and Irish.
He was so proud of that. I always will wonder why we as Irishmen never recognize the accomplishments of our own until they are gone. I think the term "a Nation of Begrudgers" does fit us closer than we think.
He was a strict vegetarian with a special love of cats. Oh, that was another thing, he never signed a letter to me without asking how our cats were or telling me of the exploits of his own. Bela Fleck, the great banjo player, greeted Derek at the door with his cat, simply called Animal, to Derek's amusement.
The most disturbing thing he ever told me (which being a carnivore, stopped me in my tracks) was when I asked him about why he was a vegan. He said that "the reason I don't eat meat is, I think you inhale the death cry of the animal when you eat it". Boy! Was that an eye-opener? The next time we met in Tampa here in the States, we had strawberries and wine for supper!
He was called "the professor" by the Chieftains because of his appearance, but I think he looked more like a mischievous business-dressed imp. He had such a disarming way about him that he could say the most outrageous thing to someone without them realizing for several seconds what the hell he'd said.
I could tell you a few, but they are really not printable!
His presence on stage was such that everyone instantly knew he was the musician who could be the accompanist or soloist but my favourite parts of any concert were his sheer ingenuity at making people coil up with laughter at playing something so incongruous and on such an unsuspecting audience. He'd play a few bars of the Pink Panther Theme or a Scott Joplin Rag and him hopping up and down on the piano bench or seated at the harp and then launching into some piece that instantly placed you in a world of music magic.
In all the tributes I have read, singer Brian Kennedy, another Belfast-born Irishman, put it as succinctly as could be. He said "a shambolic man, who, when he sat down to an instrument was transformed into an angel".
His outrageously coloured socks were a feature of every Chieftains concert for fans in the know. Either Tweety Bird or Tom and Jerry or the wildest coloured Argyle socks you've ever seen!
I never saw him either, without a score or piece of music he was arranging or working on for the Chieftains or for another of his projects. His life was music and if you were allowed the privilege of being his friend what a myriad of ideas and knowledge you were witness to. The depth of his generosity in friendship was fathomless. He would write as soon as he returned from wherever he was in the world and once when I had not written for some months because of personal problems I was apologetic, he said "never think you have to apologize to me for anything; you and I will remain friends forever." Now in this time of losing him although I feel truly desolate and with him having no harp pupils he was teaching to communicate with, I have such special words like that to remind me of the amazing man he was. I have a photograph my friend photographer Shari Zimmer took and Derek signed to me. He wrote on it "To William Ramoutar, a great Apostle of the enormous legacy of Celtic music from your ancient friend and admirer Derek Bell."
What a gesture from someone who had given his whole life to this our music. Whatever part I have to play in the music will never cover a speck of his influence. I know as I get older I'll remember the conversations we had - his memory is so strong in me now I can think of little else. What a special and precious man he was.
My one regret is, I didn't know him long enough.
He is survived by Stefanie, his loving wife, and his cats Blackie, Cheeky and Spotty, his mother and sisters, all the people who knew and loved him, and all the people who are yet to discover his influence to come.
William Ramoutar is the Presenter of IRISH WAYS PROGRAMME, WFCF RADIO, ST AUGUSTINE FLORIDA
Derek with his MBE, photo from Crystal Clarity Publishers.
Wed, Mar 22, 2017
The Galway Hooker
This unique vessel, with its distinctive curved lines and bright red sails, originated in the village of Claddagh. During the 19th century, hookers supported a significant fishing industry and also carried goods, livestock and fuel. Seán Rainey is remembered for building the last of the original boats, the Truelight, for Martin Oliver who was to become the last king of the Claddagh; as king, he was entitled to white sails on his boat. Since the mid seventies, many of the old sailing craft which were on the verge of extinction have been lovingly restored and new ones have been built. During the summer months they can be seen at festivals such a Cruinniú na mBád - the Gathering of the Boats - in Kinvara.
Click for More Culture Corner.
Derek Bell was the harpist for The Chieftains. His recent sudden death has left a void that will be impossible to fill. He joined the group in 1972, after a distinguished career as a harpist with the Northern Ireland BBC Orchestra, and as a professor of harp and Irish harps at the Belfast Academy of Music. In addition to this CD which has won rave reviews, he has several other solo albums to his credit.
Click for Derek Bell's Mystic Harp.
This unique CD gathers into a single collection some of the Chieftains most memorable moments from the past four decades, including predictable alliances with artists such as Van Morrison. Because it features more collaborations than it does traditional and traditionally arranged tunes and songs, it may not appeal to the Irish music purist. So, while many fans will prefer their Chieftains served straight up and not sharing the limelight with pop stars, the CD is thoroughly enjoyable. As one reviewer put it so well - "good music is good music, no matter where it comes from or who plays it."
Click for Wide World Over.