“They actually play the banjo?!,” asks a colleague slightly shocked, after I push my earphones on him to make him listen to this band I’ve been talking about for days.
“Apparently that guy is a banjo genius,” I smile, trying to encourage him.
But there’s no need to. He already likes them. And soon the rest of the people in our newsroom like them as well.
The band is Cat Malojian, the album Dawn Chorus. In my colleague’s earphones, the Alphabet Song, my favorite, so addictive that I can’t stop playing it. A happy tune, with words ominous at places: “We’re messin’ around with bottles/Lightin’ fires, burnin’ buses…” Especially if you consider that Cat Malojian – singer and guitarist Stevie Scullion, banjo master Jonny and his sister Rachel Toman – come from Lurgan, a town 20 miles from Belfast, where some serious sectarian violence in Northern Ireland happened last year. In March, it followed the arrest of nine republican dissidents, questioned over the murder of two soldiers in Antrim and a policeman in Craigavon. Petrol bombs were being thrown at the police, along with bricks and stones, and cars were set on fire. Then, in September, the streets of Lurgan were alight again as three republicans were jailed for 15 years each over a bomb plot.
I try to get their frontman Stevie to tell me about it, although I know that people from Northern Ireland don’t like to talk politics.
“Last year’s riots in Lurgan? We have riots every year. But life goes on around all of that. It’s usually just a flashpoint, it involves just a small number of people. Most people just go on with their lives. You know it yourself; you’ve had troubles in Croatia,” he tells me on the phone on his way home from work. He works for an architect. Jonny did as well, before he became “redundant”. Rachel plays the piano in the Europa hotel in Belfast, which used to be known as the most bombed hotel in Europe.
Stevie and I “met”, long-distance, by chance. Actually, by my mistake. I got so excited that I’ve found their first EP online that I bought it before noticing it wasn’t a download but an actual CD. Since I didn’t pay for the shipping, I e-mailed to ask how I could send them the extra two pounds. But in an e-mail filled with exclamation marks, Stevie said that, since I was their first fan from Croatia, the postage was on them. A week later, when the parcel arrived, it turned out I got not only the CD that I had bought, but also another one, along with a handwritten note. So, here’s full disclosure for you: I’m a fan.
But, I’m also sort-of a Northern Ireland enthusiast, ever since last year I was in Belfast, a few weeks after the second round of riots in Lurgan. The 20 miles seemed a bit too close then, but now I nevertheless ask Stevie to tell me about his divided town.
“There’s one main street, and more or less at the center of that street the town just splits in two. When I was young and started playing music, there was only one music shop in the town, but on the Protestant side. So, I was always afraid to go to the music shop. You had to run part of the way to get to the shop because you were afraid that you’ll be attacked,” he says.
I hope nothing happened.
“I got chased on occasion, but it’s all part of the craic,” says Stevie. Craic is, of course, the Irish word for “fun”. Or as Stevie puts it over and over: “good times.”
During the Troubles, Lurgan, along with Portadown and Craigavon, was a part of what was then called the “murder triangle.” There’s a lot of small villages around the three towns, so it was easy for someone to shoot and get away.
“When I was a teenager, they used to do a thing called a tit-for-tat. If a Protestant got shot, you would be expecting that the next day a Catholic would be shot. And you didn’t have to be involved in the IRA or anything. If you we were going out at the weekend, your parents would have been very anxious, and telling you that you weren’t allowed to go to certain places or that you had to take taxis or things like that. But, even if your parents had been out socializing and you heard someone had been killed or a van had blown up, you would have been afraid until you knew where they were, until you’d found out they were safe. But, you get used to it, it’s a strange thing,” says Stevie.
Things are better now, though.
“When you’re growing up in a place like that people instill fear in you, so you’re afraid of things that maybe you shouldn’t be. It certainly feels like a better place, a safer place for my child to grow up. From my experience there seems to be less bitterness, people are really getting a wee more chilled out. Hopefully, anyways,” says Stevie.
Listen to Dawn Chorus for free at Cat Malojian’s Bandcamp and then download it from the same place for 5 pounds.