Appowila Highland Games and the Orthodox Celts

Carry on Camping, the unOrthodox Celtic way!

Appowila Highland Games

I have to be honest, camping isn’t something that I am big into, it doesn’t really appeal at all. And how would it, I am from the countryside, if I wanted to experience the airs and sounds of the country life then I’d just step outside the house!
(Or truth be told I am shite at putting up a tent)

Appowila Highland GamesA band I have followed for a long time, The Orthodox Celts were playing in Switzerland. This is a must see, but unfortunately it’s the other end of the country. And they are playing as part of the set-up of the Appowila Highland Games. So that explains the camping bit.
Buying the cheapest tent I could get, 35 Swiss Francs (24 sterling), me and my mate set off across the country.

I like Scotland, I like the Scots. I had lived there for a short while as a kid. But I have never experienced a Highland Games shindig. Don’t know what I think about this to be honest, it all seems a small bit twee, and contrived. For me Scottish culture is much more than this, it’s the people, the humour, the recklessness and fecklessness, it’s the music, it’s the great cities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Dundee, and not least it’s the whisky (and the buckfast!) But not really the bag pipes and the skirts, or at least in very small doses. So what exactly goes on in these games?

the caber tossA Highlands Games event is to showcase all traditional aspects of Scottish culture, especially that of the Highlands and revolves around athletic and sporting competitions with a bit of music and culture thrown in for good measure . Certain aspects are well known: The bagpipes, the kilt, some of the sporting events, the dancing, and the Haggis! The origin of the games goes way back into prehistory, thousands of years back but the modern Highland games are largely a Victorian invention.

weight over the barThe sporting activities include:
The Caber Toss, where a long log is balanced and tossed forward in such a way that it turns right over, preferably in a straight line. Distance is not important more so the style and way it is thrown.
Weight over the Bar: Using one hand, toss a heavy weight that has a handle over a bar.
Tug of War: Two teams pitted against each other where they have to pull a rope to determine who is the strongest.
It must be pointed out that all competitors in these sporting events must wear a kilt when they compete, which is great for lovers of hairy legs and tweed (and that’s just the Swiss mountain fräuleins, ruff ruff!)

Music is also an important part of any Games, Bagpiping is the main deal here with the massing of the pipe bands considered one of the highlights of any highland occasion. All the pipers en masse march and play in unison, banging out all the classics! One bag pipe great, a whole mass of them, hmmm I am not so sure!

Of course in events like these you have a wide range of other activities and side shows such as clan tents, armouries showing off all manner of lethal swords and axes, highland dancing, Haggis eating, herding dog trials, and highland cattle showcases. Fun for all the family!

Highland games now take place all around the world. From the US and Canada where there are over 200 annual games, right up to places like Norway and Brazil.
And that takes us nicely to Switzerland, and to the Appowila Highland Games of 2015. Apparently they have been bringing a little bit of Scotland to this quiet part of eastern Switzerland for the last few years. Situated in the heart of Abtwil, the events attract over 15,000 visitors. Abtwil is a small town in the canton of St Gallen, which is important to note.

st gallen fcImportant in that St Gallen city (about an hour from Zurich) was founded by an Irish monk Saint Gallus in the 7th century, so linking in nicely to all the Celtic culture we experienced in the region.
And even more significant it was Saint Gallus and the boys in his monastery, who were the first to brew beer in Switzerland. This all leading to Switzerland’s oldest brewery, set up in 1779 (the Schützengarten brewery), which also has a Beer bottle museum.
So we were bringing it all back home for our compatriot St Gallus, proving that the Irish were sharing the brews from time immemorial.
Also must mention the local football club, FC St. Gallen who play in the Swiss Super League. The oldest football club in Switzerland, founded in 1879, they play in green. I was lucky enough to see them play once, and have to say it was an awful lot of fun. The fans were uber friendly, and great craic. Must be the wearing of the green?

“The Belgrade Irishmen”

Back to the reason why we were in Appowila, to check out the one and only Orthodox Celts

From Belgrade in Serbia this Irish Celtic rock/folk band have been playing since 1992, but it wasn’t really until their YouTube video of “Star of the County Down” was uploaded around 2006 that the band started to get the recognition they so rightly deserved. From the video, shot in what looked like the Irish countryside (it wasn’t!), frontman Aleksandar “Aca Celtic” Petrović gives a superb rendition of an old classic. Aleks voice was deep and heavily accented but in a weird way it worked perfectly. The video announced to the world (Via social media) that Celtic music was alive and well in Serbia.  The Orthodox Celts had arrived.

The band are popular in Serbia leading to a huge interest in all things Irish and Celtic, and they have even influenced other bands to take up the genre, most notably Tir na n’Og and Irish Stew of Sindidun.

It is a grand tradition of the band to celebrate St. Paddies Day with a large concert in Belgrade. The band also performs on the Belgrade Beer Fest every year.

In 2010 Bojan Petrović, lead singer of the excellent Irish Stew of Sindidun, joined Orthodox Celts, playing whistles and singing backing vocals, while also continuing to front his own band

It must be mentioned that they, have as of yet, not visited Ireland!

The Albums

orthodox celtsIn 1994 they released their first album, Orthodox Celts, featuring cover versions of old-style Irish trad songs. “The Irish Rover”, “Nancy Whiskey” and “Bog Down The Valleyo” the highlights for me, a good introduction to the band.

the celts strike againThe next album, The Celts Strike Again (1997), the band continued with some great covers but this time included two of their own tunes (“Drinking Song” and “Blue”). They also did a few videos, one of which was “Star of the County Down”, and the rest they say, well, is history! The song going down a real treat. “Mick McGuire” and “The Wearing of the Green” are my own favorites from this album. One of the best renditions of “The Wearing of the Green” I have ever heard, love it, and gets me going every time.

green rosesIn 1999 came arguably their best album, Green Roses, and with it a new break, now more than half of the songs were originals, albeit still mostly in the Celtic rock traditional style. In what must have given the band some pride the most popular songs from the album “Green Roses”, and “Far Away” were their own tunes.

“Gravel Walk” an instrumental, a great tune that builds to a crescendo, “Rocky Road to Dublin”, an excellent cover of an old favourite, and “Far Away” my particular favs in an album that works. Put it on and play it from start to finish, trust me you won’t be disappointed.

a moment like the longest dayIn 2002 came the next album, A Moment Like The Longest Day, and for this album only one song was a traditional number, all the songs penned by the band. A rockier album, “A Moment Like the Longest Day”, a haunting slowish number the stand out song of the album.

one two fiveTheir final album, released in 2007,  One, Two… Five reverted a little back to the traditional songs, including an Irish rock classic, “Sarah” by Thin Lizzy, and giving a nod to their love of all things Celtic , “The Fields Of Athenry”, the popular football number!

Soon the band will be releasing their latest album, One / Milk & Honey

The Orthodox Celts are:

Aleksandar Petrović – Lead Vocal

Dejan Lalić – Octave Mandola, Mandolin, Back Vocals

Nikola Stanojević – Violin

Bojan Petrović – Whistles, Back Vocals

Vladan Jovković – Acc. Guitar, Back Vocals

Dejan Grujić – Bass, Back Vocals

Dušan Živanović – Drums, Bodhran

The Concert

Scottish beerAfter hanging around all day, mulling about mostly drinking strong Scottish beer that more than likely had whisky in it, and trying to avoid bagpipes, the stage was set for the Orthodox Celts. But there was a problem…………….they had yet to arrive. Nine o’clock came and went and still no sign of the band. We were hearing that they had an horrendous bus journey from Serbia via Hungary, and were running late. What with the refugee crisis in Eastern Europe, would they even make the concert!

The warm up band stated to play the same set again. Having listened to them in the bar a few hours previously,this was the fourth or fifth time I heard them murder N17 and other Irish classics.

Then the band came onto the stage around half ten, and proceeded to play a cracking full bloodied concert that lasted over two hours or more, got the crowd going and spread the love around for Celtic music. It was a great concert, full of energy, and I might have even partaked in some dancing.

orthodox celtsInterview with Aleksandar, not long after the concert

So that was a tight deadline, wasn’t it?

You tell me, tell me your impression

Well you were on for 9 but you didn’t start until 10.30

You know we planned to be here at 1 pm. To make a sound check at half past 5, to have some kind of relaxed time before the gig and to start playing at 9

But actually everything went wrong, first we started our journey last night at 9.30 pm, there was heavy rain in Belgrade so we started to travel an hour later, 10:30

We went to Hungary, we were in Budapest around one o’clock

Those guys closed the highway. We lost two hours in Budapest, then we arrived at the border around 7.30 and were there until 1.30 pm (the next day)

We really were wondering shall we make it our not, actually we didn’t believe we would be on time,

We were ready to call the organizers to move the concert until tomorrow, but everything went ok

We came here at 9.05, so we did a sound check and then we started playing as soon as we can

The warm up band played some similar songs, but ye guys rocked it tonight.

The set list for this occasion, and for occasions like this, is always full of traditional’s, but when we cover other songs we try not to do as other bands do, we are trying to make it personal so maybe that’s why it sounds different.

The band before us, a great traditional band, but we make it much more rock

orthodox celtsSo where does the inspiration come from?

Me, personally,  the start was my father, as I was little he was always listening to the Dubliners and stuff like that so I was used to listening to Irish folk, to Celtic folk, to Scottish folk

Later on I discovered the Pogues and that was the trigger . I can say that with pride just because they were the first to mix all those punk and rock stuff with folk

When you are listening to all those bands after the Pogues, just punk, the Pogues were much more than that

Why Irish music, because it was the most comfortable thing for me to express myself

You know when we are talking about music it’s a huge thing, I like classical, I like rock, I like punk, but overall I express myself through Irish music

You finally got the chance to play with Shane MacGowan, what was that like? (Exit Festival, Serbia, singing the Irish rover, 2002)

orthodox celtsI cried, you can believe me or not, when he came onto the stage I was crying like a child

Shane was like, “what the fuck is going on”, why is he crying. It was great!

My wife was with me, she was like, “come on”, but I was crying!

I was trying to get in touch with Shane for some time before that and when they told me I would be on the stage with him it was, first, an honour, secondly for me something special, he is the one reason why I am doing this.

But actually the main impact on me is Ronnie Drew, not Shane himself, but Ronnie Drew it was his attitude , Ronnie was the main man, Shane was an inspirational person, the one who made me writing lyrics, but attitude, I don’t know how to say that but gentleman stuff was Ronnie

I always think that if I am Irish he’d be my grandfather, that’s it, I was so familiar with this person, just listening to him

The success of Star of the County Down video?

First of all you must know we didn’t start doing this because we wanted to be famous, this is what we are, believe me, Serbians are much in love with the Celts, I mean the ancient Celts, most citizens are from Belgrade, the Celts disappeared, sorry, but we are Celtic people, some-parts, so it was a reason why people feel what we feel

We didn’t know what it would sound like to be honest, I mean the greatest breakthrough of ours, Yes we uploaded ten years (after it was first produced), so when YouTube came around we grabbed the chance, and we did it!


“The Other Belgrade Irishmen”

A mention of Irish Stew of Sindidun.
Another band from Belgrade, following on the footsteps of Orthodox Celts, this Irish folk/Celtic rock band were founded in 2003. And like the OCelts, they cover both traditional Irish tunes and their own Celtic inspired songs. Bojan Petrović plays with Orthodox Celts on tin whistle and as a backing singer, but still maintains his main gig as lead singer of Irish Stew, who are still growing strong in and around Serbia.

The Albums

so many words
After finding some initial success gigging locally and getting positive feedback, the band decided to capitalise on this popularity by bringing out their first studio album, So Many Words….,in 2005. With only three traditional covers, most of the album was made up of originals, but it really is hard to say which is which. Patrick Malone, for example, is a fine tune, but you would never guess it was penned by the band, expecting it to be an old Irish classic. They also do a cracking version of the old rebel song “Black And Tans”

dare to dream
Their next album “Dare to Dream” released in 2008, continued with a couple of traditional songs but mostly originals. This is my favourite of their three albums. “Ditch” is a cracking tune, my favourite Irish Stew song, with a great video to boot. High foot tapping song that really gets me in the mood. (for drinking and all the rest!)

“Blessed and The Damned” and “Pile of Sins” are another of those originals that could easily pass for a traditional classic. I guess Irish Stew are contributing to the massive back history of rousing Irish songs, by adding their own tunes.

new tomorrow
“New Tomorrow” is their third album, coming out in 2011. All numbers original but still keeping the Celtic style, but the feel of the album is more polished, a step up. Songs “Lady of Tomorrow” and “Take me High” the two most popular songs from the album that made an impression on social media. “Take me High” a particular soulful number, very melodic, where you can really feel the passion from the band for their craft. (The violin really stands out here)

Irish Stew Are
Bojan Petrović
Nemanja Jovanović
Ivan Đurić
Nenad Gavrilov
Aleksandar Gospodinov
Marko Jovanović

irish stewManaged to grab a short chat with Bojan off Irish Stew

Celtic music: Why? What’s the reason you play Celtic music?

Well it’s a simple answer, why not, we believe we all have the same Celtic roots back in Serbia, actually the Celts were there 1000 years ago
I listened to a lot of Irish music, I grew up with Irish music, I didn’t listen to Serbian music at all. I just heard the Pogues and that was that.

Why did you call the band Irish stew of Sindidiun?

Sindidiun is an old Celtic name for Belgrade, so that’s the reason

What was the first Irish song you tried with Irish stew?

I think it was the most popular traditionals like Whiskey in the Jar, the Irish Rover and stuff like that, then after we did some covers and then we decided to make our own songs and do that

Playing with the Orthodox Celts, did those guys give you much help?

Yeah yeah, of course They were the first band in Serbia playing the Irish music, so they were also a big influence and I’m proud to be member of the Orthodox Celts as well
(on OC front-man Aleksandar) What a great singer and a great person

If I go to Serbia, is there really a deep love for Celtic music, is the connection really that strong, the connection?

Yeah, historically yeah, the Celts were all round Europe they actually founded Belgrade, before the Romans, they set up the city

What’s the ingredients for a good Irish Song?

A good energy, a bit of happiness a bit of sorrow, that’s basically an Irish song, ha ha!

What’s your favourite song that you composed?

The Lady of Tomorrow, from the latest album. When I wrote this song I imagined she was from Ireland!

Closing comments

Brilliant concert, and great to have a small chat with Aleksandar and Bojan, they were both really friendly, chilled and it was cool to see and hear their obvious passion for Celtic-rock and folk music. It was a pleasure to meet the guys, and I appreciate them taking the time to have a quick word considering how tired they were after a hellish bus journey and a rousing concert with not much rest in between. Hopefully can try and get to see them both in Serbia next year. Watch this space Belgrade beer festival 2016!!

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Full highlights of the Appowila Highland Games 2015 (if you can be bothered!)

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Beer drinker and all round annoyance. Likes drinking, football, cricket and having a good time.

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