When travelling difficulties left Aly Bain without an accompanist for his performance at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London in 1986, the great Shetland fiddler wasn’t to know that he was about to enter a partnership that endures to this day and has become one of the outstanding successes in traditional music, not just in Scotland but across the world.
Phil Cunningham happened to be on the same bill that evening, playing in an accordion duo with Irish master Mairtin O Connor, and hearing of Aly’s predicament he volunteered to play with him. For reasons he can no longer remember, Phil sat down at the piano, rather than taking his accordion onstage, and he and Aly played for half an hour unscripted.
The following evening Aly invited Phil out to dinner to thank him but also to discuss a new venture. A television production company, Pelicula, had approached Aly with a view to making a series of programmes called Aly Bain and Friends. Would Phil like to join him on the pilot for the series?
Although the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert had been the first time they had played together onstage, Phil and Aly had been friends since the mid-1970s. Their paths had crossed through their respective bands, Silly Wizard and Boys of the Lough, but even before that they would meet in Edinburgh’s folk hub, Sandy Bells, despite Phil being underage.
After a successful pilot, with Phil joining Aly, pianist Violet Tulloch and guitarist Peerie Willie Johnson, Aly Bain and Friends became the first instalment in long television careers for both Phil and Aly. They enjoyed playing as duo so much that they decided to play a few concerts and the enthusiastic response ensured that more would follow.
Originally the idea was for the duo to play exclusively in Scotland because they’d both done so much travelling by then as musicians. Gradually, however, tours of England, the U.S. and Spain followed and the pattern became a tour of England, followed by a small series of Scottish concerts each spring and a main annual tour of Scotland in late summer and early autumn.
By their own admission, they’re not the most organised musicians when it comes to recording albums. Their first, The Pearl, came nine years after their concert debut as a duo and six others have now followed. They could quite easily claim to be too busy to record as their individual schedules take them off on other projects and tours, and as well as being mainstays of BBC TV’s Hogmanay show, they are the go-to players for special occasions such as the re-opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 and the funeral of the inaugural First Minister, Donald Dewar, the following year.
In January 2016, Aly celebrated his seventieth birthday and Phil celebrated forty years in music and in those forty years they have seen traditional music grow from something that brought Phil ridicule at school into a thriving part of Scotland’s culture recognised by the establishment. Both musicians have been appointed MBE and awarded multiple honorary doctorates and they are proud to be part of the music’s success.
Their longevity as a duo stems, says Phil, from their shared love of melody, be it from Scotland, Scandinavia, Spain, America or anywhere, and their enthusiasm for cooking. Barely two days pass without one consulting the other on the finer points of a recipe. The Phil & Aly Cookbook, with appropriate supporting tunes, surely must be on the television schedulers’ agenda