Music From The Penguin Cafe Orchestra

The uncategorisable sound of the Penguin Cafe Orchestra is revived and taken back on the road by Simon Jeffes' son Arthur

‘He’d eaten some bad shellfish and had this waking dream of a dystopian vision of the near future where everyone lives in these big blocks in impersonal concrete environments where you can look into various rooms where you can see all these activities taking place.’

Ahead of the nine-piece headliner show at Clonard Monastery, part of this year’s Féile an Earraigh Spring Festival, Arthur Jeffes remembers how his father Simon dreamed up the concept of the Penguin Café in the early 1970s in the south of France.

‘In one room there is a musician writing music on these vast arrays of electronic equipment, but he’s got headphones on and so you can’t hear any music in the actual room, and in another room these’s a couple making love but without sound or love - you have this sense of a disconnect, dehumanisation of day-to-day life, but you could reject this new way of existing and you could look further down the road and find this place called the Penguin Café which was a slightly beaten up tavern down the road.

‘As you approach it you can see the light pouring out of the door and chaotic noise and music and the sound of glasses breaking and people shouting and this is the Penguin Café and there’s a band playing music that you recognise but you don’t know where from.’

Written for piano, guitar, violin and cello, the wonderfully eclectic and idiosyncratic sounds of the Penguin Café are sometimes augmented with more unusual elements such as answering machine beeps, dripping taps and elastic bands.

The Orchestra recorded and performed for 24 years until Simon Jeffes died of a brain tumour in 1997, but the musical phenomenon continues to enjoy cult status, with tunes such as ‘Telephone and Rubber Band’ or ‘Music for a Found Harmonium’ featuring in a myriad of movies and advertisements.

The tenth anniversary of Jeffes’ death was marked by the original Penguin Café Orchestra reforming for three concerts at the Union Chapel in London in 2007. Jeffes junior recalls how it felt to play the music for the first time and how he then wanted to see his father's dream live on.

‘That was a really lovely experience and that’s sort of where I got the impulse to play this music live again. I think the old band really enjoyed it, but a lot of them felt that was the last time they wanted to revisit.'

Over Christmas 2008, some friends of Jeffes asked him to get some kind of musicial group together to play a mini-festival in Italy – out of it came the Music From The Penguin Café Orchestra.

‘Just four of us went out, playing in slightly ruined houses with big old pianos. It was so much fun really because the music has a slightly folk element to it but it also has lyrical and classical parts which work very well in all these different environments with all these different groups of people,' Jeffes enthuses.

Jeffes' revised Orchestra is providing a fresh take on the original sound, bringing the music to life with a new line-up, as well as introducing new compositions which stem from the virtual world of his father's original vision.

‘This music was written before I was born so I know it profoundly, so for me it was a fun, pleasant experience teaching it to my new musicians – this also allowed slight changes to some of the older pieces.’

Jeffes is looking forward to bringing the nine-piece to Belfast and sees a natural fit with the Féile an Earraigh festival.

‘The music lends itself well to that slightly Celtic folk influence, "Music For A Found Harmonium" I think has gone all over the place as a trad and/or folk piece.’

Eddie Mullan

The Penguin Café Orchestra play at the Clonard Monastery on February 5. Tickets are £10 from the Belfast Welcome Centre or online at Support comes from Aoife Scott - daughter of Frances Black.

Féile an Earraigh features 50 events taking place across Belfast from Feb 4 - Feb 7.