This may be one of the most unusual interviews I’ve ever done. The content covers all the bases: tai chi, how to build a violin, Weird Al Yankovic, instrument addiction, pirates and insects. The Vox Hunters are the dynamic duo of Armand Aromin and Benedict Gagliardi. These two young musicians have been making a name for themselves in the trad music world in New England and beyond. Their Pub Sing nights have a growing reputation for a fun evening of singing along and learning a bit of history in the process. Perhaps one of the most exciting things about a trad music show is that you may not be the least bit familiar with any of the music you hear, but you’ll get lured into it on so many levels and discover that it’s a darn cool genre and you can’t stop yourself from singing along and joining in the fun!
To learn more about the The Vox Hunters, visit their website.
Here’s an example of The Vox Hunters doing some lovely ballad harmonizing on a tune called “Blind Man.”
And check out some fancy footwork by Armand here.
I’ve got to know how you got the traditional music bug? How did you come to discover this music?
Armand: As is the usual story for most folk musicians, it all began with martial arts. During my freshman year of high school in Providence, RI, I took tai chi classes at a Chinese tailor shop. When I arrived, the owner and her sister would push aside all the racks of clothing and sewing machines, retrieve her father (my teacher), and the class would begin. After six or so months of lessons, I somehow only then noticed that they offered so much more than tai chi. In addition to other martial arts, they taught ballet, knitting, guitar, tap, sewing… It was an impressively comprehensive list, but the one item that really jumped out at me was violin. And so I learned from the owner for about four months, during which she somehow managed to teach me without ever demonstrating any techniques on a violin herself. It turned out her son had taken Suzuki violin lessons in his youth, which meant that parents were present during the lessons and encouraged to learn alongside their children.
I eventually switched over to a proper classical teacher and joined the string ensemble at my high school during my sophomore year. At this point, I was also in photography club, which always met before the string ensemble. The moderator of the club had inquired to see if I was interested in playing Irish music, of which I knew nothing at the time; but because I was eager to play anything, I agreed and we co-founded the Celtic Arts Club, which is still running today. I was immediately supplied with plenty of listening material and encouraged to attend a house concert put on by my future fiddle teacher, Jimmy Devine. Imagine my surprise when my first exposure to live Irish music was by the Rice Paddies; three formidable players of the Irish music scene who all happen to be of Asian descent! I introduced myself to Jimmy later that evening, began taking his group classes, and the rest is history.
Ben: Prior to my fortunate infection by the traditional music bug, my musical interests did not range very far outside the realm of Weird Al Yankovic. Perhaps it was the appreciation I developed for his accordion mastery that served as the necessary gateway drug into other free-reed involvement. My first introduction to trad music was via a cassette tape of the CT-based Irish & sea music band, The Morgans, whom my parents used to listen to live in Hartford when they were young. I found it in the attic while procrastinating on some high school assignment and once I heard the songs and especially the button accordion, I succumbed to an overpowering urge to procure a “squeezebox” on ebay and make it my new focus in life. I met The Morgans soon after and they were hugely encouraging of my music-making; Don Sineti even gave me a pass to the Mystic Sea Music festival with a personalized schedule highlighting all the workshops related to concertina.
I started with nautical music, which remains a great passion of mine, but I drifted down the Irish music path soon after I started with the concertina. Sessions in Hartford, New Haven, and Wallingford, CT became staple parts of my week; and all the musicians I encountered continue to inspire, encourage, and expand my music.
How did The Vox Hunters form and what’s the story behind the name of the band?
Armand: We met through traditional Irish music in June 2012 and continued to casually played tunes together at sessions. When we realized that we both liked to sing as well, we arranged some songs and started performing as a duo about a year later. Our first gig was at the Book Mill in Montague, MA.
The name did not come easily, and it was preceded by many futile attempts to encapsulate our shared musical tastes and philosophy. It happened one night at a seafood restaurant in Providence where we sat desperately throwing out names and phrases hoping something would stick. Amid a whirlwind of unbridled creativity, we chanced to utter a play on words which combined the title of a favorite tune, The Fox Hunter’s reel, and the Latin word for voice, vox. ‘The Vox Hunters’ sat before us to our amusement at first, and then we realized an underlying sentiment—we love nothing more than hunting down voices to learn songs from. So, we suppose our band name is simply a concise and accurate description of us.
Armand, you’re a violin maker and went to the North Bennet Street School. Can you tell us about your course of study there? It sounds like an extraordinary environment to learn craftsmanship from the masters.
Armand: It was a very interesting time, that’s for sure! It’s quite different from your typical college experience. The entire department consists of 11 or so students and one instructor. Unlike some other violin making schools, ours is on the smaller side so that more students receive quality private instruction. There are no formal classes, but there are weekly demonstrations, discussions, and lectures. As the school was located in Boston, we were able to reap the benefits of what the city had to offer. Chris Reuning of Reuning & Sons is an advisor to the program, which meant we were able to look at, and occasionally play, some very nice instruments. Thankfully, I’m only responsible for making Antonio Stradivari roll in his grave just once.
At North Bennet, a student’s schedule primarily consists of getting to the bench by 8:10 am, working on the current instrument until four or five in the afternoon, going home, sleep, lather, rinse, and repeat for three years until they amass a collection of five violins, a viola, and a pre-approved instrument of their choice. In my case, because I selfishly decided to make myself a graduation present, my final instrument of choice was a copy of a violin supposedly made by Giovanni Paolo Maggini of Brescia, ca. 1630. And I say “supposedly” because my final paper, which documented the process of making the Maggini and a short history of Brescian violin making, was thrown for a loop by a major authority in the violin world, explaining that the copy I had made was in fact a copy of a copy. So much for all my theories.
How long does it take to craft a standard fiddle?
Armand: If you’re lucky enough to not be interrupted by life things, then it would take about four to six months. Since graduation, I’m always being interrupted by life things, so now it takes much longer than six months.
What led you to Berklee School of Music?
Armand: At the time, I was convinced that I wanted to become a high school music teacher, and because all other music education courses in other colleges and universities required you to play jazz or classical, I set my sights on Berklee. There I was able to play Irish music and get away with it! I ended up leaving after five semesters, but I still very much appreciate my time there, and I’m constantly applying the skills that I learned. My other reason for wanting to go to Berklee was to be in Boston and have access to the wealth of Irish music in the city.
Ben, you’re a self-taught concertina player. You’ve been warmly welcomed into session playing with many groups in Connecticut and elsewhere. Are there many concertina players on the circuit? It’s not an instrument that you see every day! 😉 (And have any pirates come a calling for your services?)
Ben: When I first started going to sessions in CT, I met two or three other concertina players who all had useful tips on “deciphering the musical Rubik’d cube”, as my friend Jon Warner likes to call it. Up in the Boston area and throughout the rest of New England, I met many more Anglo concertinists, and I soon realized that my self-taught style was quite quirky and ridden with many of the techniques that most players avoid. I have come to embrace unorthodox musical behavior and continue to play tunes and accompany songs on concertina in my own unique way.
(Though I’ve played at sea music festivals and on board a wooden whaling ship or two, I have yet to receive any formal vocational propositions from a real-life buccaneer. If you know of any openings for a hornpipe-playing cabin boy, please let me know where to send my application.)
I understand that you play a variety of other instruments as well including the much maligned banjo. Do you carry your collection of instruments from gig to gig or do you limit yourself to the concertina when you play with Armand in The Vox Hunters?
Ben: Armand and I both suffer from a common musical condition which my friend Will O’Hare calls I.A.D. or “Instrument Acquisition Disorder.” Anglo concertina and 5-string banjo are just two examples of the free-reed and stringed noise-makers which I am guilty of having in my possession. That being the case, we don’t take everything to every gig, but we vary our instrument load depending on the setlist and what we’ve been enjoying playing recently. Multi-instrumentalism allows for a lot of flexibility and variety in tone and texture throughout a performance, but transportation can be encumbering sometimes.
Your bio reveals a fascinating fact: You’re pursuing your master’s in entomology. That’s the study of insects. You live an interesting life. How did you get into bugs?
Ben: I suppose I was always doomed to study something creepy and crawly. Ever since I was a little kid I could most reliably be found in the back yard catching grasshoppers, flipping rocks to find salamanders or stalking frogs and turtles in the pond down the street. My natural proclivity for amphibians and nature in general convinced me to major in ecology and evolutionary biology in my undergraduate days at UConn. In my junior year, an infectiously passionate entomology professor welcomed me into his lab and soon after took me on a collecting trip to the mountains of southeastern Arizona–an extraordinary hotspot of biodiversity. It was impossible not to catch his enthusiasm and adventurous zeal for collecting moths and caterpillars, and I’ve been studying insects ever since. The most rewarding part of being a graduate student at UConn has been teaching introductory biology labs and endeavoring to inspire students in the way I was.