The Fiddle

Ryan Young. A CD Review.

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It’s not everyday that an album comes along that completely stops you in your tracks. That you just listen to over and over again and keep discovering something new. There was a real buzz at the Traditional Irish Music Festival in August 2017 about this album and the room was packed out at Peppers Bar on the Thursday evening with people peering in the window to get a look.

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He was supported by Clare ‘royalty’ Mary MacNamara and Dennis Cahill and I listened from outside the door along with the others who couldn’t get in.

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I didn’t remember meeting Ryan Young. But he assured me we did, two years ago at Feakle at a Martin Hayes workshop. And we have been Facebook friends since then so we must have met.   In 2015 Ryan was visiting Ireland for the first time from his home in Loch Lomond in Scotland and meeting Martin also for the first time.  Too shy though to speak to his idol he sat through the three days silently.

A lot has happened for Ryan since then. I met him again this year at Feakle and as before he sat in on Martin’s workshop. This time though it was a different matter.  Martin was well acquainted with him.  In the last two years he has achieved second in this year’s BBC Musician of the Year, supported Martin and Dennis Cahill at Celtic Connections and produced a CD after a You Tube clip was spotted by renowned producer Jesse Lewis.  And he deserves every ounce of this success.

Although hailing from the Highlands he is an adherent of the Clare style of fiddle playing, particularly East Clare. He had grown up with recordings of PJ Hayes, Paddy Canny, Bobby Casey and Martin. It was inevitable that he would bring this style of playing to his native tunes.

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And that’s what his eponymous CD does. But for me it is done in an extraordinarily sensitive and sensual way. The clarity of sound and the sweet accoustics reflect that it was recorded in the Opera Theatre at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.  This, with the brilliant controlled and expressive playing make this an outstanding recording.

The music is sometimes irresistibly Scottish but, even though all the tunes are ‘Scottish’, it often doesn’t sound like it. One can imagine purists would not be too impressed. Many of the tunes though are familiar sounding;  I am sure I heard elements of Rakish Paddy in there somewhere.

It is of course hard not to reference Martin Hayes while you are listening but there is so much originality and thought in the music that it does take on a life of its own.  There are a number of longer tracks that explore different rhythms and textures in the same way that Hayes and Cahill do and the use of the piano at times is particularly pleasing.

But for all this, it is not Clare Music, it is not Scots, it is Ryan Young. That’s quite an achievement.

 

 

Categories: Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Glenties and the Blue Stack Mountains; The beating heart of Donegal fiddle music.

I hadn’t planned on going to Glenties. Don’t get me wrong it’s a delightful place in the west of Donegal set in mountainous country and its lovely leafy village setting is a surprising contrast to the treeless wild of this part of the world.

I had just spent a wonderful week of music at the Scoil Gheimhridh Ghaoth Dobhair (a winter school for traditional music at Gweedore) and was ready to go home. It was the last night and the final session was coming to a natural exhausted conclusion. I was saying my goodbyes when Sile Friel of the renowned Glasgow/Donegal based Friel Sisters asked if I was interested in attending a session the next night. This is how the conversation went.

Sile        “I’m trying to organise a session with a few of us and the Campbells at Glenties”

Me         “Um. Who are the Campbells?”

Sile        “You’ve never heard of them? Jimmy and Vince are fiddling royalty up here”

I felt embarrassed by my ignorance. But my interest was of course piqued and my travel plans instantly changed.

Next morning I headed south taking a detour to the Glengesh Pass (between Glencolmcille and Ardara), which ironically I had visited earlier in the year on a miserable summer day in stark contrast to this glorious winter’s day. Well worth the detour.

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Glengesh Pass.  On a sunny day in the middle of winter.  January 2017

 

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Glengesh Pass.  The same view on a foggy day in the middle of summer. August 2016

 

But my main objective was a little pub a few kilometres from Glenties in the middle of the Blue Stack Mountains.

I spent the afternoon discovering the Blue Stacks, also known as The Croaghgorms. It is the most significant mountain range in Donegal, separating the north from the south. Typical bare, rounded hills with the characteristic remote wilderness feel to it that makes Donegal so appealing. The special winter russet colour which takes on a red tinge when the sun shines.  And not a tree, except the occasional pine forest.  I took random roads, which turned into random lanes and then random boreens. It was beautiful but scary. The roads were so narrow that there was no chance for two cars to pass and there was bog on either side. And being so remote there were few houses and fewer laybys. I drove in fear of meeting someone and having my reversing skills challenged over distances measured in hundreds of metres.  This world though is well off the commuter trail and the major road traffic was of the four footed kind.

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I arrived at the Glen Tavern (everyone calls it Dinny’s despite that name not appearing anywhere on the building) a respectable period before the nominated time of 7 pm. Of course I should have known better.

I had plenty of time to get to know the owners, Annie and Mary because it was at least an hour before the first patron arrived let alone musician. And then some. Of course, I was made to feel very welcome. I guess an Aussie fiddler tuning up was a bit unusual.  Or maybe it wasn’t.

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Mary and Annie.  Mine hosts at Dinny’s

 

The first surprise is that you enter the pub through a little shop. Just your basics mind you, but a shop nonetheless.

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Open for business.

 

As well as a shop and a bar it is also a residence. A door to the right took me into the now empty bar. Cosy and inviting with those corner lounges so typical in Ireland just waiting to be filled with musicians. This looked like a great place for music. But not right now.

I settled down for a chat with Mary and Annie and a glass of Jamieson and heard the stories of this place and its music. In my ignorance I had not realised that these mountains and this pub were at the beating heart of Donegal fiddle music.

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A bar with an house fiddle is my kind of pub.

 

The legendary itinerant master tinsmith and fiddler Johnny Doherty lived in these parts and played here and the Campbells (who Sile had mentioned) are a direct link to that legacy. Vince and Jimmy learnt their music from their father who played with him. Johnny had stayed with the Campbells as he had in many houses across the mountains.  I had inadvertently walked into this time capsule.

Gradually people arrived. Peter Campbell, Jimmy’s son, also a fiddler and Condy Campbell; not sure where he fitted in but he took up what looked like his regular spot in the corner and settled in for the night.

Two hours now and the musicians who were coming from Gweedore had yet to arrive. Occasional texts from the Friels advised they were ‘on their way’. But this is Ireland. Turns out they called in to visit Danny Meehan, another legend of Donegal fiddling and he wouldn’t let them go. I’m sure there’s a great story there.

So it was well after 9.00 pm when they finally arrived and then another half hour before the tunes began.

The place had gradually filled (I’m sure there were a few more Campbells among the crowd) as the pipes and fiddles took over. Joining Sile Friels on pipes and sister Clare on fiddle were brothers Fionnán and Iarlaith Mac Gabhann, from Dublin, on pipes and flute.

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Peter Campbell, Fionnan Mac Gabhann, Clare Friel, Sile Friel and Iarlaith Mac Gabhann at Dinny’s

 

The music was sensational. We were in full flight with, of course, a heavy smattering of highlands, mazurkas, flings and a waltz or two, which , for the most part, I had to sit out. We even played Donegal’s only polka. Well that was what I was told. We got the story of that tune from Condy but I have to be honest, I can’t tell you any of it because with his thick, but delightful, brogue, I didn’t get a word.

The musical visitors had decided to move on so about 11 they started to pack up ready to go. Then Jimmy Campbell arrived. That changed everything. “Just one for the road”.  Jimmy insisted that they keep playing and he just sat and listened. In that peculiarly endearing Irish way he would interject with “lovely”, “lovely”, which is surely the ultimate accolade. And it was meant.

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Jimmy Campbell watches and listens.

 

He was persuaded eventually to grab a fiddle. “I can’t play” he said wryly. “I can’t play like that”.

But he did and he could! No one joined. It was our turn to admire and just listen. He played solo and he played with son Peter.  The boys from Dublin had never been to Donegal before and I could see the reverence and joy writ all over their faces at hearing this music. I felt the same. Here was a whole world of playing I knew nothing about.

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Father and son.

 

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A good tune followed by a good laugh.

 

Of course no one left and the musical conversation continued until 1:30 am. Even the goodbyes took an hour.

I had the chance to sit and chat to Jimmy. A nicer gentleman would be hard to find. Nearly 80. He had left Donegal and lived in London much of his life but was now back home. His son Peter, born in England, followed him back. He is full of tales. A session with Jimmy is an experience. It is beyond now. Every tune has its moment. Often there are no sets. Just a single tune. We hear about where he learnt the tune or who wrote it or the story behind it or where the name came from. The tune is a window into a social history. With his words it ties us to people, time and place.

It was a special evening. Two worlds meet with both embracing each other. Music was just a facilitator for people to connect at completely different levels. A good session is more than just playing tunes together. This was a good session.

The beauty is though that I can take something away with me. On the wall is a framed musical notation of a tune, The Jack in the Tavern, written by Jimmy. It’s on my to-learn list now.

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To think that but for a chance conversation with Sile I would have missed this. That’s how it is in Ireland.

Happenstance and serendipity.

There is a music weekend every year in the Glen Tavern in September and I have marked it in my calendar already. Try and keep me away.

Hopefully I will have learnt Jimmy’s tune and a few more highlands and mazurkas by then.

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Categories: Sessions, Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

In search of the Nyah. A Fiddle Workshop with Brendan Mulkere.

In my time in Ireland over the last 2½ years I have been privileged to have listened to and played with so many wonderful musicians. I have also been to many workshops and had fiddle instruction from some of the greats. These have included one-on-ones and group lessons with top fiddlers such as Martin Hayes, Siobhan Peoples, Tola Custy, Yvonne Casey, Zoe Conway, Brid Harper, Gerry O’Connor, James Kelly, Paddy Glackin, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Jesse Smith, Dylan Foley, Eileen O’Brien, Yvonne Kane, Paddy Ryan, John Carty, Manus Maguire, Liam O’Connor, Aiden Connelly and heaps more.

I’m certainly not going to rank them. Each is a master of their art and I learnt something from every single one of them. As I have said before, my own level of playing is my own fault, not those of the many people who have assisted me along the way.

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But nothing prepared me for the workshop I attended at the Cooley-Collins Festival in Gort, Co Galway, last week. It was given by Brendan Mulkere. Of course I had heard of him and had met him briefly once or twice, but truth is I knew nothing about him. I knew he was based in London but recently he has moved back to his homeland of County Clare. So I found out what I could despite the lack of information on the man on the Interweb.

As I say he is from Clare. He moved to London in the 70s and started teaching Irish music.  His school became very successful with hundreds of students.  He taught everything as he himself plays fiddle, box, banjo, whistle and God knows what else. His music school became legendary for producing many outstanding players who went on to professional careers, such as John Carty, John Whelan, John Blake, Niall Keegan, Claire Egan and many who didn’t but nevertheless soaked up his extraordinary passion and love of Irish music.  He promoted Irish music, bringing all the top bands of the day, such as the Bothy Band and DeDannan to London before they were well known. And for all this, I believe he has never issued a solo or group recording other than with the highly regarded Thatch Ceili Band in the 70s. This says a lot about the man.

He has given up teaching now, so this was a rare opportunity and I expected a lot of interest.

We assembled in the Gort Convent School on the Saturday morning of the three day weekend . There were three of us. Only three! There was a former student of his from the 70s now living in Ireland and a young girl from nearby. And me.

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We strapped on our seatbelts and for eight hours over the three days he took us on a musical journey like nothing I have ever been on. There have been many different approaches in the Schools I have attended. Many are attended by young prodigies or wanna-be’s, desperate for new tunes  that no one else knows . Some are quite different though, like those of Martin Hayes for instance, you hardly touch your fiddle as he shares his wisdom and insights and maybe teaches one tune. Or  James Kelly,  who focusses on getting fundamentals right. We spent a whole day on rolls and another day on triplets. Or Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh who talked about dynamics and extending the voicing capabilities of the fiddle.  Others may give you an insight into local traditions such as at Donegal with Brid Harper or in Ballyferriter where Aiden Connelly gave the best explanation yet of how to play a polka.

Brendan was different to all of these. There was a whirlwind of tunes, most of them common. He deliberately targeted tunes such as the Kesh and Star of Munster and tunes that most of us already knew. But he didn’t care if we did or didn’t.  We could learn them in our own time.  There was no instruction on technique or tone or intonation. It was about reinventing the tunes to get to that place where the music is coming from the heart. He has strong opinions, about the quality of much of the music played in sessions and decries the influence that pub session has on the sound and delivery of traditional music. He focussed on harmonic variation and constantly stressed the need to keep surprising the listener and yourself. It’s about keeping interest by taking the tune somewhere unpredictable.

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He played us tunes showing his variations and we motored through tune after tune. Slowing down and repeating bits and dwelling just long enough for us to understand what he was doing – dropping to the G string, adding a chord, inverting the triads, varying the bowing, slurring or not slurring, articulation, changing to the 2nd position; all of this without actually laboriously repeating phrases until we got it in the traditional way. We then got mountains of homework, with his variations notated and scored. Enough to keep me busy for the next 2½ years. Not mind you so we can just ape him but as the first step in understanding how to put our own stamp on a tune.

I could rave on for ever, but what a generous man. Generous with his knowledge, with his life’s work and with his friendship.

I have hardly put the fiddle down since I came home.

Why did I call this ‘In search of the Nyah’? The Nyah is that indefinable thing that makes Irish music ‘real’. I think it encompasses terms such as feel, soul, groove, heart, swing, draoicht. It’s the title of my proposed book.

But when you hear the nyah you know it.  I thought it was just the rhythm, so I spent a lot of time on that and it has taken me closer but still the search continued. Or maybe it was ornamentation, so I worked on that. Of course it is all of this and much more.

Brendan has given me a window into it and I will open that window as wide as I can.

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Categories: My Journey, The Fiddle | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 11 Comments

Glencolmcille, Donegal. Fiddles in the Glen. And Much Much More.

First I should apologise to my blog followers. I have been travelling and attending many festivals over the last two months so I have neglected you.  It has been an amazing Summer with visits to Festivals in Dungarvan, Doolin, Spiddal, Miltown Malbay, Tubbercurry, Drumshanbo, Achill Island, Glencolmcille and Feakle.  I have many stories and photos and I will try and bring my readers up to date over the next little while.

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In the first week of August I went to Glencolmcille in the south west of Donegal. There is a Fiddle Festival there which I had yet to attend, but not only that it is a place of remarkable beauty.

I had been there before but it was the depths of winter and it was so cold with biting wind and lashing rain and I had a cold and the memory is generally not a pleasant one. I should add also that it was the first place in Ireland that I missed playing music. January 2nd 2015. After almost eight months.

I had driven up from Achill and the most glorious weather welcomed us on the Monday. I had a carload from Italy, France and Spain that were also visiting the Festival. The first thing that struck me about this place was the awesome grandeur and beauty. It was just too beautiful. I didn’t know where to start exploring it. It’s rather like turning up to a session with a dozen great fiddlers and you leave your fiddle in the case, because you don’t know where to start. It’s just too intimidating and daunting.

I was originally booked into a Bed and Breakfast but a friend convinced me to give the Dooey Hostel a go. I have shied away from hostels because I never sleep, with snorers and tossers-and-turners and people coming in late and getting up early, but I went along with it. It is truly a unique place. It is built into the hill with the natural rock being one wall and the other side giving magnificent views over the strand and the bay one way and the glacially scoured valley the other way. There is a crazy paved floor as you would have out on the patio and ivy and all sorts of plants growing up the walls. The walls are damp with the natural seepage and there is piping to take away the water when it rains, which gives the sound of an ever present waterfall. It is on many levels with four dormitories each with their own shower toilet and kitchen, another generous kitchen, some private rooms and a gorgeous common room that overlooks the bay. There is plenty of eccentric and eclectic memorabilia and trinkets everywhere. 

 

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Dooey Hostel, Glencolmcille

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The view from the Common Room of Dooey Hostel

 

Miraculously I didn’t have a snorer in my dorm so I slept brilliantly.

The hostess is Mary, quite an institution in this part of the world. And mad as a March hare. You can’t really describe her but she is as wild as the Atlantic and had us in stitches much of the time. “I just compost people who fall out of their bunks”, she says. The residents were an interesting lot too. Many there for the fiddles but many just travellers. By a country mile, the majority were from France. Some spoke exclusively French which was a bit annoying for me but it was a diverse bunch with many interesting stories. I met of course loads of new friends and I could not help but become part of the craic.

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I decided not to do the classes and Monday was so beautiful I had to get out and about. I was told of a lovely beach called Port, so that’s where I headed. Google Maps misled me though (I have to blame someone) and I ended up high on a remote bog.   As I was sinking deeper and deeper into the unsealed road I decided to retreat. A 21- point turn executed with fear of my wheels leaving the road and of getting stuck in the ditch. But there’s always a reason for things happening in Ireland and I spent a lovely hour exploring photographic possibilities in this remote part of Donegal.

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On returning to Glen I found myself following some road signs to the Holy Well of St Columbcille. This was not what I expected as after quite a walk I discovered the well site protected by a massive Donald Trump style wall. Continuing the walk I ended up at the Tower, which was built to keep a lookout for Napoleon and the invading French. One would have to say it was unsuccessful as the French continue to invade! The views from the top are impressive though.

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St Columbcille’s Well

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View towards Port Beach

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As far as the music goes this festival or school is completely different. First it is fiddle only. Second it is Donegal style and tunes only. It is classes morning and afternoon so if you don’t do the classes the place is pretty deserted except for the tourists. It is pot luck after that. There are only two pubs so it is hard to miss a session. After about 9 pm it kicks off. Roarty’s was the spot and on the Monday night there was a session there with 45 fiddles. For a brief time there was a single guitar. It was a unique sound. Not to everyone’s taste, I know but how often do you get to hear that in Ireland. I recognised about 10% of the tunes, but played along where I could. A who’s-who of Donegal fiddling was there. Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh, Martin McGinley, Ciarán Ó Maonaigh,  Conor Caldwell, Danny Meehan.  But it was hard to get a seat so I did a lot of listening.  The tunes are infectious and probably easy to learn but the fiddling is not my style with its sawing bowing.  But it was great to be there.  Some of the best sessions though were in the Common Room of the hostel or outside overlooking the bay.

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Fiddlers in the Glen

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The bad weather closed in (well it is Ireland and it is summer) and Wednesday started out very unpromisingly. But it looked to be brightening up so I decided to go to Maghera Caves of which I had heard a bit about. When I announced my intention at the Hostel I immediately had half a dozen takers to come with me. In the end  I was accompanied by Blandine from France, Alex from Italy (the Great Bastoni! but that’s another story), Tall Paul from Holland and People Katherina from Germany, a 20 year old on her first solo overseas trip who, the day before, had walked 27km with her 20kg pack in the driving rain.

The weather did not ease up. The rain came and went with and without wind and we had in total 15 seconds of sunshine. The caves were not what I expected. They are only accessible at low tide which luckily it was, They seem to be caused by erosion along faults associated with dolerite dykes and sills in very siliceous sediment. They are right on a really wide beach. Stunning. The wind at times whipped the sand along creating and eerie landscape.  And there was a labyrinth, similar to the one on Keel Beach on Achill.  Someone put a lot of work into it but I can only guess how long it will be there before the sea subsumes it.  On the way there was Assaranca Falls: a ferocious waterfall fed by the heavy rain at the time. Unfortunately photographing it was tough in the weather. We went cross country then to the majestic Slieve League cliffs. Conditions were attrocious with the mist descending, sometimes to a complete whiteout. I loved it though; when the clouds parted to reveal the rugged landscape for a few moments and then closed in. Thee was no pattern to it but it provided everchanging vistas and light. Then a visit to the gorgeous beach at Malin Beg which I have to say would rival Keem Strand on Achill for a place nearthe top of the list of best Irish beaches I’ve seen.

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Assaranca Falls

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Near Ardara

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The road to Maghera

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Cave at Maghera Beach.  One of 27

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Dolerite sill and later crosscutting dyke.

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Sheared dolerite dyke and cave.

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even the water is green!

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Maghera Strand.  A wicked wind!

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Maghera Strand.  Another view

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Labyrinth at Maghera Strand 

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Have you seen green like this?

 

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Heather on the Moor.  Slieve League

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Slieve League

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A few minutes later.  The clouds descend

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Try standing up!

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A soft day at Slieve League

 

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Malin Beg

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Malin Beg

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Malin Beg

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Weathering bands in schist.  With sandhopper

 

I enjoyed this place so much that only playing a few tunes in the evening didn’t seem to matter. We sat up chatting in the Hostel till about 4am and the sweet Katherina, full of self doubt about travelling Ireland on her own yet so confident to walk such huge distances could not contain herself. Every few minutes saying “I am so happy”. In fact she held on from going to the toilet for an hour because she was worried we would go to bed and the night would end.

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Monarch of the Glen

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The Festival overlaps with Feakle Festival which is one of my favourites so on Thursday I headed off back to Clare.

I will definitely return to Donegal. Maybe next time I’ll get to Port Beach without getting lost……..

Categories: Real Ireland, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music, Uncategorized, Wild Ireland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Immersion Therapy, Part 1.

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Part 1: The path to being a better fiddler?

OK so this is my 100th blog.  It’s hard to believe that I have pressed that Publish button 100 times since I’ve come to Ireland.

I wondered what I should write about for this centennial event and really the answer was pretty obvious.  I came here specifically to immerse myself in Irish music and to learn to play the fiddle ‘properly’.  To catch up on all the lost years when near enough was good enough for Aussie Bush Music and to learn from players steeped in the tradition. I realise that this may not be of great interest to many of my blog readers, so sorry about that, but I know there are many musician friends who would love to do what I have done and might be interested in the results.

So has it worked?  Am I a ‘better’ fiddler?

This is hard for me to write because there is no absolute here.  I can only talk about how I feel.  For me ‘better’ is ‘am I sounding more like I want to sound?’, not ‘am I technically better?’.  So I thought I would approach it first by talking about the process.  It has been fascinating for me learning how to learn; learning how to listen and the whole process of getting inside the music.

I’m not the first to do this of course and there is a school of thought that adult foreigners can never really learn to play Irish music because they didn’t grow up with it.  It’s not in them.  Well there are plenty of top-notch musicians based all around the world who play Irish music at a high level so the jury’s out on that one.

Despite playing on and off for forty years I came here as a beginner.  Since my arrival I have wrapped myself in the music.  I have been to dozens of Festivals and concerts and I have attended hundreds of sessions.  I have done workshops, private lessons and seen and played with so many musicians of quality.  Something should have rubbed off.

I know it’s a cliché but this is truly a journey. As I progressed there have been some clear stages in the process.  While this is obviously just based on my own experience and it may or may not apply to others setting out on the same voyage, I, nevertheless, think there are some fundamentals here worth sharing with those who have learnt their Irish music elsewhere but are serious about improving their understanding of the music and lifting their playing to another level.

I have recognised six stages in this Immersion process.  The process is naturally a continuum but it is helpful to think of it in stages.  Maybe all stages are not applicable to all however, especially if they may have been lucky enough to have had lessons from, or played with class trad players.   If not then they have picked up their music from books, CDs and local sessions, like me.

This is not rigid.   The stages can overlap and you may go back occasionally but I think each stage is a fundamental precursor to the next.  You can’t jump ahead.  If nothing else it will put some context around the difficulties adults have in learning Irish Music.

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Stage 1.  Delusion

Many when they arrive here are deluded that they can actually play Irish music.  This is soon put into stark reality anywhere in Ireland, but particularly here in Clare, where the standard of musicianship is so high. You come to Ireland with your packet of tunes and firstly no one plays them or you are playing with the wrong rhythm, and when you start one you find yourself often without support.  Undaunted you play on and wonder why the session comes to a halt.  Or you come into the session with your pile of tune books and turn to page 11 and play the set to a largely disinterested pub (I have seen this on a number of occasions!).  Most people realise pretty quickly that there is a problem here and back off but unfortunately some don’t.  They don’t read the signs and plough on regardless getting nothing out of being there.  Hopefully one moves out of the Delusion stage quickly.  In fairness some people may skip this stage either because they realise they can’t play and that’s why they’re here or they are truly advanced players.

Stage 2.  Confusion

Delusion transitions into Confusion.  You have realised you can’t cut it but you are unsure of the way forward.  There are hundreds of tunes you have never heard, you can’t even recognise the ones you know and when you do you can’t play along because the rhythm is different or it’s too fast.  You realise that the countless hours you spent learning tunes back in Australia is pretty much irrelevant.  You sit endlessly waiting for a tune you know and trying to join in, keep up.   It is hard not to avoid being a bit star-struck when you realise who you are playing with and you freeze when asked to play a tune.  In fact after a while you are grateful just not being asked to leave.   You hear a tune you like and if you are lucky enough to get someone who knows a name you look it up on The Session or Tunepal and learn it. Weeks later you find you have a different version or it sounds nothing like you thought it did.  At this point you feel sometimes like opting out. The danger here is that Confusion can lead to Disillusion and then it’s all over.  Unfortunately for many short-term visitors, this is where it ends. They go home, not really having learnt anything and confused about the way forward and then fall back into the comfort of playing with their musician friends back home and contented in their mediocrity.

If they are lucky this process ends soon enough; but for me it was at least six months.  But the fiddle has that pull and you can’t stop.  You keep going to sessions.  Gradually you are starting to recognise tunes even if you can’t play them.  You are now entering the next Stage.

Stage 3.   Absorption

It is hard to know when you have passed out of Confusion to Absorption but one of the fundamental triggers is a realisation that it is actually OK if you don’t play on every tune.  That it is OK to just sit and listen.  And it is also accompanied by a change in the way you listen.  I’ve been listening to Irish music since I was in my 20s but I was never really ‘listening’.  I was hearing it yes.  Listening involves feeling it and catching little nuances, all the different layers and the way the sound works. It means hearing the structure of the tune, recognising the patterns in the tune and how they are put together rather than just focusing on the notes.   And then listening to it again and again.  I remember some wise words at a lesson from Siobhan Peoples, telling me to lie out on the grass (when it wasn’t raining) and just listen, eyes shut, to the sounds: dogs, birds, cattle, tractors, insects, wind, cars in the distance.  It is amazing how much the brain automatically filters out and we have to retrain it.

With this listening skill, comes recognition of tunes and gradually an understanding of the structure of the tunes: chords, arpeggios, links, turnarounds, ornamentation and dynamics and this then flows on to improved bowing, tone and intonation.  Along with this comes the ability to pick up tunes by ear, something I was never very good at, needing the music in front of me.  And then you find yourself playing tunes that you don’t actually remember learning.  This is a wonderful time.  It’s when the music starts to grow inside you and your whole body becomes at one with the tune and the conscious and the subconscious start to work together as your fingers automatically find the notes. The breakaway from the dots and the skill of picking up the music by ear is absolutely essential and there is the realisation that until you can do this you won’t be able to play.

Stage 4.  Consolidation

Then comes the Consolidation.  You can now listen and truth is you are starting to play along with maybe 60, 70, 80% of tunes in a session.  But you still don’t ‘know’ them.  You can’t play most of them alone if asked.  This is the exciting stage but you are still not a musician.  You can’t start a tune for the life of you but you play along with hundreds.  Don’t be fooled that you can play Irish music because you still can’t.  But what’s also happening parallel with this is you are developing a style.  Whether you consciously have chosen to play in a certain way or not your own style is developing.  This comes from listening and remembering the bits you liked; subconsciously.  And soon your fingers are doing it automatically.  And all those hours you spent on bowing patterns and ornamentation is paying off, you are doing it without thinking.  Development of your style also comes from the choices we make of which sessions to go to.  If you like the ‘East Clare’ style (whatever that is) then you will be drawn to those players and will make intuitive stylistic choices on that basis.  Maybe you’ve found that nyaah you’ve been searching for.

Practice at this time becomes a joy.  You play along with CD’s or recordings and eschew the printed versions.  This helps reinforce the learning process.  It is a feeling like no other when you play a tune that a couple of months ago would have been impossible.  But you can’t get carried away with yourself and who knows how long this Consolidation phase will last.  I have spent the majority of my time at this stage and but I think I am still quite a way from entering  the next Stage.  At least I know what I have to do to get there.

Stage 5 Explosion and Stage 6 Exploration

The last two stages Explosion and Exploration are theoretical at this point as I haven’t reached them yet.  To me they seem the logical extension of the first four stages.  Arguably when you reach the Explosion stage you are a fiddler. I use this term because by this time you have hundreds of tunes in your head bursting to get out.  You are listening to new tunes all the time outside the session situation and learning them off CDs and taking them back to sessions.  You are rapidly picking up new tunes at sessions.  Maybe playing them after hearing them a couple of times and remembering them next time they are played.  You are starting sets you haven’t planned and effortlessly  launching into tunes because it seems right not because this one always follows that.   If asked you could lead a session.

Technically, you have sorted your problems of tone and intonation.  You play with feeling.  You have your own style and tempo that works for you but you can readily adapt to a session that is fast or slow if required.  You can change key if required or if someone starts the tune in G minor instead of E minor.  Many will be happy to rest here.

The last stage I imagine is when you explore the boundaries of your fiddle playing.  Try different things, maybe reinterpret tunes your way.  Play music from different traditions. This is not to say you have to become a virtuoso but it is about exploring your own capabilities and that of the instrument.

Hopefully you hover between Exploration and Explosion for the rest of your playing days.

I look forward with eagerness to these last two stages.

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Anyway that’s it.  I stress again that this is how it seems to be working for me.  Maybe it’s not the same for everyone but the sooner you realise you can’t just jump from Beginner to Player by attending a few session the better

The problem for many is that most can’t do what I have done.  They can’t give up two or more years of their lives.  So they learn in tiny increments.  I’m not saying you can’t become an Irish Fiddler but immersion with loads of practice can shortcut a process that would otherwise take many, many years.

So where am I now as a player?

I have already said that I feel I am still in the Consolidation Stage but striving  to enter the Explosion phase.  Initially I was obsessed with not knowing the tunes and trying to build up a repertoire, but I wasn’t improving as a fiddler so of late I have been practicing tunes I know and playing them over and over until they sound how I want them to sound.  Of great value to me were the words of Yvonne Casey, “Love every note; feel every note”.  And that has become my mantra.  Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh was also inspirational in showing me how many choices are available when we play a note and not to be afraid to experiment in terms of dynamics and bowing.  And how could I forget Martin Hayes who spoke with so much wisdom about being clear on the sound we want to make even singing it out.

The greatest buzz I get from playing Irish music is with others and creating a sound together.  That means listening to them and listening to yourself and ensuring your playing is both sympathetic and empathetic. Often this can’t be achieved in a large session.

So here’s the bottom line. For the first time in my playing life, I like the sound I make.  I am getting closer to how I want to sound.  So at the risk of sounding immodest, Yes I think I am a ‘better’ fiddler.

Part 2 will look at some specific things that I have found over the last two years that have helped my playing.I will address this in a future blog.

Categories: My Journey, Stories, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Willie Clancy Summer School – Monday.

It seemed like a good idea at the time. The sun was shining, not too much wind – I’ll ride to Miltown! It’s only five kilometres. Great. No problem with traffic or parking. What was I thinking!  I rode home in the driving rain at 1am buffeted by squally winds in the pitch black being overtaken at breakneck speed by an endless stream of Willie-ites heading back to their cottages, caravans or campsites. The Bellbridge was a safe haven about halfway so the obvious solution was to sit there, soaked through, in the warm pub and play tunes with complete strangers. A silk purse from a sow’s ear?

In between though I experienced just a little of the magic of Willie Week. I played with Sean Moloney from East Galway in the sun at the back of the Blondes, I saw Frankie Gavin and Noel Hill at Michael A’s (no chance of a seat there!) , then there was Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Eileen O’Brien at Friels and Jacky Daly and Matt Cranitch at the Yard and…….

In the evening we were treated to a smorgasbord of fiddling styles from some of the best in the country and beyond. It is so good to hear all these fiddles back to back. I know it’s unfair but highlights for me were Tara Breen and the wonderful sweet fluid playing of Yvonne Casey and then Claire Egan. Perhaps I’ve been in Clare too long.

Then I finished the night with a session at the Bellbridge; but I’ve already mentioned that.

And this is only Monday.

Just a handful of photos.  I will wait until the end to sort them all.

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Categories: Concerts, Festivals, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Baltimore Fiddle Fair

Baltimore lies in the very southwest corner of Ireland in one of the most beautiful parts of Ireland – West Cork. It is a very pretty town nestled on a protected harbour with a strong maritime heritage. Very popular with the yachty set but for one weekend a year the sound of clinking gins-and-tonic is replaced by fiddles and pipes. That is the Baltimore Fiddle Fair and that’s where I headed for the last Festival of my first year in Ireland, which is rapidly coming to a close. And a fitting way to end the year it was.

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Four days of music centred on the fiddle and covering many genres. We heard Old Timey, Cape Breton, Bluegrass, Swedish, Gypsy Swing, Scots and a variety of traditional Irish. There were fiddlers of the class of Gerry O’Connor, Zoe Conway, Liam O’Connor, Danny Diamond, Dermot McLaughlin and Shane Cook. The core of the festival was the concerts though I have to admit I only attended one, so I can’t really comment on them but the one I did attend was a show stopper. Warmed up by the fiddle and pipes of Liam O’Connor and Sean McKeown the crowd was blown away by Swedish superband Väsen.  I had never heard of them (shame on me) but I know them now.  Slick and professional and as tight a sound as you will ever hear, with five string viola, nyckelharpa and guitar combining effortlessly. This music was a revelation with its dynamic range and variations in tempo and rhythm. I was truly ‘polskafied’.

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I attended five workshops. A big stretch but I was able to get exposure to Donegal style, Old Timey and Cape Breton as well as picking the brains of Gerry O’Connor and Zoe Conway. I never tire of these workshops. Every time I learn something.

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But of course as always it was the sessions that kept me occupied. Every day from around 1 pm there was continuous music in the venues around the Square and in the evenings, after the concerts, Casey’s Hotel raged with as many as four sessions until at least 4am every night. There were visitors from all over the world and I met some wonderful new people including John from Wales, Patrizia and Angelica from Austria, Julie from Denmark, who is cycling around Ireland (https://www.facebook.com/TourdeFolk), Liam from Queensland, Kathleen from Boston, Larry from Tipp, the delightful, Joleen, Karen and Lorna who make up the Henry Girls from Donegal and caught up with old friends again such as Trish from Dublin, Clare from Cork and Aina from France.

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You meet all kinds at a festival such as this and for me that is what makes travelling to them worthwhile. Every evening, we were joined at Casey’s by Jeremy Irons. Self-effacing and just happy to sit in on the edges of the session and find his way in and out of tunes. Clearly revelling in the craic and a world that is a long way from Hollywood.

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And I had the great pleasure to meet renowned Danish artist Claus Havemann. I chatted to him outside Bushes Bar as he stood there having a cigarette and staring across to Sherkin Island where he has had a home for thirty years and spends his time when not in Denmark. He told me of his journey in art over the last forty years which took him from Surrealism to Realism to Modernism to Minimalism to his current works which reinterpret the masters. He told me that he once painted a picture during his Minimalist period called ‘Yellow’ which was essentially dozens of layers of blue paint. The title made perfect sense to me when he explained that yellow is opposite blue on the colour wheel. I have included a couple of his paintings. I especially like the Velazquez ‘copy’, one of a series in which he paints in the style of the master but puts in modern references such as a Picasso and Miro on the wall and his interpretiaon of the Vermeer as a portrait of his daughter.  See more at  http://www.claushavemann.com/

Click for a closer look and zoom

Click for a closer look and zoom

Speaking of Sherkin Island, one of the highlights of the Festival was a session at the Island Rest Hotel. Sherkin is only a few minutes by boat and has about 90 residents. I met many of them that night as they lapped up the seriously good music from the visiting musicians shipped over (literally) for the event. There were some great contributions from locals also including songs and some impromptu dancing from Mary and her artist friends. I have never been to a session where I was picked up and delivered back by boat and the memory of this one will stay a long time.

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I was intrigued by the Algiers Bar where I also played, having spent quite a bit of time in Algeria during my geology days. Turns out this pays homage to the notorious event in 1631 known as the Sack of Baltimore when Barbary pirates (comprising Dutch, Algerians and Ottomans) attacked Baltimore and captured 108 English settlers who were transported back to North Africa as slaves. Funny how we think of slavery in terms of Africans being sent to the new world, but in the century from 1580 to 1680 there were up to a million Europeans taken as part of the Barbary slave trade. Baltimore was abandoned and the village deserted for generations.

The face of the festival is Declan McCarthy.  It was his brainwave back in 1992 and he is still running it. And what a trooper he is. Everything  (well nearly everything) ran smoothly. The venues, the workshops and the support of the town. Hat’s off to him! Speaking of the venues some of the workshops were held at the magnificent stately home Inish Beg and at the famous Glebe Gardens. Along with the church, sailing club and a specially erected marque they really got it right with, of course, the fabulous location.  And unlike many other festivals where you’re lucky if you can buy a bucket of chips there were great food options with the Glebe Café a standout.IMG_9923

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I was absolutely shattered at the end of this week. Workshops every morning and some afternoons, sessions all day and surviving on just a few hours sleep. To fiddle a bit with the words of Richard Thompson in Beeswing “you wouldn’t want it any other way”.

 

Categories: Concerts, Festivals, Sessions, The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Am I playing fiddle better?

Those following me on Facebook know that I was unable to find a session to play at on January 2nd 2015, while I was in Glencolmcille in Donegal. This meant my run of continuous nights of music came to an end. I thought I would be disappointed but after 231 nights I gave it a good run. And in any case I started again the next night so I have only missed the one night in the last 244!

But it’s not about setting records. It gives me an opportunity to look back on my time here in Ireland and see whether my immersion in in the music has led to an accelerated improvement. Logic says that it should have. I started thinking about this after a friend commented on my six month post asking just that – whether I thought I had improved.

An extremely difficult question for me to answer. Perhaps I need to put it in context. I started playing guitar when I was 15. My dad agreed to this so long as I had classical guitar lessons. So I did that for nearly two years. While I enjoyed the classical repertoire my real interest was ‘folk music’, as it was understood back in the 60s, and I played and sung Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Pete Seeger, Peter Paul and Mary and acoustic artists such as Cat Stevens and the Mamas and Papas. I also used to sing Dubliners and Clancy Brothers songs but I really ‘discovered’ Irish music when I heard the Chieftains in 1974. I was at Uni and this was the start of a love affair with the fiddle. I got hold of one and started teaching myself tunes from ‘Begged, Borrowed and Stolen” a beginners tune book popular in Australia then and now. It was a slow and painful process but by the end of the 70s I could scratch out Drowsy Maggie and King of the Fairies. As a young geologist my early years were spent in mining towns such as Cobar and Kalgoorlie in outback Australia. In each of these places I formed Bush Bands which were generally a four or five part acoustic band which used folk instruments along with Australian innovations such as the bush bass and the lagerphone. We held bush dances (equivalent of a ceili) and sang Australian and Irish songs but the tunes were pretty basic. I got stuck in this groove for many years and though we were moderately successful in our remote locations I never advanced my tune playing beyond beginner level.   Then when kids came along the fiddle hardly got touched. It had always been my dream to play well. Ok that was then, this is now.

Now I am in Ireland I have that opportunity. But I soon realised coming here how much I had to fix before I could really go forward. Both my intonation and tone were woeful and although I had been listening to recordings for many years and thought I had an understanding of the music this ‘feel’ did not translate to my playing.   Recognising the things that needed fixing was the first step.

So what has changed since I came to Ireland? I have been to hundreds of sessions, workshops and lessons. Playing in sessions is a double edged sword. I have picked up many new tunes. I can play faster, if that’s a virtue, and I have hugely increased my ability to learn by ear. Previously I learned new tunes from the dots and it took ages; and I never really learnt them properly. Now I find myself playing along with tunes that I don’t ever remember learning. This is a great feeling. However in a large session I have trouble hearing myself and can’t really tell if I am playing in tune or not let alone whether I am playing the right notes. Also there is a temptation to fudge bits you don’t know. Hence I record many. I have hundreds of hours of session recordings and am gradually going through these to identify the commonly played tunes and sets in Clare and try and learn them.

This partial learning becomes exaggerated when I try and play the tune on my own. My problems are obvious so I have been working hard on a few rather than the many. On the advice of a couple of tutors I am also concentrating on scales in the basic keys and I can really feel this making a difference.

So am I playing better? Let me put it this way. I think I am. I am playing in tune better. I have slowed down. I am listening better. I am listening to a lot of the old fiddlers on cd and the newer ones as I try and expose myself to as many different ways of playing as possible. I ‘know’ more tunes but still get flustered when asked to start one. A consequence of accumulated hours of listening is that there is a resetting of the brain from thinking about the music as a collection of notes to a series of phrases linked by short runs. A retuning of the learning process from the eyes to the ears. I am playing with a much lighter bow. I am feeling the rhythm and while I know I am still not sounding how I want to, I am happier with the sound I am making. It has been frustrating but at the same time it drives me to practice harder. Constantly in my mind are the words of Lahinch fiddler Yvonne Casey who told me to ‘feel every note; to love every note’. I think I have laid the groundwork and I expect exponential improvement over the next six months. That’s when I am hoping the immersion will pay off.

My goal in all this is to play the best I possibly can.

As a post script I was playing in a session the other day with Jackie Daly and Maurice Lennon among others at Friels in Miltown Malbay.  Jackie launched into Mason’s Apron (the two part version) and as I joined in the realisation suddenly hit me that here I was in a session in Ireland with legends of the box and the fiddle and it was sounding pretty darn good. A year ago I was struggling with this tune. These are the moments that make it all worthwhile.

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Categories: The Fiddle, Trad Irish Music | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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