Learning from the Masters

matt + jackie

It’s midsummer – and time for the Fastnet Maritime and Folk Festival in Ballydehob. Amongst the distinguished guests this year are these two regulars: Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly. They hail from the Sliabh Luachra on the Cork, Kerry and Limerick borders. I’ve made mention of this area before, particularly in Slides or Jigs and The City of Shrone: the name means ‘Rushy Mountains’. I can’t resist quoting from this anonymous and wry review of a book published in 2003:

…I’ve just come across a book which may interest serious Sliabh Luachra obsessives, though not those merely in search of new polkas and slides.  “Sliabh Luachra Milestones”, by Diarmuid Moynihan, is an attempt at the first general history of the area, and grew out of a thesis on early road development in Sliabh Luachra.  It covers, in outline at least, such topics as archaeology, Christianity (traces have been found, apparently), early descriptions by English invaders, historical events, settlement patterns, maps, and of course, roads…

rushy glen

The rushy glens of Sliabh Luachra – from a woodcut by Robert Gibbings

So, am I a Sliabh Luachra obsessive? I think I probably am… It all started in the 1970s when my good friend Danny gave me two books by Robert Gibbings – Lovely is the Lee (J M Dent 1945) and Sweet Cork of Thee (J M Dent 1951). They are my most treasured books in our extensive collection of Irish literature and both are set, in part, in the Sliabh Luachra – and it was these books that set me on a journey that – 40 years later – has brought me here to Nead an Iolair, and to the wealth of musical tradition that we enjoy.

Gibbings books

Sweet Cork title

Jackie Daly is only a year older than I am, yet I remember looking up to him as a master when I first started listening to Irish music half a century ago: I suppose we must both have been more youthful then! He grew up with the music of course: his father played the melodeon, and he played at local ‘crossroads dances’ with a neighbouring mentor Jim Keefe. I still have – and still play – the recordings of Sliabh Luachra musicians that I bought in the early 1970s (and which are still available from Topic Records). Matt Cranitch is a distinguished and respected fiddle player who has also has an academic career and has lectured widely on Irish traditional music.

Here’s a taster from the Festival sessions – Matt, Jackie and friends finishing up a set of iconic Sliabh Lauchra slides in Rosie’s Bar

I was fortunate to attend a workshop with Matt and Jackie in Levis’s on Saturday. After a fascinating talk on their traditions we all ended up learning a set of polkas. Wonderful! Those without instruments were cajoled to sing the tunes, so it was a communal affair.

Here you’ll catch the end of a tale by Jackie and a few bars of a beautiful slow air (Maidin Ró-Mhoch) from Matt

The workshop took place in the intimate setting of the back parlour of Levis’s Corner House – on its way to becoming one of the top music venues in Ireland through the efforts of Joe and Caroline yet always keeping its distinctive character.

Levis midsummer day

It takes me a little while to pick up new tunes but the duo were good and patient teachers and we were doing quite well by the end of the session. I thoroughly recommend their latest CD Rolling On (2014), which includes Maidin Ró-Mhoch and many other fine Sliabh Luachra pieces.

As usual, Ballydehob has embraced this festival – one of many through the summer – and the town is rocking in the rain… there are visitors from afar: Hyttetu – a maritime themed male voice choir from Norway, Swansea shantymen Baggyrinkle and very many others, including someone who has been at the forefront of the Irish folk music scene for many years, Andy Irvine.

yellow poster

festival time!

Festival time – midsummer’s day!

So many thanks to all the organisers, particularly Dick Miles and Cathy Cook, and the landlords of all our local hostelries: it wouldn’t happen without them. Now I’m off home to get dry and practice those tunes!

3 polkas

 

Slides or Jigs? Polkas or Reels?

young fiddler close

Two young musicians – from the collection of Tomás Ó Muircheartaigh, who documented life in rural Ireland between the 1930s and the 1950s. We do not know at what outdoor gathering this atmospheric picture was taken, but perhaps there is a polka or a slide being played there…

Way back in the last century (it was the nineteen seventies actually) I first came to Ireland in pursuit of traditional music. I found it a-plenty. At that time, the music of the Sliabh Luachra was very much in vogue: local sessions and Fleadh Ceols were full of polkas and slides…

Classic recordings of traditional music collected from the Sliabh Luachra during the sixties and seventies: The Star above the Garter is published by Claddagh, while the others are from the Topic Record catalogue

My post last week came to you from the City of Shrone, which is within this area, in the border country of Cork, Kerry and Limerick. The strong surviving music traditions here have an unmistakeable character – fast and lively. I was reminded of that tradition this week when I came to the wonderful Fiddle Fair in Baltimore and listened to Tony O’Connell from the Sliabh Luachra in recital with Brid Harper, a highly regarded Donegal fiddler. They are an excellent duo – here’s a little taster from that concert (Kerry Slides):

As an aspiring concertina player myself I was bowled over by Tony’s playing, especially of the quintessential Kerry slides. But what is a slide you might ask? And how do you tell a slide from a jig?

Saturday’s recital in Saint Matthew’s Church, Baltimore: Brid Harper and Tony O’Connell playing Kerry Slides

Here’s some help, extracted from discussion boards, specifically on the subject of slides and jigs:

…Uninitiated listeners and even some tune-book editors have mistaken slides as hornpipes, single jigs, polkas, or double jigs, since slides share various traits with each. Once you know a few, you realise they are distinct from any of those…

…Note that slides are peculiar to the Southwest of Ireland, and some are directly related to double jigs, single jigs, or hornpipes played elsewhere in Ireland. Musicians quite familiar with slides are generally unfamiliar with single jigs, and some otherwise respectable authorities on the slide have rashly pronounced that single jigs “are the same as slides.” We can have some sympathy with that by understanding that these musicians simply use the term “single jig” to mean “slide,” and are apparently unaware of the existence of the distinctive “single jig” rhythm in Irish music. Over the course of the 20th century the customary notation for slides shifted from 6/8 to 12/8, which I think is an improvement in accuracy…

Both these statements (from irishtune.info) tell us about the confusion between jigs and slides, but they don’t tell us exactly how you define either of them. Let’s try this, from the same source, regarding slides:

The tempo is rather quick, often in the 150 bpm range, if you were to count each heavy-light pair as a beat. But in practice each beat of a slide (counting around 75 bpm now) gets two pulses, which is either a heavy-light pair (very close to an accurate “quarter note, eighth note” distribution) or a quite even triplet – not a jig pattern. Thus if all four group-halves in a bar were triplets – which is uncommon – you’d have a twelve-note bar. The ratio of heavy-light pairs to triplets in a slide is slightly in favour of the pairs, which again clearly distinguishes them from double jigs. Most slides break the pattern once or twice in a tune by delaying the strong note for a bar’s second group until that group’s second half, creating a cross-rhythm with respect to the foot taps. Other unique characteristics of slides are not necessary additional information for identifying them – only for playing them…!

I’ve puzzled over this (and other advice) for some time: I sort of understand it, but I think it’s impossible to describe a rhythm in words… However, I was pleased to find this mnemonic for slides by the poet Ciaran Carson – it says it all:

“blah dithery dump a doodle scattery idle fortunoodle”

gougane

An evocative engraving of Gougane Barra, in the Sliabh Luachra, by artist and writer Robert Gibbings, taken from Lovely is the Lee, J M Dent, 1945

How about polkas and reels? Polkas, in particular, are popular in the Sliabh Luachra tradition:

…The polka is one of the most popular traditional folk dances in Ireland, particularly in Sliabh Luachra. Many of the figures of Irish set dances are danced to polkas. Introduced to Ireland in the late 19th century, there are today hundreds of Irish polka tunes, which are most frequently played on the fiddle or button accordion. The Irish polka is dance music form in 2/4, typically 32 bars in length and subdivided into four parts, each 8 bars in length and played AABB. Irish polkas are typically played fast, at over 130 bpm, usually with an off-beat accent… (Also from irishtune.info)

Reels are probably the most popular tune type within the Irish traditional dance music tradition:

…Reel music is notated in simple meter, either as 2/2 or 4/4. All reels have the same structure, consisting largely of quaver (eighth note) movement with an accent on the first and third beats of the bar…

fiddle fair outdoors

At the Baltimore Fiddle Fair, informal sessions are essential interludes

Definitions are all very well and these can only be generalisations. In the end it’s what is being played – and what you hear – that counts. For me, the music in Ireland is like history: it’s built into the landscape and the psyche. Irish people are survivors and have travelled all over the world and back. So has the music! This was emphasised today when we had another excellent recital in the church by Dylan Foley and Dan Gurney, fiddle and accordion.

foley gurney

They both come from the Southern Catskill Mountains in New York State. Much of the Irish music they play was learnt directly from Father Charlie Coen who emigrated to the United States from the village of Woodford in County Galway in 1955, bringing the music traditions from East Galway with him. Here’s an excellent example of the music travelling across the world and back again: Fr Coen played The Moving Cloud reel on his concertina, but his instrument had some buttons missing so he adapted it, and the adapted tune is what we heard Foley and Gurney playing in the church today. Listen first to another Fiddle Fair maestro, Noel Hill playing the reel from his 1988 album The Irish Concertina:

Now the same reel which has travelled from Ireland to Baltimore via the Catskill Mountains:

I hope you can hear those ‘odd’ notes! But there’s nothing so right or so wrong in Irish music: the grand finale for us today was a memorable concert with French Canadian fiddler Pierre Schryer, Donegal box player Dermot Byrne and Australian born guitarist Steve Cooney. They played music with an Irish bias but harvested from many traditions. It left us breathless…

Ah! Sweet Fiddler…

paddysmoke

How did I first become aware of Irish Traditional Music? Probably through this Long Player (remember those?) released by Topic Records in 1968. Paddy in the Smoke was – still is – central to my collection of folk music on vinyl and is available today as a CD or a download.  The recordings were made during the mid 1960s in a London pub, The Favourite, in Holloway. Irish musicians gathered there every Sunday between noon and 2pm (such were the licensing laws of the day!) and those sessions are now legendary, probably representing the epitome of ‘folk music to aspire to’ – certainly that was the case for this wet-behind-the-ears 22 year old attempting to play along with these wonderful tunes on an ancient single-row Hohner melodeon. Here’s a sample of one of the tracks on YouTube: you can hear how the atmosphere of the occasions has been wonderfully captured.

More from my collection of fiddle recordings

Jump forward a few years and in the mid 1970s I was making my first trip to Ireland, visiting Cork, Clare and Longford – looking for The Music: I found it in abundance. By then I was playing an Anglo Concertina, but I was very aware that wherever you went to in Ireland – or whatever you listened to from the Irish tradition – it was above all else the fiddle that seemed to be the king-pin.

Fiddles at the Chief O'Neill's Festival, Tralibane

Fiddles at the Chief O’Neill’s Festival, Tralibane

Now – dare I say it – almost 50 years on from hearing those first notes, here I am living on the shores of Roaringwater Bay and I am more than ever immersed in the music. Still it’s the fiddle that’s ubiquitous, wherever I go and whatever I listen to.

Fiddles to the fore: Friday night session in Ballydehob

I started to learn the ‘violin’ when I was 11 years old. It wasn’t a fruitful venture – I had given it up within the year and moved on to the piano. I suppose I have just always been happiest with an instrument that only requires you to press a key or a button to get exactly the right note. But I am filled with admiration for anyone who plays the fiddle – who is able to perfectly pitch the notes, and then ‘bend’ the music when the mood requires it. You can’t ‘bend’ steel reeds!

The Rakes dance band, founded in 1956 – Reg Hall, Michael Plunkett and Paul Gross. They introduced me to Irish dance music back in the day… They are still going strong! Reg Hall was responsible for the Paddy in the Smoke recordings, together with Bill Leader

A fiddle is a violin – it’s the same instrument. Generally, classical players of the violin call it by either name, but traditional music players invariably call it a fiddle. It’s a beautifully constructed instrument with a feminine, flowing shape – a piece of craftsmanship which has been made the same way for 500 years. A seventh century Irish poem The Fair of Carman describes ‘…Pipes, fiddles, chainmen, Bone-men and tube players…’ but we don’t know what the fiddle was at that time. An excavation in Dublin during the 18th century uncovered a fiddle and bow dating from the 11th century: this is the oldest bow known in Europe – the bow is of dogwood and has an animal head carved on the tip.

workshop

The violin maker’s workshop (www.violinist.com)

Can anyone learn to play the fiddle? Probably – with sufficient patience and perseverance – and a bit of musicality. But it takes very particular skills to put The Music into the instrument. We are immersed in good fiddling around here: we have so many music festivals – Baltimore Fiddle Fair, Masters of Tradition, Chief O’Neill’s, Ballydehob Trad Fest – right on the doorstep. The whole gamut of different regional styles and techniques is here for us to take in. If you have half an hour or so to spare, it’s well worth looking at this YouTube video dating from 2008: firstly, you’ll see Jeremy Irons learning to play traditional Irish fiddle, and you’ll see his mentors, including maestro Martin Hayes. But Jeremy lives in Kilcoe Castle, just over the hill from us – so you can also get a flavour of life down here in Roaringwater Bay – immersed in the sweet fiddle music…

left