Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The Essential Dolores Keane

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

Dolores Keane, the great diva of Irish music is never far from music lovers’ hearts and minds. A new collection of her work ‘The Essential Dolores Keane’ captures the wonderful breadth of her artistry selected from the vast body of songs she has interpreted and recorded.

Dolores like most of her family lives quite near their family home in Caherlistrane, Co. Galway. It’s a beautiful part of the country, with fine neighbours and some semblance of the old and friendly way of life we once had all over Ireland.

She has a busy household as she says herself that consists of “2 dogs, 4 birds, 3 fish, 5 cats, 2 kids, 2 adults and the neighbours – the neighbours are great!” Her partner of more than thirteen years is Barry ‘Bazza’ Farmer, a studio technician who has worked with Rory Gallagher and Kirsty McColl in the past. Out the back of their house, Dolores points to an old bath in which she very successfully grew a fine crop of potatoes this year. Further on there’s a grassy path under arched willows that she notes need trimming. We talk about gooseberries and currants and she oozes enthusiasm when we get to her favourite occupation. “I love to cook” she says, “I absolutely love to cook. I love Indian food and I love working with marinades and stuff like that. I adore fish and lamb but I’d prefer mutton especially for curries but it’s very difficult to get mutton now.” There’s plenty to talk about but I have to ask about a curiosity I spot in the back yard, an old, old car – a Hillman Minx. “I love vintage cars” she says, “I bought that three years ago in Knock and I love it.”

While Dolores’ music is firmly rooted in the tradition, she moved effortlessly onto modern and popular compositions during her career. You could say her greatest work came in the second phase of her solo career with the release of the albums ‘Dolores Keane’, ‘Solid Ground’ & ‘Lion in a Cage’. Dolores transcended generations and genres and she admits to loving all kinds of music with perhaps one or two small exceptions. “The only kind of music I wasn’t interested in was Opera and I think that was from pure ignorance on my part” she says. “Other than that, any kind of music. I love Classical music, I always have done. I love Gypsy Romany music, Spanish Flamenco and all that. Certain parts of jazz I don’t like but there again I just don’t know enough about it.”

A broad minded lady with a broad range of interests, Dolores came from a house where music was part of life – and it wasn’t just traditional music it was all kinds of music. She made her first recording for Radio Éireann at the age of five and appeared on many television programmes, usually with her aunts Rita and Sarah with whom she lived. Dolores is third youngest in the family and her aunts and grandparents lived nearby. As a child she loved visiting their house and on one occasion she stayed. “I went down and I wouldn’t come home” she says. “That’s what happened. I suppose they spoiled me rotten. Sure they’re still spoiling us” she laughs.

Dolores has always had a knack for choosing songs that flow melodiously from her lips. She has taught us how to love songs we might never have heard were it not for her performing or recording them. I wonder if she ever recorded a song she was not happy with? She does remember one, and only one that might not have been her best choice. Not because of the song itself or the recording or arrangement but because it wasn’t the best suited to her voice.

Like all singers, she has fielded more cassettes and demos than you could count. “A lot of them ended up filed in the back seat of the car” she says. “I wouldn’t call them bad songs, they were good songs but they just weren’t suited to me.”

Her son Joseph is twenty and her daughter Tara is thirteen. They are both musical but there’s no pressure to play or sing. “I wouldn’t push them” says Dolores, “to do anything. I wouldn’t say do this or do that.” She did however teach Tara tin whistle. “Myself and herself, just sitting here playing with one another across the table” she says. The tin whistle is never far from her hand and her great pleasure these days is joining in an informal session whenever she can. “I always bring the whistle in my bag or there’ll be a few of them in the glove compartment” she says. She mentions Tigh Cóilí's and Taaffes in Galway as places where she has recently enjoyed a few tunes.

Having toured constantly for some twenty and more years, Dolores finally took a break when Tara was very young. “I just got a bit tired, Tara was small and I wanted to be here with her because when Joseph was a ladeen I was on the road all the time. So it was the right time for me to do it. I just couldn’t give it my whole, my best.” The hardship of touring takes its toll too. “When I used to go away on tour, I had to pack three bags and I had to farm out the kids. It’s a very lonely life, it really is, people don’t realise that. You’d miss home, you’d miss the kids, you’d be weepy when you’d talk to them on the phone, my heart used to be broken.” She does think about gigging again and about recording, but would prefer doing shorter sets or guest appearances to full length concerts.

While she has left the touring behind, she loved the work and the musicians she worked with. Jim Corr gets special mention; he toured with Dolores in the early 1990’s, as does Ted Ponsonby whose great sense of humour provided lots of giggles on stage. “He is a great very talented man and a lovely man to travel with” Dolores says. “He’s fun, he’s talented and he’s so laid back.” Ted was also very good at selecting material for Dolores and helping out in studio rehearsing songs and working out arrangements with her. She also fondly mentions Phil Cunningham who produced the album ‘Dolores Keane’, one of her own personal favourites. “I really enjoyed making that album” she says adding “I loved doing the ‘Lion in a Cage’ album as well; Donal Lunny was involved in that.”

In her long career the most memorable times were with DeDanann. “The craic between us when we were travelling with Mary Black and all, it was fabulous. Mary is great, brilliant, we became such close friends.” Although it wasn’t easy at the start “Ringo (McDonagh) that said to me one night in Cullen’s pub they were starting off a group and would I like to join. So I said I’d give it a go. I really enjoyed it but it was difficult getting from Caherlistrane out to Spiddal to rehearse. But we did it and recorded the first album. And then of course I left them and went to London and worked freelance for the BBC doing documentaries and films. That was brilliant and very interesting.”

That was when she teamed up with John Faulkner; they were married and recorded several albums together. Dolores also took to the stage in a different kind of performance acting in the plays ‘The Hostage’ and ‘The Playboy of the Western World”. She returned to DeDanann in the 80s and recorded two more albums with them. She featured in the ‘Bringing it all Back Home’ series and worked with Mary Black and Emmylou Harris, The Chieftains, Planxty, and was part of the memorable ‘Woman’s Heart’ recordings and tours. She had a most successful solo run with a series of stunning albums in the late 80s which moved her from the firmly traditional into the popular ballad sphere and the enormous success of the No. 1 hit ‘Lion in a Cage’. It wasn’t her only No.1 – her first recording with DeDanann ‘The Rambling Irishman’ also made No.1 in it’s day and many of her fans would cite songs such as ‘Galway Bay’, ‘Teddy O’Neill’, ‘Caledonia’ and the list goes on as their own personal No.1s.

All these past favourites are present on this new collection, some 28 tracks in all. It’s a trip down memory lane in many ways, but what a pleasant journey, in the company of a lady who is undoubtedly one of the greatest voices of all time.

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Monday, June 18, 2007

Tulla Ceilli Band - A Celebration of Sixty Years

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

It was refreshing to meet Mark Donnellan on a summer’s evening in Gort to mull over the Tulla Céilí Band and their sixty years. Mark of course doesn’t remember all those years only being on earth for about half of them, but his life, like that of Martin Hayes’ had been entwined with the band. Since he was able to play to the standard required and when there was a space available on the stage, Mark was called on to play with the band. His father Francie Donnellan sat front row with P.J. Hayes, Martin’s father, for many years. Uncannily, they both passed away within a year of one another at the turn of this latest century, Francie in June 2000 and P.J. in May 2001. Mark and Martin now carry their fathers’ mantle and play the fiddles in the band, although more often than not its just Mark, as Martin has his own very successful musical career. However, he relishes the return to the band and as Mark tells me “Martin comes every so often and when he comes everyone plays better, everyone is in great form and the band always plays better.”

Mark is the youngest of the Donnellans, the last of nine, and he is the one running the family farm in Kilmurray in east Clare. He learnt his music informally from his father at home. “He didn’t really teach. You’d be picking it up away from him – it was a handy way of doing it. I’d say if I had to go to a teacher I probably wouldn’t play at all.”

He remembers his first outing with the band, “I was about 12 or 13 when I went with them first, I was going to secondary school at the time.” For those first few years it all depended on whether or not the stage was big enough to take the extra musician.

He became a fully fledged member of the band when he was fifteen or sixteen and was given his own microphone. “I’d say Haulie got a few new microphones and I got one, I was going to all the céilís then.” Haulie is Michael McKee, one of two accordion players with the band, and also their sound man. Haulie from Feakle joined the band in 1977. Sean Donnelly is the second accordion player and he comes from Abbey near Portumna in Co. Galway. J.J. Conway on flute is a Kilfenora man and his presence means the old rivalry of the 50s and 60 between the Kilfenora and Tulla Céilí bands is never forgotten. They competed against one another year on year at the Fleadh Ceoils. Mick Flanagan on drums is the man responsible for the unique rhythm of the Tulla.

Jim Corry, a Tulla native, is the piano player with the band and Jennifer Lenihan and Martin Glynn play flutes. Jennifer joined the band some ten or twelve years ago when the late J.C. Talty left. “J.C. was gas" says Mark. “You had to be in tune, in between every set he’d say ‘Sound you’re A!’. He was some man for tunes, he knew every tune. Anytime we were ever making a CD, we’d ring J.C. and he’d have all the names of the tunes.”

Ten years ago when the band celebrated their 50th anniversary, P.J. Hayes told me that 50 musicians has passed through the ranks of the band and in all they had performed in the region of three and a half thousand gigs. Of those gigs P.J. reckoned he had only missed about three or four. P.J. was the glue holding the band together. He took on the role of leader from Seán Reid sometime in the mid 1950’s and his commitment was certainly a lot of the reason the band continued and retained its unique sound. The band was formed in 1946 by Theresa Tubridy to enter a competition in Limerick, Féile Luimní. On fiddles were P.J. Hayes, Paddy Canny, Aggie Whyte and Bert McNulty, Jim and Paddy Donoghue played flutes, Joe Cooley was on accordion and Theresa herself on piano. They won that first competition and continued as a band after that. Many other illustrious players come and went, Paddy O’Brien on accordion, Willie Clancy, Martin Mulhare, Dr. Bill Loughnane, Peter O’Loughlin and Bobby Casey to name a few. Through all the years the Tulla weathered many ups and downs, from the popularity of the 1950s to the 1970s when dancehalls started to close through to the 1990s when the set dancing revival was in full swing. At no time did the band stop or break up or did they ever consider compromising to suit the times.

In the notes to their 50th anniversary album, Martin Hayes describes how the band was run as ‘the first example of participative democracy’ he had ever encountered. Decisions are made collectively, never going against the wishes of any individual musician. Since P.J. passed away, no one has taken the lead. Mark Donnellan recalls someone saying to Sean Donnelly “Isn’t the Tulla Band kind of funny now, it’s kind of like a co-op!” This co-operative approach is possibly one of the greatest factors contributing to the band’s longevity. Everything is done in a very relaxed manner; they share the responsibility and enjoy the gigs together. The comfortable camaraderie between the band members comes through in the easy flow of their music.

This latest recording their 60th Anniversary Celebration, was recorded in Bohan’s in Feakle. (Their 50th`album was recorded in Pepper’s in Feakle).

“We do one about every ten years” smiles Mark, basically because that’s the way it has always been done. Last June, we were cutting silage at home and we all went up to Bohan’s and we cut the album in two days. Myself and Sean and J.J. met in Peppers one night and we stuck a few tunes together. Any tunes we put together we didn’t put on the album. Basically when it came to the day we just played away – we took whatever sounded good. Funnily enough none of these selections are on any of our previous recordings.” Reels, jigs and hornpipes are the fare on the new CD with a lovely flute duet featuring Jennifer and Martin Glynn, and a fiddle duet featuring Mark with Martin Hayes.

Playing in a céilí band can be quite arduous. “Its pure marathon business really” says Mark. “If you didn’t do a céilí every month, your fingers would cramp up and your shoulders and elbows would start to give in. But if you’re doing a céilí or two a month you’d be fine.”

The musical repertoire has not changed substantially during the lifetime of the band. Mark relates that sometime Sean will introduce a new tune and within a sort space of time everyone has picked it up. They don’t practise as such, they are so used to playing together as a unit that there’s no need. Lately Mick Flanagan has been taking it a little easier and while the band have had excellent drummers sit in, no-one can match Mick’s rhythmic style. “Mick is a constant” says Mark. “When we have a different drummer, we are a different band.”

It’s one of the challenges facing a band such as the Tulla, maintaining the integrity of sound whilst at the same time taking new members on board. It’s also a fairly serious commitment for any musician, to be available for whatever céilís come in, and these days most musicians have their own commitments to gigs and sessions.

The band has travelled abroad to Great Britain and North America on numerous occasions where they have been well received and feted. They played in Carnegie Hall and were presented on one occasion with the key to the city of Chicago.

They play most of their céilís now locally in Galway or Clare. McCarthy’s in Kilbeacanty has remained one of their consistent venues. “The crowd have never dwindled” says Mark, “and we play a rake of céilís there every year”.

Looking to the future, it will be more of the same, Mark sums it up very well when he says; “It was there before us and hopefully it’ll be there after us.”

‘The Tulla Céilí Band 60th Anniversary Celebration’ is available on Claddagh records

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Tim Dennehy's Old Boots and Flying Sandals

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

Old Boots and Flying Sandals marks yet another creative chapter in the life of traditional singer and songwriter Tim Dennehy. This is his sixth album of songs and is the first collection entirely of his own material. Tim has been writing songs and setting poems to music for many years and with each album we are treated to some new material from his own pen. ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ brings together these songs and favourite poems in a well chosen compilation. Many of the songs will be familiar, some have been re recorded with new arrangements, and some are entirely new.

“I was asked on many occasions to put the original stuff together” says Tim. “That’s what spurred me. It’s kind of a marker. This album will be a way to give my own songs a stage and a forum because I’ve never really pushed that aspect. I’ve been very privileged when some people have recorded them, but I have been slow to send them off to people and shy about it too. I’d like the songs to be developed and discovered in their own way.”

‘Farewell to Pripyat’ is one of Tim’s best known compositions. Written in April 1987, on the first anniversary of the Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster, it was recorded by Christy Moore and as a result was performed all over the world including in countries close to where the disaster happened. “I’m very pleased” says Tim, “because it is one of songs I’ve written outside my own experience. I have never been to Chernobyl but I was very touched by the whole thing. Christy got a tremendous reaction to the song so I was very glad it travelled to countries affected by it.”

From setting poems to music to writing complete songs of his own, Tim’s song writing has developed over the years. “I suppose it goes back to Sigerson Clifford’s ‘Ballad of the Tinker’s Daughter’” he says. “I saw it for the first time and I decided to put an air to it, that at least was one step toward writing my own songs, putting an air to his and to a couple of other poems. The poetry has been very central to my song writing and it’s very strong on this album as well.”

Growing up in South Kerry, Tim was most influenced by his parents who were song lovers and singers. His mother sang as she went about the house every day. She came from Cill Rialaig, and her father Padraig Kelly was one of the oldest voices recorded in the Iveragh peninsula. Tim was born in Ballinskelligs and later, the family moved to Caherciveen. His childhood memories are encapsulated in his songs .The title track of this album ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ is a soundscape of memory. “I still remember vividly getting up in the morning and hearing all these farm sounds,” says Tim. “I remember my father and the mushrooms being cooked in the morning in June. You’d wake up and get this aroma of mushrooms and he’d be going out to work.” Tim was inspired to write this song and got the title from a line in a Patrick Kavanagh poem called ‘The Long Garden’. “It’s a young person trying to capture how he saw life as a young boy in South Kerry in the 1950s. I think without the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh the song might never have happened” says Tim.

Many of Tim’s songs are very personal, “I particularly associate some of the songs with when there were changes in my life because change can affect you in an odd sort of way, and we were moving from Dublin to Clare, having thought about it for a number of years. Our children were growing up and the earlier songs you will find on the first two albums were associated around that time in the early 80s. ‘Keep in Touch’ was one of the earliest.” Tim describes the song as one of hope and friendship, inspired by a poem of the same name written by Brendan Kennelly. It remains one of Tim’s most popular songs.

‘Sceilig Mhicil’ was written in those early days as well following one of many trips back to the Skeilig Rock. Tim had left Kerry to go to training college in Dublin and later to work there. He was very active musically and was one of the founders of the Góilín Singers club. The club brought him back to singing and this led to him returning to Kerry more often. In the summers he would visit Skeilig Rock several times. “It was my sort of return journey to Kerry” he says.

The Góilín opened up a whole world of singing and listening and although it wasn’t a strong part of the club, there was an element of song writing there. “Liam Weldon would have been the big songwriter for us that time. He was a great wordsmith, and he was a great traditional singer as well. Barry Gleeson was beginning his song writing. He was very good with words as well.”

“In my memory today there were much more traditional songs, so the song writing came from a personal impulse. Tim still doesn’t regard himself as a songwriter in the sense of getting up on any regular basis and sitting down and writing a song – “That’s not how I work. They come through a reaction or an impulse to a certain thing that may or may not be already there. Very often they’re very personal. I regard myself much more as a traditional singer in the Irish and English language. The song writing is a very important facet of my life and I’m very privileged in a way to be able to write and to have written and to be able to share these with people.”

Tim doesn’t write according to any rules or particular method. Snatches of words, a snippet of melody will start the process. He might find himself driving and singing and at journey’s end write down a verse or two. He gives time to his song making and feels that because he doesn’t tour extensively he has the time and energy to put into this creativity.

“I find I have some empathy with the theme of the song and often they’re very personal, so I suppose central to this album is the family then. There’s the song to my mother, a thank you song and a reminisce. ‘The Parted Years’ – once you get the idea for a song like that, it’s not that difficult, because the living of those years is still there like yesterday to me.

’The Memorial’ is a lot sadder. Pat my brother was only seventeen when he died. Once you get over the sadness, there’s the days of being together, the sharing even though it was a brief few years.”

The environment and nature are also themes close to Tim’s heart. Like ‘Sceilig Mhichil’, ‘The Cry of the Mountain’ is a song born of passion, peace and prayerfulness. It was written after a day on Mullaghmore Mountain in the Burren, Co. Clare. “I regard these places as genuine holy places” says Tim, “a place that is quite sacred. When I sit in these places and let them breathe through me and breathe over me, when I go away from them that aspect is still there.”

The opening track on ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ is ‘Leaba Síoda’ a poem of Nuala Ni Dhomhnaill’s set to music. The idea for the poem came about when Nuala was hitching from Galway to Dingle and on the road in Clare saw a sign for Labasheedy and underneath the name in Irish which could have two meanings, the Grave of Síoda or the Bed of Silk – which was it? By the time Nuala got to Kerry the poem was shaped in her mind. Tim got together with Garry O’Briain to compose the music for the poem. Garry also recorded and mixed the album as well as being producer with Tim. Playing guitars, mandocello and keyboards on the album, he is joined by some exceptional musicians, Nollaig Ní Chathasaigh and Jesse Smith on fiddle and viola, Liz Johnson on cello, Josephine Marsh on accordions and Áine Derrane on harmony vocals.

It’s impossible to give a run down on all the songs on the album – numbering sixteen in all, it is a journey through the beautiful settings of the poetry of Percy B. Shelley (‘To Jane’) , Patrick McDonagh (‘Be Still as you are Beautiful’) and James Fenton ‘I Know what I’m missing’ to the poignant ‘Scarúint’, a homage to the late Junior Crehan, long time friend and neighbour of Tim’s since his move to Co. Clare in the 1980s.

Tim’s love of performance takes him festivals where he sometimes also hosts workshops in singing and song writing.

In the coming months Tim will be performing at the Willie Clancy Summer School, the Catskills Irish Arts Festival, the Augusta Irish Arts week, Caherciveen Celtic Music Festival, Feakle Traditional Festival and Éigse Mrs. Crotty. ‘Old Boots and Flying Sandals’ is available through Claddagh Records and Tim’s website is at

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Legends, Ceilidh, and Sean Tyrell

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

Ita Kelly talks to Mick Crehan about the Galway Sessions which five years on, is still going strong.

The festival is centred around the thriving musical heart of the city. “You can come to Galway at anytime of the year and there’s great music to be seen and heard in the local pubs” says Mick Crehan the festival director and indeed one of those who came up with the idea for the festival along with Minister Frank Fahey TD and Lúnasa founder Sean Smyth. “We were all of one mind” says Mick, “that there was an exceptional amount of music, a real wealth in Galway, and it was important to get that message out.” They were joined in their efforts by Coilí O Flaherty of Tigh Coilí and Martin Lally of Taaffes Bar. Ireland West Tourism also supports the festival, as do Galway City Council, and Guinness came in as sponsors. “The main aim is to show people what’s going on here all the time and to bring top quality musicians to Galway for the week.” continues Mick.

Venues this year include many well known musical houses, MT Pockets in Prospect Hill and Richardson’s on the Square, Taaffes, Tigh Coilí, Tigh Neachtain and the Quays Bar; the Róisín Dubh, Monroe’s Tavern and The Crane Bar. All venues will host sessions each day, and concerts are tailored to suit the venues. The Róisín Dubh is running a series of gigs featuring bigger bands and artists. High energy trad band Gráda will perform there, as will Maria Doyle Kennedy and her band and the ever popular Andy Irvine. Andy performed at the festival last year and was keen to return. The Crane Bar with it’s folk club atmosphere hosts a series of concerts titled ‘Legends’ featuring artists such as accordion supreme Finbarr Dwyer accompanied by Brian McGrath, Joe Burke and Anne Conroy-Burke, Dessie O’Halloran and friends and the one and only Freddie White.

The Galway sessions not just about traditional music although trad is at the core of the festival. “We’re trying to reflect what’s happening in Galway musically as well” says Mick.

Monroe’s bring an international dimension of the festival this year with a Scandinavian band The Café Minors. “They’re a fiddle based band” says Mick, “ who specialise in Gypsy and Jewish Klezmer Music. They’re a very exciting band and will also play in the Crane and the Quays.”

The open air ceilí on the Saturday of the festival will feature The Kinlochard Ceilidh Band from the Trossachs area of Scotland. Two accordions, two fiddles and drums form the heart of this lively ensemble that expands up to 7 or 8 musicians. Specialising in Scottish country dance music and ceilidh, they have fans as far away as Hollywood where they regularly travel to perform at parties and weddings. Band members will also perform in the session trail during the week.

The Quays are putting on a series of late night concerts. Two Time Polka who play a mixture of rockabilly and Cajun music are one of the many bands lined up to play there.

Renowned musician, singer and storyteller, Seán Tyrell will perform his new show at the Druid Theatre each night during the festival. ‘No Go Bravatsky’ is a musical journey tracing Tyrell’s travels through music, song and story often with hilarious consequences.

“A lot of the musicians that are playing at this festival, would probably be seen around the world in auditoriums and bigger venues,” says Mick Crehan. “Traditional music is good on any stage but I think its best to see it in its natural environment.”

“The Galway Sessions is a real opportunity and people get a kick out of the fact that they can come into relatively small bars, intimate areas, and experience that whole session vibe where the audience is as much part of what’s happening as the musicians that are playing. That’s the thing we want people to see. It’s something that’s very vibrant in Galway, its happening all the time. For me, it’s almost Fleadh Ceoil time in Galway all the time. You can wander through any of these pubs any given day and there’s music going on in the evening and the night time. There are very few places in the world where that are happening on a continual basis."

More information at; email info@galway; 087-2245637

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Breda Keville’s Captivating Debut - The Hop Down

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

Breda Keville’s debut recording is a solo album of enormous depth and personal expression. Although she hails from north County Galway, Breda’s musical spirit is drawn towards the eastern side of the county and southwards to Clare. Her style echoes the pace and rhythm of the music and of the older musicians from these regions, Paddy Fahey, Peadar O’Loughlin, Joe Ryan, Bobby Casey, Junior Crehan and John Kelly.

The title of her album ‘The Hop Down’ is the name of a tune she heard played by Rita Keane. Rita and Sarah Keane and their niece Dolores were a great inspiration for Breda in terms of singing, but Rita also plays the accordion and Breda describes her as a gorgeous player. The Keanes come from one side of Headford and Breda’s home is in Claran on the other side. Breda enthuses about the magic of visiting Rita and Sarah in their home; “Everything you love about Ireland is in that kitchen” she says. “It’s just so unique. They have a big old fireplace and in summertime they have the door opened and they won’t turn on a light until it’s nearly dark. They are lovely people.”

All Breda’s influences are represented in the tunes and songs she has recorded. “Some of the tunes are ones I’ve been playing for years like ‘Eileen Curran’ and ‘The Rainy Day’” says Breda. “I am playing ‘Seán Ó Duibhir a'Ghleanna’ for a long time as well and it’s one I particularly love. ‘The Gallowglass’ – that’s a lovely set and I have played ‘Kitty’s Rambles’ a lot with a friend of mine who used to live here in Galway, the piper Lorenzo Morales. ‘Clancy’s Jig’ would be influenced by Willie Clancy. I’d love to have met him; he was supposed to be so funny and kind as well. ‘Mary Brennan’s Favourite’ was one I got from John and James Kelly.”

Paddy Fahey features strongly whether for his own tunes or his settings of tunes like ‘The West Wind’ and ‘The New Road’. Bobby Casey’s name appears a few times as do several others. Breda is meticulous in crediting her sources in the sleeve notes and Charlie Piggott, a musician with whom she plays on occasion and for whom she has great respect, penned the liner notes. He says “the link we experience here is infectiously strong in elements of the older players and composers.” Piper Tommy Keane spoke equally enthusiastically about Breda’s album when he launched it at the Willie Clancy Summer School and in the Crane Bar in Galway last year.

Breda Keville is the youngest of six children and grew up in a house where music was part of everyday. The music travelled through the generations on both her mother’s and father’s side of the family and it was her mother who drove Breda and her siblings to classes, lessons, Fleadhs and wherever they needed to go to experience their music. She also listened to music avidly and Radio na Gaeltachta was always on in the house. “Even though my father didn’t play” adds Breda, “he loved it and understood it; which is just as important really. His mother played a little bit on the melodeon.”

Breda learnt the tin whistle from Mary Bergin and the fiddle from Helena Delaney from Lackagh. In primary school, Brid Toher encouraged her singing and playing and later, the fiddle player Kathleen Nesbitt guided her and gave lots of encouragement too.

While her first passion is the fiddle she is also a formidable singer. On ‘The Hop Down’ we are treated to three songs from her pure and plaintive voice. “It has always taken second place to the fiddle” says Breda about singing, “and I don’t mind saying that because that’s just the way it is. The fiddle would be a real passion, it’s something I feel strongly about and genuinely love it.”

The songs too have solid pedigree. Breda learnt ‘Bean an Fhir Rua’ from the singing of Sean ‘ac Dhonnchadha, and ‘Blackwaterside’ is a song learnt from the singing of Paddy Tunney. There are many songs of this name but this version is a different setting. “‘The Cuckoo’ has been recorded by lots of different singers and in lots of traditions all over the world” explains Breda. “This version I got from a friend of mine; ‘Manda Lacy who introduced me to Anne Briggs who sings that song.”

Being the youngest meant that Breda was also influenced by what her sisters were listening to and playing. Especially her sister Claire who along with Breda are the ones who play most music now. Claire is a well known concertina player and has recently taken up the fiddle; she plays both instruments on ‘The Hop Down’ with Breda. “When I was getting into the music, Claire was coming home from college and she’d always have something new that I would listen to. She had tapes of the older players, Bobby Casey, Paddy Fahey and Paddy Canny. There were private tapes that would circulate amongst musicians interested in that kind of music. That’s how I came across them originally.”

The Willie Clancy summer school was the next great resource for Breda. “I started going to Milltown when I was fifteen and going to the fiddle recitals there you’d see P. Joe Hayes, Francie Donnellan, Junior Crehan and Paddy Canny, Joe Ryan and Peter O’Loughlin as well; all those people you had heard about. Some of them you thought they were dead and here they were coming on stage. Milltown is great for making young people aware of the older style. It’s one of the few places in Ireland that you can go and there is so much emphasis placed on the older style. They’ve got the west Clare fiddlers – you can go into the room there and listen to all these older generations playing for hours.”

Liam Lewis is another strong influence and in 2001 Breda played with Liam and Paddy Fahey, representing the east Galway style at a concert celebrating different fiddle styles organised by Mick Crehan in Galway. In preparation for that night, Breda learnt three of Paddy’s lesser known tunes and she plays them along with Liam Lewis on ‘The Hop Down’. “I feel I’m very lucky” she says, “to have met lots of those older generation players like Paddy Fahey and either played with them or chatted to them.”

Conor Tully is another influence in that style of east Galway, as is Kevin Maloney whom Breda recounts meeting in 2003 shortly before he passed away. ‘For the sake of old Decency’ is a tune gleaned from Kevin’s store.

Breda also listens to the older musicians from other regions of the country. “I’m drawn to the older style” she says. “These tunes have been shaped by generations of musicians. It’s like an instrument that’s just made; it has to be played a lot before the tone can come out.”

What is it that attracts her to these older musicians, this older style? “The older musicians, there’s something quite unique in their tone; they’ve just got some sweetness. When you hear them you know it’s them by their tone and their style, the way they’d ornament or do a variation, whereas nowadays I think it’s harder to distinguish between people.”

‘The Hop Down’ was recorded with Ronan Browne in his studio at his home in Connemara and with Ray Diamond who has a studio in Galway city. It was a good experience and very relaxed. Most of the tracks are completely solo, a rarity these days. There are two beautiful slow airs and it’s not surprising to hear that Breda has an All Ireland title for slow air playing. Terence O’Reilly, whom Breda describes as ‘the most sensitive guitar player’ accompanies just three of the nineteen tracks. Liam Lewis joins Breda for one track and her sister Claire for two.

Breda works full time as a radiation therapist but also teaches music. “It’s great to be given the opportunity to introduce the likes of Paddy Canny or Joe Ryan to eight and nine year olds who are interested in it” she says. She enjoys playing sessions and gigs locally but would welcome any invitations to perform, or opportunities to play here or abroad that come on foot of her recording. The cover design of ‘The Hop Down’ reflects Breda’s gentle and fun personality in terms of the photographs and colouring she chose to use. Her seven year old nephew created many of the beautiful pictures inside.

‘The Hop Down’ has already garnered seriously good reviews. It is a strongly individual and creative recording, traditional music delivered with maturity and sensitivity.

Click her to buy Breda Keville's Album 'The Hop Down' from the .tradnet store on Amazon.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Róisín Elsafty – Ma bhíonn tú liom

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

‘Ma Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ is the new album, from sean nós singer Róisín Elsafty. It’s her first solo album and is an enchanting collection of traditional songs. Produced by Donal Lunny, this recording breathes new and vigorous life into many old songs as well as introducing us to some new ones. Róisín is a very versatile singer, for whom the joy of singing and indeed the ‘honour’ of being able to sing sean nós is most important.

Although now living in Dublin, Róisín comes from Barna in Co. Galway. Her mother Treasa Ní Cheannabháin, an accomplished sean nós singer, is a Connemara native and Róisín was born listening to her mother’s voice and grew up immersed in sean nós.

“She was the sean nós songbird in the house all the time” says Róisín, “and I was always trying to copy her. She seemed to go right up into the rafters her voice was so high and I was always trying to see if I could get up as high and hold the note as long as she did.”

Those early years were spent in Castlebar in Co. Mayo and when Róisín entered her first singing competition at the age of seven, a local Féile, she won it hands down. “I sang ‘An Sagairtín’, I think about five verses” she recalls, “I think they were gob smacked, this was a much older song than the others sang.”

Immersed in the sean nós tradition at home with her mother, listening to Radio na Gaeltachta, and going back to Connemara for sessions, Róisín was unaware that outside of the tradition others did not see sean nós as the natural thing she did. Teaching at a Summer School in Roscommon one year she was dismayed to find sean nós referred to as the ‘nyah, nyah’, it was the first time she had heard the expression. “That might have been the way it was then” she says, “seen as an old person’s thing, but it has now come full circle. There are people teaching sean nós in places like Castlebar and people going into competition from Roscommon, Castlebar and all over the country.” In fact the interest and enthusiasm for sean nós is now so great the number of competitions at the annual Oireachtas have been extended in recent years to cater for the higher numbers entering.

Róisín won the women’s competition at the Oireachtas herself on one occasion having won the competition at under 15 and under 18 levels previously. She came third in the prestigious Corn Uí Riada. “I’ve been going to the Oireachtas since I was fifteen” she explains. “The competition was good for me when I was younger because Mamaí would always insist on having a new song for the competition, so it was a good way to keep learning songs.”

However it is also quite a nerve wracking experience taking part in competition. “You can get away with a lot on stage” explains Róisín about the concert scene. “You can chat to your audience, you can introduce songs, and if something goes wrong you can apologise and do something else. But when it’s Corn Uí Riada, you are introduced by someone like Máirtín Tom Sheánín. You walk out on stage and it’s all live on Radio na Gaeltachta. There’s nobody standing to your left, no bouzouki to give you the right key, it’s just ‘away you go’ kind of from the dry. Its nerve wracking because everyone out there whether they’re at home or in the audience, they are some kind of aficionado.”

This year Róisín’s younger sister Naisrín, who is only eighteen, just eligible to enter the senior competition for the first time, got through the qualifying round and went on to win the women’s competition. Both Naisrín and her youngest sister Zahrah sing backing vocals on Róisín’s album. Their brother Hassan provides the striking Egyptian tabla.

If you hear a middle eastern flavour while listening to Róisín’s album don’t be surprised, because Róisín’s Dad comes from Egypt and so there’s a strong influence from that part of the world. Treasa, her mum has also started composing songs and on ‘Má Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ penned an anti war song encouraging the people of Iraq to have strength, ‘Ali: Dilleachtín gan bhrí.’ (Ali; orphaned for no reason) Ali was an orphaned victim of the war who appeared on television in the early days of the invasion, having lost both his arms and his family in one of the first bombings. Treasa previously composed the song ‘An Phailistín’ which Róisín recorded with Sharon Shannon on her ‘Libertango’ album. She also set the lovely Irish prayer ‘A Mhuire na nGrást’ to music, a beautiful plaintive and simple melody which Róisín sings on the album.

Like so many of the songs on this recording, the accompaniment is considered and matched perfectly to the spirit of each song. This is where the expertise and sensitivity of producer Donal Lunny comes in. Róisín first worked with Donal in 2000 when he asked her to sing ‘Coinleach Glas an Fhomhair’ one of the big sean nós songs, to accompaniment for his Expo 2000 project.

“I would never have done that only that it was Donal Lunny asking” says Róisín. “He sent me a demo of what he had in mind, it was very sensitive. He allowed me sing my song and rather than me being led by the orchestra, the orchestra were kind of following me. It allowed that particular sean nós song to live its own life, breathe as it were, but then have these really lovely sensitive strings, nothing too brash or overloaded. I think it really works.”

Since then Róisín has performed with Donal at concerts all over the world. Some of the songs on her new album are songs she performs with Donal and other musicians like Máirtín O’Connor and Graham Henderson at these concerts. Máirtín’s accordion peppers the recording with great responsiveness to the songs themselves. Ronan Browne is another musician who features playing whistles, flute and pipe. The harpist Siobhán Armstrong with whom Róisín performs regularly in her group ‘The Irish Consort’ is also there. Siobhán plays a wire strung harp, a replica of the medieval Trinity College Harp and specialises in music from the seventeenth century.

While her mother has been her strongest influence and mentor, Róisín also admires many other sean nós singers. She particularly reveres Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha, whom she describes as ‘one of the living masters’. “Dara Bán has hundreds of songs” she says in awe. “I have learnt the ones I like myself and they tend to be the love songs because Mamaí loves the love songs too.” Enthusiastically she adds “Isn’t it great that there are hundreds more to be learnt?”

All the songs on the album are Irish language songs except for a new composition from songwriter John Spillane ‘Poor Weary Wanderer’. “The album is more accompanied than unaccompanied” explains Róisín.

Just two songs are unaccompanied, the wonderful love song ‘Eleanór a Rún’, and ‘Casadh an tSugáin’ a song Róisín feels doesn’t lend itself to being accompanied at all. ‘Cúnnla’ has only the barest of music, bodhrán and the sean nós steps of dancer Seosamh Ó Neachtain. There are two soothing lullabies and apart from the newly composed songs they are all Connemara songs.

“All the songs on the album I suppose would be my favourites” says Róisín. “If asked to sing at a moment’s notice, I could sing any one of them with or without accompaniment.” Does she have a preference for slower or faster songs? “It totally depends on the mood” she replies. “It depends on what fits at the time.”

Visually complimenting the music and song on Róisín’s album is the artwork on the sleeve and booklet photographed and designed by her cousin Eoin O’Connor. It features photographs of Róisín, close up nature scenes, running water, luscious red roses and origami boats that provide a rich backdrop to the song notes and words.

As I spoke to Róisín, her husband Simon cradled their new born baby Sadhb, only two weeks old. You can imagine the beautiful lullabies her little ears will hear. Family life is naturally a priority now but Róisín is also keen to take up any opportunities that follow from the release of this album. Performance is what keep an artist alive, it’s what keeps the songs alive and its something she loves doing and she does well. ‘Ma Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ is testament to that. An exceptional and exquisite accomplishment, it is a work of great beauty..

‘Ma Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ is released on Vertical Records and Róisín’s website is at

Click here to buy Róisín Elsafty's album - Ma bhíonn tú liom from the .tradnet store on Amazon.