John Flanagan, Kevin Crawford, Steve Cooney, Martin Hayes, Brian McNamara, Seán Smyth, Oisín MacDiarmada, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh & Dennis Cahill
Bantry House, Bantry, Co Cork
15-19 August 2007
Now in its fifth year, the Masters of Tradition festival at Bantry House has grown into its audience and its surroundings. With a mission statement of ‘celebrating traditional music in its purest form’, West Cork Music once again delivered with a line-up that included Martin Hayes, Kevin Crawford, Steve Cooney, Seán Smyth, Máire Ní Chéilleachair, Andy Irvine, Brian McNamara and Kitty Hayes.
In the Thursday night early slot, John Flanagan, a Bantry House regular, strode unannounced onto the stage and delivered ‘Amhrán na Trá Báine’. The detail of the story was most likely lost on the majority of his audience, but there was no mistaking the understated power of his performance.
Kevin Crawford admitted to feeling a little exposed in his unfamiliar solo role (‘I have no-one to pick on!’) but settled to his task with ‘The Lisheen Jig’/‘Princess Nancy’/‘Anthony Frawley’s’, the steadiness of the ‘Lisheen’ and ‘Frawley’s’ contrasting with the strange, elusive melody of ‘Nancy’. He continued with a sweet, burbling, good-humoured flow of tunes, including a set learned from a Lucy Farr tape which he played on low whistle. This was very fine low whistle playing, but begged the question: why bother with such an instrument when you’re such a good flute player? Steve Cooney joined for ‘Ag Taisteal na Blárnan’, adding a most imaginative chord sequence, and Martin Hayes provided an extra push for the set’s end. But it was Crawford’s outstanding flute playing that remained in the mind long after.
Brian McNamara declared the importance of place and person in traditional music and demonstrated those principles with a set that opened with Richie Dwyer’s ‘Return to Burton Road’ and closed with a three-part version of the Cúil Aodha favourite ‘Bímís ag Ól’. Delighting in the role of gentleman piper in this Big House library, McNamara delivered an intricate and graceful suite that ranged from the ornate eighteenth-century jig ‘The Humours of Glin’ through the Goodman reels ‘The Lady’s Cup of Tea’/‘The Basket of Oysters’/‘The Kerry Lass’ to the hornpipes ‘Kilcooley Wood’/‘The Bashful Bachelor’. Here we heard the pipes in what is perhaps their ideal element, controlled by a player who can master the full almost orchestral range of his instrument – chanter, regulators and drones in glorious orchestral 3D.
Martin Hayes’ role as Artistic Director, for he was relentlessly teased by his stage-mates, extended to a quasi-interview with each of the fiddle players in the ‘Níos Déanaí’ slot. The questions ranged around personal histories, influences, attitudes to music and so on. He succeeded admirably with Seán Smyth and Oisín MacDiarmada, but his efforts with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh – who declared roguishly that he didn’t have an interior life – rapidly descended into the deliciously surreal. Hayes responded in kind by asking: ‘So, when you’re not thinking about nothing, what do you think about?’
This later gig is, in many senses, the heart of the Masters of Tradition. Night has fallen, the ancient candelabra have been lit and expectations are high. Hayes promises that ‘nothing intellectual will be happening; we’ll just be playing our fiddles’. With Seán Smyth, he created a magnificent setting for ‘Coleman’s Jig’/‘The Orphan’ – sometimes straight, sometimes intertwined, full of micro-differences and diverse accents, but wrapped in an unruffled exterior. They could have gone for flash; instead, they were content to let the tunes do the talking.
The interaction with Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh was of a different order, laid back almost to the horizontal. The tune went missing, hung by a thread and re-emerged into the half-light. Ó Raghallaigh’s polka set was extraordinary. He hints at melody, increases the tempo, steadies, allows interference from other tunes, goes to the edge of anarchy and ends in trance. But traditional? Absolutely, like the memory of an intense session in a Sliabh Luachra back room.
Oisín MacDiarmada joined Hayes for ‘Seán Ryan’s Jig’, forming a partnership that was steady, composed, yet full of expression. MacDiarmada’s solo ‘Bloom of Youth’/‘Big Pat’s Reel’ was warm and lyrical. Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Dennis Cahill (Seán Smyth was off with Kevin Crawford to catch an early morning flight) joined for the inspiring final round-up of ‘Eileen Curran’s’, ‘Come West Along the Road’ and ‘The Star of Munster’.
Published on 1 November 2007
Pat Ahern is a musician and producer. He lectures in mathematics at Cork Institute of Technology.