Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part: Len Graham/Cormac Breatnach/Brian Fleming

If you are a Horslips fan, and can recall their 1972 black, concertina-shaped LP, often credited as the very first Celtic Rock album, you may suddenly find yourself wondering why this Music Network tour has the same title as that recording. Were some of our artists this evening members of the group? Is this the beginning of a Celtic Rock revival?

No, not quite. ‘Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part’ happens to be the title of a popular jig in traditional Irish music (the Horslips open the album with their rendition of it), a tune that was collected, probably from Irish emigrants, by one Francis O’Neill in Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century and published in his famous collection. Its inclusion in O’Neill’s The Music of Ireland (1903) virtually ensured the jig’s survival to the present day, but among the thousands of tunes in that collection, this particular jig has received more attention than most. It has been recorded countless times, by everyone from Séamus Ennis to Frankie Gavin to the Swallow’s Tail Ceili Band, and it has even been used as the title of three other albums – at least. What could be its appeal?

The tune is a good one, of course, but the reason for its particular popularity is down to its title. There is something about the phrase ‘Happy to meet, sorry to part’ that captures something for traditional musicians. It reminds them of countless sessions, unexpected evenings of great music when they happened upon new musical acquaintances, played and sang with them, and then as quickly as they have met, they find themselves saying goodbye, until some other unexpected evening. All of that is somehow encapsulated in the title of this little two-part jig, and it’s a modest yet ideal starting point for the meeting of these three artists, who together illustrate the diversity of expression in contemporary traditional Irish music.

When the great label Claddagh Records released its own collection of great musical moments, Claddagh’s Choice: An Anthology of Irish Traditional Music in 1999, containing the cream of some of their recordings over forty years, not many vocal tracks were included, but Len Graham from Antrim singing ‘Do Me Justice’ spun out as a highlight of the entire double CD. Taken from his second solo album of the same name from 1983, it is classic Graham: a warm, bright tone, his voice towering above yet connecting effortlessly with the listener, the singer allowing the story of the song come through unhindered.

Len Graham’s most recent solo recording, The One Tradition: Traditional Ulster Songs for All the Family (2004), which followed on from his receiving the TG4 Traditional Singer of the Year Award in 2002, is not only an absorbing collection, but also points to two other important aspects of this artist’s work. Firstly, his insistence that the Ulster songs that he sings belong to all of the northern community. In the sleevenotes he writes: ‘As a collector and singer over the past forty years I was received with great hospitality and warmth in all the houses I visited on my song journey. Religious and political division played no part in the singing and giving of these songs.’ Secondly, the fact that he regards his songs ‘for all the family’. The One Tradition contains not only exquisitely mature musical moments such as ‘The Ballyronan Maid’, but also family-made songs such as ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Early in the Morning’. Ironically, given the importance of ‘handing on’ in traditional music, not many contemporary collections of traditional songs remember to include something for that parent–child experience. As well as The One Tradition, Len Graham has also recorded a seminal collection of traditional songs for children with Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin, When I was Young: Children’s Songs from Ireland, and performed in shows of song and storytelling for many years with the late John Campbell, events which always illustrated the magic that there is in parents and children singing together. (Incidentally, when Graham won the TG4 award, he – naturally enough – sang a song in English at the awards ceremony, rather than automatically buying into the Gaelic atmosphere of the affair, perhaps making the point that English-language and Irish-language songs are, too, part of the one tradition.)

When still in his early twenties, Cormac Breatnach performed on the extraordinarily influential 22-minute Donal Lunny Band album of 1987. His commanding and moving playing on classic tracks such as ‘Declan’, an air composed by Lunny, and ‘Across the Hill/The Gold Ring’ reminds us of his brilliance as a flute player, although Breatnach has tended to specialise in the low whistle since. Indeed, he is one of the pioneers of the instrument along with Davy Spillane. While his playing on tin whistle could be regularly heard on the theme tune to RTÉ’s Glenroe once upon a time.

Breatnach, who grew up in an Irish/Spanish speaking family and who, as he mentioned at a traditional music conference in Ennis a few years ago, learned English ‘on the street’, subsequently went on to form Deiseal, a ground-breaking trio whose half-improvised, jazz-influenced arrangements of traditional tunes, in particular ‘The Rights of Man’, had a notable impact on the generation of young traditional musicians that arrived the 1990s. Deiseal’s sound was new, involving double bass, bouzouki and low whistle, a particular combination which allowed great space and fluidity in the music. The Deiseal ethos was in part continued into Breatnach’s solo work with his 1999 album Musical Journey. An inventive mix of improvisation, newly composed tunes and traditional standards, Breatnach manages to continually surprise the listener in arrangement and melody.

Cormac Breatnach is also one of a small number of traditional Irish musicians who have crossed the divide into contemporary Irish classical music, collaborating with the avant-garde electro-acoustic composer Roger Doyle. Both Wicklow based, they came together, with Martin Dunlea on guitar, in a performance in the Mermaid Arts Centre in 2005.

The inclusion of Brian Fleming in the collection Pure Bodhrán of 1999, a double album of outstanding bodhrán players, is indicative of his standing as a percussionist. Fleming is part of a generation of artists that changed the way percussion was used in traditional music. Not content for it to be a background instrument, he and colleagues have expanded its musical vocabulary, engaged in a range of exciting new musical projects which allowed the bodhrán more freedom (he has performed on over 25 albums), and he has been involved in the development of new national performance contexts for percussion such as the Big Bang Festival which takes place in July in Dublin. The latest festival, of which Fleming was a co-director, included not only traditional bodhrán playing, but also jazz drumming and a collaboration involving Arabic, Mediterranean and Irish music.

Brian Fleming formed his well-known seven-piece band De jimbe in 1995. Inspired by both traditional Irish music and the drumming cultures of other countries, the group combines traditional rhythms from the Caribbean and West Africa with original and traditional Irish melodies. Their debut album in 2001 illustrated their original sound, created by the tension between pulsating, hypnotic rhythms and intricate tunes.
The experience of hearing Len Graham, Cormac Breathach and Brian Fleming this evening will provide you with the unexpected, but also the familiar and quite possibly the unforgettable. Len Graham will make you want to sing out loud and learn more songs; Cormac Breatnach will capture you with the beauty of his tone and his command of the low whistle; Brian Fleming will leave you in full admiration for the range of his percussive skills and his dexterity – all the contents necessary to create one of those traditional music evenings that keep the tune ‘Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part’ in the traditional music top forty.

Music Network Tour: Happy to Meet, Sorry to Part

Len Graham, voice
Cormac Breatnach, whistles
Brian Fleming, percussion
14th January – 23rd January 2009

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