It is the spring of 1996, mid-morning. Standing in the kitchen of my apartment, the kettle is boiling. As it gradually quietens and slows to its ‘click’, a track of violin and piano comes into aural focus. I had put on Matt Cranitch’s 1984 LP, Éistigh Seal,as I left the sitting room, and overwhelmed by the sound of boiling water, it was half-way through the opening air, ‘An raibh tú ag an gcarraig?’ (‘Were you at the rock?’), before I could hear it. I’d listened to it before of course, but some of the most magical recordings are often like new neighbours. You see them often, but never really connect. Then one day, for whatever reason, you engage with them, and you wonder why you never did before. Similarly, at that boiling-kettle moment, Éistigh Seal had fully arrived for me, its qualities of stillness and control finally coming into focus.
Éistigh Seal (‘Listen awhile’) is an album of twelve slow airs. It is an uncompromising record in many ways. Although it includes pieces that may be considered well-known – versions of the ‘The Coolin’ or ‘The Derry Air’ – there is little hint of the worldwide popularity of these melodies, Cranitch reclaiming them from the over-the-top versions that abound, and leading them back into the Sliabh Luachra tradition that he personally identifies with.
There is little place elsewhere I can go at this point without mentioning the great influence Sliabh Luachra (literally,‘the rushy mountain’) has had on Matt Cranitch and Jackie Daly, and the fact that they are exquisite exponents of it. A loose geographic area found on both sides of the Cork-Kerry border, its centre could be said to be between the towns of Killarney, Rathmore, Millstreet, Ballydesmond and Castleisland. But I want to unsettle this slightly one-dimensional idea for a moment, because what actually strikes one about these two musicians, not to mention John Faulkner, is just how multi-dimensional they are – artists of many different parts despite their association with such a strong musical centre.
Yet who says that Sliabh Luachra isn’t a multi-dimensional tradition?
Consider one of the definitive LPs of Sliabh Luachra music, Séamus Ennis’s 1952 recording for the BBC of fiddle-players Pádraig O’Keeffe, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, later issued as Kerry Fiddles by the Topic label in 1977. Murphy and Clifford, brother and sister, were both pupils of O’Keeffe’s, and subsequently lived much of their lives in New York and London respectively, but they were back for a short period when Ennis – whose opportunism and ability to coax the finest of artists has enriched us greatly – seized the opportunity to record all three in Charlie Horan’s Bar in Castleisland. Three musicians whose musical experience was intertwined, all local to the area, and yet musicians whose lived experience was quite different and who were exploring different sounds: Murphy’s virtuosity and pulsing rhythm on ‘The Woman of the House’ contrasting with O’Keeffe’s more refined approach on hornpipes such as ‘The Fisherman’s’, and noticeably different again to Clifford’s lighter, sparkling touch on ‘Paudeen O’Rafferty’. It is one of the wonders of Irish traditional music, that even within what appears to be a definitive example of a certain style, there exists a depth of diversity within.
When we think of Sliabh Luachra music, we think of the dance – the two are intertwined. Matt Cranitch’s playing is imbued with this quality, and more besides. His musical output has swept from being a member of the pared-down traditional group Na Filí in the 1960s and 70s, to the group Any Old Time in the 1980s, the sound of which was often more akin to old-time American and bluegrass, and then in more recent years playing with the vibrant trio Sliabh Notes. And yet, I think of his live recording with the late, great fiddle-player Séamus Creagh from a recent Masters of Tradition Festival in Cork – heaving with the energy and abandon of Sliabh Luachra – and we could just as easily be back in the world of Kerry Fiddles in 1952…
It was actually another duet with Séamus Creagh, this time with Jackie Daly, on the Gael-Linn label in 1977, that was largely credited with popularising the Sliabh Luachra style outside its own area. Combined with Jackie Daly’s solo recording of the same year, the thrilling, punchy playing established Daly as a leading force in accordion playing in Ireland, and arguably lifted the status of the instrument in the tradition as a whole. His playing also caught the attention of the new Galway group Dé Dannan. In an interview in the Journal of Music in Ireland in 2004, fiddle-player Frankie Gavin recalls travelling with Alec Finn to Joe Galligan’s folk-club outside of Ennis, where Daly was playing, with the express purpose of convincing him to join the band. His four years with Dé Dannan not only produced classic recordings such as Star-Spangled Molly and The Mist Covered Mountain, but also a surprise hit record in 1980 with the group’s version of ‘Hey Jude’, for which Daly wrote the reel that accompanies it.
Traditional music sessions today are now peppered with Daly’s compositions. At around the same time as I was getting to know Éistigh Seal, I worked in a record shop, one of the advantages of which was sampling new recordings as they came in. On the arrival of Daly’s second solo album, Domhnach is Dálach/Many’s a Wild Night, I can recall my intrigue at track 7, ‘The Fly Fishing Reel’, and, convinced it was some inspired composition from some far away place, I made a mental note to learn it. I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it was from the hand of Daly himself.
What defines Daly’s recorded output more so however – and there are seventeen multi-faceted group albums along with his solo and duet recordings – is his unique rhythm and an ability to push a tune forward in a quietly intense way, punctuating it every now and then with killer bass notes and ‘cuts’ (grace notes) that appear like sparks in the melody.
If there is one bond connecting the music of Daly and Cranitch today, captured in their new album The Living Stream (after which this tour is named), and Kerry Fiddles fifty-eight years ago, it is the characteristic of precision. Pádraig O’Keeffe was said to insist on it in his pupils’ playing, so necessary was it for dancers. When Daly’s finely-tuned musical instincts combine with Cranitch’s flowing rhythm, the note-for-note precision stands out, the perfect amount of pressure applied to each rise and fall.
Accompanying such music requires a specialist in providing the space and subtlety it requires. Over more than three decades on the traditional music scene, John Faulkner has quietly set himself apart as someone with the ear to bring out the best in artists. His celebrated partnership with Dolores Keane in the 1980s produced several seminal recordings, including Broken Hearted I’ll Wander and Sail Óg Rua (featuring an achingly beautiful version of ‘Galway Bay’), both characterised by a thoughtful and crafted approach to repertoire and arrangement. Throughout his work with Keane, Faulkner always tried to bring something new to traditional music, whether it was combining uilleann pipes and piano on their version of ‘Jimmy Mo Mhíle Stór’ or bringing in the Dougie MacLean song ‘Caledonia’ which became one of her most popular recordings, or developing intricate harmonies for their duet singing. Although songwriting was not as much a part of his work in the 1980s as it is today, he penned ‘Lion in a Cage’, about Nelson Mandela, which Keane recorded in 1989 and which is probably the most popular song about the inspiring leader to come out of Ireland.
A singer with a natural ability to get under the skin of a story, Faulkner was recently appointed artist-in-residence in both Galway city and county. Involving a series of performances in local libraries and also in the Galway City Museum, the experience allowed him research and develop a repertoire of song drawing on different themes, whether it be love, sea or the surrounding area in Galway, and engage with audiences in a new way.
Currently in the process of recording an album of his own songs, Faulkner’s repertoire is a still a mix of traditional and new – and some which walk a line between: a typical example would be ‘Will Ye Go to Flanders?’. Having learned and recorded it many years ago, he has since added verses of his own. Aside from his regular performances in Ireland, Faulkner is also the singer with the Belgian folk group Orion.
Although Faulkner, Cranitch and Daly have played together sporadically in concerts and sessions over the years, it was in early 2008 that Faulkner and Daly started playing together regularly, and have since undertaken tours in Austria and Paris. This will be the first time the trio have toured together.
A singer, producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, as well as a writer of music for film and television, John Faulkner is the consummate multi-dimensional musician – which should suit Sliabh Luachra music right down to its rushy mountain ground…
Notes for a Music Network traditional music tour by Matt Cranitch, fiddle, Jackie Daly, accordion, and John Faulkner, voice, guitar, bouzouki. 14 – 23 September 2010.