A lifetime achievement award, a tour with his diverse ensemble, and a new TV series have ensured Dónal Lunny is as busy as ever, writes Ellie O’Byrne.
QUIETLY following in the footsteps of musicians like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Joan Baez, two weeks ago Dónal Lunny accepted a lifetime achievement award from the US-based organisation Folk Alliance International.
Not only the first Irish person to receive the accolade, but the only non-US musician ever to do so.
“It seems to have passed under the radar, but then again, I’m not a very good self-publicist,” he says, talking on the phone as he walks the rush-hour streets of Dublin. The award, Lunny says, is a “gigantic honour”.
“They cited the things I would like to be remembered for, like popularising the bouzouki.”
A lifetime achievement award has led to some retrospection for the musician and producer, who turned 70 in March. Looking back on a life in music, he’s struck by how lucky he has been. Discovering an early propensity for musical arrangement, it became an obsessive pursuit; he “developed it in school, through working out chords when I should have been listening to my maths teacher,” he laughs.
Lunny, once dubbed the ‘Quincy Jones of Irish music’, needs no introduction for his performing career in bands like Planxty, Moving Hearts and the Bothy Band. As a producer, he’s worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Baaba Maal, and he’s arranged music for acts including The Waterboys and Eddi Reader.
“It’s the love of music that really drove me,” he says. “That, and the good fortune to meet up with some of the best musicians around, and gigging abroad and moving around. It’s made for a very interesting career. I love it, and I’m still going, and that’s the best thing of all.”
It was in traditional music that he found his spiritual home: “I’d played for years, and had worked with a lot of non-trad musicians. Then I got involved in a trad project and I had this moment: I thought, ‘this is bloody great; I love this. There’s enough in traditional music to keep me going for the rest of my life.’ As soon as I said that to myself, my life became really focused and I was happier.”
Folk fusion ensembles currently seem to be having a moment. Fiddler Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh has just released an album with This Is How We Fly, blending Irish trad with jazz, Swedish percussion and the Appalachian percussive dancing of Nic Gareiss; in the UK, Yorkston, Thorne and Khan have been successfully marrying the sublime sweeps of the Hindustani sarangi to Scottish and English folk music.
Lunny, who invented the Irish bouzouki by happy accident, has pioneered such marriages throughout his life in music. Now, his latest project, the Atlantic Arc Orchestra, celebrates the common ground between the musical traditions of the Celtic countries: Ireland, Scotland, England and Brittany.
Nine musicians of impressive pedigree include Dingle singer Pauline Scanlon, Breton flute player and uilleann piper Sylvain Barou, Capercaillie bassist Ewen Vernal and drummer John Blease. Are they a supergroup? Lunny laughs. “I think we qualify, yes.”
“It’s a great bunch of musicians; they’re fantastic and I love them all,” he says, launching into an enthusiastic description of each: Pádraig Rynne is a “demon concertina player,” while Sylvain Barou is a “bit of a wizard,” and Scottish fiddler Aidan O’Rourke is “a bewildering player” for the complexity of his rhythms. Keyboard player Graham Henderson has been press-ganged in at short notice, an addition to the advertised eight-piece line-up.
The orchestra plays a selection of traditional tunes and compositions brought to the table by the individual musicians. They’ve revived one of Lunny’s pieces from the days of his Coolfin project.
“It’s called ‘Sixes and Fives,’ because you can play it both in 6/8 and in 5/8 time,” he says. “It’s a joy, because they’re all so accomplished that they do things without effort, and that’s where music is at its sweetest.”
The Atlantic Arc Orchestra are playing a series of gigs and have intentions to record, but one of the very few downsides to such an international pick-and-mix is logistical.
“We have very few performance hours under our belt yet,” Lunny says. “It’s hard to get us all together. But when we clock up a bit more flying time, it’s going to be serious stuff.”
If all the band members are as busy as Lunny, the difficulty in assembling is not a surprise.
As well as regular appearances with his old foil Andy Irvine, he also has gigs coming up with the far more classically trad outfit Usher’s Island, alongside Irvine, Paddy Glackin, Mike McGoldrick and Liam O’Flynn.
NEW TV SERIES
On top of all that, there’s also his newly filmed TV show. A fitting companion to the theme of the Atlantic Arc Orchestra, Lunny’s four-part musical travelogue, The Celtic Songlines, is set to air on RTÉ this season.
In it, he travels from the remote Outer Hebrides to Galicia in Spain, via the Isle of Man, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and Ireland, in search of the common roots of Celtic music, and even asking if it can be truly said to exist.
“Wherever we went, we would meet up with local musicians and basically just play,” he says.
“It was a very enjoyable experience. The whole idea of the show is to explore the connections between the music of the different Celtic areas, and what really struck me as we went along was that the people themselves were the real connection.”
An element of the project that must have particularly appealed to the producer in Lunny was the idea that he would record some examples of Irish music and bring them with him, to be added to by the musicians he met along his journey.
“The idea came from the show’s producer, David Bickley, originally,” he says of the West Cork-based man behind the show, “and it sounded fascinating from the start.”
“We recorded a number of tracks at Grouse Lodge in Westmeath that had a relevance to some of the places we were visiting and the idea was to add to them with the various musicians we met along the way. It worked out really well.”
Not only delving into the past in the company of musicians, historians and folklorists, the series also explores the future of traditional music in the Celtic countries, and Lunny says he was encouraged and uplifted to observe a resurgence of enthusiasm amongst young musicians for their folk heritage.
“The one thing I saw everywhere was this incredible upsurge of enthusiasm from young people,” he says.
“It gives you great confidence and optimism for the future of the music, for all of the traditions, from Scotland to Galicia.”
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