Masterclass in evolution

FOR fiddle virtuoso Martin Hayes, every Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry, West Cork, is special, so how to celebrate its 10th anniversary?

Masterclass in evolution

He is artistic director of the event, which runs from Wednesday, Aug 15 — 19 and is renowned for its quality programming and intimate, reverent concerts, which spill into lively sessions.

“We thought we might try to do something different for the anniversary, but every year is so special it seemed difficult,” Hayes says. “The main difference is that this year we’ve brought in some acts from abroad, for the first time. We’re also bringing back Liam O’Flynn and that’s quite a difference, because we haven’t repeated many acts; just myself, Dennis Cahill and Steve Cooney, but not the main acts.”

“Liam’s performance the first year was something that people talked about a lot and the people from West Cork Music, who run the festival, remember it well, so I thought we’d bring him back. Not alone is he a great musician, a wonderful performer of solo pipes, but he’s also able to create something special on stage.”

Hayes is excited to bring Séamus Connolly back to Ireland. Connolly won the Irish National Fiddle Championship ten times and holds an endowed chair at Boston College, where he is director of Irish music and the Sullivan artist-in-residence.

“Séamus was the mainstay of Irish fiddling in the 1960s and if you’re talking about that point of time, he was the best of them all,” says Hayes. “It’s just he’s been in America so long that he’s not as well-known over in Ireland as he was. He’s part of the style of that time and place, a really significant time and he’s a wonderful man and a great player.”

Limerick dancer Stephanie Keane will be resident at the festival. Keane began step dancing aged four and later fell in love with the sean-nós style. She has developed a unique style of percussive dance. She has been described as a natural, free-style dancer. “I met Stephanie when I was recording up in east Clare,” Hayes says. “She’s a wonderful dancer who connects to the music in a very good way. We’ve kind of left it so the dancing isn’t in one section, she’ll just hop up intermittently. It’s something we haven’t tried before, because the venues aren’t ideal for dancing. We needed someone who’s coming at it from a percussive perspective. Stephanie doesn’t need much space, which is great, as it’s something we certainly don’t have.”

The line-up includes fiddlers Malachy Bourke and Toner Quinn, flute players June Crawford and Kevin Crawford, and three harp players, Cormac de Barra, Michael Rooney and Tríona Marshall, and pianist Geraldine Cotter. Also, Hayes’ trio The Teetotallers, and the Tulla Céilí band.

Hayes’s regular collaborators on guitar, Dennis Cahill and Steve Cooney, will be joined by Dubliner John Doyle. One of the founding members of Solas and now based in North Carolina, Doyle earned a Grammy nomination for his 2009 album Double Play, with Chicago fiddler Liz Carroll.

The festival has five resident singers. From Corofin, on the Co Clare coast, John Flanagan is part of the Keane family singing dynasty. He adds an ancient Gaelic repertoire to the unaccompanied sean-nós style he learned growing up. His compositions have won competitions and become part of the traditional repertoire. Moya Brennan, of Clannad fame, and Muskerry sean nós singer, Máire Ní Chéileachair, also feature, as does Ulster bard, Len Graham, who was the first recipient of the TG4 traditional singer-of-the-year award and was awarded ‘keeper of the tradition’ by the Tommy Makem Festival of Song in Armagh.

The festival has a masterclass. “The masterclasses are a new thing, they’re something we’d hoped to do way back when we started,” Hayes says. “We’re connecting with the university system, University of Limerick, for sure, and, hopefully, University College Cork. The classes are meant for musicians who are coming through the graduate system, to get some insight into what life is like as a full-time musician and to get some tips and pointers. There’ll be a lot of talking and some playing and members of the public can come, too. It might shed some interesting insights for listeners.”

For the first time, the festival features music from other traditions. From Sweden come Väsen, a trio featuring the nyckelharpa, and bubbling over with humour and virtuosity. They write fiendishly good tunes. “The last outing I had with Väsen was with Dennis, when we were out in Japan,” Hayes says. “They have wonderful tunes and I’m looking forward to, maybe, playing a bit with them during the festival.”

Another visitor to Ireland is Andalusian singer Carmen Ibañez. “Carmen is a friend of my wife’s,” Hayes says. “I just got married last year and my wife’s from Spain. I heard Carmen singing over in Spain and she’s wonderful. She’s thoughtful in a very quiet way. She’s not on stage every day, but that isn’t always the marker of quality. The vast majority of traditional musicians who have been a big influence on me have been farmers, doctors, tradesmen, very few of them have been professional. Willie Clancy was a carpenter and Tommy Potts was a fireman, there are so many examples, and I see no reason for that to change.”

The festival has an international profile. “We had a big opportunity to take Masters of Tradition on tour to the Sydney Opera House in 2009,” Hayes says. “It was a really big deal, not something we expected or could have planned for, but it was a great success. So, then, people started kind of looking at me to see could we do it again. We had a great tour in April this year and we have one in place for next year, and 2014 is looking very likely. It would be great to have it become an ongoing thing, where we’d keep the musicians changing and give a lot of musicians the opportunity to travel.”

Hayes’s most recent success was as the subject of a film, Natural Grace, by Art O’Briain, which won best Irish feature documentary prize at the 2012 Galway Film Fleadh. “I have to say fair play to Art, he’s a great guy and a great filmmaker, and a really interesting man. For me, it was really just about hanging out with a friend. I met him at Masters of Tradition in Sydney, he just happened to be there, and we met and he got interested in seeing what else I do.

“He just took a camera and followed me on tour sometimes, or, other times, he’d just turn up out of the blue. I couldn’t really imagine that it was something people would want to watch, but apparently they do.”

* Masters of Tradition runs in Bantry, in West Cork, from Aug 15-19. Further information: www.westcorkmusic.ie

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