go on a four-day, ‘round-the-world’ musical bender, and hear instruments you never knew existed, voices to die for and stories that live long in the memory?
I, and hundreds like me, have just disembarked a musical express train that had stops in 24 Cork pubs (and influences from Scotland, Britain, Bulgaria, Hungary, Holland, France, Germany, USA and Australia) in the company of world-class musicians.
This year’s Cork Folk Festival had a staggering array of events and began last Wednesday, at the old Heaphy’s Bar, formerly The Lobby, now L’Atitude 51, where, this time 35 years ago, Jimmy Crowley presented the Cork Song Workshop at the first Cork Folk Festival.
But as the audience sat down at the opening night this year to listen to ‘A Night Of Cork Songs’, recreating that opening event of the first festival, they could only guess where they would be disembarking on the closing night on Sunday.
In 1979, when the festival was founded by current chairman, Jim Walsh, among others, over a pint, Scotland had voted narrowly for home rule; Jack Lynch had resigned as Taoiseach, and had been replaced by Charlie Haughey; and Queen had released ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’, a theme grasped by the inaugural festival’s volunteers, in the back room of The Phoenix pub, as they ventured into the unknown, armed with enthusiasm, music and not much else.
Thirty five years on, the highlights are almost too numerous to mention — the talk by John Nyhan on Barney McKenna of The Dubliners; the ever feisty Dick Gaughan; Buille; Cooney & Begley; Eddi Reader; emerging groups, Moxie, We Banjo 8 and New Road.
But two other concerts deserve high praise. Trad and folk veterans Andy Irvine’s and Donal Lunny’s group, Mozaik, were mesmerising. The band, who have just released their new studio album, Changing Trains (it was recorded in four countries), has a cosmopolitan line-up: members include Nikola Parov (Bulgaria), Bruce Molsky (USA), and Rens van der Zalm (Holland and Australia). Between them, the five play a staggering 20 instruments.
The expressionless Parov is multi-skilled and plays gadulka, gaida, kaval, tin whistle, clarinet, guitar, and kalimba. He lets the music do his talking.
However, to single out one member of what magazine Acoustic Guitar called “the prefect band” would be criminal.
Irvine’s concept in creating the group was to gather his favourite musicians and do a tour. The audience at CIT Cork School of Music on Saturday evening witnessed what many have labelled the ultimate global string band. Performing music from a wide array of cultures, 72-year-old Irvine and Lunny (bouzouki, guitar) drove the music, very ably assisted by American old-tyme fiddler/guitarist/vocalist Molsky and Dutch guitarist Van Der Zalm, along with Parov.
Mozaik opened with ‘My Heart’s Tonight in Ireland (In The Sweet County Clare)’, continued with ‘The Dance of Suleiman’ and ‘The Wind Blows Over The Danube’, before moving effortlessly to old-tyme music; Eastern European sounds, with intricate string arrangements; and back again to an outstanding rendition of ‘Blacksmith’.
Their standing ovation was well-deserved, as was the heart-felt applause for their opening act, Lee Valley String Band.
On Friday night, at the same venue, an all-together different collective of singers and musicians took to the stage for A Stór Mo Chroí, a musical gathering featuring some of Ireland’s finest singer.
The lineup featured Karan Casey; Lumiere’s Eilís Kennedy and Pauline Scanlan; Muireann Nic Amhlaoimh and John Spillane, with Donogh Hennessy on guitar, Dónal O’Connor on fiddle, and John McSherry on uileann pipes.
This was a slow burner, with excellent individual performances, including Nic Amhlaoimh’s rendition of a Muskerry favourite, ‘Cois Abhann na Séad’; ‘The Streets of Derry’, “the only known song in Ireland with a happy ending”; ‘Fair and Tender Ladies’; Spillane’s ‘All The Ways You Wander’ and ‘Passage West’; ‘Paddy’s Lamentation’, with high-energy Scannell, in particular, stoking up the embers after the interval, whipping the ever-appreciative audience towards another standing ovation.
Every city needs festivals and Cork has them in abundance — it is lucky to have many folk greats involved in this one, not all of them on stage. Stalwarts such as chairman Jim Walsh; festival organiser William Hammond; festival co-ordinators Anne Brennan and Elaine McCarthy, and many others, deserve the city’s thanks.
Go dtí an bhliain seo chugainn.