Banjo great rekindles his passion for trad

Béla Fleck will be joined by Irish performers for his first gig in Cork in 25 years this week, says Nicki ffrench Davis

BÉLA FLECK, one of the world’s most adventurous musicians, performs in Cork for the first time in 25 years on Wednesday.

Fleck is widely regarded as the greatest banjo player in the world, and has performed in many genres. Bluegrass music attracted him to the banjo, growing up in New York city. In high school in the 1970s, he saw Chick Corea perform and so Fleck infused his own playing with jazz.

Fleck has received 30 Grammy nominations, in more categories than anyone, and has won 14. He has collaborated with artists from diverse cultures. In the late 1980s, a meeting with the incomparable bassist Victor Wooten grew into Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, a band that plays to audiences of half a million every year.

Fleck’s gig in Cork follows up on the Junctions 2011 series of concerts at the Pavilion, which was comprised of four unique collaborations curated and hosted by Buille. The series was perhaps the most exciting thing to happen in folk music in the city since the foundation of the Cork Folk Festival, and was realised with the support of the Arts Council. This concert will see Fleck make a rare appearance with his wife, singer-songwriter and clawhammer banjo player, Abigail Washburn, and will be a once-off collaboration with Karan Casey and Buille. Fleck has played in Cork just twice, in the mid-1980s. His first wife, singer Maura O’Connell, from County Clare, set up the first concert.

“It was a happy time when we were first falling in love with Ireland and Irish music. I remember the gig being extremely fun,” he says.

“Irish music is the first music from outside of my world that I really fell for and learned a lot about. Finding out that I could partially assimilate it made me much braver and willing to try all sorts of things, which eventually led me to Africa, and India, and even China. I love learning and finding my role in these challenging and fascinating forms,” Fleck says.

Joining Buille and Karan Casey, Fleck will be reintroduced to contemporary Irish traditional music. “There was a time when I really felt like I understood the Irish music scene, but now I fear that my understandings are outdated. When I was coming over in the ’80s I saw the music move from De Dannan to Moving Hearts and Stockton’s Wing, and I got to hear Paul Brady move from traditional stuff to his own songs. I have lost touch with the current scene, but I haven’t lost my love for the music. I enjoy it all equally, and don’t differentiate between trad or modern, just what moves me or doesn’t,” he says.

Fleck’s duet with Cork’s international blues legend, the late Rory Gallagher, appeared on Gallagher’s posthumously released Wheels Within Wheels album, a collection of live acoustic collaborations. “He was a dynamo,” says Fleck. “I was fortunate enough to be performing at the same festival in Montreaux, Switzerland. The promoter grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and pushed me out on stage with Rory. I didn’t know him, or his music, in the slightest at the time. But we had this amazing jam and not long afterwards he died. I didn’t know that the show was being recorded until his brother got in touch with me to ask for permission to use the tracks we played live together, which were quite good. Now I am a fan.”

Fleck’s return to Cork springs from a friendship with Karan Casey, the internationally renowned singer and wife of Buille’s Niall Vallely. “I first met Karan when she was the voice of Solas. They were one of my all-time favourite bands of the next wave,” says Fleck. “I love what she’s been doing in the last few years on her own. She’s a soulful singer, that is for sure. And I look forward to playing with Buille. The recordings sound great.”

The Cork concert presents a rare treat, indeed, when Fleck will be joined by Washburn on stage. A success in her own right, Washburn’s sweet and understated voice and inspired songwriting have combined on two solo albums to date. “Abby and I don’t get to play together that often. We are husband and wife, and one day we will perform extensively as a duo. These days, it is occasional and very precious every time.

“For those who don’t know her, she is a beautiful singer and a fine old-time banjo player. Oh, yes, and she sings in Chinese sometimes,” he says.

* Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn perform at the Junctions festival at the Pavilion in Cork on Wednesday.

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