This is a guest post following last week’s post on Irish song and dance.
My name is James Chan. I’m a 19 years old Chinese guy living in Singapore.
I am a budding Irish trad musician. I play the Irish flute and tin whistle, and I’m just about to start on the fiddle. I started in end-2008 after watching a video on Youtube of someone playing the uilleann pipes and the tin whistle. I got my whistle in December that year, and was introduced to the rich, living and breathing Irish music tradition by a friend, who learnt the music through the way that many of the old greats did – by ear.
The Early Recordings
That friend introduced me to a number of old greats – pipers Felix Doran, Willie Clancy, and fiddlers Neillidh Boyle and Dennis Murphy. Many of those recordings were old and playback quality isn’t very good and many of the old players like Sligo fiddlers Paddy Killoran, Irish-American Michael Coleman and James Morrison had a deep style of the 40s era, which is quite unusual as compared to modern tastes. But I knew that these recordings contain the essence of the music; the pure drop.
Recording of Felix Doran.
Riverdance and Lord of the Dance definitely brought Irish folk culture to the world, and have shown us all how wonderful it can be. But I count myself privileged and blessed, that despite being in Singapore on the far side of the planet and that I would be more exposed to the modern sights and sounds, I am able to savour Irish folk music the way it was played for a long time – before the age of the internet and jet airlines. Since at the heart of the music is the dance, the music is rhythmic and we should celebrate the very quality that makes the music unique – its rhythm, and that’s very noticeable in the older recordings.
Davy Spillane playing the uileann pipes as part of Riverdance.
I stand by my opinion that the best way to learn all that is by ear, especially because there isn’t really a trad culture in my country. Thus, all musicians whom I’ve listened to on my iPod are my favourites, and have influenced me one way or another. However, there are a number of musicians whom have left a huge mark on my playing.
The first musician I listened to was flute player Michael Tubridy. A former member of Ceoltoirí Chulainn and a founding member of probably the best trad group ever – The Chieftains. Born in Kilrush, his Clare style is just irresistible. It shows to me that Irish music can be simplistic, yet heart-touching and is full of flavour and rhythm. He is one of those musicians who stayed true to the old style, despite being in a professional touring band.
Tommy Peoples, a fiddler, had a life marked with many ups and downs (he left school when he was young and traveled to Dublin to work in the Gardaí – the Irish police force), and through a TG4 documentary made about him in the video below. In it, you can really see his life experience shining through, and through his playing you can see how these experiences have humbled and mellowed him. From Donegal, he spent much of his musical life in Clare and elsewhere. As such his playing style contains little nuggets from the many styles he was imbued with, but is still ultimately Donegal.
Tommy Peoples documentary on TG4.
Though I like the Clare fiddlers like Paddy Canny, Sean Ryan, John Kelly, Junior Crehan amongst others, since I play the flute, the most influential flute music for me came from the Sligo region. The very first time I heard Sligo-Roscommon style player Seamus Tansey on the flute, my breath was taken away. His pace is fast, but still full of texture and nuance. As a Roscommon player, he and Roger Sherlock is known for the more elaborately ornamented playing.
Seamus Tansey playing the flute.
Eventually, I moved on to learning more about Kevin Henry. From Coleman country, he eventually moved to America. Unlike most the flute playing we are used to, Kevin Henry plays in a heavy, pulsing rhythm. You can see his playing on the below video. This style makes the musical phrasing stand out strong, and is a refreshing style against the usual, more stringy and melodic playing. Kevin Henry’s style influenced me the most in my flute playing, as I feel it defines me the best. Also, did you know that both Kevin Henry and Seamus Tansey also taught Michael Flatley the flute? Michael is a fantastic flute player too, and was a winner of a few All-Ireland flute titles.
Recording of Kevin Henry playing the flute.
Music’s Further Reaches
Through my process of learning the music and having a feel of authentic Irish folk culture, I gained an interest in other areas of the folk tradition: dancing, singing (especially sean-nós singing), story telling and especially, the language. It is difficult to find Gaelic teachers in Singapore (even Scottish ones), and I’m hoping to be able to learn the language formally one day, but for now Bitesize Gaelic Lessons are great for me.
Finally, my dream is to participate in the Fleadh Ceoil one day.
Please feel free to leave a reply or a question for James below.