‘THE IDEA IS that you don’t have to do any cartwheels here to entertain the audience,” explains Martin Hayes, sharing his vision for this year’s Masters of Tradition festival, an event that’s grown organically over little more than a handful of years. “You don’t have to do anything except be yourself – that’s the message I give everybody who plays here. You don’t need to impress the audience, because they expect you to be who you are.”
Masters of Tradition has nurtured its audience with care, and has seen it grow incrementally, with some crossover from the chamber-music fan base built up by West Cork Music. It’s the notes (and, at times, the space between the notes) that matter, not simply the genre of music, Hayes suggests. “It’s not about mass audiences, and it’s not enough to fill football stadiums, because it’s not about huge commercial success. But for people who come to hear it, a great thing happens musically, I think.”
This year, Masters of Tradition features the Mulcahy family – Mick, Louise and Michelle – who bring a riveting mix of Sliabh Luachra muscularity and Clare finesse to the programme. Natives of Abbeyfeale, on the mythical Sliabh Luachra border, Louise and Michelle between them play pipes, flute, harp, concertina and fiddle, while their father, Mick, is a widely respected accordion player.
The family’s latest (and second) CD, Reelin’ in Tradition , has drawn together an eclectic range of tunes, from those of the late Sliabh Luachra accordion giant, Johnny O’Leary, to those of American-born tunesmith Charlie Mulvihill.
LOUISE MULCAHY IS one of less than a handful of female pipers who can be heard playing in public. It’s a lonesome furrow if you’re seeking role models, although the number of young girls taking up the instrument in Na Píobairí Uilleann classes is growing steadily.
“People see it as a difficult instrument”, Louise says, “and it’s certainly dominated by male players. Looking back, historically, pipes were given to the male members of families, and even in terms of present-day attitudes, they’re perceived to be a very difficult instrument to play. I also find that a lot of technical language surrounds the pipes too: discussions about making reeds and fixing the pipes, so you have to engage in that as well.”
Michelle Mulcahy’s harp-playing is a standout on the family’s latest collection. Playing fiddle and concertina as well, she lists as influences a diverse mix of musicians, among them Noel Hill, Tommy Peoples, Tony Linnane, Seamus Ennis, Tony MacMahon and Matt Molloy, as well as the Sliabh Luachra holy trinity of Pádraig O’Keeffe, Julia Clifford and Denis Murphy. Michelle is quick to emphasise the need to balance technical prowess with emotional investment in the music.
“I suppose you need technique to a certain extent,” she says, “but, for us, it was never the be-all and end-all. ‘From the heart’ was what dad always emphasised to us growing up. Technique developed for us as we grew up, but what really matters, I think, is the feeling and having the ‘grá’ for the music. I think that’s the one thing that we all share in common and what binds us together when we play.”
A local accent is undeniable in the Mulcahys’ playing. Sliabh Luachra, with all its inherent rhythm and joie de vivre , propels the polka set, Captain Moonlight’s Army , back to its roots in the Rushy Glen (on the border of counties Cork, Kerry and Limerick), but there are a number of reels which, in their more delicate execution, whisper of the affection for Clare music handed down to Louise and Michelle by their father. As far as Louise is concerned, finding one’s own voice takes precedent over preoccupations about whether an accent is authentic or not.
“It’s up to the individual,” she says, “and our choice is to stay as close to the tradition as possible. Growing up with Dad, we’ve been steeped in the music of Sliabh Luachra, and you can’t deny that, for sure, but we love the rhythms in Clare music too, so I suppose we’ve been drawn to those tunes for that reason.”
Michelle, TG4’s Young Traditional Musician of the Year in 2006, has composed more than her share of tunes already, and one of them, The Road to Cree , made it on to the Mulcahy family’s 2005 debut, Notes from the Heart . For the most recent album, she has been less forthcoming, with no tunes contributed at all. Might she be saving them for a solo outing perhaps?
“Writing tunes is instinctive, and I love it,” she offers, modestly and reluctantly. “If I’m writing, I might just take up the harp or fiddle, but I wouldn’t necessarily write it down in notes. I would tend to write from the sound of what’s coming from the fingers.
“I’ve written a fair few tunes now. I’ve written them for the different instruments that I play, and I’d love to record them at some stage. If I do a solo album, maybe I’ll include a couple more of them.”
Having graduated from the Young Masters of Tradition, an associated festival which West Cork Music developed in order to nurture emerging musicians, Louise is delighted to find herself sharing top billing with her family, alongside singers John Flanagan and Niamh Parsons and guitarist Graham Dunne.
Playing in such a glorious setting, to an attentive audience, is something she doesn’t take for granted.
“I’m so looking forward to going back there,” she enthuses. “It does wonders for the soul really.”
AT THE HEART of this Masters of Tradition festival is a two-way conversation between musician and audience. Martin Hayes speaks volubly of the challenge facing any musician when trying to define what he or she does as either entertainment or art.
“Every performer sits somewhere on that continuum,” he says. “You’re either a person who ignores the audience entirely and just plays internally, and doesn’t embrace the situation, or you’re somebody who can’t imagine anything except embracing the audience irrespective of what you have to do.
“The difference between entertainment and art is that entertainment is a passive activity, and if you enjoy the art, you have to participate as a listener, you have to engage in the journey somehow. You have to come towards it a little bit, without getting uppity or stuffy about it, of course.”
Hayes has curated this festival since its inception, and it’s a role which, while initially alien, has turned out to tap into familiar skills.
“I really didn’t think that I’d enjoy doing it, and they kinda talked me into it initially,” he says, “but, you know, it’s not an awful lot different to picking a set of tunes for a concert, and deciding on combinations of moods and tempos to sculpt an evening. Picking artists and putting them in a certain order over a few days to generate something – I approach it a little bit like putting a session together, in a way. Loosely, I say that, of course!”
Masters of Tradition runs from Aug 12 to 16 in Bantry House, Co Cork. Artists featured include Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Kevin Crawford, Steve Cooney, Paddy Keenan, Peadar Ó Riada, Seán Ó Sé and John Spillane. Flute player John Wynne will also perform, with John and Jacinta McEvoy on fiddle and flute. Christy Moore will play one of the late-night sessions, which is already sold out. Bookings: westcorkmusic.ie or 027-52788. Reelin’ in Tradition, the latest CD from Mick, Louise and Michelle Mulcahy is on the Cló Iar-Chonnachta label; cic.ie