Within a couple years of their immigration in 1980 to Portland, Ore., I saw former Bothy Band members Kevin Burke on fiddle and Micheal O Domhnaill (1951-2006) on guitar and vocals in concert together at the Alternative Museum on White Street in lower Manhattan. Surrounded by avant-garde art and perched not far from a subway whose low rumble added periodic percussion, I sat with about 200 others to see and hear one of the greatest duos in the history of Irish traditional music. It was the first time I saw Micheal sing “Lord Franklin,” one of two songs to which he’ll be forever linked (the other is “The Death of Queen Jane”). During intermission, the crowd sipped wine, gazed at the art, and chatted about the music.
On another occasion at the Alternative Museum, I marveled at the music and laughed at the banter from another famous duo, brothers Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003) on fiddle and Phil Cunningham on piano accordion, members of the popular Scottish traditional band Silly Wizard.
“Did you see the two piles of CD’s for sale?” Johnny asked the audience as he pointed to them right after intermission. “That very tall, unsold pile is the CD’s of my brother Phil, and that wee, nearly sold-out pile is my own CD’s.”
On Oct. 14, 2003, just two months before he died of a heart attack, Johnny gave back-to-back concerts with Phil in Leonard Nimoy Thalia, a theater inside Manhattan’s Symphony Space complex. It was a night full of virtuosic fiddling and accordion and piano playing, and no shortage of kidding. Said Johnny to Phil, who was testing the keys on a Yamaha piano: “Do that a few more times, and you can get a record contract with Windham Hill.” The irony, readily apparent to the audience, was that Johnny had been a member of Nightnoise, a Windham Hill act who included Micheal and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill.
In hindsight, how can you possibly place a price on that night’s performances, displaying the late Johnny Cunningham in unforgettable form? Whether at the Alternative Museum, Symphony Space, Washington Square Church, Town Hall, Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York University’s Skirball Center, Highline Ballroom, or several other venues in New York City, the best in Irish and other Celtic traditional music remained a staple of the richly diverse concert programming organized and presented by Robert Browning since 1975. He and his wife, Helene, were responsible for those concerts by Burke and O Domhnaill and the Cunningham brothers. For the past 26 years, Robert Browning, now age 70, has been the executive and artistic director of the World Music Institute, a not-for-profit, concert-presenting organization founded by him and Helene, its publicity director.
Another crowning achievement and memory of WMI for me came in the period between Oct. 2007 and May 2008 when it presented a series of 14 concerts featuring 42 National Heritage Fellowship winners in 4 different New York City venues. Among the National Heritage Fellowship honorees who performed were Joe Derrane (2004), Kevin Burke (2002), Mick Moloney (1999), Donny Golden (1995), and Liz Carroll (1994). The Nov. 30, 2007, “Ireland in America” concert at NYU’s Skirball Center was a special treat, showcasing Derrane accompanied by John McGann, Carroll accompanied by John Doyle, Moloney joined by Doyle, Billy McComiskey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Dana Lyn, Brendan Dolan, and Robbie O’Connell, and Golden stepdancing with John Jennings and sisters Cara and Jean (“Riverdance”) Butler.
Also performing under the aegis of WMI over the years were Altan, Lunasa, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Danu, Dervish, Tom and Maureen Doherty, Len Graham and Cathal McConnell, Andy McGann, Buttons & Bows, Karan Casey, and Patrick Street.
Browning retiring from World Music Institute