Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Martin Hayes & Iarla Ó'Lionáird

Ah, musicians, they come in all shapes and sizes, and bearing all manner of ambitions. Roughly speaking, they can be divided into two classes – those in it for the celebrity, and those who got snared by the magic of music and have never figured a way out.

You have to wonder why the celebrity hounds get into it in the first place – they have less chance of success than Steve Duggan nailing eight winners on a rainy day in Belmont.

Come to think of it I don’t know why I got into the music game myself – I’d have made a better parish priest! However, there are consolations - one of them hosting Celtic Crush on SiriusXM - for it allows me to interview other musicians and get to the heart of their relationship with their craft.

I steer well clear of celebrity seekers who have basically little to offer except their Facebook and Twitter numbers. On the other hand, I had wanted to interview Iarla Ó’Lionáird and Martin Hayes for a long time.

Iarla was the singer with Afro-Celt Sound System, a groundbreaking group that melded Irish and African music with some formidable dance beats.

How would you describe Martin Hayes’ work? A multi-tasking friend once stood spell-struck and described it as the closest thing she ever heard to fairy music. There is, indeed, a very spiritual side to Martin’s playing but there’s an even deeper connection to the magical countryside of East Clare.

Both artists dropped by the SiriusXM studios when in New York recently to play the Masters of Tradition show at Symphony Space. Those studios have seen and heard it all but I don’t think they experienced time standing still before.

Though Iarla and Martin have graced major stages around the world there’s an unhurried quality to their presence; still, there’s nothing casual about their music. It’s deeply felt, well thought out and oozes a quiet, but unruly, passion.

It’s the sense of connection to the origins of their music that makes them so singular. Iarla was born and reared in Cúl Aodha in West Cork where Sean O’Ríada retreated to immerse himself in Gaelic culture.

As a boy he joined O’Riada’s local choir and witnessed first hand the creative strivings of our greatest musical innovator. As he talked about this experience it was as if Cork’s misty mountains closed in around us, and when he sang as Gaeilge a very old song handed down by a relative, all the questions I had planned about his years with Afro-Celt evaporated.

Likewise Martin draws from the deep well of music particular to East Clare. He is profoundly aware that he is channeling more than mere notes but rather a tradition created by people who saw and heard things differently than we do today.

He cut his teeth playing in the Tulla Céilí Band, co-founded by his father, P.J. Hayes, and we spun P. Joe’s Reel, a track by this venerated dance band; then he played the same piece in his own inimitable, graceful style.

I’ve always loved to watch him play for he seems to lose himself, not just in the music, but in the place and time from where it originated – much like the old bluesmen. When he opens his eyes at the end of a piece both you and he have traveled a long way in a very short time.

The commitment of Hayes and O’Lionáird to their music is stirring. It has little to do with money, fame or celebrity. They’ve been lucky enough to receive a gift and they’re conscious of their duty to share it.

If this modern world is beating you down take a listen to Foxlight by Iarla Ó’Lionáird and Welcome Here Again by Martin Hayes and his gifted musical partner, Dennis Cahill. Both albums will prove a tonic for the soul and will transport you to a misty West Cork mountainside and the magical country of East County Clare.

That’s what great music does for you – it blocks out the babble of an intrusive world and leaves you at peace with yourself.

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