Belfast 'worldbilly' musician now Quebec's local legend


WILD GEESE: EMIGRANT BUSINESS LEADERS ON OPPORTUNITIES ABROAD:Aindriú MacGabhann Traditional Irish musician in Montreal

GROWING UP in Belfast, Aindriú Mac Gabhann dreamt of rock stardom. Inspired by bands like the Sex Pistols, the Stranglers and the Clash, he would mess around on an electric guitar with his friends in the garage.

Now, more than 30 years later, he is making a living from his art in Montreal. It was a passion for French-Canadian ladies that led him repeatedly to the city, where he has made a name for himself with his distinctive delivery of traditional Irish music.

Belfast Andi, as he is known, left his home city in the 1980s after spending the best part of a decade working as a photographer. Tired of the Troubles, he decided to move to London, where he found work on the building sites and as a motorcycle courier.

His interest in music was revived while hanging around the Irish pubs of Camden, where he found himself singing for the punters. The money was good but he always knew he would leave London one day.

It was during the summer of Live Aid that fate played a hand. Visiting the Tower of London, Mac Gabhann met twins from Montreal, one of whom would become a penpal. It took six years for them to meet again. Besotted, he flitted between Montreal and London for a couple of years.

The relationship didn’t work out, but Mac Gabhann went on to meet another French-Canadian. The two married and moved to Scotland, where he continued singing in the Irish bars of Edinburgh. His wife, who had no musical experience, played the bodhrán.

They moved back to Montreal in the mid-nineties, but divorced soon afterwards. Drinking in the city’s Irish pubs, hearing performers singing in phoney Irish accents, Mac Gabhann knew he could do a lot better. Before long, he was playing gigs five nights a week.

French-Canadians are especially appreciative of Irish folk, he points out, given the links with their own traditional music which has a strong Celtic feel. “You can see Quebec people wearing kilts, playing fiddles and singing in French,” he says. “The craic is similar.”

Mac Gabhann’s sense of kinship with the Quebec people intensified after a trip to Grosse Île, a former quarantine station on the St Lawrence River. There, thousands of Irish fleeing the great Famine fell victim to a raging typhus epidemic.

He learned how the Quebec people took in Irish orphans, allowing them to keep their names. As a result, many French-Canadians now have Irish surnames. “It made me feel closer to them,” says Mac Gabhann. “I thought, you helped our people; in a way, you are our people.”

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. In the tight-knit music scene, local musicians could be protective of their territory. Then, there was the tyranny of the “plastic paddy” to contend with.

With his long hair and heavily tattooed arms, Mac Gabhann is far from being a “plastic paddy”. Although resigned to playing the odd bit of Irish vaudeville for punters with shamrocks in their eyes, he is far happier when pushing the boundaries of traditional music.

In recent years, he has found himself migrating towards the world music scene. It all began when his second wife started belly dancing in local restaurants. Mac Gabhann provided the music, playing Irish tunes with an eastern flourish.

Not only did the music work, it also prompted an unexpected evolution in his style. He has found himself collaborating with local musicians experimenting with an assortment of sounds from places like Russia, Armenia and North Africa – a genre known as “worldbilly”.

It’s a long way from his mums garage in Belfast. Had he stayed there, Mac Gabhann believes his musical career would never have got off the ground. The competition back home would have been too stiff. “Over there, people are doing it for fun, yet the standard is amazing,” he says.

Modest though he may be, theres no denying that Belfast Andi has become something of a local legend. One of his old bandmates from Belfast confessed to a sense of envy.

“He said I had taken a chance and just done it. But, to be honest, I’ve always stumbled through life. I’m not one for planning. Otherwise I’d be a banker.”