Leitrim bound and loving it
Leitrim artists-in- residence Lúnasa are revelling in the opportunity to keep the county's trad flame burning, and are picking up a few new tricks from old dogs along the way, writes Siobhán Long
What is it that defines traditional music? What are its vital signs? Its pulse? If it's the quantum of new recordings, the most cursory straw poll would suggest it's in a rude state of health. If it's the number of young musicians who play traditional tunes in their repertoires, then its pulse is keeping time to the most resilient of metronomes. But there are other metrics that would cast a pall over traditional music's fitness to practice, and, according to some of its more seasoned players, traditional music is in dire danger of losing its distinctive accent, bartering its local dialect in the rush towards homogeneous expression. While we might laud the braggadocio of the polkas and slides of Sliabh Luachra or hanker after the spare fiddle styles of east Clare, certain pockets of the country have seen their local musical accents eroded to within an inch of their existence.
Leitrim, a county long-pummelled by its steadfast unwillingness to chest-thump about its music (or indeed its breathtaking lakeland geography) has woken up to the perils of rampant globalisation and its own county council has set the bar high, as far as its action plan for the rescue of its indigenous traditional music goes anyway.
Ben Lennon is the Lee Marvin of Leitrim traditional music. A native of Kiltyclogher, his tall, distinguished frame, capped by a head of snow-white hair (that would have been the envy of Douglas Fairbanks in his heyday), conceals a wealth of tunes and an indefatigable love of the music of his home place. Leitrim music, like its modest, rolling hills, and its subtly-elongated vowels, has a gentility that finds little succour in a world where amps are turned to 11, and where rhythm and pace are nothing if not breakneck. Lennon extols the virtues of observing the unhurried pace of a tune in a rich, baritone voice, that leaves the listener with no alternative but to sit up and take note.
"I think the problem is that people aren't inclined to listen any more," Lennon surmises, still buoyed by the adrenaline rush he shared with all five members of Lúnasa in an informal late afternoon session in Connolly's bar in Manorhamilton the previous day. Lennon and Lúnasa weren't only swapping tunes, they were trading in versions of tunes, borrowing a twist here, a turn there, so that by the time they finally parted, their swag of tunes had grown exponentially. "All too often, young musicians want to get rid of a tune, to play it as quickly as possible and to get on to the next one," Lennon insists. "But playing with Seán Smyth and the lads in Lúnasa, they took the tunes at a steady pace, and in fiddle music, that's all in the seamless, steady bowing. There's an old saying: 'The darkness does not destroy the beauty of that which it conceals.' I think musicians need to be far more mindful of that than they are of just trying to plough through the music recklessly."
Caoimhín Corrigan, Leitrim County Council's arts officer, had a crystalline picture of what the council hoped to achieve through the artist in residency programme which will lure Lúnasa back to the county over an 18-month period.
This is the first of what Corrigan hopes will be three successive residencies, with each phase of the project building on the last.
"It's important to credit two musicians, Tom Morrow and Liam Kelly [ both from Dervish], who spoke to us about the importance of having role models in traditional music, just as you would in sport or any other field of endeavour," Corrigan offers, to explain the genesis of the project. "That's particularly important in helping to maintain interest in the music as people approach their teens. As well as that, there's a very strong tradition of Leitrim music and it seemed to me that the county is ripe for engaging with that music on a number of levels."
Lúnasa are spending a total of eight three-day sessions in Leitrim. With just three of those sessions now completed, they've engaged with a small group of young musicians in a New Tunes Workshop with the express aim of nurturing local tunesmithery.
Louise Devitt, a young flute player from Drumkeeran, is loving the experience of honing her playing and writing skills in the company of Lúnasa's charismatic flute and bodhrán player, Kevin Crawford, their guitarist and banjo player, Paul Meehan, and their double bassist, Trevor Hutchinson.
"They've given us such a great insight into how to go about writing tunes," Devitt says. A long time fan of Crawford's flute playing, she's can't believe her luck. "I'd never have sat down to write without Lúnasa's help. They welcome what we bring to the workshop, so it's been great for our confidence. To be sitting there playing tunes with our favourite musicians: I could never have imagined this could happen, and right here in Leitrim too." Seán Smyth, Lúnasa's fiddler, makes no bones about the benefits to be garnered from a partnership such as this. The band's formidable reputation was built precisely on this kind of grassroots engagement with the music. And even if they can notch up 7,000 road miles in a month (as bassist Trevor Hutchinson did in July), Lúnasa insist that they need to return to the well, just as much as any other musician must do, to replenish the stock and refresh the palate for the tunes.
"It's as much an educational process for us, as anybody else," Smyth enthuses. "It's very refreshing for us as a band. Having a chance to sit down with someone like Ben Lennon, and to learn from him, visiting the schools, and visiting some of the nursing homes around the county, we've encountered great musicians all along the way. It's great to get the chance to promote the music in the county, which we love being part of, and naturally the council want us to promote the music of Leitrim abroad when we're on tour. That's why they were looking for internationally touring trad bands, and we didn't have to be asked twice."
WATCHING LÚNASA PLAY to a packed house in Manorhamilton's the Glens Centre last Thursday night, the pulse of the music was palpable, as was the Leitrim influence. Ben Lennon joined the band for a few tunes, reminding them of the benefits of secreting a few barn dances amid the jostle and push of reels and jigs. Kevin Crawford dined out on the band's intractable difficulties in nailing the origin and title of many a tune. Laden with colourful tales of solicitors' letters and of uncredited writers' bruised egos, the band were meticulous in repairing past misdemeanours by crediting Leitrim with its own tunes, in particular a tune composed by Maurice Lennon, Maeve's Dance, incorrectly christened The Stone Of Destinyon Lúnasa's latest CD, Sé.
As a Mayo native, Smyth has long been conversant with the Sligo/Leitrim fiddle style, as exemplified by the renowned fiddlers Michael Coleman and James Morrison. "To come here and play with musicians playing in that style has enthralled me," he says, with his customary grin. "So many counties border Leitrim though, that we've been learning a lot about the diversity of styles that can be found along the Cavan, Fermanagh, Donegal and Sligo borders." Piper Cillian Vallely is a man of few words. Usually, he lets his pipes do the talking, but cradled in the bosom of Leitrim music, he's delighted to pitch into the animated conversation that's been kick-started by this artist-in-residency programme.
"We've worked with children and in the community, in what are called outreach gigs in Hawaii, in Australia, New Zealand and even in Alaska," he offers. (Smyth likens the reactions of some of the school children, on first seeing the uilleann pipes in all their drone and chanter glory, to that of a sighting of Shrek, such was their wide-eyed amazement at the intricacy of this alien form.) "The truth is though, we're loving every minute of this. And we certainly have more than a few candidates for new tunes to add to our set list when we leave."
"We want to develop the ear of people, as well as their artistry," Caoimhín Corrigan says, summarising the council's long-term view of the potential benefit of this innovative programme. "Some people are inclined to think that trad music is trad music, and that it all sounds the same, but it's not. It's as sophisticated as any other genre, with as many styles as any other form of music."
Lúnasa's artist-in-residency programme continues with a visit to Ballinamore in late August. http://www. leitrimcoco.ie/Departments/Arts/Lúnasa/. The band play in the Mermaid Arts Centre on Thurs