Young musician of the year is piping up a storm


Coming from a family steeped in traditional music, it’s little wonder uilleann piper Pádraic Keane is tipped to become one of the piping greats

BALLYFERRITER’S Scoil Ceoil An Earraigh was in full swing in February, with sessions bursting from every pub, snug and backroom. Accordions, fiddles, concertinas, whistles and flutes (even the odd harp) jostled for space amid sessions, few of which wound down before sunrise. Into the midst of the melee loped Pádraic Keane, his pipes tucked nonchalantly under his arm.

Few may have noticed his arrival, but once he filled the bellows and flexed his fingers, he stilled the crowd. Even those more usually resistant to the sound of the uilleann pipes admitted that here was something special. It was there, plain to hear in the sharp definition of his fingering, in the inescapable momentum of his phrasing, and in particular, in his precise execution of slow airs.

Keane’s playing sets him apart, not just as a musician of impressive ability among his own generation, but as a piper with the kind of chutzpah that places him alongside the best in the tradition.

As the TG4 Young Traditional Musician Of The Year 2011, he cites the late Willie Clancy as one of his main influences, but Keane comes from a long line of traditional musicians (his father, Tommy, is a piper, and his mother, Jacqueline McCarthy, plays concertina) for whom music is almost as central a life force as oxygen.

“We always leave the pipes out on a dresser at home,” Keane says. “We never put them in a case, where you mightn’t bother taking them back out. When they’re there, you’ll pick them up and play them whenever you feel like it.”

In his early years, Keane benefited from borrowing a set of pipes from Na Píobairí Uilleann. These days, he plays a set of Leo Rowsome concert pitch pipes which belonged to his grandfather, the piper, Tommy McCarthy. In recent years, Keane’s father, Tommy, sent this set to Vermont, to be rehabilitated by Benedict Koehler who specialises in the restoration of Leo Rowsome pipes. He also has a flat set of pipes, from the pipe-maker, Geoff Wooff.

“The flat set is bigger than the concert set,” Keane explains, “and as they get flatter, they get quieter, with a more mellow sound. They’re not as loud as the concert pitch pipes, which I keep for playing with other people. If I’m playing solo, I’d play the flat set.”

Having briefly played drums and bass in a rock band, Amoeba, Keane focused his attention solely on the pipes in recent years. He finds himself drawn inevitably to the playing of Willie Clancy.

“He’d be one of my main influence, and he was a great slow air player. I like playing slow airs too. I find you just get into the mood of it when you’re playing. You can get a really great sound from the pipes for slow airs. But Willie Clancy was so inventive anyway – he threw in different things. The rhythm jumped here and there; he might pop the chanter and the whole rhythm of the tune would lift. He was just so different to other pipers. I think I was about 13 or 14 when I started to really listen a lot to his playing and tuned in to his style of piping.”

After receiving the young traditional musician of the year title, Keane is still acclimatising himself to the unexpected attention it brings. He reluctantly offers tips to aspiring pipers, largely because he hadn’t anticipated taking on the position of role model for other players – at least not yet.

Still, he’s keen to highlight to some of the finer points of a good piper. “After mastering the basics,” he offers, “lifting the chanter off the knee for different notes and ornamentation, I think, is something that is very important for any piper, to bring out the various colours of the chanter. Also, more important than anything, is to listen to as much piping as possible. There is always something to learn by listening and watching.”

Piping hot

Pádraic Keane’s top five piping albums

Drones and the Chanters Vol 1, Various Pipers

The Gold Ring Uilleann Piping from Co Clare, Willie Clancy

The Master Pipers Vol 1, Johnny Doran

Paddy Keenan,Paddy Keenan

The Return From Fingal, Séamus Ennis

The Keane family and others will be performing on Saturday at the TG4 2011 Gradam Ceoil Awards Concert in the Wexford Opera House. The show will be shown on TG4 on Easter Sunday, April 24th