The Donegal fiddle style – fiery pacing, assertive bowing patterns and a fondness for ‘playing the octave’ – is now in the hands of a young trio called Fidil, writes Siobhán Long
THERE’S SOMETHING brewing in the north-west these days. A young fiddling trio have cast their collective eyes and ears over a rake of traditional music from their home place and have made it unassailably their own. If, as Gweedore fiddler Ciarán Ó Maonaigh suggests, the mark of a good musician is his or her ability “to take a good composition and make it a great tune”, then Fidil must be have been mainlining decent tunes from the get-go.
The Donegal fiddle style is widely admired for its fiery pacing, assertive bowing patterns and a fondness among players for “playing the octave”, whereby one musician tackles the melody of a tune with another playing the same melody in a lower octave. It’s a style distinguished, too, by its rich and diverse collection of tune types, from highland and strathspey to barndance (also known as “german” locally). Still, suggesting that the county cleaves to a single style is akin to suggesting that all Donegal natives speak with the one accent. Nothing could be further from the truth, insists Ó Maonaigh.
“Where you get a gathering of maybe 10 fiddlers in Glenties, everybody’s got such a personal style that having 10 fiddle players playing wouldn’t really work,” he says, smiling. “Instead, one fiddle would be produced and it would make its way around the table, with everybody else listening and having the craic. After a while, a second fiddle might be produced and that’s when the melody playing would come in, with a player accompanying but taking care not to smother the tune. That gives the person who’s playing the melody all the freedom in the world to do what they want with it.”
Ó Maonaigh’s bandmates are Ardara fiddler Damien McGeehan and Dunkineely fiddler Aidan O’Donnell. McGeehan became involved with Ó Maonaigh and O’Donnell shortly after they released Fidil, their debut as a duo, last year. What started as a one-off collaboration for the Donegal Bluestacks Festival morphed into something entirely new, as the three fiddlers were drawn in earnest to arranging tunes for three fiddles.
Mercifully, this is a trio with an ear keenly tuned to the audience. Both O’Donnell and McGeehan are graduates of the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, but none of the three sing or dance (although O’Donnell has been known to step it out in style offstage) and they’re all aware that 90 minutes of straight-up fiddle-playing, while it might be nirvana for them, could potentially be a musical Hades for the listener.
“We try to vary it as much as we can,” says Ó Maonaigh, with one ear cocked towards a burgeoning career and the other tuned to the realities of eking out a living as a traditional musician.
McGeehan sees the prospect of sharing a stage with two other Donegal fiddlers as a challenge to be relished. “I do think that the challenge was definitely one of the reasons why we wanted to do it,” he chips in. “It was a big reason why we got together as well.”
Ó Maonaigh recalls an observation made by another Donegal fiddler, Danny Meehan. “You can never take out of the fiddle all the notes that are in it,” he says. “Even the most amazing classical violinist might not be able to play The Bucks of Oranmore, and we mightn’t be the best people to play a concerto, but you can take elements of a style and use them as a basis for an arrangement of a tune. You might, for example, find within the rhythm of a tune a small riff that gives you the basis for a new arrangement.”
THE TRIO’S DEBUT CD, Fidil 3, found its way into the light with creative sparks flying between the three musicians. Judicious support was added by way of Music Network’s Young Musicwide Award 2008, which gives the trio financial, touring, recording and promotional support over a three-year period.
Ó Maonaigh is adamant that Fidil’s goal is not to “preserve” the music of their home place. Organisations such as Cairdeas na bhFidiléirí take care of that end of the business, recording, archiving and collecting music, which in itself is the trampoline from which emerging musicians can leap into the great unknown.
“All of those musicians have given us the confidence to take the tune and do our own thing with it,” says Ó Maonaigh.
O’Donnell nods in agreement. “If you think of music as a language, as a way of communicating emotion, it’s important to think about the personality that’s communicating that emotion too. I think that when you listen to our CD, you can clearly hear our individual personalities in the tunes. For me though, my hope is that this album might transcend those boundaries and reach beyond just a traditional audience. It might be an access point for people who would be into jazz or classical music.”
Ó Maonaigh makes no bones about the driving need to put an individual stamp on the music too. “The thing you’d get panned for at home would be if you didn’t have your own personality in the music,” he says. “Everybody talks about the Donegal style, but there are as many styles as there are players. If you take the Glencolumbcille parish, there are at least three styles there – Kilcar, Teelin and Glen – within a radius of just seven or eight miles.”
O’Donnell adds further to the complexity of the subject: “And each of those breaks down into further styles too.”
Ultimately, these intensely local styles are what distinguish well-known local musical personalities, such as Francie Dearg O’Beirn.
“These are prototypical,” O’Donnell notes, “so that the first person you think of when you think of Donegal is John Doherty – but there’s nobody else who plays like John Doherty! There’s such an emphasis on individuality, but when you’ve got a living tradition that’s so strong, I think that it’s no harm at all in bringing your own individual style to the music.”
Fidil don’t hold back in live performances either. Interspersing their forensically arranged tune sets with wry anecdotes of musicians’ escapades and tall tales of tunes emerging from the unlikeliest corners, they generally seize their audiences by the scruff of the neck, but with the subtlety that’s quintessentially Donegal. And as for the ease with which they’ve taken their home-grown repertoire on the road (to Iceland, Macedonia, Latvia, Nova Scotia and New York, for starters), O’Donnell figures that it’s not all that surprising really.
“The music travels really well,” he says. “You know, the fiddle can be found in nearly every musical tradition in the world. And we play waltzes and descriptive pieces that are very accessible to anyone, regardless of where they are.”
Fidil 3 contains a Technicolor “descriptive piece” called The Hunt of the Hound and the Hare, which doesn’t conform to the more usual shapes of jigs, reels, hornpipes or strathspeys. It’s an amalgam of different tune types which narrate a hunt from start to finish, replete with the piercing cry of the hare when it’s finally cornered. While the sleeve notes include a full explanation of what’s happening musically, they discovered that most children responded viscerally to the soundscape and needed little guidance to follow the narrative arc of the tune.
“We played in a school in Iceland and didn’t explain what was happening in the tune,” Ó Maonaigh recalls, “and these wee three- and four-year-olds were immediately reacting with ‘oh, he’s dying, he’s dying’. Sometimes, as adults, we try to think too deeply, but this is folk music and the story is there to be taken from it.”
THESE DAYS, FIDIL are taking their tunes wherever they find an audience. They’re navigating the highways and byways of the country with the enthusiasm of newcomers but with the wariness of those who know that the road can take its toll. As Clare fiddler Martin Hayes has said, he doesn’t get paid for playing, he gets paid for travelling. O’Donnell, however, is busily hatching a plan to transform Fidil’s touring experience in earnest. “I think that all we need now is for Music Network to give us a helicopter,” he says. “Sure, we’d be sure to put their logo on the side of it – but it’d make a big difference, there’s no doubt about that!”
Fidil 3 is on Claddagh Records; Fidil play the Factory Performance Space, Sligo, at 8pm on Friday (€15/€12)