Flook man Brian Finnegan on touring with godfather of Russian rock Boris Grebenshikov
Armagh flute player Brian Finnegan has gone from Flook, via a love affair with India and its music, to touring with Russia's best known rocker in all corners of that vast country and, thankfully, back again
I LOVE writing this column for a lot of reasons. The main thing is to show that all trad music isn't the same and that traditional musicians can be among the most engaging people in the world.
Take Armagh's Brian Finnegan for example. Brian got into music indirectly through athletics and asthma, as the man himself explains.
“Well, I got into athletics at the same age as I was first introduced to music. My dad Jim was a member of the Armagh Athletic Club and my sisters and I joined him when I was nine years old.
“Because I suffered from asthma as a child, part of the treatment plan was breathing exercises, morning and night, to strengthen the lungs. Both the running and the flute playing seemed tailored for me at the time ; it felt natural to play an instrument that needed my breath – it gave the flute it's voice. Then I heard Matt Malloy and Mary Bergin play and knew I'd chosen the right path.”
I should point out now that this interview was done while Brian was in Russia and I was in Bordeaux and here we were talking about the people who helped Brian set out on his path, Brian and Eithne Vallely and their Armagh Pipers Club.
“They are as devoted to the music and the nurturing of it in youngsters today as they were when I first went,” he recalls. “I was in a city called Arkhangelsk on Wednesday night, up in the far north of Russia, about to go on stage,” says Brian Finnegan. “I'm able to do this because when I was eight years old and didn't know what I was any good at Brian and Eithne spotted in me a natural curiosity to learn and they opened up Piper's Club groups and trips abroad to include me, knowing how potent that would be, they taught me to believe in myself, to always have a go.”
Brian Finnegan, of course, is best known as being a member of Flook, a band which at one stage looked as if it had had a stake through the heart but the band are back together after four years away from the fray!
“We'd been touring solidly for 13 years and felt it would revitalise us to step back for a while. We never intended to split nor was there an expectation to get back together, it happened nice and easy and felt like we just took up again where we left off... like the best friendships, I suppose,” says Brian.
Mr Finnegan is in the news again, having contributed to the Leviathan that is Ed Sheeran's new album, Divide. He hasn't met Ed yet, his contribution to the tracks being put down remotely in a session the week after the Beoga folks got back from spending time chez Ed.
“I can't imagine what his life is like right now, that much attention and opinion directed toward him, but it seems he treats people well and that's fair enough for me,” says the flautist.
There are those however, who would poo-poo the idea of the tradition (bless yourself) slumming it with pop musicians. Brian will have none of it.
“Because I do quite a bit of cross-genre work, over the years folk have asked, does trad work with this or that? I believe that if you explore the rough outer edges of traditional music, you'll find others exploring the same space in jazz and rock and pop. That's where it works: if it's static and there's no willingness to compromise, then you're in trouble,” he says.
Brian could be called the Armagh Globetrotter, he has criss-crossed the world so often looking for an listening to music, especially that of India.
“I was 28 when I went to India for the first time to perform. The Northumbrian piper Kathryn Tickell first introduced me to Indian music, but I really didn't have a clue what to expect when I was invited by the Arts Council to tour for three weeks alongside two of the country's greatest flute masters, Sunil Kant Gupta and Rajendra Prasanna.
“The experience blew me away. I'd never improvised with players that good – they were pulling me out of the deep water every night. But they were also two of the most generous players and it was their regard for small details, their daily practice, the ritual of playing and getting ready to play, that I took away with me.”
But perhaps the most interesting country Brian is involved in is Russia, a country we in the West think we could summarise in a handfull of clichés we borrowed from the Americans.
According to Brian himself, it has been “a crazy ride" this past decade working there and almost inconceivable that a whistle player from Armagh could be making music next to the godfather of Russian rock, Boris Grebenshikov, whose band, Aquarium, Brian has been a member of for over six years.
It all came from a gig in New York, an invitation to meet a holy man called Sri Chinmoy and then to a concert in The Royal Albert Hall months later to mourn his passing and to celebrate his life. That's where Brian met Boris.
Amazingly (or maybe not) Boris had been playing Flook records for years on his weekly radio show. Now the memories are legion.
“Criss-crossing the frozen tundra by sleeper train all the way from Europe to the Far East – and back again, every season. A show on St Patrick's Day 2015 in the restricted naval city of Severodvinsk up in the Artic circle when Brian and the drummer Liam Bradley were almost arrested for espionage, to Rock On The Volga in front of a million people in the summer heat.
“It's a vast country full of enchanted corners and mysterious peoples, and I see them opened and illuminated every night, BG's songs and his reinvention of the bardic tradition are revelatory,” says Brian.
And as for the future, Brian hopes for more of the same, more Russia and beyond, and more Flook, possibly with a new album in the autumn.
I've also loved doing some gigs with John McSherry, Donal O'Connor and Niall Murphy in 2016, so I hope that will get a run this year also," he says.