Trad/Roots: Frankie Gavin says KGB arrival in Belfast should be cause for celebration
The name is very du jour, the Cold War being back with us, and KGB man Frankie Gavin can't promise he and his fellow trad triumvirate members Paddy Keenan and Dermot Byrne won't knock ‘em dead when they perform in Belfast next week. Should we start worrying?
THE KGB are coming to Belfast – but don’t worry, they aren’t bringing any poisons with them. Instead this particular KGB are bringing the finest of traditional music, as the K is master piper Paddy Keenan; the G is the great fiddler Frankie Gavin and the B is brilliant box player Dermot Byrne.
If you’ve read any reviews of the gigs the three trad A-listers have done already then you’ll be queueing up for their gig at An Droichead on the Ormeau Road on April 27.
I was delighted to get talking to Frankie Gavin on the phone this week to hear about the new trio, but first I wanted to hear about where he came from and what his early influences were, back in Co Galway.
“I grew up in Corandulla until age 10 or 11,” he recalls with what sounds like genuine affection. “It was and idyllic countryside village. We had a small public house, a thatched pub. There was also a Franciscan monastery and school. I've the fondest memories of there.”
I would have thought that Frankie would have got the bug from listening to music in the family pub when he was growing up but no.
“Funnily enough, that was way before music in the pubs,” he says. “There was a travelling fiddle player who would arrive on his bicycle. He had a huge overcoat and the fiddle would be inside his coat – he didn't have a case for it. But there were different musical families that we had in various parishes who would come and visit and play tunes.
"From there it as the well-trodden path to Fleadhanna Ceoil from a very early age, so we met all sorts of wonderful friends and we still know these people after 30-40 years. It's extraordinary the friendships you make through the Fleadhanna Ceoil. It's amazing what the Fleadh has done. In the beginning there were only a small number of people playing the music compared to today.”
Later, Frankie would play sessions at the Cellar Bar, from which developed one of the best traditional bands ever, De Danann.
“Yeah, there was a session that used to take place when I'd take the odd afternoon off school. I'd put the tin whistle in the school bag and cycle off to school, but I didn't bother to go in.
“I’d go into the Cellar Bar and have a few tunes with Alec Finn and Paddy Smith and Mickey Finn. It was a great relief not going to school but I couldn't bring the fiddle because it'd be too obvious what I was doing with the fiddle up my back.
"There were other sessions in Hughes's in An Spidéal and we used to have our own sessions there as well. During those, there were four of us that played the odd selection of tunes together – Charlie Piggott, Johnnie McDonagh, Mickey Finn and myself. Dé Danann sprang from there really.
“We got invited to play at a folk club that Phil Callery, a family friend, of the Voice Squad was running. I think it was at the Neptune Rowing Club in Islandbridge in Dublin. So up we went and played at that, and somebody said 'It'd be nice to break up the tune with the odd song', and I thought 'I know exactly who to call to do the singing', so I gave Dolores Keane a shout– and the rest is history.”
De Danann were always innovators or rejuvenators of older traditional and this became especially true when they recorded the music of the roaring 20s and the Flanagan brothers, on the hugely popular album The Star-Spangled Molly, with a reshaped My Irish Molly-O, now well known up and down the country.
"People are coming out in their droves to hear old music and were then during the 1980s recession. We were trouping around the country for two to three weeks at a time and playing all kinds of venues, large and small. It was an extraordinary time for us and for Irish music.”
De Danann were always a band who had a sense of fun, recording trad versions of The Beatles’ Hey Jude and Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody.
“That's what music is all about,” exclaims Frankie. “Free spirited, cheering oneself up as well as the listener – and they can see the fun and enjoyment in it. It's important to retain that, the sport and good nature of the music – to raise spirits and to get them dancing. It's the dance music of Ireland, after all.”
True to form, Frankie has a number of projects all going at the same time right now.
There's a new De Danann and as well as Frankie Gavin & The Provenance.
“Well apart from KGB, there's The Provenance, with three other fiddlers – Éadaoin Ní Mhaicín from Mayo, Ciara O’Brien from Dublin and Sorcha Costello from Clare. That's a huge departure for me, but it's hugely exciting – four fiddles!
“I’ve also just finished an album with Martin Murray who's a great banjo player from Carrick-on-Suir and Emma Corbett on 10-key melodeon who is only 18 but has won the all-Ireland two or three times. We're doing a tribute to the Flanagan brothers' Roaring 20s Irish Orchestra.
“Also, I’m just after recording an album with Alec Finn. Alec and I were out of communication for 13 or 14 years,” says Frankie – without mentioning the bitter row between the two De Danann founding members.
“We've just recorded an album together just like the first one we did which is, give or take a month, about 40 years or so ago, which is very humbling.”
We’ have to wait for that but Belfast audiences will be happy enough with the KGB.
Apart from Frankie, Paddy Keenan is one of Ireland`s finest pipers, best known as a founding member of the Bothy Band, one of Irish music's most influential bands of the 1970s, with whom he played in venues all over the world.
Paddy’s contributions to traditional Irish music were marked in 2002, when he received the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of the Year award, which is presented to musical heroes of the modern age.
Dermot Byrne is one of Ireland’s most outstanding traditional accordion players. For many years a member of Altan, Dermot performed, recorded and toured extensively with the group, along with artists like Donal Lunny, Steve Cooney and Stephane Grappelli, bringing the beauty and joy of traditional Irish music to audiences all over the world.
Frankie says the trio don’t have a shared musical philosophy.
“If you're going to play a duo, trio, four or five-piece, you've got to listen to what people are doing around you and adjust your playing to their playing,” he explains.
“People have to melt into each other's playing. It's a hugely different discipline. Who would ever have thought that fiddle, accordion and pipes would go playing as a three piece? It's an odd mixture and a sound engineer's nightmare, perhaps. It's fun to do though.”
:: KGB are playing in An Droichead on Friday April 27 at 8pm.