Arts

Trad/roots: Quarehawk a breathtaking LP where Ireland, England and Asturias meet

Irish traditional music meets that of Asturias – flavoured with a splash of the Basque country – in the north of England on flautist Michael Walsh's fabulous album Quarehawk

Flute player Michael Walsh, whose latest album is Quarehawk
Robert McMillen

Me thinking to myself:

– Flute-player Michael Walsh wants to be your friend on Facebook. I don't think I know Michael. Still, accept him anyway. I like some of his friends, so why not?

– Oh look, he has an album out. I might as well listen to it.

– HOLY GUACAMOLE! This is absolutely gorgeous. This is wonderful. This is brilliant.

AND so after Quarehawk, the album, had been played non-stop for couple of days I ended up saying, “Hi Michael, love the album,” to the man himself at his home in the oasis of traditional music that is… Sheffield.

I was going to ask the flautist about his life and then about his music and then about the album, but the three are so finely interwoven.

Michael was born in Manchester, raised in Stockport and was taught by the renowned Marian Egan from Sligo. He was influenced by the likes of Matt Molloy, Michael Tubridy and especially Roger Sherlock, the Sligo flute player who was based in London for many years.

He admits that it took him while to really find his own voice, musically and personally.

“In our house we always had lots of friends over with different cultural backgrounds and sexualities,” he explains. “Our house was welcoming for everyone. When I was younger it was difficult being an openly bisexual man. The gay community will say you're too straight for us, the straight will say you're too gay – in the end, it was me saying 'this is who I am, it's OK – be who you are'.

“I love the idea of a quarehawk because it encapsulates everything you can be.”

A clearer picture of everything that Michael could be came after he moved to Ireland for a while but returned to Manchester where he met his wife and had kids.

“I started thinking 'How do I want to live my life?', 'How do I want them to see me?' I really wanted to perform and tell stories and I found my way in Manchester where I started singing, writing and doing performance poetry.”

He now teaches music in the University of Sheffield and is in the process of writing a PhD thesis entitled "A 'Celtic' or 'National' aesthetic? Flute playing in the contemporary Asturian Folk Scene". (We chatted about it and it is much more interesting than the title suggests!)

The Quarehawk album, released last autumn, is a reflection of Michael's personal journey, his love of Irish music, growing up in the English midlands and the music of Asturias. From self-penned tunes to others better known in the traditional repertoire, songs to take your breath away and some jaw-dropping poetry, the album could be seen as providing some catharsis.

As the Irish saying goes, Ón osna is troime a thig an ceol is binne – from the heaviest sigh comes the sweetest music – and the album reflects the past three years in Michael's life.

“It was only meant to be a calling card because I really want to teach music because that is my first love – I love teaching,” he explains. "But I sort of needed a CV and so I was going to a very simple album with my neighbour David Kosky who is a fabulous guitarist and which Michael McGoldrick would record and that would be it.

“But just before I was going to record that very simple album, I fell down the stairs at home and bust my shoulder but I still had to go off to Asturias for my first field trip because I couldn't cancel it and came back from Asturias with my shoulder frozen.

“Needless to say, that gave me time out to think, and I was just starting to get back into things when my dad died. For ages, I couldn't sleep, I was just processing an awful lot of emotion. These were the dreams of a madman so I started to write them all down and then I thought, ‘right, I'm going to ask people to appear on the album'.”

As well as his own Quarehawk poem, Michael asked another poet, Mike Garry, to write The Visitor because he (Michael) couldn't find adequate words to describe how he felt about his dad.

Was the relationship a difficult one, I asked?

“We used to call Dad 'The Quiet Man' and my mum was the talker. He would show his love by doing. He wasn't a drinker. He was a loving, caring dad but wasn't one for saying 'I love you' because that's how he was raised.

“But it didn't mean he didn't love me and he would tell my mum how he felt. He showed his love by kindness. Perhaps growing up you wish 'why couldn't my dad be like this or that', but as we got older I started to value the relationship with him as he was.

“Quarehawk is a bit of a riddle – it's a number of vignettes of my relationships – between fathers and sons, between other men too. Some of them aren't about my dad, some are about moments that have stuck with me that I wanted to say.

“My dad was lovely. It was tragic – he was drowned, found in the river. We really don't know how. That was the big shock.”

Every track on Quarehawk is a standout but The Shores of Lough Bran gave me goosebumps. It features Michael's vocals while Ríoghnach Connolly sings a verse in Irish and a friend of Michael's, Leticia González Menéndez, sings another verse in Asturian.

“The Shores of Lough Bran was a song that reminded me of my uncle Frankie,” says Michael who is 53 today. “He would sing that at the end of the night and I thought I need to learn the whole thing! So I learned it by osmosis. It had that connection with every summer, when we'd go to Ireland. That summer was a big part of our year and we spent it just two miles from Lough Bran.”

Adding to the international dimension on Quarehawk is the fabulous Basque trikitixa (accordion) player Kepa Junkera (check out his videos on youtube) and another Asturian, Rubén Bada, who fans of At First Light will remember fondly.

It is a dense and dark album but with enough light and grace shining through it to help us all on the road to a better place. Love it.

:: You can get Quarehawk by Michael Walsh from his website michaelwalshmusic.com

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