Trad/Roots: Belfast fiddler Danny Diamond adds another bow string

Danny Diamond, left, and fellow Belfast fiddler Conor Caldwell
Danny Diamond, left, and fellow Belfast fiddler Conor Caldwell

THE last concert I was at was given by a group called Slow Moving Clouds, a stunning, mesmerising combination of Irish and Nordic music.

On fiddle was Danny Diamond, son of Dermie and Tara Diamond, two stalwarts of the early trad scene in Belfast before they moved to Dublin.

Danny certainly has learned a lot from his parents but it was obvious that he has a mind and a heart that is full of creative energy, a seeker of truth and meaning in all kinds of music.

And he has had tunes in his life since he was no height.

“My earliest memory is my folks playing two polkas from Sligo,” he recalls. “They were my favourite tunes and I must have been two and a half years old. This is when we lived in Belfast, near the Black Mountain.”

And it wasn't a case of his parents beating a love of trad music into him as sometimes happens.

“No it was more sneaky than that,” he laughs. “It was always just there in the environment. I didn't start playing until I was 10 or 11 years old though and I went straight for the fiddle.”

It was as a teenager that Danny decided on a career in music although he went to college to get a “real” degree (in Geography) but as soon as he had that under his belt, he went straight back into the music.

Danny’s latest album, North, is a duet with fellow Belfast fiddler Conor Caldwell, who is definitely a kindred spirit.

As well as being a fiddle player, most notably with Craobh Rua, Conor is also a traditional music researcher. He was awarded a PhD from Queen's University Belfast in 2013 for his thesis on the Donegal fiddler John Doherty and has taught traditional music at Queen's since 2011, where he also worked as a Research Fellow on The Irish Song Project.

“Conor and I have been friends since we were infants, the two of us sitting in our prams together,” smiles Danny. “Musically we'd have the same influences; we had the same teachers, same festivals and had the same experiences along the way.

They spent a lot of time together up in Gaoth Dobhair and also in south-west Donegal, Gleann Cholm Cille and Carrick learning music together as well as Belfast and Dublin of course, while the pair have travelled the whole country going to festivals, gigs and sessions.

“But the thing that brings us together as players are those times in Donegal and Belfast,” says Danny.

The new album is called North because of its broadly northern style of playing, and it ranges from tunes from the 19th century collections of Edward Bunting at Queen's to the newly written ones.

“We tried to make it more contemporary,” explains the Belfast man. “We didn't use any odd accompaniment, it's just fiddles with different tunings, and we used the fiddle in many different ways.”

There are also some self-penned tunes on the album. Does Danny find it easy to write tunes?

"Sometimes. Sometimes they appear out of nowhere. I'm always walking around, especially in Dublin, and I'd sing them into my phone, looking nuts to everyone I walk past. I bring that home with two bars or something, but those two bars work as a hook and you can build on the tune from there, develop it.

“I just record these wee demos on my phone and over the course of a few weeks it comes together or it doesn't. Sometimes you realise it's the same one you wrote two months ago but in a different key! That's how it goes for me," he says.

I asked Danny if there was a Belfast style of fiddling or general northern one or is it just something we all copied from Johnny Doherty?

“The diplomatic answer is that it would be a bit of all three,” he says, diplomatically!

“Some of it comes from very inspirational players who only last a generation or two. For me, Belfast playing is very strong rhythmically and quite direct with a certain repetoire as well, like that of Andy Dixon who manipulated many tunes and made his own versions of them.

“There are definitely northern and Donegal influences involved as well, the rhythm and phrasing and energy in the playing,” he says.

But Danny always had an eye for 'the other', art forms that are outside traditional music.

“I’m sure the first glimpse I got was from my dad because he plays Old Time, so any American Old Time musicians who were touring in Ireland would sleep in our house when they were playing a Dublin gig,” Danny recalls.

“That was my first introduction to another music tradition. I'd be very into other arts – I was obsessed with photography for a few good years in my 20s and poetry is a big interest too. So I'm always looking for a way to connect these things together."

:: Danny and Conor will be heading to the Ulster Fleadh in Bangor the week after next before they do a proper launch tour in Ireland. North is available from dannydiamond.ie and downloaded on Bandcamp. Claddagh Records will distribute.