Trad/roots: The Blackwater Céilí Band look to be having as much fun as they create

Get those chairs and tables out of the way, folks – the Blackwater Céilí Band are in da house. Band leader Ryan Hackett explains how the Tyrone group's highly infectious tunes differ from your run-of-the-mill reels and jigs

The Blackwater Céilí Band, the first from Tyrone to win the All-Ireland Senior Céilí Band award at last year’s Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann
The Blackwater Céilí Band, the first from Tyrone to win the All-Ireland Senior Céilí Band award at last year’s Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann

CONFESSION time. When I used to have a cross-trainer in the garage at home, the sounds of Lady Gaga, Beyonce and Britney Spears would blast from the garage as this writer tried to get into shape and fighting fit, like an extra on Baywatch.

The cross-trainer has now gone, which is a pity because I rejoiced at the arrival of a new playlist – the new album by the Blackwater Céilí Band, and the energy from the band would put all the aforementioned divas to shame.

Before we knew it, myself and my daughter were lepping around the kitchen to the jigs, reels, barn-dances and hornpipes that are among the 12 buzzing tracks on Music from the Glen, recently recorded at the Red Box Studios in Belfast.

The Blackwater have been together for nearly five years and in that time have grown into one of the best céilí bands in the country, with the 10-piece ensemble becoming the first from Tyrone to win the All-Ireland Senior Céilí Band award at last year’s Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann and representing Tyrone in the hugely popular pre-All Ireland final Up For the Match programme on RTÉ.

It has to be said that there aren’t that many céilís happening in Ireland and so less need for céilí bands so why did the band come together, I ask band leader Ryan Hackett.

“Well, back in late 2014 there would have been three of us playing in under-age céilí bands in the area and we would have been céilí band enthusiasts, I suppose,” the Eskra native tells me.

“We would have gone along to competitions and listened to the greats such as the Tulla and the Kilfenora so when we reached the senior category we just thought, ‘let’s try this out ourselves' and that’s how the core group from Tyrone came together.

"In our own region here in Tyrone, céilí dancing wouldn’t be as common as it would be further south, say, but it is starting to rejuvenate a bit now. It was probably the fleadh and the more formal aspect of the céilí band rather than being there just for dancers that brought us together, but there’s no doubt that céilí dancing is making a bit of a comeback and we have noticed more young people taking part than did before."

The band, which includes six musicians from Tyrone, two from Co Monaghan one from Letirim and another from Co Down, so it must have been a logistical nightmare getting everyone together for practising.

They started off practising in the Tanyard Tavern in Fivemiletown, owned by the parents of Michael Curran, one of the band’s box players, but then with some of the band in Belfast and others in Dublin, the 10 members ended up going to Newry to practice.

Talk about dedication – especially when you consider the band includes students doing their PhDs or masters, teachers and engineers and Ryan starts as a doctor later this year.

The fruits of their musical labours were justly rewarded though with the All-Ireland title last August.

“Yeah, that was really brilliant, says Ryan, “especially the whole build-up because it was our fourth year competing and we had come second the previous year so we put a lot of hard work in and we knew we were in with a shout. The anticipation was building up all summer so when we finally won it, we were all completely and totally elated.

Ryan's roles include choosing the tunes the band will play, sending recordings, co-ordinating practices via WhatsApp and sending ABC musical notation. He is also a composer.

“Well, I would have composed a couple of tunes for GCSE but then we were looking for a march to play and we couldn’t really find one what suited the band is I gave it a go myself and wrote The Blackwater March and we’ve stuck with it over the last few years,” he says.

The Blackwater has a traditional céilí band instrumentation but there was a dispute over one particular instrument.

“The argument was ‘banjo or no banjo’ because we have an All-Ireland banjo player on drums in the band, George McAdam. But when we were putting the band together, the bands that we had liked in the past, they had gone with the four fiddles. We considered the sounds that we all really liked and as they'd gone with the four fiddles and we wanted to create something similar, we went for a traditional mix of fiddles, accordions, flutes, piano and drums,” says Ryan.

On Music in the Valley, there are 12 stirring sets which will get you up dancing (four facing four or you can improvise on your own!) or you can just enjoy the sheer musicality of the playing.

But what is the difference between a jig or a reel played by a céilí band and the same being tunes played by a traditional group trio or quartet, say?

For Ryan, because céilí music is primarily for dancing, tempo is very important.

“It's also important that you get the rhythm right and make sure the music is suitable in that respect. I mentioned the ABC notation earlier and you can spend months getting it perfect in terms of note for note but it’s also about becoming familiar with each other’s playing and that takes time to become as tight as a band as we can be,” he explains.

Well, that’s the technical side of things. Anyone who has seen the Blackwater Céili Band in action on Youtube will know that there is also a huge amount of fun being had on stage as well as off it.

Its obvious all 10 of them get on well with each other – there are no Oasis feuds going on here – though Ryan says that you can’t really show you’re having fun when you are competing. But when it comes to céilís and concerts they can all really let the hair down.

The hair will be suitably let down at a second launch gig at the Strule Arts Centre in Omagh (the first was a sell-out at the Bardic Theatre in Dungannon); then the band is off to England for the All-Britain fleadh

“We just want as many people as possible to hear our music and to enjoy it and if we can get it to as wide an audience as possible, we’d be delighted at that,” says Ryan.