Trad: Flautist Brendan Mulholland on forming new dymanic duo with long-time friend and collaborator, guitarist Micky McCluskey

Flautist Brendan Mulholland
Flautist Brendan Mulholland Flautist Brendan Mulholland

THERE is something special about listening to a traditional music duet. The way that two people can musically fuse the sound of two instruments into a coherent whole and produce sometimes astonishing music is one of the great joys of our national repertoire.

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Denis Murphy and Julia Clifford, Noel Hill and Tony McMahon or singing duos such as Paul Brady and Andy Irvine have all left an indelible mark on the tradition and new duos are stretching that tradition too, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Thomas Bartlett being the first to spring to mind in that regard.

In the north, another duo is about to burst onto the scene. Flute-player Brendan Mulholland and guitarist Micky McCluskey have just produced an album of cinematic proportions that is a perfect blend of the well-known and the daringly new.

Brendan Mulholland's musical journey began at home in Co Antrim. "I started off playing the tin whistle when I was about eight or nine and the family living out in Glenavy," he told me over a cup of coffee in central Belfast.

"In around 1982/3, we started to learn under Francie McPeake in Belfast. My older brother, who played the banjo, he progressed – but I wasn't making any progress at all on the tin whistle.

"Then, one night, Francie came over to me with a flute and said: "Young fella, I want you to blow the s***e out of that," says Brendan, laughing – but that event changed his fortunes.

"I don't know why but whatever happened, playing the flute made sense to me. It spoke to me," he recalls.

"I was never very academic but this was something I could do, and once I got the tone and the fingering right, I had an insatiable appetite for the flute. From the age of 11 to about 16, I did nothing else."

The electrician by trade then became obsessed with the playing of Matt Molloy, "mimicking every breath, every ornament that that man was doing."

Strangely, perhaps, another source of inspiration was the Dubliners' banjo player Barney McKenna, but what really changed Brendan was the Breton flute player, Jean Michel Veillon.

"When I first heard Jean Michel, that was the rabbit in the headlight moment for me," he recalls.

"He just blew me away. The range of things I was doing on the flute was tiny compared to what he was doing and now I've studied Jean Michel as much as Matt Molloy."

With Brendan developing his own style, he started playing with folk bands and that is where he honed his skills, his trade and moving into improvisation and composing.

In fact, he says by the time he was 25 he must have played with every folk band in Belfast, a veritable supersub.

But that was never going to be enough. He started to get serious about his music and produced his first album, Tuned Up, with Paul McSherry from Belfast and Brendan Hendry from Bellaghy.

Once that was under his belt, Brendan then recorded a solo album, Jean's Hill – named after the hill he can see from his back door – followed by Music in The Glen with Conor Lamb and Deirdre Galway (of Réalta fame).

Having played with a Cecil B de Mille cast of traditional musicians, Brendan has now teamed up with guitarist Micky McCluskey to form a duet that we are going to hear a lot about in years to come.

However, the pair are hardly strangers: Brendan and Micky have been musical partners for over 20 years, preforming and recording with various acts throughout Europe and America.

The longevity of that musical relationship has come to brilliant fruition in eponymous new album, Mulholland and McCluskey.

But what is it that creates that special bond that is needed between two musicians, between a flautist and a guitar (and bouzouki) player in this case?

"I think it starts off with Micky McCluskey being a very good friend of mine. He lives just outside Banbridge and would come to our local sessions at Clenaghan's Bar just outside Glenavy and we just clicked.

"Since then, we've done lots of gigs with singers where we would do our own solo bits and this got us thinking about sitting down and doing it ourselves.

"What I love about Micky's work is that he is not from an Irish traditional background and that is very evident in his work. Micky is a serious rock musician, he's into jazz, so with all that mixed in, the length of time we've been together, the many varied projects we've been involved in, our interest in other types of music, I think that is what has bonded us together in order to finally produce this album together.

"I can give Micky a set of tunes and he will go away and work on them and he will come back with a completely different angle that really hits home with me. We really challenge each other.

"Let me put it this way," adds Brendan. "This is the album that I have been working up to since I started playing music."

Mulholland & McCluskey starts off with Bó Mhín na Toitean, with Micky providing a hypnotic opening for Brendan then to come in on flute. It's an innovative Breton setting of an Irish tune and highly infectious.

The boys then treat us to more tunes, some written by themselves and others by Armagh's Brendan McGlinchey, Clare's Junior Crehan, Galway's Paddy Fahey, Donegal's Tommy Peoples and of course, Matt Molloy from Roscommon.

Engineer Sean Óg Graham and Lúnasa's Trevor Hutchinson on double bass take the album down some roads less travelled too.

Mulholland & McCluskey is atmospheric and creative and, while there are some lovely traditional tunes therein, it creates a whole new terrain for traditional music to roam free in.

:: You can find out more about this exciting do on their website at Mulhollandmccluskey.com