Trad/roots: A breath of fresh air from Beoga
Seán Óg Graham talks about Breathe, the new five-track EP from Beoga that's a wonderful antidote to what's been going on in the world, and Belfast TradFest showcase the city's performers and venues
PICASSO had his periods – Blue, Pink, African, Cubist. David Bowie went through a dazzling number of metamorphoses, from Ziggy Stardust, through to Aladdin Sane and The Thin White Duke until his final Dark Star period.
The same can be said for a number of Irish traditional music bands and the most contemporary of these is Beoga, the five-piece who have taken the hallowed tradition out on a shelter-skelter journey through the musical districts Mother Trad had warned it against.
The result is five albums of self-composed tunes, a Grammy shortlist and a following that extends well beyond devotees of the pure drop thanks to its collaborations with the Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, jazz head Linley Hamilton, Foy Vance and, most famously, with Ed Sheerin.
However, the essence of Beoga rests firmly in Irish traditional music, with each of its members – Damian McKee, Eamon Murray, Liam Bradley, Niamh Dunne and Seán Óg Graham – weaned on the music of the Antrim (and Limerick in the case of Niamh) starting out with the time-honoured musical equation, Family + Comhaltas = fine trad musicians.
On a Zoom call this week, Seán Óg recalled his early musical education.
“My parents sent all five of us as kids to the local Comhaltas classes and I think I was about eight when I started. It was the same with my sisters as well,” he recalled.
While Comhaltas has long been criticised for its emphasis on competitions, it was a great experience for the Grahams as it allowed them to meet and play with a lot of their peers.
“I used to hate the competitions because I got really, really nervous,” says Seán Óg but it obviously didn't get in the way.
As well as being a master musician, Seán Óg also does most of the band's composing. A stroke of luck was having fellow Beoga member Damian McKee as his teacher.
“Composing tunes comes natural enough to me because I was lucky enough to have Damian as a teacher between the ages of 14 and 16 and he definitely inspired me to write a lot. He would push me every week and say ‘Come on, you have to come up with a tune' and we'd practice together in the classroom and that really gave me the confidence to come up with my own tunes.
“Nowadays, it might be a chord pattern that will come up in my head, or a riff and that will give me a base to write a tune over. Then it becomes like a big puzzle to me, working out how things fit because I have a really logical head, being a mad physics student at school,” he says.
It's weird, perhaps, how a science like physics can be used to create something as emotive or spiritual or just plain old fashioned fun as music.
For Seán Óg, who also runs the Bannview Studios on the Largey Road in Portglenone, technology has changed the music we hear – and that frightens some people.
“It does scare some people, right enough, but it also opens traditional music up to music fans in general. Because it's instrumental music, it can be quite niche and mixing it with other genres helps people relate to it more, I think,” he says.
But that's what Beoga have been doing since they started up 20 years ago, five outstanding musicians who manage to be even better than the sum of their parts, each adding something special to the mix.
Their latest offering is a five-track EP called Breathe and it's a wonderful antidote to the zeitgeist of the past 16 months or so. Look out for the video on Youtube.
“Hopefully, it will spread a little bit of positivity around,” says Seán Óg who is married to fellow band member Niamh Dunne.
For Niamh, the record started out with fragments of ideas.
“In the last few years as a band musically we've taken a lot of twists and turns; we figured an instrumental EP would give us the opportunity to bring everything together in terms of a sound that captures where we've come from, as well as where we are now.”
Each of the band got a little studio set up at home and when the lockdown eased, they all got together for three weeks of solid rehearsal and laying the tracks down for Seán Óg to produce.
On Up, one of the tracks, we hear the unmistakable tone of poet Maya Angelou – “Just like hopes springing high, still I'll rise."
But Maya wasn't the first choice. The original was someone, ehm, a little more controversial.
“Originally, I had Donald Trump in there,” laughs Seán Óg. “I was aiming at a bit of a pi**-take with all the stupid things that he said over the years but it ended up just making you angry. And it might even have made people think they should go out and support Trump.
“Luckily Niamh came up with the suggestion that we use Maya Angelou as it was around the time that Black Lives Matter was coming to the fore and we thought it was just right.”
Now that spring seems to be upon us, to add to the good news, Beoga will be performing an online concert, Live from The Limelight, tomorrow night (Saturday 17 April) at 8pm, with some of their greatest hits as well as some of the new material which I think is some of the best they've ever done.
For more information about the online gig, go to momenthouse.com/beoga
In addition, both of Beoga's live April shows in Belfast and Dublin have been rescheduled to November, so any ticket holders for these gigs can hang onto their tickets as they will remain valid.
:: Postcards from TradFest
BELFAST TradFest launched a series of Traditional Music Postcards from Belfast this week and will release one a week on Facebook/Vimeo/YouTube until June 1.
Shining a spotlight on some local musical heroes as they perform in some of Belfast's most iconic cultural locations, we get a glimpse into the musical wallpaper and the curious world of traditional music in this city, a place of smoky entries, dusky pubs and vibrant sessions.
“We had hoped to run a winter festival this year,” says Belfast TradFest operations director Patricia Murray, “and when it became apparent that it wasn't possible, we set about trying to find a way to create something during lockdown that would leave a positive legacy for the city and showcase the strength in depth we have here, in terms of traditional musicians and the music scene in general.”
The series features Martin & Christine Dowling; Harry Bradley; Méabh Meir; Francis McIlduff; Caoimhe Ní Chathail; Conor Caldwell; Willie Hill; and Úna Monaghan.