Arts

Trad: TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of The Year Angelina Carberry on bringing the banjo to the forefront of Irish music...

Robert McMillen speaks to Angelina Carberry, this year's recipient of the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of The Year Award, about her musical roots and how she's putting the banjo firmly on the map of Irish trad...

Angelina Carberry. Picture by Maurice Gunning
Robert McMillen

I HAVE always found that traditional musicians are amongst the most modest people in the pantheon of world music, and Angelina Carberry, this year's recipient of the TG4 Gradam Ceoil Musician of The Year, is no exception.

Not only is the award due recognition for one of trad's best-liked and most respected musicians, but it is also a nod to the diaspora, given that Angelina was born in Manchester, the daughter, grand-daughter and great grand-daughter of Irish musicians from rural Co Longford.

Like so many Irish emigrant families, the Carberrys took their music with them and became part of the thriving Mancunian traditional music scene. It was the perfect background for a music-loving Angelina to grow up in.

"Well, I was born and raised in Manchester after my dad, my grandfather and my grandmother moved there when they were quite young.

"It was really really wonderful and I've great memories of music being all around us with my dad playing and then there was a great Irish music scene with sessions most nights.

"Then there were social clubs that we used to go to listen to different bands and different musicians who were over to do gigs, so it was it was a great music scene, yeah, it was fantastic," she recalls with a smile.

Like most kids, Angelina started on the whistle but when her grandfather died in the late 70s, his banjo was left in her uncle Anthony's house. Anthony, who passed away in 2019, was a great influence on Angelina.

"He too played the banjo and he was a real real music lover with his house always open to anybody over in Manchester that needed somewhere to stay and he would often bring us to sessions and meet other musicians.

"So he was a massive influence on me and then my sister Fiona used to play banjo too. And my other sister, Joanna, was playing mandolin when I was growing up so it was all around me."

However, it was the playing of her button accordionist father, Peter, that entranced the young Angelina at their home in Longsight in inner-city Manchester and led her eventually to the TG4 Gradam Ceoil award.

What stands Angelina out from many musicians who want to be rock stars is the gentleness with which she plays the banjo.

"I think that comes from my dad teaching me and he always emphasised making sure you play the right notes and teaching us all about tone, playing quietly in places, but playing louder in others and having a mixture of sounds."

"Learning a tune inside out really is the main thing," she says.

"Play it too fast and you can miss a lot of the tune but wherever you go that bit slower, it becomes more expressive."

It's every emigrant's dream to return home of course, and so the Carberrys moved back to Ireland: first to Galway and then back to the ancestral homeland in County Longford.

Galway was particularly beneficial to Angelina and her playing.

"I was playing in sessions with my dad and we had a regular session in Taylor's Bar in Galway, which was a great music pub at that time. Then I started joining all the sessions and meeting other musicians. I might hear of a session in such and such a place at six-o'clock and you'd be playing for a couple of hours. It was great and I felt I was really, really lucky," she recalls.

The instrument that Angelina plays is an Oakwood tenor banjo, quite a family affair.

"Yes, my dad had it made for me for my 16th birthday," she smiles.

"He designed it and I'm still playing it and to be honest I don't know if I couldn't play any other. I remember when he was having I made. It probably took about a year. He used to have Gibson banjos, so my banjo was designed like one of his old Gibsons and I feel really comfortable with it."

Angelina recorded an album with her father Peter entitled Memories of The Holla, which was released to great acclaim. She has also recorded with accordion players Martin Quinn and Dan Brouder, as well as two solo albums, An Traidisiún Beo and Pluckin' Good.

She has decided to go 'back to the future' again with her new album, Back in Time.

"A couple years back before the lockdown, my partner Dan Brouder and I got the idea to research musicians from Longford," explains Angelina.

"We learned a lot of tunes from a manuscript that was found in the attic of a pub in Abbeyshrule in 1962, a manuscript called the Michael Leonard and Thomas Kernan manuscript, dated between 1844 to 1846 and which contains a treasure trove of old fiddle tunes."

They were also helped by music collector Fr John Quinn, who played them recordings of long-forgotten tunes from the Longford area and farther afield (you can read more about the manuscript at bit.ly/3mjq2zS).

Now, let's be honest. The banjo has never had the grooviest image in the world amongst traditional musicians, nor amongst the public who see it as all Deliverance and duelling banjos and that sort of thing.

"Well, the banjo hasn't been part of Irish music for very long" she explains.

"It was maybe used as an accompaniment instrument and then things started changing in the 1920s with people like the Flanagan brothers, and that era I suppose produced loads of banjo players who developed their own style really, you know. Like it was Michael Gaffney who played with the great John McKenna.

"So it was quite popular then and what I like about their music is that it was really joyful. That's why I like listening to the old recordings, because they are so joyful and happy and the played with such great style," says Angelina.

It's easy to see why she is being recognised for "the important role she has played in the promotion of the banjo in traditional Irish music and helping to bring female musicians to the fore."

:: The TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards ceremony – now in its 24th year – will air from the Whitla Hall at Queen's University Belfast on TG4 on Halloween night to celebrate TG4's 25th birthday

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