Trad: Music returns to Derry air with the Imbolc International Music Festival

Robert McMillen speaks to Eibhlín Ní Dhochartaigh about what's in store at this year's Imbolc International Music Festival in Derry, as well as picking his trad faves from Belfast's on-going Out To Lunch festival...

Eibhlín Ní Dhochartaigh, director of Imbolc International Music Festival. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Robert McMillen

"THERE was music there in the Derry air / Like a language that we could all understand..."

And then came Covid. The pandemic has dealt many's a blow to communities the world over, but few are as accustomed to facing down adversity as Derry, aided by a rich musical heritage that has often channelled its hard times into something new and hopeful.

This year pits the Celtic goddess or the Christian saint we know as Bridget against a world-wide virus, but with the Imbolc International Music Festival opening up in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin in Derry's Great James Street, it looks like Bridget might be getting the upper hand.

The festival is named after the Celtic feast which says goodbye to the winter and hello to the spring and welcomes the warming of the land, the brightening of the skies and the growth of new life – more apt than ever this year after the artistic world went into involuntary retirement in face of the pandemic.

This year, back after last year's online-only festival and running from January 30 until February 6, Imbolc 2022 has its usual wonderful mix of international artists and local up-and-coming talent: but coronavirus and its mutations have been talking its toll, as Imbolc director Eibhlín Ní Dhochartaigh explained.

She says: "Well, I guess we've been coping – like everybody else – as best we can, but it has been difficult because of the loss of revenue for a start, the practical challenges of keeping buildings like the Cultúrlann open and alive, and able to sustain themselves with a significant loss of income, be it from classes or events or the commercial operations here.

"We have the cafe here and also we've got tenants here as well, so it has been a challenge."

But now it's time to invite the public back into the Derry Cultúrlann for musical and cultural re-awakening, which at the same time will make sure they and the staff and artists are in as safe an environment as is possible.

"We did the festival online last year but it was well received," recalls Eibhlín, "but the upside of that was that we probably had a further reach for people who wouldn't have been able to come to the events. But there's nothing like the live experience."

And that certainly goes for Tim Edey, who is joined by Scottish piper and composer Ross Ainslie for a concert on January 30. Tim kindly kept us entertained (and himself sane, perhaps) by performing tunes online and they were great – but there is nothing like the energy the former BBC Musician of The Year summons up in a live performance, so visitors to the Cultúrlann are in for a treat.

Joining the internationally respected Edey and Ainslie will be sisters Deirdre and Ella McGrory, sisters from the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal, something which shows another aspect of the Imbolc festival: the way they mix and match international trad stars with young musicians just starting out on their musical journey.

Other highlights for me include an evening in the company of Caitlín Nic Gabhann and Ciarán Ó Maonaigh, a great mix of Donegal fiddling from Ciarán and concertina playing from Caitlín. The pair are great examples of what traditional music is all about – simplicity brought to new heights through sheer musicianship. Two players, two instruments and a world of sound and emotion created between them. Oh, and with a dance or two from Caitlín.

The duo will be joined by Alannah Thornburg who "explores her family's musical heritage, re-imagining ancient airs and tunes from the Irish harping and American Appalachian and Jazz traditions."

Also amongst the trad A-listers are singer Daoirí Farrell, winner of two prestigious BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2017 and NXNW (North by Northwest) which features Mayo musicians David Doocey (fiddle) and Stephen Doherty (flute/accordion) as well as Tyrone's Ryan Molloy (keys) and Fermanagh's Kieran Leonard (drums/bodhrán).

A favourite artist of mine is the impossibly talented Jarlath Henderson, first Irish solo artist to win the prestigious BBC Young Folk Musician of the Year Award, and a young man who has creativity to burn as a singer, piper, composer, arranger. You name it, Jarlath will be great at it.

For the February 4 gig at An Croí in Cultúrlann Uí Chanáin, he'll be sharing the bill with Ruth Clinton, Meabh Meir, Sinead Lynch and Lily Power, aka Landless.

Eibhlín's own highlight is the evening in homage to singer Geordie Hanna because of the intergenerational influence of the great Loughshore man.

But Imbolc is a festival that just doesn't put on gigs. It's all about inclusivity, as Eibhlin explains.

"One of the most important developments is the emergence of the Imbolc Orchestra and the commissions we have offered," she says.

"This year, we have a new commission with Martin Tourish composing a piece of music. And that'll be worked on in a series of workshops with young people from Acadamh Ceoil Chaoimhín Uí Dhochartaigh in which 60 young musicians from across the country all come together to start that process.

"We're looking at the commission as a kind of creative response to the pandemic and the effect on on young people and young people and particularly young musicians.

"There is also a programme for young people with special needs and other people who suffer from dementia with specialist musicians working on those fields. So we try to cooperate as much as possible for as many people as possible to be as inclusive."

It looks like the music is returning to the Derry air.

APART from the Imbolc festival happening at the end of the month, right now, toute suite and up-and-running is Belfast's Out to Lunch festival, food for the soul and manna for the mind.

And yes, there is trad galore up and coming with the splendiferous Ríoghnach Connolly and Ellis Davies playing in the Black Box in Belfast on Sunday January 9 at 2pm. What on Earth would you be better off doing?

Also part of the festival is husband and wife superstars Zoë Conway and John McIntyre playing at the same venue on Wednesday January 26 at 1pm; take a pew for Aoife O'Donovan and support Donovan Woods when they play the 1st Presbyterian Church in Rosemary St on Friday January 28 at 8pm and, finally, roofs are going to be raised, feet will be stomped and hands will be clapped as Four Men and a Dog take to the stage at the Back Box on Sunday January 30 at 3pm for a concert/hooley/party type of carry-on.

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