Music

Trad/Roots: Sharon Shannon and Belfast Tradfest are a perfect mix

Sharon Shannon will be bringing her Big Band to the Ulster Hall at Tradfest, in a special concert also featuring Liam Ó Maonlaí

WATCH out Belfast, you are in for a hell of a week at the end of July as Sharon Shannon and her big band returns to Belfast as part of Tradfest, the week-long summer school which features a full programme of concerts, workshops, talks, lectures, sessions, céilís and a festival club – all in Belfast city centre. Phew!

If you are breathless just reading that, think about how you'll feel at the headline gig which features the high-powered music of the human dynamo, Sharon Shannon and her big band rocking the Ulster Hall.

Not only that, but opening the show will be Hothouse Flowers' frontman Liam Ó Maonlaí, performing a rare solo set with grand piano, bodhrán and tin whistle.

But back to Shannon. The Clare-born button accordionist has been enthralling audiences all over the world, a musical antidote to much of what is happening in people's lives today, who personifies the spirit of the Belfast Tradfest which started off as the Belfast Summer School of Traditional Music on the cusp of the Covid pandemic but which is now back with a bang.

The act of teaching traditional tunes is of course more than just that, it is passing on a cultural tradition to future generations.

Before she was an international superstar, Sharon was learning at home from her brother Gary.

"There are four in my family – Gary is the oldest, I have an older sister, Majella and a younger sister Mary – but my parents sent Gary to music lessons in Corofin when he was about eight to learn the tin whistle," she told me on a Zoom call last week.

Gary then taught his sisters in their home outside Corofin and when the big brother got a concert flute, the girls wanted to follow suit but Gary suggested they all get their own instruments.

"We were lucky enough that my parents were able to buy us the instruments that we wanted," recalls Sharon.

"So my sister Michelle got a fiddle, Mary got a banjo and I got an accordion."

They had their own teachers who included fiddle player Tony Linanne and his brother Sean, Alec Finn from Dé Danann as well as neighbour Frank Custy – father of Tola and Mary Custy - who said there was not a lot he could teach the teenage Sharon, such was her natural talent, love of the music she was playing, and sheer hard work.

"We used to go to the céilís that Frank ran every Friday night in Toonagh and it was the highlight of our week," she recalls with her trademark smile.

"They were just amazing - really, really fantastic craic and great for us to see the fun side of music, the side of music which was really sociable. So the Custy family were a big part of how we discovered such a great love for traditional music."

That love took Sharon to Doolin, a small village in north Clare, where her musical horizons were widened considerably.

"It was all Irish music that I played until I was about 16 or 17 but then I started going to Doolin," she tells me.

"It's a lovely village where there was music seven nights a week and it's a real magnet for unusual kinds of people who might be travelling around the world until they arrive in Doolin - and they end up staying.

"A lot of them would play music so when I was 18, I went to live there and met all these really great musicians who were playing other musics besides Irish music.

"Through that I became aware of old-timey American music and Breton music and Cajun tunes and waltzes and all kinds of stuff so that was the start for me of hearing other music besides Irish music."

Wherever there was a session, you'd find Sharon playing there and so it came to pass that Steve Wickham of the Waterboys heard her play and, after first joining Arcady – which featured Johnny McDonagh and Frances Black – she was persuaded to join the Waterboys.

In 1990, she released her eponymous debut album, a glorious mix of Irish, French-Canadian, Cajun and Irish music which became a huge seller across the globe, setting Sharon firmly on the world stage.

Did its success surprise her?

"It amazed me," she laughs.

"I'd been playing and recorded one album with the Waterboys for a year and a half before my solo album came out.

"It was a big step into the unknown for me so I had to learn very fast. When I joined the Waterboys I wasn't used to playing that kind of music. But I loved it and the lads were really helpful.

"And we used to have Cooney and Begley with us on the road as well and they were mad for tunes. We used to play tunes all the time with the Waterboys, but not so much on stage but in sessions.

"And Mike Scott used to like to integrate little bits and pieces of tunes into his songs."

Since then of course, Sharon Shannon has recorded 21 albums, was at the core of one of the most successful Irish albums of all time, A Woman's Heart, which became much more than just a collection of songs and tunes but an inspiration to Irish women ever since it was first released in 1992 and also another song that is sung wherever Irish people meet, Galway Girl (no, not the Ed Sheeran one but the great Steve Earle roof-raiser).

But there is more to Sharon Shannon than the crowd pleaser.

"People always say to me that my music makes them very happy, and that's lovely to hear. I love to hear that but it's amazing that one of my favourite musicians, Tommy Peoples, there's something very low and lonesome about his music, even when he's playing really lively jigs and reels," she says.

"There's something about it that just cuts through into your heart. For me anyway. I mean that in a very positive way. It's just absolutely gorgeous."

So, Sharon Shannon and the Belfast Tradfest are a perfect mix, both sharing the time-honoured tradition of passing on tunes and skills to the next generation; the life-affirming fun or sometimes the catharsis of making and listening to music; the pure sociability of classes and sessions or being in an audience; the love of the old and the fearlessness of facing the future - the similarities go on.

:: The Sharon Shannon Big Band is playing at the Ulster Hall on July 29, with special guest Liam Ó Maonlaí. 

You can find out all about Tradfest at belfasttraditionalmusic.com.

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