Trad/Roots: Friends reunited as trad stars celebrate Dungiven bodhrán legend Seamus O'Kane

Trad stars will celebrate Dungiven bodhrán legend Seamus O'Kane at a Mandela Hall concert this month. Robert McMillen finds out more from Mary Dillon, with Deantá returning to the stage

SSSHHHH... don't breathe a word. Don't tell anyone but there is going to be a surprise party for Seamus O'Kane, the much-loved and highly-respected bodhrán player and maker from Co Derry, at the end of the month.

What? Everybody knows? Seamus knows? 'Fraid so...

In fact, what was to be a surprise party in the Mandela Hall on February 25 was already sold out a month beforehand, which says a lot about both Seamus and the line-up who are coming together to mark his contribution to traditional music and, basically, for being such a sound bloke.

The Mandela Hall party/concert also features a return to the stage of the mighty Déanta, re-emerging like Bobby Ewing from the shower after a lengthy hiatus so - what joy - I took the opportunity to have a chat with Mary Dillon, the garlanded singer with Déanta, where we talked about the band's return and about her respect for Seamus O'Kane whom she got to know when she was at primary school.

"When I was wee, Seamus with other people was running the Comhaltas children's classes," she recalled.

"I did try the fiddle but I was no good at it but since then, we have been firm friends through music and through folklore, and we've had wee historical trips. He's just a very, very good friend."

"He would be interested in the same things as I would, protecting the environment and anti-mining groups and everything like that," says Mary.

However, it is as a master and innovator of the bodhrán that Seamus Róise – there are so many McCloskeys and O'Kanes around Dungiven that each has a family name to distinguish them – is most revered but as he writes in his website, his introduction to percussion wasn't appreciated by everyone.

"My father once went to Dublin and brought us all back a present," he writes.

"I was six years of age and my present was a wee tin drum with two sticks. That was a bad mistake for my father to make. I got to play it for one full day and then it was disappeared when my parents got me to bed, never to be seen again."

However, Seamus's inner rhythm was unstoppable. As he also says: "I never heard music in melody, nor songs in words... all I heard was the beat or rhythm."

He has gone on for over a half-century to refashion the bodhrán, making innovations that have changed its sound, allowing people to tune the instrument so that you can now get a wide variety of nuance from it, giving the humble goat-skin drum a sophistication it had never had in a group setting or solo, all after some 53 years playing and listening.

"I would say that there isn't a fleadh or a festival or a session on Ireland that Seamus hasn't attended or been involved in," says Mary.

"He is the most talented person I've ever met and he is the most profoundly inspiring man.

"He is steeped in the culture of Dungiven where he comes from but he has completely transcended that and has made his craft international.

"One of his ancestors, who died around 1385, is buried in the old priory in Dungiven.

"He was an Ó Catháin chieftain, called Cooey-na-Gall which has been translated as 'terror of the stranger', and I was thinking about that. When Seamus is to be brought on stage for this party, he should be introduced, not as a 'terror of the stranger', but as a 'friend to his neighbour and a friend to every stranger', because that's what he's like."

The O'Kane home would be full all the time, recalls Mary.

"People would come from far and wide and Seamus Róise would find a space for them somewhere. And that's what I think Seamus will be remembered for in the future, his generosity of spirit as well as all his talent," she says.

Of course, many would argue that some of the same traits could be said about Mary Dillon and many will be delighted that the band she fronted is back for the O'Kane extravaganza.

Déanta was one of the most promising traditional bands around from the late 1980s to 1997.

Musical perfectionists despite their youth – Mary was one of the oldest members at 18 – they were steeped in their local tradition but unafraid to add a contemporary feel when it was called for.

"We were young but we were very dedicated," Mary recalls. "We used to practice every Sunday in the back room of O'Brien's in Portglenone.

"We meticulously worked out every chord, every harmony and that was lovely. We all loved that. We would have stayed there for two or three hours every Sunday and worked on chords and harmonies and we weren't satisfied until everything sounded perfect."

Technical skill, however, never overwhelmed the band's heart and soul and now, some 30 years after the stars aligned for them, the band members have had successful careers and professions and Mary has retired from teaching so they are ready now to take the stage again. Like a good wine, no doubt they will have aged beautifully.

As well as Déanta, Harry Bradley and Dónal O'Connor, Marcas Ó Murchú and Róise Ní Mhurchú, Aoibheann Devlin and Deaglán Ó Doibhlin and Good Morning to your Nightcap, which features Ruadhraí O'Kane, Desy Adams, Paul Maguire and Ryan and Tracy O'Donnell, will take to the stage for the Seamus O'Kane celebration. The MC for the extravaganza will be the effervescent Gino Lupari so it's little wonder that the February 25 gig at Belfast's Mandela Hall will be full to the rafters.