CLARE FIDDLE PLAYERS
There are three main situations in which Irish traditional music is played; in a session, for dancing, and for stage performance. Theoretically a musician might play in just the same way for all three, but Martin Hayes is an example of a fiddler whose stage and recording performances lie well outside what would be appropriate for dancing or for sessions.
Hayes lives in the US, but comes from a background steeped in the fiddle tradition of east Clare. He was born in Maghera, near Tulla, and much of his early years were spent playing with the famous Tulla Ceili Band, alongside his father PJ Hayes and uncle Paddy Canny- both top- of the range old style Clare fiddlers. The performance style of such a band is very much aimed at dancing; the tempos are strict, lively, and there is a swing and syncopation which gives lift and helps to drive the music forward. The large line-up (including multiple fiddles and flutes, as well as drums, piano and accordion) means that, as with session playing, unison playing is very much the order of the day, and self-expression or improvisation would be a cause for dissension among the ranks.
It is therefore a considerable departure that Martin Hayes has chosen for his solo career a very individualistic path, exploring and perhaps exaggerating elements of the traditional Clare fiddle style.
Long bows and smooth rolls are a feature of the style, and Hayes has developed a trademark “double roll”, which you can hear for example on The Morning Star from his 1992 “Martin Hayes” album. Careful and deliberate slides up to notes, and sometimes the flattening of a note to give an almost blues effect can be heard throughout his playing- this is a key element of what is referred to in Clare as the Lonesome Touch- a plaintive, wistful effect after which he named his 1997 album. This album is also remarkable for the very slow tempo of many of the tunes, giving an effect more suited to meditation than dancing. Syncopation- the anticipation of a melody note, is a common feature of his playing, as is the creation of many subtle variations in both ornamentation and melody. His Welcome Here Again (2008) abandons the modern convention of playing tunes in sets (as would suit a ceili band or a session); instead he plays single tunes, stating the melody clearly a couple of times, and going numerous times round again, developing and shaping the tune as he goes.
Despite his unconventional approach, Martin Hayes is a modest, thoughtful player, deeply respectful of the tradition, and is also an articulate spokesman for his music. In the liner notes for the Lonesome Touch he states:
"In Irish music today there is much debate and division on the issues of continuity versus change and tradition versus innovation. I think it is a mistake to divide these issues as the music is capable of containing all of these parts at once. The real battle is between artistic integrity and the forces that impede creative expression. Traditional Irish music has always experienced change and been enriched by innovation, while at the same time maintaining continuity. The issue that is of utmost importance is that innovation, change, tradition and continuity all be tempered by integrity, humility and understanding.”
Paddy Canny (1919-2008) is often spoken of as the epitome of East Clare fiddle, but he was a distinctive player, who created his own style based on certain outside influences, as well as the tradition which surrounded him.
Born into a strongly musical family in Glendree, he started out playing at crossroads and house dances, and, along with fiddler PJ Hayes and others, was a founder member of the legendary Tulla Ceili Band in 1946. Both PJ and Canny are from near Feakle; this area, famed for its musicians, was visited by the tune collector and publisher Francis O'Neill in 1906, wrote of his
"unexpected delight of finding, in the vicinity of Feakle, so little evidence of the musical decadence which is so noticeably affecting the spirits of the people in other parts of Ireland."
Canny was all-Ireland fiddle champion in 1953, and in 1959 appeared on one of the first home grown traditional music albums in Ireland “All Ireland Champions-Violin”.
Two figures in particular influenced the development of his style. Like so many other fiddlers of his generation, he was entranced by the American recordings of Michael Coleman;
“I was very interested in Coleman…the lovely flow he had. It came so easy. You could see it rising up and down like a wave in the ocean…his music…and it went all clear and lovely again. He did lovely things to me. I always thought he was the greatest”
He retired from music for many years to work on his farm, but returned in the 1990’s to record a remarkable solo album; “Paddy Canny: Traditional Music from the Legendary East Clare Fiddler”. This album clearly displays the sinuous way he places his notes, and the highly distinctive intonation, with notes carefully pitched in the ethereal area “between the cracks”. Although this aspect of his playing is often said to be a feature of the Clare style in general, it may also have been influenced by the maverick fiddling of Tommy Potts, a remarkable Dublin musician who freely embraced elements of jazz, classical and pop music in his playing