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Frankie Gavin
He is one of Ireland's best loved musicians, and an electric performer on fiddle and flute. Here Frankie Gavin talks with Fiona about the years with De Dannan and his individual projects with Stephane Grappelli and many others. The warmth of the man will radiate from your computer screen.

(This interview was recorded in Perthshire in 2003)

Fiona:

What a pleasure to meet with Frankie Gavin. Not Galway, not in North Carolina or Virginia but right here in the heart of Scotland, in Perthshire. Welcome and thanks for coming here.

Frankie:

Well thank you Fiona. I’m delighted to be here. The Scottish Arts Council got behind this particular tour and I think this is supposed to be the longest tour that anybody ever did in Scotland, playing in every possible place that you could in just under three weeks. It’s lovely, the weather is gorgeous, we’re looking out on gorgeous countryside everywhere we go and this morning is no exception, it’s beautiful and nice to be on your program.

Fiona:

You’re in the heart of one of our fiddling traditions, the Perthshire tradition and in the backyard of one or our great historical fiddlers, Neil Gow, and heading I believe today into the backyard of James Scott Skinner up in Aberdeenshire. So not consciously doing a fiddle tour but I suppose if you travel far and wide enough around Scotland you will hit a lot of these places.

Frankie:

Well I’ve just been learning about these great musicians. I’ve heard of them before of course, but I’m learning more as I go along and it’s great to be in the doorstep and in the bosom of these gentlemen’s great musical traditions. I’ve heard a good few recordings of Scott Skinner's but of Neil Gow the recording didn’t quite take place when he was around, sadly. But anyway I’m looking forward to listening to those today in the car as we head in to Skinner country.

Fiona:

Yes, off into the hills. It occurs to me that the last couple of times we met, apart from perhaps a couple of fleeting occasions at concerts, would have been in North Carolina some many years ago. I know that we worked together on a couple of occasions for Public Radio in Charlotte and in Wilmington, places like that, and it seems like a long journey since then but you’ll have put on many more miles than I have with these amazingly long and wide tours with De Dannan that you’ve done!

Frankie:

Well it is a long time ago since we met there. I remember playing at festivals and bluegrass festivals and stuff like that and we’re looking at twenty plus years I suppose. Well let’s not go in to it, alright! Oh - couple of years ago! But yes, some of the tours can be gruelling and others not. I’ve started doing a lot more solo work now because the band has gone into sort of retirement for a while because we’ve been at it for over thirty years and it’s a long haul and so I’m kind of focussing on my own work at the moment. Which is nice because before, with the band situation, you were amongst six people and with singers and different musicians and it’s kind of hard to keep a team like that together.
The formula always seems to remain the same: two tunes and a song or two songs and three tunes, it just goes on and on and it becomes a bit monotonous after a while. Although it’s what the audiences love of course as well, but at this stage I find it very gratifying to be concentrating on my own playing which can get swamped and lost in a band of six people. So it makes you think a lot more, it makes you consider the tunes a lot more that you’re going to play and how you’re going to play them. It’s meant that I’ve sharpened up a bit I think. Although I’ve always enjoyed playing with a band, and still do and would too, as long as it goes. But I must say I get a great sort of satisfaction out of the solo department, especially with Brian McGrath accompanying me. I’m doing work with Brian and Arty McGlynn now so that’s a nice combination. We have another album in the pipeline. I’ve gone from doing very little recording over 10 years to lots of recordings in 20 minutes.

Fiona:

It’s like your music has an opportunity to breathe more. I must say that as much as I enjoy and have enjoyed the work of all these wonderful bands over the years, I do get a great pleasure as much going to see a soloist or a duo or a trio and having that opportunity to hear the interplay between just a few instruments and see the full breadth and depth of soloists as well.
Frankie:
Yes, I think when you say ‘a bit of breathing space’ that’s good and you’re right there because well you know, there’s great fun in a band situation as well but it can be a bit congested and if you have just one or two or maybe three people really sparkle off each other it can be just as exciting if not more.

Fiona:

And you seem more free to relish playing the slow airs and laments?

Frankie:

The slow pieces, well, I used to not play these slow airs because I remember my father, my late father, who when he’d ask me to play an air and you’d be half way or just through the first couple of bars you’d see the tears appearing in his eyes and he was a very emotional person, which is a very good thing I think. But when you’re a young person, or in my case a child, I wouldn’t play them because I felt I was making him cry. I didn’t make the connection at all so I would just avoid playing airs but of course at this stage of my life I really aware of what a slow air can do. And I find I can express the airs on the flute, it must be something to do with breathing, I don’t know how to describe it but.

Fiona:

It feels like it’s almost the closest thing to a human voice, breathing it, as you say.

Frankie:

Yes, singing it, I think so. And sometimes you can get swept away in the emotion of the air, you know. And it’s great, and sometimes I sense his presence, so to speak, when I play these things. And sometimes it gives me the goosebumps but good ones.

Fiona:

Yes that came across last night, your own connection to that music and I can understand why you’d want to take time to explore it a wee bit more.
Let’s explore just a little bit, for the listeners, a little bit of the roots of De Dannan since your work has been so associated with them and instrumental, if we can use such a strange little pun, with that sound. If we can go back to the roots of the band in County Galway. That’s an area absolutely steeped in Irish music and a particular flavour of Irish music, if you like. Just tell us a little of how the band came together way back, ‘when you were a child’.

Frankie:

Yes, I was nine at the time (laughing). Well it was 73, 74 and it was a pure accident really more than design. There were sessions of music in Hughs’ Pub in Spidal which is in the Gaeltachtd which is the gaelic speaking area of County Galway, west of Galway in to Connemara. Which is really a beautiful, rugged countryside as well. And there were Sunday morning sessions there, what they’d call Sunday morning sessions but it would be more like noon to two o’ clock, and Alec Finn was living in Spidal at the time in the little gate lodge up the road. Charlie Piggott was living in Galway and teaching in the university. Johnnie McDonagh and I were both in Galway. Johnnie was working – I don’t know what he was working at and I was still going to school. So we used to attend these sessions every Sunday morning and there were lots of musicians from the area. A man called John Lewis, an English man called John Lewis and his Irish wife, Brida Lewis from Wexford, they were very much instrumental in putting the sessions together. Really devoted to Irish Traditional Music and John’s a very nice flute player. He now lives in Limerick and Brida lives I think in County Clare.

I’m rambling here but anyway, they were the people involved in setting up the sessions there every Sunday morning and we would be part and parcel of the session there and, invariably, the four of us would wind up playing a couple of tunes together. I don’t know why or how that happened, but anyway I was very anxious to put a band together and from the very early days it was something that I just knew was going to happen – one way or another I was going to put a band together. I pushed Alec quite a bit for a long time because he just wasn’t that interested in the idea of starting a band. He was playing in a three piece and doing a lot of pub gigs and he was happy and he didn’t need to go on the road, so to speak. But I would take the odd afternoon off from school and put the tin whistle in the school bag because I couldn’t be seen with the fiddle on the bike – that would be a little bit too obvious. So I’d sneak in to certain establishments in Galway and play tunes with them for the afternoon. And it sort of began really from there.

As I said the sessions went on every Sunday morning. Then there was somebody down from Dublin, I think it was Phil Callery from the folk clubs in Dublin, said ‘Would you guys come up and do a gig in Dublin some time?’ The Neptune Rowing Club I think was the first gig we did at the time. Really scratching the ashes here, but so off we went, the four of us. We did a gig, the four of us together and somebody said ‘Well, I think it would be nice if you had the odd song. Does any of you sing?’ And I said ‘No, but I know a really good singer’ and the lad said ‘Who’s that?’ and I said ‘Dolores Keane’. They didn’t know who Dolores Keane was at that stage, I don’t think. So we got in contact with Dolores and the rest is history. And that’s where the first De Dannan and Dolores Keane album came from, and that was back in '74, I think it was. Great old times, I must say.

Fiona:

Another thing I associate with the special work of De Dannan over the years is the fun you had with the classical standards.

Frankie:

Yes, the first time we did that my brother Sean, who’s an accordion player, a very good accordion player, he had heard “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba” and he said ‘You know, I think you should do that. I think you’d make it sound fantastic. And I thought ‘Agh’ and then I thought about it a bit more and I thought ‘Well how are we going to learn it?’ Because I can read note by note but I can’t really… so I got Martin O’Connor to learn it. I gave him the job, so to speak, well, I didn’t give him the job, but I asked him ‘would he mind’ and of course he’s such a meticulous individual and he’s got such a great brain for that kind of carry-on. So he learned it, bit by bit and then he taught it to me, bit by bit and off we went.

We did a few other pieces since – the Rambles of Bach - and we did a few other bits and pieces as well. It’s been a fun sort of exploration because it brings people from another genre of music to you. Classical music has gone off in a very frozen direction, as well, you know the soul seems to be missing in a lot of it, so to speak, and I think, as you say, it was the traditional music of that time, I suppose, when you think about it. I’d imagine that for example, well the way we did the Queen of Sheba, I’d like to think that would be closer to the way it was meant to be played and sounded like all those years and years and years ago. It has a looser, free-er, more spirited feel to it and I think that’s a healthier thing. Just reading note for note, you can always tell when music is being read or played from the heart, played by ear.

Fiona:

Someone once told me, I don’t know if it’s true, that back in the earlier days of what we now call classical music that people didn’t necessarily just sit and listen to it, that they were dancing to it the same way that people have largely danced to Irish traditional music. And that makes sense, doesn’t it?

Frankie:

It sure does! God that’s great news, tell me more. Fantastic – that sounds brilliant!

Fiona:

Speaking of music with fantastic soul in it, a couple of weeks ago, right here in this little village where we’re speaking, we had a visit of the Harlem Gospel Choir, who were just fantastic. They had people up, out their seats, following them around the hall, up on the stage, nobody sat through the whole thing. It reminds me that you had an interesting project also where you involved some Harlem-based, I think, gospel singers in some of your work.

Frankie:

We did. The first time that I heard gospel singing was in Washington DC in 1976 for the Smithsonian Institute, the first one, in 1976 and I think you were at one more recently?

Fiona:

Yes, I was.

Frankie:

We heard The Smith Family and they went on to do big movies and stuff like that later on in life. I heard the singing and I thought ‘Oh my God Almighty, how are we going to get these people singing some Irish songs or doing backing vocals to some Irish songs and stuff like that?’ So finally through an Irish friend of mine in New York, many years later, we recorded an album called “Half Set in Harlem”. Now a half-set is a kind of a dance, as you know, so that was a kind of a pun. So Half-Set in Harlem was the title of the album and we got Brook Taylor and Conrad and Clarissa Robinson, Lucille Oliver, Bambi Jones and Pam Johnston. And we did a selection of songs on that, because I just thought that great soulful singing just seemed to be part of our music somehow and any shows we’ve done with them have been just sheer rock and roll. Just amazing, powerful, overwhelming feeling. As you say, when they get people on their feet. It’s ridiculous the way they can draw up this great spirit, whether you’re a religious person or not, has nothing to do with it. You’ll be swept in to this whether you like it or not, isn’t it true?

Fiona:

And also on that album, a wonderful detour into another ethnic traditon...

Frankie:

We went off in to the Klezmer department with Andy Statman and Dave Steinberg – so we did some tracks on the album with those boys as well. Klezmer music seemed to be particularly lively- we have one set of tunes called ‘The Klezmer Hornpipes’ and they’re great fun altogether. We have Andy and Dave playing on those. It’s great. I think you have to be a small bit cautious when you’re blending music with another culture and so on, but I think if you’re cautious and do it with a little bit of taste and be careful, it comes out very sweetly. And I think, not wishing to be clapping ourselves on the back, we did a couple of nice bits and pieces over the years in that area.

Fiona:

Tell us about the grand 4-album collection.

Frankie:

It’s a combination of different albums that I did over the last, well, couple of years, that weren’t released and so on. One is with Martin O’Connor, the great accordion player and Carl Hession, he’s a great piano player and great classical-style musical arranger. So we have string sections and brass sections and all kind of stuff on that album, which is called “Speed of Sound”. There’s one with Joe Derrane, the great accordion player from Boston. That was recorded at the Glor Centre in Ennis, County Clare. He was over to do a couple of shows with me in Ireland and we recorded that live.

Then there’s one with Gary Hastings, the Reverend Gary Hastings. He is a Church of Ireland minister, who is a great flute player, from Belfast. We’re playing essentially a lot of music which would incorporate traditions. The traditions of the north and of the south. A lot of tunes that might be played at Orange Parades we would know in the south as a polka or a hornpipe, which is really amazing. We’re trying to sort of gel the two together, and that album is called “Music for Peace.” The initial idea came about when the first peace process began a few years back.

And then there’s one with Stephane Grapelli. I had the honour and privilege of working with Stephene Grappelli on a number of occasions and he came to Ireland. He was playing in Ireland, in Dublin, many years ago and I went to see him. Met him and we went for dinner after the show together and I asked him would he come to Ireland to do some work with me at some stage in the future and said he’d love to. And two years later we flew him to Galway and my home town where we did a show called ‘Jigs and Jazz.’ That album is on there as well.

Fiona:

You seem to be enjoying your music so much. Where to next Frankie?

Frankie:

I don’t know. I’m just going through a period just now with the music where I’ve never felt as happy playing music, and I don’t know why that is really. Well, I have a couple of reasons but they’re personal and I won’t go in to them on the radio. But let me put it this way, that I have a great sense of freedom and a great sense of being alive and aware of music, more now than I ever did before. I just felt like, I don’t know, not blaming the band for things here by the way, there’s all sort of different contributions and things that go on in people’s lives that can interfere with their well-being overall and their music. I think my life is, well, freeing up a bit, let me put it that way. I feel very alive, as I say , and very much enjoying playing music at this stage in my life.

Fiona:

I think that, when you’re happy, our creativity can just flow. There are any number of hurdles in the way for us all and to everyone’s great benefit you’ve brought that wonderful spirit and passion on the road for us all to tap in to. It was obvious last night and I’m delighted that it’s speaking for a good time in your life. That’s brilliant to know.

Frankie:

Thank you, Fiona. Thank you for saying that. That’s very nice. But it is the truth and it’s a very special time. Although it’s tinged with sadness from some other elements of my life as well. But never-the-less there’s a new-found breathing, a new sense of oxygen in the music and I’m having a great old time, thank you.

Fiona:

Well more power to your elbow - your bowing elbow!

Frankie:

Well said, thank you.

Fiona:

Well, it’s great to talk to you Frankie and I’ll see you in another decade, or hopefully sooner than that.

Frankie:

Oh God much sooner than that please. I love your program, by the way. I’ve been listening while I’ve been living in America over the last few years and I’ve just never missed one. So thank you so much for all the good times you’ve given us on that show.