Fierce Traditional Ita Kelly interviews the king of the fiddle, Frankie Gavin and finds that he us playing the tunes that are king of his heart.

It's been over 10 years since Frankie Gavin's last solo outing (Frankie Goes to Town came out in 1989!). This is quiet incredible when you consider the calibre of musician he is. It's not that he hasn't been busy in all this time, as well as continuing to release albums with De Dannan he has also released a 'Best of' album and has put several album projects together, which haven't been released yet. So this long awaited solo album that is 'Fierce Traditional' is mighty welcome. It is a bumper issue with 18 tracks in all coming to 56 minutes of classic music from a bygone era, music that is central to Frankie Gavin's being.

Here we find Frankie Gavin at his very best, on home turf in the music style he loves the most "My heart is very much in the old traditional music of the 1920s. If someone were to ask me", he says "what is my deepest feeling in traditional music I would have to say that is where they lie, in that era. A lot of people these days think that they came up with trendy new music. There is an urgency to produce and record modern tunes and not use old compositions." So 'Fierce Traditional' takes us back to the twenties and thirties, to the music recorded by the earliest and first recorded heroes of Irish music; Coleman, Morrison, the Flanagans. If you read the sleeve notes you see the references and sources list like a history of that time interspersed with personal anecdotes.

Frankie Gavin is one of the geniuses of Irish music, recognised as one of the world fiddle / violin masters and compared to artists of the calibre of Grapelli in jazz and Menuhin in the classical world and to boot he has played with practically all of them. A project he will be involved with soon is the recording of an album of traditional Irish music played on the violin, which was used by the classical composer and maestro Fritz Kreisler. It is in the Library of Congress in Washington and Frankie has been asked by the Smithsonian Institute to make the historic performance and recording. Not that his projects all dwell with the past, he hopes to work again with the Rolling Stones who must be an old friend at this stage, Keith Richards this autumn when he returns to the United States, renewing a working studio relationship they had last year.

Indeed the States is where for the past two years he divides his time with Galway. Harking back to that long ago time again in his living habits, Frankie is following his grandfather's footsteps, "he lived in Philadelphia for years. So I feel America is my second home." He seems to be enjoying the American southern hospitality. Last year Frankie spent a number of months in Austin, Texas, the year before it was Georgia and this coming winter he hopes to live in Virginia. He enthuses about life in the United States, feeling it to be very free and boasting wonderful facilities for children particularly with regard to education. "They have great schools, music programmes, sports facilities and a light hearted feeling about schooling. The teachers are under less pressure there too. In Ireland there are too many students per teacher and teachers are taken for granted. They deserve more than they get in Ireland. This is the next generation and we should be investing in them. Ireland needs to get a grip", he says "and treat the next generation with more respect."

Frankie and his wife Tracy have three children ranging in age from 12 to 3 and luckily they adapt easily to life in both countries. Tracy herself is an American and with Frankie's background he feels almost like he is too. In for the summer, I met Frankie at the height of the Galway Arts Festival where he launched his new album at a celebratory concert. An intelligent witty man both on stage and off he is profoundly serious about life issues and this serious side dominates to an extent on this recording.

It is seriously good traditional music played by one of the finest and while he has delved and dived into many other spheres of music, he is always at his shining best on fast difficult reels and on 'Fierce Traditional' we are treated to 12 sets of them. I asked him how he reconciles projects like De Dannan's 'Welcome to the Hotel Connemara' and their interpertations of Beatles and classical tunes with his profound respect for the tradition. "The sales of 'Hotel Connemara' were fabulous." He says: "the reviews were different. But that music brings people into the tradition, like 'hey Jude' did when we did it with De Dannan. It actually brought a lot more people into the fold of Irish traditional music. It's great fun to do an album like that, you get a bit of slagging but the general public love it."

Frankie was the youngest of four children in a very musical family, his father JJ ran a pub in Carrandulla in Co. Galway and always had 78 records playing. He taught Frankie his first notes on the fiddle. Then his oldest brother Seán taught him his first tunes. Seán was an accordion player and was a great mentor to the young Frankie, in fact Frankie credits him too with mentoring and influencing quiet a lot of what De Dannan have done. Frankie founded De Dannan when only 18 years of age and along with Alec Finn has maintained the band's ethos and standing over the 27 years it has been in existence and through all the line up changes in that time.

Always innovative, the question constantly on your mind when you meet Frankie is 'Well what is he up to now?' for surely there is some collaboration or new project afoot. On 'Fierce Traditional' he collaborates thematically with his heroes from the past and in practice with his friends Brian McGrath, current banjo and piano player with De Dannan and Alec Finn on bouzouki. With Frankie's encouragement, his brother Seán is the special guest and it's the first time they have recorded together. Seán himself is held in high regard in music circles in the West, but with a lower public profile than his world famous brother. Here we hear his beefy accordion on three tracks; "He used an accordion in a B flat mode" Frankie tells me, "and it makes all sorts of ordinary tunes sound very different." One of each is what we get from his brother, first a set of Jigs, then hornpipes and finally reels with Frankie bouncing off the accordion with his inimitable flourish and ornamentation.

Frankie also treats us to some tunes on the flute 'maid of Mount Kisco' breaks through the fiddle domination clear and strong, beautifully paced and airy. The second solo outing for the Flute comes on 'Sliabh na mBan' the melody of the 1798 commemoration song. Frankie dedicates the two slow airs on the album to the memory of his father who loved slow airs. The second is another song air 'She lived beside the Anner' (another Tipperary song). He does justice to both songs and they come as a welcome break on the recording from the pace of tunes.

The mystery Reel' is so scaled because its origin has baffled the experts. However Joe Burke has pointed out that it may well be a tune learned from Eddie Moloney, as it is the type of tune he would have played. Frankie played with Eddie and other legends of the time when still in school in Galway and he adds that it is a tune he would love to have composed himself. He plays both flute and fiddle on that on the album. While the sleeve notes on this album are very precise and accurate thanks to the work of Nicholas Carolan and Orla Henihan in the Traditional Music Archive, they are also full of memories and stories from the broad musical experience that is Frankie Gavin's. Purposely there are no new compositions here; it is not that kind of record. It is a timely compendium and a majestic tribute to these mainstay tunes of the tradition, fiercely guarded, justly delivered and fiercely traditional.


Frankie Gavin: Fiercely Traditional / Happily Contemporary, by Michael Simmons for Fiddle Magazine (excerpt)

Frankie Gavin was pushed into playing the fiddle at the age of ten by his older accordion-playing brother who thought the two instruments would sound good together. "One day Sean came up to me," Gavin recalls. "He said, 'You know, I think you should play the fiddle.' I said, 'I don't know about that. Doesn't it make a lot of squeaks when you're learning?' But he kept on me so I decided to give it a go. The first thing he made me learn was a tune called 'The Broken Pledge,' which is lovely, but really difficult to play. He said, 'If you can get a really nasty tune off first, everything else will be plain sailing after that.' And it turns out it's true enough."
Although he didn't know it at the time, Sean Gavin had launched his younger brother on a career as one of Ireland's finest traditional musicians. In 1973, seven years after taking up the violin, Frankie won the All-Ireland Under 18 fiddle competition. (He also won top honors for his flute playing in the same competition.) The next year Gavin and his friend Alec Finn formed the innovative band De Dannan, and created a new way of playing Irish dance tunes in a group format, which Gavin describes in The Companion to Traditional Irish Music as "tightly percussive melody lines set against a flowing, contrapuntal background." And the band's cheeky versions of classical pieces such as Handel's "The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba" and pop songs like "Hey Jude" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" helped remind the world that traditional music doesn't exist in a cultural vacuum.
Gavin also released a handful of solo albums over the years, and he has performed with such disparate musicians as Stéphane Grappelli and The Rolling Stones. In 2001 he recorded Fierce Traditional for Ireland's Tara Music Company. The CD features Gavin playing a selection of jigs, reels, hornpipes, and slow airs on fiddle, flute, and tin whistle with backing by his brother Sean on accordion and his old friends Brian McGrath on piano and tenor banjo and Alec Finn on bouzouki.
"I was inspired to make the CD by working on a recording project with Brian Rooney," Gavin says. "He's not that well known, but he's a beautiful player. John Carty and Brian McGrath were working on his CD, which is called The Godfather, and asked if Alec Finn and I would play on a few tracks. I had never heard Brian play before, so I went up and heard him. His music was so warming I thought to myself, 'I have to do an album of fiddle music like this.'"
So Gavin began rummaging through his vast repertoire and selected a handful of tunes that paid homage to the musicians who inspired him as he was growing up. "She Lived Beside the Anner," for example, was one of his father's favorite slow airs, "The Mason's Apron" was a reel taught to him by the great tin whistler Micho Russel, and he learned "Jenny Picking Cockles" from Jimmy Cummins, a truck-driving accordionist who used to give Gavin lifts home after sessions. But the majority of the tunes are drawn from the 1920s recordings of fiddlers like Michael Coleman, Paddy Kiloran, Paddy Sweeney, and James Morrison, who is a special favorite of Gavin's.
"A lot of the music on Fierce Traditional is firmly based in the 1920s playing of James Morrison," say Gavin. "I have to say he is my all-time favorite fiddle player. To start with, his technique is phenomenal, and his tunes were just wonderful. Even when he played the old schmaltzy, sentimental things, he was really good. He had the complete package."
To help him bring the old tunes to life, Gavin turned to Alec Finn and Brian McGrath, two players from his own past, but most of all he relied on his brother. "Even though he played accordion, in a way Sean was my first fiddle teacher," Gavin says. "It was a struggle at first, but playing duets with him helped me come around to it. He used to get me records of various fiddle players and tell me to listen to this and listen to that. Thanks to him I heard a lot of different fiddlers at the beginning, like Sean McGuire, Sean Keane, Michael Coleman, James Morrison, and people like that. I really owe it to Sean for getting me started on fiddle."
Sean's record suggestions also helped young Frankie forge an individual fiddle style. "I've been lifting elements for years," Gavin explains. "I took bits from various players and did a sort of amalgam of them all. Apart from Morrison, the other player who most inspired me was the late Tommy Potts. His mind was amazing and the way he played a tune was like nothing I'd heard before. I showed up at his house once, and of course he didn't know me from Adam. But right out he asked if I wanted to hear a tune. He set me down in his sitting room and went and got his fiddle and played for half and hour. I cried the entire time because the music was so powerful and so emotive. I can't copy Tommy Potts, although I'd like to. I think his musical brain was extraordinary."
Two of the tracks -- the airs "She Lived Beside the Annar" and "Sliabh na mBan" -- are dedicated to Gavin's father, who taught him to play tin whistle when he was four years old. "My father was very fond of slow airs, and he got very emotional about them," Gavin recalls. "Whenever I would play one, he'd start crying, which might be a reason why I didn't play them much at first. But I've been making up for it since then. Somebody once said to me you shouldn't play a slow air unless you know the original words, and that's always stuck with me. I suppose knowing the lyrics helps you put the emphasis in the right places in the melody, but most of the songs are these huge epics in Irish, which is a language I don't speak very well. So I overlook that part, and just play the music. I learned many of them from people who did know the words, who did speak Irish, and I try to keep them as close to what they played as I can."
Gavin came up with the title Fierce Traditional after reading an article that took him to task for supposedly ignoring the old tunes. "The writer thought that in the recent past I had strayed too far from the traditional music with De Dannan," he says. "He thought that we were doing too many covers of '60s pop tune and the like. He decided that my conscience must be eating me, and that I should bring out an album of traditional music because I had gone so overboard. He suggested I call the album Fierce Traditional, which is a term people in Cork use to describe the music. I thought it was a bit of a giggle title, and I like the measure of it, so I used it. Of course, if I felt like recording an album of pop tunes, I'd do it in a minute." ...
Asked if he has any advice for fiddlers who want to learn to inject some Irish soul into their playing, Frankie Gavin says, "It's dance music, let there be no mistake about it. And if it's going to be dance music, it's going to be rhythmical. To me, the rhythm is almost everything. It's the hypnotic part of Irish music that takes you into another place."

Back to Top