Minding the pipes with Leonard Barry
Sean Laffey interviews the Killkenny based piper
Clonmel on the 11th of July is buzzing as it hosts the first Junction 7.02 festival, great idea, bring in a potpourri of arts events, plenty of trad, some blues, add a dash of world music, put on a bit of theatre, encourage the local arts scene, stage some workshops, get kids involved, and tonight Lonergan's will experience a new force in piping, but first there's a little interview to take care of.
Clonmel is large enough to handle such an ambitious project, but it's no Kilkenny or Galway, with a population of over twenty thousand these events might just break even. On the same night only fifteen miles away Cashel Cultural festival is opening with the Callino string quartet, a community tug of war and a late night barbeque. South Tipperary doesn't have an arts officer and this lack of co-ordination is evidentthis week , it's either a famine or feast in the Premier County. July is a good time for work, especially for young players who are establishing themselves and who still command fairly modest fees, festivals give them as much quality exposure as possible, but equally important is the need to get to summer schools like the Willie Week and practice and share the craft and lore of the tradition.
Tonight Leonard is joined by Michelle O'Brien on fiddle and Aidan Brennan on guitar, as regular side man Shane McGowan is on holidays. Sound check over, Leonard and I head across the road to a quieter pub, it looks good, only a few regulars, there's a TV, but not to worry it's showing highlights of last year's Fleadh. We order a Cider and a Rock shandy, bang, eight Euros go into the cash register, now I know why the place is almost empty. We begin by talking about the Willie Week. "It was a bit of strain pulling myself away from it, you know" he says with a grin form ear to ear. "There was this session, it started around lunchtime and by two we were flying, but I had to drag myself away." He'd gone along entirely for the craic, the chance to have a few tunes, meet up with old friends and enjoy the atmosphere. "Donnchadh Gough phoned me on Tuesday and invited me up to Miltown, I thought why not so off we headed. We'd no B&B, not even a tent, so we stayed in the Hotel Peugeot".
Avid readers of Folkworld might recall a report from Tonder in 1997 where Leonard joined Danú on stage for one of the very late night gigs at that festival, running I recall until 3am. He's not one for an early bed, and his nocturnal music making lead accidentally to the name of his album, "Mind the Pipes". It was two years ago last August at the first Thomas Town festival in Kilkenny, "we were in a session and I suppose it was late, very late or more accurately it was very early in the morning, I think about 4 am, anyway, around that time a friend of mine, sat on my chanter and broke it in half, end of playing for one night then". He's remarkably humorous about this mishap and he goes on to tell me that he got a quick replacement from Danny Quigley, but took his time finding something more permanent. Kevin Rowsome gave him the name of Eamonn Curran, who is making pipes in Monaghan and in January of this year the new chanter was ready. Leonard's pipes are now something of a hybrid with the drones and regulators having been made by Brendan Ring in Cork. Leonard is obviously delighted with the new chanter "It's in boxwood which gives a really sweet sound, and it's fully keyed which is useful when you are playing with singers, it helps you get somewhere in the vicinity of the tune."
We then talk a little about piping influences; he pays homage to the old pipers and has taken his benchmark more from recordings than many of the pipers playing today. "I came to the pipes around the age of fifteen I suppose, from nine to thirteen I played the whistle, that was in the home place of Kilmoyley near Tralee. There was no tradition of piping in the area, the music we did play wasn't particularly local or even regional, and I suppose we were taught the classic Clare and Sligo tunes. It took me a few years to discover the Sliabh Luachra style and I love it, but it's suited best to the fiddle and box." Why was there a two year gap in his Ceol CV I wondered, "I suppose like many a young lad, traditional music just wasn't the cool thing to be doing when I was in my early teens. I can thank our local Parish Priest Fr Looney for re-kindling the interest. He's the kind of fella who gets everyone involved, he'd have us in the Parish hall of a Friday night practising for Glor na nGael and it was at one of these events I got a close look at a set of pipes. They were in the hands of Dave Hegarty, he gave me a few lessons and it just went on from there." That "on from there" included a few years in London, a move around Ireland including time in Cork with Brendan Ring, a move north and many sessions playing with Harry Bradley, picking up plenty of Northern tunes, consequently Barry is particularly fond of Donegal Highlands " great piping tunes they are" he tells me.
Leonard favours the legato approach to piping, sometimes called the traveller style, some of it's greatest exponents were long dead before he took up the pipes, so how did he absorb so much of their sound? "Well firstly there are still some great traveller style pipers around that you can listen to especially Paddy Keenan and Finbar Furey they'd be a big influence, I also admire Liam O'Flynn although he's from a different less flamboyant side of piping, but he has such great control over the pipes, you have to be in awe of him. As for the older pipers, I'd listen to Willie Clancy, Johnny Doran and of course among today's players John Rooney who has been so influenced Felix Doran. I remember revising for my Leaving and Aine Hensey's show was on the radio, on would go the tape and the home work went out of the window, then it was another night of playing the pipes".
There's still a lot more he knows he has to learn about piping, "as I get more and more into it and as I get older, I am tending to slow things down, you realise that all the fast flash stuff that pipers like Finabr Furey can do, is a result of their mastery over the pipes, having the armoury of techniques at your fingertips (forgive the pun) to be able to go off in the middle of a tune and do something wild and then bring it all back on line, that's where the skill really lies."
I ask him about regulator playing, almost a lost art amongst modern day pipers, he admits to rarely using them on stage, "they are troublesome things when it comes to playing with other instruments and they'll often clash against what a good guitarist is doing to back you up, but I do use regulators when it comes to slow airs. "
The slow air Caoine Ui Dhomhnaill is a solo feature on his CD and it comes from the Kerry tradition, "it's paying the respect to the home place," he tells me. The album was recorded in Declan Sinnott's home studio in "four, long eight hour days". At first he says he was reticent about working with Declan. "We'd talked about doing an album two or more years ago and I'd not really done that much towards making at reality, but we met up one night and got talking about the possibility of doing a recording, he lives about two miles away form me in Kilkenny so that side of things was very easy to arrange. Then over the next few months I started working on tunes and selections, so by the time I was in the studio I was ready for recording." What was it like working with Declan Sinnott? " He was a pure gentleman, he put us at our ease very early on and we just settled back and recorded the whole thing live, Shane McGowan and I were about four feet apart, facing two Nyman microphones, which are the old valve type and give a really warm sound. We just went for it, figuring that in a pub gig we'd do eighteen selections in a two hour booking and all we had to do in the recoding studio was eleven tracks in four days."
That they did and with the help of Declan Sinnott who plays slide guitar and Tara Connaghan on fiddle Leonard has made a truly classic debut album. A record which moved the Irish Times' trad reviewer Siobhan Long to write: 'Leonard is another of the new generation of pipers, but he's not a new kid on the block; he's obviously been around long enough to have mastered this difficult instrument, and to play it with an unshowy maturity, but still with enough flash to absorb us. He presents us here with 11 selections of well chosen pieces - jigs, reels, hornpipes, set dances, a slow air - and plays them impeccably. 'Colonel Fraser' has long been a test piece for pipers, and Johnny Doran's is its benchmark performance. Leonard's is as good as any ever heard for fluidity, variation, inventiveness and inside knowledge of the tune. It's a lovely debut.'
I wouldn't disagree and I think we'll be hearing a lot more of Leonard Barry
in the years to come.
Photo Credit: Photos by Sean Laffey
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