DALLA PICCIONAIA: WILLIAM KENNEDY PIPING FESTIVAL 2018
November, 15th– 18th 2018. Armagh, Co. Armagh, Irlanda.
by Alessandro Nobis. Translation by Ciarán Ó Maoláin
With the inspired decision to move the main location from the Hotel (excellent for sessions but cramped for evening concerts) to the Market Palace Theatre (able to offer, besides a beautiful and capacious main theatre, other corners for performances), Armagh Pipers Club achieved its goal of organising a wonderful 25th edition of the Festival in the best possible way, despite the loss of expected funding and some inconvenience due to delays in air flights that forced some variation in the program; an edition that will really remain in the memory of those present (very many, even coming from the continent); also because it was celebrated 250 years after the birth of the piper and pipe-maker William Kennedy, originally from Tandragee, a village not far from Armagh, to whom the festival is dedicated.
Another interesting and admirable choice, this time artistic, was to devote the widest possible space to solo performances of bagpipe players through the organisation of four events entitled “A WORLD OF PIPING” which presented in four different historical places of Armagh the bagpipe in some of its variants, from launeddas to the Bulgarian gaida, from Highland pipes to border pipes, and of course to the “host” bagpipe, the uilleann pipes.
The festival is full of worthy and high-profile events, at different times and in different places and as you can easily imagine it becomes problematic if not impossible to follow them all, especially if you base yourself in Armagh and wish during the day to admire some of the numerous natural attractions that Ulster offers.
So you make choices; personally I participated in the first of the evenings of “A WORLD OF PIPING”, the two evenings at the Market Place Theatre and some sessions in front of “a few” pints in the lovely and historic pubs that animate the festival – and Armagh – in the evening especially at the weekend. The spacious headquarters of Armagh Pipers Club is steeped in all that is Irish tradition: the air you breathe in deeply, the posters on the walls, the photos, the coming and going of young musicians, those very young and those already established, tutors, amateur musicians – everything tells us that this place in Scotch Street is the cultural centre of reference of Armagh and among the most important in the whole of Ireland. The Vallely family, headed by John Brian and Eithne, designed and created [the Club] decades ago and cannot but be proud of its work and of the passion for tradition that they have so brilliantly passed on to their own children and to all those interested, starting from kids of school age.
Turning to the first [World of Piping] event, that of the Thursday evening, just after the launch ceremony at the Primate’s Palace: Tiarnán Ó Duinnchinn did the honours with his set of uilleann pipes followed by Ross Ainslie, from Scotland; Brighde Chaimbeul, of the Hebrides; the Bulgarian Ivan Georgiev and the Galician Anxo Lorenzo brought in dance and slow airs from their areas of origin. Difficult to choose, but the improvisation of Georgiev on his gaida, and Ó Duinnchinn’s intervention, left me breathless; overall two and a half hours of pure tradition, of great passion and virtuosity, which are essential to these solo performances whose purpose is precisely to show their skills without the constraint of supporting other musicians; though it has to be said that Anxo Lorenzo matched the speed and rhythm of Xosè Liz and his bouzouki. As for the other three events, at the Robinson Library, the [First] Presbyterian Church and Armagh County Museum, we must mention for the record the Sardinian Luigi Lai with his launeddas, the Asturian José Manuel Tejedor, Cillian Vallely of Lúnasa, the Scotsman Finlay McDonald and the Greek Georgi Makris (who had already made an appearance at the WKPF launch event alongside the Scottish group Dàimh). I would love to see this formula of solo performances used to let the heterogeneous audiences of the Armagh festival familiarise themselves with the sounds of the Italian pive, baghet and zampogna, and I say that from the heart. That’s all.
The two evenings at the Market Place Theatre were the highlight of this 25th edition of the Festival, beyond the profound cultural value of solo performances and the formal and informal sessions in the pubs of Armagh. And in this very rich menu, the icing on the cake was undoubtedly the highly anticipated duo of the piper Paddy Keenan and the fiddler Paddy Glackin, a duo that really represents a portion of the history of the rediscovery of Irish folk music. For this writer, who recalls placing on the turntable that “Paddy & Paddy” disc of 1979 from Tara Records, it was really moving to listen live to this pair of extraordinary researchers and musicians; they said that for several years they had not played together, but the magic was immediately triggered and the audience honoured them as it was bound to with great and long applause. What to say about the rest? That Lúnasa with the uilleann pipes of Cillian Vallely and the flute (and charm) of Kevin Crawford have confirmed their status as the most interesting Irish folk group in recent years? That the octogenarian Luigi Lai amazed those present with the sounds and rhythms of Sardinian music as well as with his circular breathing?
That Georgi Makris and Ivan Georgiev duet, improvising with an obvious pleasure and fun in playing together, which really is the essence of traditional music? Here we would have to write a long time to tell you the emotions of this extraordinary festival and then, without exaggerating, I would point out the beautiful Nordic tradition brought to Armagh by the Swedish duo Dråm (nickelharpa and bagpipes of Anna Rynefors and medieval bagpipes of Erik Ask-Upmark); the Scottish group (with seven CDs to date) Dàimh with the bagpipes of Angus MacKenzie and the voice of Ellen MacDonald; the “Ulaid” project of John McSherry with the fiddler Donal O’Connor and the guitarist Seán Óg Graham, with as a very welcome guest the extraordinary singer and flute player Ríoghnach Connolly; and we can’t overlook the female bagpipe quartet of Síle Freil, Sinéad Lennon, Louise Mulcahy and Mary Mitchell Ingoldsby, or the Gaelic song of the vocal quartet accompanying Ross Martin’s guitar (I think they were Maeve McKinnon, Joy Dunlop, Síle Denvir and Ellen MacDonald)? Certainly we cannot forget them, as we will not forget the opening and closing of the festival, the “seven samurai of pipes” that welcomed us to the two evenings at the theatre and the supergroup that closed it, Lúnasa with “guests” the likes of Paddy Keenan, Niall Valley, John McSherry and Donal O’Connor, who played the “Kesh Jig”, one of the workhorses of the historic Bothy Band; I want to think as an affectionate tribute to Liam O’Flynn, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin and Alec Finn, and also Mícheál Ó Domhnaill (of the Bothy Band, who left us years ago but was never forgotten): four heroes of Irish folk music who left us too soon.
A great edition of the Festival, my suitcase is already packed for the 26th edition. And yours?