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The Sligo flute playing style

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    The first flute player to achieve the acclaim given today to Matt Molloy was also one of the first traditional flute players to become involved in the recording industry. John McKenna from Tents, near Drumkeerin, Co. Leitrim, emigrated to the USA in the early part of the 20th century and was part of a strong Irish-American music scene in the twenties and thirties which coincided with the early days of commercial recordings.

With over 60 sides of 78s to his name he was the most prolific flute player of this period and consequently became an enormous influence. His style of playing was breathy and rhythmic with a great lift to it and many of his sets became session standards and still are. Perhaps the most successful set is now often known simply as 'McKenna's No.1 and No.2,' or 'McKenna's Reels', but was recorded in 1934 with banjo and flute player Michael Gaffney as 'Colonel Rodger's Favourite' and 'The Happy Days of Youth' and can be found in O'Neill's under those names.

McKenna's style of playing was typical of that mainly developed in Counties Sligo, Leitrim and Roscommon (and also in neighbouring Fermanagh, Mayo and north Galway), but is commonly refered to as the 'Sligo Style'. Strictly speaking the style is more of a Connaught one. The style travelled to the USA with emigrants from these areas and subsequently is the most commonly heard style on the early recordings.

Typically, this style relies upon the production of a consistent and emphatic rhythm, using the diaphragm to create a powerful pulse upon which the tune is 'superimposed' or hangs. Essentially, parts of every bar are emphasised through alternate hard and soft notes in a kind of on-off, 'attack'-'decay', down-up pattern.

Fingered embellishments are generally minimal, mostly restricted to cuts and occasional rolls and triplets where they might add rhythmic emphasis; any more and there is a risk that the rhythm will be crowded out. Essentially, the playing of ornaments such as a long or short roll reduces the opportunity to emphasise a particular note with the breath because the ornament removes a small amount of musical time from the ornamented note.

Occasionally however, an ornament such as a cut can aid the emphasis by clearly separating the ornamented note from the previous one and aiding its 'attack'. Almost without exception the graced or decorated note is on the up beat.

The result is perhaps a more plain but dynamic sound than other styles, particularly suitable today for both sessions and dances, but may also have its roots in marching bands. According to Sligo flute player Kevin Henry, the Land League movement encouraged the formation of marching flute bands, which would have had an influence in turn upon the style of playing the flute for dance and social music.

The need for dancers to hear distinctive rhythms in the music to keep their places and timing will also have contributed to the development of this style; the original purpose of the commonly-heard tunes today is for dancing, after all. In sessions as well, if musicians can hear each other above the noise of the pub, then the music will always come together. A rhythmic style is a great help in this respect as embellishments and variations can become muddied and lost in the general noise of the pub.

Letrim and the North

Leitrim players and those in Northern Ireland often have a tendancy to emphasise the rhythm even more than other Sligo-type flute players. This can at times involve forcing the notes almost to the point of overblowing, so that the note fragments and assumes an earthy, rasping tone. Harry Bradley's recent recordings (see discography) feature this and also make the connection between marching tunes playes on the fife and dance tunes on the flute.

In his interview on Brad Hurley's site, John Skelton says that amongst Irish musicians in London this approach was sometimes referred to as "dirty playing". This is not neccessarily a detrimental description at all, but is an extension of the palette of colours available to the flute player. It may be far removed from the tonal purity generally favoured by classical flute players the world over, but is actually quite tricky to produce and control. Interestingly, some of the innovative flute work by Flook!, Lunasa and also Niall Keegan employs this technique for emphasis.

Music sample

The Mountain Top (AIFF 219k | MP3 160k 20 seconds of music) This reel can be heard on Eddie Cahill's 'Ah, Surely!' (Shanachie) and is also played by Peter Horan on the compilation album 'Music From Coleman Country'.

Flute players who play with a strong rhythm include:

    Eddie Cahill
    Frankie Gavin
    Hammy Hamilton
    Marcus Hernon
    Peter Horan
    Cathal McConnell
    Josie McDermott
    Catherine McEvoy
    John McKenna
    Colm O'Donnell
    Conal O'Grada
    Marcus O Murchu
    Micko Russell
    Seamus Tansey

Northern and Leitrim players:

    Desy Adams (with Na Dórsa)
    Harry Bradley
    Michael Clarkson
    Packie Duignan
    Gary Hastings
    Deidre Havlin (with Deanta)
    Desi Wilkinson

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Flutes at Girvan Folk Festival
From left to right: Andy Nicholl (Stranraer, Galloway), Beverly Whelan (Lancaster) and Michael Feeley (Sheffield), at the Girvan Folk Festival, Ayrshire, early 1990s.

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