Paddy Moloney (1938-2021): The founder of the Chieftains changed Irish music forever

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Paddy Moloney, the founder and head of Irish chefs, was short, had a high pitched voice, and was always bubbling with jokes and laughter. But Moloney, who died Monday at the age of 83, was a masterful flute player and composer whose very serious outlook took traditional Irish folk music out of obscure pubs and wedding halls to which it had been relegated and brought it to life. made a worldwide phenomenon.

It’s easy to forget how neglected this music had become in 1964, when the Chieftains released their self-titled debut album. Not only in Dublin and Galway, but also in the Irish diaspora towns of London, Boston and Melbourne, old reels, jigs, waltzes and tunes were rarely performed for paying audiences – and even then, usually in diluted form. Music hall pop music and nascent rock ‘n’ roll had pushed folk tunes to the fringes.

Moloney would change all that. He would prove that the Chieftains and their music were substantial enough to be played by symphony orchestras, evocative enough to function as sheet music for big budget films, popular enough to be joined by Sting, Willie Nelson and The Rolling Stones, and universal enough. . work in China and Spain. But none of this happened overnight.

“When I was 16 and learning to play the flute,” he told me in 1985, “I had a great scum from my friends. Today they come up to me and say, “Can you buy tickets for my friends in Toronto or Baltimore? We turned things around, got people away from this watery stuff. We have helped people recognize their own culture.

Moloney grew up in North Dublin in a family full of traditional musicians, and he spent many summers in the mountains of County Laois without running water or electricity, but with lots of old tunes. He started tin whistle at the age of six and Uilleann bagpipes at eight. These bagpipes are different from the more familiar Scottish bagpipes; Irish pipes do not rely on air blowing, but on the pressure of a bellows with the elbow. As a result, the airflow is drier and more consistent, creating a smoother and more controllable sound.

At 20, Moloney was a master piper, but he was frustrated with the lack of opportunities to develop his art. Traditional Irish music was mostly played in impromptu ‘sessions’, where anyone who showed up played a limited set of tracks that everyone was familiar with. This format was democratic and spontaneous, but it did not allow for new compositions or ensemble arrangements.

In 1959, however, Dublin composer Sean O’Riada created the music for the Irish film soundtrack. Mise Eire (I am Ireland) weaving folk melodies and folk instruments into a symphonic score. It was a great success and prompted him to form Ceoltóirí Chualann, a classical chamber music group that did the same. Moloney, fiddler Sean Keane, and pewter whistler Sean Potts were members of that group, but they decided they’d be better off if they ditched the classical trims altogether and devoted themselves fully to folk music. Irish poet John Montague called them the Chieftains.

“I wanted to create a folk chamber group,” Moloney told me in 2012. “I wanted to take this folk art a step further. I collected all the instruments associated with traditional Irish folk music and made arrangements for different combinations of all of these instruments. By taking songs and adding these new combinations and riffs, we did something that no one had done before.

It was difficult for a while, and it wasn’t until 1975 when the Chieftains performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Stanley Kubrick used five of their pieces in the score for his film. Barry lyndon, that the Chieftains became stars “overnight” and could quit their day jobs. They had finally made it, but Moloney’s ambitions were even greater.

“I was never happy with what was going on at the time,” he told me in 1984. “There was always something missing. I was always playing with the harmonies, which the purists disapproved of. I would create harmonies by combining two whistles or two violins. I encouraged improvisation as long as it stayed in the traditional vein.

By 1980, the Chieftains had settled into their most famous lineup: Moloney, Keane, violinist Martin Fay, flutist Matt Molloy, harpist Derek Bell and singer / percussionist Kevin Conneff. Bell played the ancient Celtic harp and Conneff played the ancient Irish frame drum, the Bodhrán. Moloney was adamant not to use fretted instruments in the band, insisting that a guitar or bouzouki would spoil the special sound of medieval instruments used in modern ways.

Ironically, the success of the Chieftains inspired dozens of terrific new Celtic folk groups to flourish in Ireland and Scotland, almost all of them featuring guitar and / or bouzouki. These groups, including The Bothy Band, Planxty, Silly Wizard, Boys of the Lough, Patrick Street, Ossian, Tannahill Weavers, Battlefield Band, Relativity, De Dannan and Altan, were influenced by Bob Dylan and The Beatles, and have thus put more emphasis on lyrics and guitars than the Chieftains.

These young bands could not have been successful without the popularity of the older band, but they took mainstream music in a different direction than Moloney’s. It wasn’t difficult to kiss them all. In fact, when founding members Sean Potts and Michael Tubridy left The Chieftains in 1979, Moloney replaced them with another flautist, Matt Molloy, who had performed with The Bothy Band and Planxty.

Additionally, Moloney had no problem collaborating with guest artists who played guitar and sang their own songs. The first collaboration with a big pop star was the 1988 album, Irish heartbeat, with Van Morrison. The singer, who grew up in Belfast imitating Ray Charles and Sam Cooke, has turned increasingly in recent years to the spiritual and musical themes of his native land. He had worked to shape his own Celtic mythology, conjuring up a vision of “Wild Billy Yeats” as a rhythm and blues singer and “Tir Na Nog” as a Celtic utopia that could be reached by climbing a mountain. from an old Irish church. .

The Chieftains’ approach to tradition, on the other hand, was not so much conservative as it was conservative. That is, they sought to preserve the classic and timeless qualities of richly endowed music. Having afforded themselves the rare luxury of stable training and full-time work, the six virtuosos have blended a leading chamber band without ever sounding dry or academic.

Irish heartbeat became something more than just a guest appearance, as Morrison and The Chieftains refused to compromise their differing views on Celtic music. Instead, each part has stayed true to their beliefs, and the resulting tension fills Morrison’s eight traditional songs and two originals with gripping drama.

You can hear that tension on “Raglan Road,” the album’s biggest triumph. Patrick Kavanaugh’s brilliant lyrics about loving the wrong woman are set to a beautiful, traditional melody, and the Chieftains’ twin violins and bagpipes make it clear that this is an ageless universal tale.

But as Morrison struggles with the voice – growling, stammering, whispering, sighing – he makes it equally clear that the universality of grief doesn’t matter to broken hearts. He sings about a very particular pain. When the singer silences the group with a hissing “sh-hh” and whispers with frightening intimacy: “In a quiet street, where old ghosts meet, I see her walking away from me”, it lifts the hair over. the neck.

The album was so successful that when The Chieftains made a Christmas album in 1991, Dublin bells, they enlisted Elvis Costello, Jackson Browne, Kate & Anna McGarrigle, Marianne Faithfull, Nanci Griffith and Rickie Lee Jones as singers. The Chieftains have released three different albums with country singers such as Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, John Prine and Emmylou Harris. The Chieftains’ most recent album was from 2012 Voices of the ages, with The Decemberists, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Bon Iver and the Pistol Annies.

“When I made these albums in Nashville,” Moloney added in 2012, “I realized how much country music roots are tied to Ireland.“ Down the Old Plank Road, ”which has become the title of two of the albums, goes back to the Carter Family, and I recognized the tune as a very old Irish song that we learned in school when we were eight or nine. When it came to the United States, they added guitar and violin to turn it into a two-step. You can hear the similarities between our music and music around the world, even Brazilian songs and African percussion.

Moloney explored these cross-cultural connections by making a 1996 album, Santiago, with Galician musicians from northwestern Spain; a 1987 album, Celtic wedding, with Breton musicians from the north of France; and a 1985 album, Chefs in China, with various Chinese folk orchestras.

“I thought there might be some issues with the pitch and the harmonies,” Moloney said in 1985 of the Chinese sessions, “but all my doubts were dispelled on the first rehearsal. The instruments blended together perfectly. right from the start.Once we heard that, everyone relaxed, and soon the typical musicians jokes lasted all day.

It was proof of Moloney’s unwavering faith that folk music around the world is united by the need of farmers to mark the changes of seasons, to mourn the dead and wars, to celebrate harvests and weddings. Folk instruments before the 20th century were necessarily acoustic and portable, so there is bound to be some commonality. And that folk music can not only cross the borders of geography, but also of time. Music that was powerful in the 16th century can be just as powerful in the 21st if it is presented in the right way. Moloney’s genius was to make this too obvious to ignore.


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