Irish fiddle legend Kevin Burke recently performed in Melbourne, Australia, and I was able to ask him some questions about his life as a professional player. Kevin is constantly touring and performing in Europe, Ireland, and the USA, either as a solo fiddler or with bands like Celtic Fiddle Festival.
Kevin was born in London of Irish parents and began violin lessons as a boy. He was taken along to Irish music sessions from a young age and musicians were often invited back to the Burke household. Kevin went on to play fiddle in the famed Irish group the Bothy Band, and since then he has gained worldwide recognition as a skilled concert performer and teacher of Irish fiddle.
You now do solo fiddle shows as well as band performances. Performing on stage alone for almost two hours must be a daunting task. When did you know this would work?
Well, I knew it was going to work for me because this is how I heard the music as a kid. I would go and hear Bobby Casey play. I would go and hear Brendan McGlinchey play. I generally didn’t go and hear a band, although on some occasions I did. Music at our house or music at other people’s houses would definitely be a guy playing on his own. I got used to hearing musicians playing on their own. About fifteen years ago I had been living and playing in America for a while and things were going pretty well, but I started to think that nearly all the people I play for have no idea that this is typically a solo music. Were they aware that it was a solo music tradition before the folk group became popular? If there were two or three musicians playing together, they would usually be playing in unison. They would all be playing the melody, there was no accompaniment.
How important are sessions for musical development?
I would say they were very important to me. How important are they to me now, less so. The sessions I went to had a very strong social scene. The players wouldn’t be going specifically to play music. They would be going to have a few drinks, to meet their friends and hang out and what you did in that environment was play music. Sunday morning I used to go to lots of different sessions and I would always bring the fiddle. If the music wasn’t there, I probably wouldn’t have gone. I was going to sessions where there were great players. Not all of them were great but the good ones would bolster up the session. There were few bad players and no beginners. You practiced at home. You didn’t go to the session as a novice. You had to kind of qualify before you were welcomed at the session, and to this day I would rarely play without being asked. In America I have seen lots of sessions with people who don’t play very well and a lot of people—ten, fifteen, twenty people—and I think something like that can get a bit out of hand. It is not very enjoyable and you can’t hear each other. There was one session I would go to fairly regularly and there were two guys, Raymond Roland on the accordion and Liam Farrell on banjo. Now Roger Sherlock would often join in and I would often join in, but Liam and Raymond were the core. What would usually happen was Paddy Taylor would play a few tunes on flute with them or he would be invited up to play a few tunes on his own, and then he would play a few tunes with the lads. Then I would be invited up to play a few tunes on my own, then a few tunes with the others. But it wasn’t usually everyone who came into the pub just joined in, then you ended up with ten or fifteen people playing. Now that did happen once in awhile but it wasn’t the norm. So the groups were fairly small—four or five—and very high quality playing and you wouldn’t play unless you were asked in case you would interfere. If you weren’t going to improve the session, you probably wouldn’t join in. Often you would have to be convinced—the others would convince you, “No, it’s better if you play, we think it would be better if you played with us.”
[For the full text of this interview, purchase the Summer 2013 issue!]
For more informatiion: www.kevinburke.com
[Sean Kenan teaches and performs in Melbourne, Australia, and runs the Fancy Yourself Fiddling music studio in Carlton. Visit his website for fiddle news, interviews and archives: www.seankenan.com]
Photo: Sean Kenan