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Oisín Mac Diarmada: Moving with the Music
Tim McCarrick
We’ve all heard the expression “the hardest-working man in show business,” but since James Brown is gone, we’re not sure who that is anymore. Surely one man in the running for that title is Irish fiddler Oisín Mac Diarmada. I caught up with Oisín (pronounced O-sheen) by phone in early December, 2008. He was in San Francisco, I was at home in Pennsylvania. I tried off the top of my head to remember some of his (recent) accomplishments: founder and leader of the band Téada, which has been playing worldwide for years and has several CDs, a DVD, and has been featured on major television shows in Ireland; winner of the 2008 All-Ireland Ceili Band Competition along with friends and family members as part of the Innisfree Ceili Band; producer of “Irish Christmas in America,” a show that sold out in many cities four years running; creator of a touring and management company for Irish traditional musicians; teacher/tutor of fiddle in various Irish summer music schools (Willie Clancy, South Sligo Summer School, and others). In his “spare time” Oisin is pursuing a Master’s Degree through independent study.

You were born in Clare, but later you were in Sligo, right?

Yeah, Clare was the place where I started to learn music, and the place where you start to learn always keeps a big place in your consciousness, I suppose. The musicians I met when I was learning in County Clare still are very big in my mind. I was lucky to get a chance to play with people who are now passed away, unfortunately –– some of the great West Clare fiddlers, whose classes I used to go to at the Willie Clancy school. That sort of would have been my first –– my biggest –– exposure to fiddle playing at that time, the Willie Clancy school. For many years I sat in on the West Clare fiddle class, which was a great week of immersion in a really fantastic style of fiddling. It was interesting because they didn’t try to teach other things, they were just happy to have people there listening and learning.

I was eleven when I moved away, so I was still relatively young when I left Clare, but I had been learning the fiddle for about five years, and at that age, I suppose, if you’re interested in a particular field, one can make quite a bit of progress in five years. So I moved to Sligo when I was eleven –– another county where music was quite established, historically-speaking, anyhow. I felt for a while, it threw my bearings a little bit, just because I was used to a particular style of playing in County Clare… After a few years I began to really get drawn into the music of Sligo as well, and I got used to living in the place and that. I grew to have a real love of the music of that area as well. I suppose [one] difference between Clare and Sligo was the fact that in Sligo, to some degree [the music] was historical. Now, there were still some mighty exponents around, but they wouldn’t have been as widespread on the ground as in Clare –– Clare would have had more music-making, as far as I could tell, anyway. In Clare you were watching real live musicians, whereas in Sligo you were cross-referencing historical figures that had been recorded, so that was a little difference between the two areas.

I felt that influence over there, when I was in Sligo –– the remarks made were kind of like, “Okay, now you’re in Coleman country.” I think his picture was on the wall, too.

You’re right, that’s actually the way it is in Sligo, absolutely.

So it was very much like, “This is one he did, and this is another one he did.”

Yeah, it’s completely cross-referenced. I suppose you can look at why [that is] and the effects of that, but it’s very successful in the sense of creating a community of appreciation and respect for the culture, particularly for that style, which isn’t all that strong on the ground sometimes.

I think the fact that Sligo could look back to historical figures was a key thing in keeping the activity going, because in County Sligo itself, most of the music-making is pretty much taking place in an area of South Sligo, but there are other areas of Sligo which wouldn’t be anywhere near as strong [musically], but it’s great to have figures like that to look back to, and even for people that will never learn traditional music, the sense of history makes them aware that there was once a rich traditional music in the place.

How are things now for you? It seems like Téada is always busy, always going somewhere, probably more than most other bands right now.

Yeah, we started going in 2001, Tim, and it’s been pretty busy. I’ve sort of put a lot of my energies into the band from 2001 onwards, and it’s been a great journey, really. I’m very lucky to be working with great people in the band…. We’ve taken maybe a quieter approach than some bands in the sense that… We realize that the type of music that we play is never going to be everyone’s cup of tea because we’re not trying to gear it to be particularly commercial. It comes from five people who have a pretty much close enough outlook on music and similar tastes in music. I suppose we’re just trying to reflect that in the band, and not push the boat out too much beyond that.

Well, you guys always look like you’re having a good time…

Yeah, I suppose if you get to the stage where you’re not having a good time, it’s probably not worth it for you or for the poor people who have to listen to you. [laughter]

Your website states, “Oisín is currently pursuing post-graduate studies in the area of political identity and movement to music.”   What is that all about?

It’s an interesting area, movement to music. Before I started doing this, really, it hadn’t been there, which I thought was unusual, because musicians are always moving to music but in an unconscious way –– we don’t even perceive our own movements. It’s a fascinating area, but what I’m looking at within the field of study is…how different movement to music in Ireland may interact with identity, particularly political identity of the island. So I’ve been looking at the marching tradition in Northern Ireland –– that’s been a big part of the study, so the political identities have been built up, in some cases, really, really strongly, around what would seem to be a pretty innocuous activity of walking down to band music, which occurs in many countries of the world. But it’s quite extraordinary, the level of strong feelings on either side that can be aroused through that activity. It’s interesting to look back at, and movement to music had a critical role in society going back hundreds and hundreds of years, even going back to early man –– the role of movement was really critical even in terms of hunting and…to development of warfare and communal living and that… moving together in time –– there have been some fascinating books written on that…

That’s interesting.

Yeah. If I hadn’t been doing this study, I probably would never have found myself reading much about it. But that’s the nice thing about being drawn into a tangent, into an area that you wouldn’t otherwise have been exploring. Even from the point of view of dancing –– as musicians we’re always playing for dancers, but we often don’t think very much about it.

Right, that’s always been my excuse for not being a good dancer. I was always busy playing the music. [laughter]

That’s my excuse, too.

I know in Northern Ireland, even the tune that you play, there can be political undertones. That’s why I was always fond of this album –– there’s a Catholic priest and a Protestant minister –– Gary Hastings and Seamus Quinn. I love that album.

It’s brilliant. Really, really good. Yeah, that’s a classic example of a shared musical tradition which has been kept apart due to political undertones, often imposed on the culture, not necessarily reflecting the culture.

And everyone’s well in the band?

Great, everyone’s doing great. And I’m sort of hoping to have a look at doing another solo album soon. I would like to sit down and do that within the next eighteen months.

Will that be just you, or will you have guitar, piano…?

I’m not quite sure. In some ways I find quite a different head on me, a different approach when I’m playing on my own than when I’m playing with the band… Sometimes the time that you do get to just sit down and play on your own –– it’s the same for any musician –– in some ways it’s a very free time, very little structure, very few limitations, so there can be great beauty in playing without accompaniment and just having that complete freedom. Because what I enjoy most about traditional music is the individuality that some musicians express –– unfortunately not all musicians, but that will always be the case in any musical form. But the musicians that I really enjoy listening to are musicians with a lot of personality that you can hear –– a deep interpretation of the tune… In its raw state, this kind of music can be hugely expressive and that’s what draws me to it when I do get the chance to do it.

[For the full text of this interview, as well as a transcription of the tune “Tom O’Connor’s” as played by Oisín on “Teada,” purchase the Spring 2009 issue of Fiddler Magazine!]

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[Tim McCarrick works as a music editor for J.W. Pepper. He has written about fiddle playing for Mel Bay’s Fiddle Sessions website, and arranged music for the educational market. He also runs the Irish Fiddle website which he promises to update more often!