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Oisín McAuley: No Strings Attached
Helene Dunbar
 “When you’re a fiddle player with a band like Danú, which is very, very traditional in a lot of ways, people expect that you’re going to come back with something that’s very traditional. They simply don’t know anything else about you,” explains Oisín McAuley, Danú’s fiddle player, about his debut solo album Far from the Hills of Donegal.

Much of the critical focus on McAuley’s first effort has revolved around the album’s unexpected eclecticism. Geographically, the music moves from his native Donegal to Sligo, Brittany, and Quebec but McAuley’s musical background, which is more diverse than many realize, also allows him to move stylistically from traditional to jazz, bluegrass, and classical.

There are many differences in terms of techniques when it comes to classical music versus traditional, so many that most musicians find that they have to choose one or the other so as not to negatively alter their bowing. Yet McAuley has always fluctuated between the two. “I did both at the same time for years and years,” he says. “I started off with traditional and my high school education was all classical, because I was doing all the kind of great things that kids do at that age but then in college I got back into traditional again and then I gave up classical pretty much. It’s been a real mixed bag and in the end I started getting interested in jazz and some other things so I ended up with a bit of a melting pot. But it’s been handy for me, the classical, for technique and the traditional has been handy to sort of fit in with anything that’s going.”

Even though McAuley has been mixing the styles for years, he understands why most musicians find it difficult. “You’ll often find classical players trying to pick up traditional music because they get interested in it and some of them, whether they want to give up on classical music or they just want to try new things, they then try world music, jazz, Celtic music or whatever it is and they find themselves lost very quickly,” he explains. “Even though they’re very accomplished in classical music, they’re not able to pick up music by ear very well and their technique tends to be very rigid. It doesn’t lend itself to some of the faster playing that you need for traditional music. But then again you often find traditional musicians sitting in on a gig where there’s maybe a singer and it’s a little more middle of the road and they find themselves absolutely lost; maybe unpolished; out of tune. Each background has a part of the jigsaw in my opinion.”

Growing up, McAuley was raised in Irish-speaking Carrick County, Donegal. Taking up the fiddle at nine, he was following in a family tradition. “My grandfather played the fiddle, and he’d often give bed and board to fiddlers, just to hear tunes in the house,” he recalled. “Everybody in my family played or sang. We all did traditional and classical –– in my case it was on the same instrument –– but my older brothers, one of them was an accordion player and clarinet player and the other was a cello player and piano player. They had separate instruments they played on whereas I played the one thing. We also have a strong tradition of sean-nós singing in our family. That kind of keeps you grounded in traditional –– everything goes back to that in a way.” He was also highly influenced by famed Donegal fiddler John Doherty. “You’ll hear a lot of John Doherty on this record, both his music and his style,” McAuley says. “He mixed up and changed things a lot, so in a way it was easier for me to mix up different types of tunes.”

[This article is from the sold out Winter 07/08 issue of Fiddler Magazine.]

[Helene Dunbar has written about traditional music for Fiddler Magazine, Irish Music Magazine, Scotland Magazine, and a variety of newspapers.]

Photo by Matt Guillory