Music that'll grab you by the oxters

Caoimhin O Raghallaigh brings his wild Celtic music to the Alaska Folk Festival

Posted: Thursday, April 14, 2005

Caoimhin O Raghallaigh grew up in Dublin, and began playing the fiddle - and subsequently the tin whistle, flute and uilleann pipes - when he turned 10. At that point, he was immersed in Celtic music and began to gravitate toward the style of the older players - guys like Padraig O'Keefe, Padraig Kelly and Denis Murphy.

"Something about their playing is very special - somehow they played for different reasons than people play today," O Raghallaigh said, from Ireland. "They didn't play to make money, or to become famous and they didn't play at people. Their music is somehow less defined, less constricted, less self-conscious. There's a wildness, passion, energy and recklessness in it that grabs me by my oxters (armpits) and won't let go. Their music is also very rich and full - you could listen for years and still be discovering layer upon layer."

Just in his mid-20s, O Raghallaigh is recognized as one of the finest young traditional Irish players of the day. His 2003 album "Kitty Lie Over," a collaboration with Dublin piper Mick O'Brien, was named one of the top 10 traditional Irish albums of 2003 by the Irish Echo. And O Raghallaigh performs frequently on Irish radio and television.

This weekend, he's in town for a 3 p.m. Friday concert at the Silverbow, and no doubt, plenty of informal jamming around town. This will be O Raghallaigh's first trip to Alaska. He heard about the folk fest from Fairbanks fiddler and bodhran player Caitlin Warbelow, who's performed in various groups around the state and in Ireland. He's flying to Juneau from Dublin, then returning immediately after the festival.

Concert: Caoimhin O Raghallaigh

When: 3 p.m. Friday.

Where: Silverbow.

Tickets: Free.

"(Caitlin) told me it was the best festival in Alaska, and I should definitely come over to it if I could," he said. "I've always wanted to come to Alaska, so it's worked out perfectly."

O Raghallaigh visited the New York area a few years ago and met Irish music players Mike Rafferty and Willie Kelly. But his first extended exposure to the United States was last October, when he played at the Southern Californian Pipers Tionol, Martha's Vineyard and the East Coast Pipers Tionol.

"Every single second of the trip was just fantastic," O Raghallaigh said. "The people we met were extremely generous in every way. ... There seems to be a great love of the music here."

O Raghallaigh lives in Miltown Malbay, where he's spending a lot of his time learning to make Uilleann pipes, an Irish bellows-blown bagpipe (as opposed to the Scottish mouth-blown pipe) that began to gain popularity in the early-18th century.

"There's two types of uilleann pipes - the concert pitch pipes and the flat pipes," he said. "I have a very great love for the sound of the old flat pipes. There aren't too many people making them, and it seems to me that knowledge of the craft is a fragile thing. It is for the love of their sound that I am learning to make them. There's a good few aspects to this learning - the skills required to physically make the instruments, the musical sensibility to inform that skill to achieve a desired sound and the study of the finest instruments made by the great old makers 200 years ago. If I don't make them, who will?"

His talent on the pipes has influenced his fiddle playing. O Raghallaigh is known for his double-string playing and his ability to mimic the droning sound of flat pipes.

"I probably play more double-strings than anyone ever has in Irish fiddling - it's just that I like the sound of it," he said. "I love the sound of Julia Clifford and Denis Murphy playing together, so the only way to do it on a single fiddle is play two strings. I suppose being immersed in the sound of the pipes did some damage too. Maybe all the drones and regulators changed my perception of the music."

O'Brien had been a musical hero of O Raghallaigh's for years, before they met in 2001. O'Brien gave him a ride to an Irish festival, they played a few tunes together and immediately clicked. The pair began playing concerts and recitals around Dublin and Ireland and developed a B/Bb pitch that seemed to perfectly blend their style on pipes and fiddle.

"As for playing down in B and Bb, well, I had been tuning my fiddle down low for a good while before meeting Mick," O Raghallaigh said. " I just liked the warmth of it. Once you've played with flat pipes, you're not going to go back to concert pitch. There's no comparison. With the flat pipes, it's like sinking back into a lovely big velvety armchair and closing your eyes. Compared to that, the concert pitch pipes can be like jumping into the Atlantic ocean in the middle of winter.

"Sometimes when we play, it can be pure magic," he said. "I'd love to capture that. There can be such wonderful uplifting energy in it. I think the way to do it would be to get a room full of people who love the music, and for us to play all night long. None of this starting and stopping you get in a studio."

O Raghallaigh hopes to record solo soon. Lately, he's been interested in polyphonic folk musics - the launeddas from Sardinia, the Indian classical tradition, Zulu singing and Hardanger fiddle music from Norway.

"I got my hands on a hardanger fiddle for myself a few weeks ago, and it's an amazing instrument with a high and beautiful sound," he said. "Playing it is a wonderful experience, and it has come at just the right time. I've been wanting to explore more dissonant chords and intervals, and the hardanger fiddle loves that. I had been trying to play tunes from old songs without much success until I got the hardanger. Suddenly I can play slow tunes, and the fiddle keeps ringing, instead of falling flat.

"I would also love to gain some sort of understanding of Bach's chords," he said. "There's some stunningly beautiful and wild sounds in his music. I'd like to get in to playing some old-timey music soon. There's a great fiddle player in Dublin called Dermy Diamond who had a great recording of two fiddlers playing together and it was really infectious music - wonderful stuff."

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