Profile: Celtic Fiddle Festival

The Celtic Fiddle Festival is a group rather than an event, a combination of one of the best fiddlers from each of three celtic countries - Johnny Cunningham of Scotland, Kevin Burke of Ireland and Christian Lemaitre from Brittany. This grouping came together in 1992 for an American tour, which was recorded and issued as an album. The success of the album and tour were such that the Celtic Fiddle Festival toured again in Spring of 1994.
In 1996, Celtic Fiddle Festival II arrived on the scene with a completely different lineup, but there has also been talk of the original partners getting together to tour again.


Kevin Burke - see his full profile.

Johnny Cunningham was born in Portobello, Scotland in 1957. He left home at the age of 14, moved to Edinburgh and founded Silly Wizard with Gordon Jones and Bob Thomas. He moved to America in the early 1980s, leaving Silly Wizard for a while, before rejoining prior to their breakup in 1989. He has also played with Relativity, a traditional group made up of himself, brother Phil, and brother and sister, Micheal O' Domhnaill and Triona Ni Domhnaill. He has also recently joined the more contemporary group Nightnoise, with the Domhnaills and flautist Brian Dunning, and there is talk of a Relativity reunion. He has an active solo career and is also kept busy as a record producer.

Christian Lemaitre is best known as fiddler with Breton group Pennou Skoulum, and it's descendent, Kornog. He started his career with the Parisian group "Fiddle Dee Dee".

John McGann is a Boston-based American guitarist. He provided accompaniment for all the pieces played on the first album and composed the tune Canyon Moonrise.

Soig Siberill took over as accompanying guitarist for the 1994 tour, Soig is a group-mate of Christian's in Kornog, and currently plays with the Breton folk group Gwerz.


1993   The Celtic Fiddle Festival        Green Linnet 1133
   - Recorded live on the 1992 tour, featuring two solos by each fiddler and 5 

Track Listing:
Cutting Bracken/Brisk Bob/Laird of Drumblair (JC&JMG)
Melodie/Rondes de Loudeac (CL&JMG)
Garrett Barry's/Cliffs of Moher (KB)
Dionne Reel/Mouth of the Tobique (All)
Larides de Pontivy et de Josselin (CL&JMG)
Mist Covered Mountains of Home (JC&JMG)
Pigeon on the Gate/Lafferty's/Morning Dew (KB)
Suite de Loudeac (All)
Music for a Found Harmonium/La Partida/Roumanian Tune/Calgary Polka/Leaving 
Brittany (All)
Canyon Moonrise (All)
Blair Atholl/The Cairdin O't/Lexy McAskill (All)


Order it online from CD Universe.

Celtic Fiddle Festival II

This is a completely new group, consisting of Martin Hayes (Ireland), Natalie McMaster (Cape Breton, Canada) and Brian McNeill (Scotland), with guitarists Dennis Cahill and Tony McManus. They came together for a tour in Spring of 1996; here's a review of one of their shows:

Review: Celtic Fiddle Festival at Freight & Salvage, Apr 17, 1996

The original Celtic Fiddle Festival was a tour by three outstanding fiddlers - Kevin Burke from Ireland, Johnny Cunningham from Scotland and Christian LeMaitre of Brittany, with guitarist John McGann accompanying. An album was made from that tour, which now rates as one of my alltime favourites, so when a second incarnation of the band, with a completely new lineup, came along, I tripped up to Berkeley to get an earful.

The new look Celtic Fiddle fest is made up of Martin Hayes (Ireland), Natalie McMaster (Cape Breton Island, Canada) and Brian McNeill (Scotland and of Battlefield Band fame). Two guitarists accompanied - Chicago native Dennis Cahill for Marin Hayes and Tony McManus from Glasgow for the other two.

I managed to miss almost the whole first set, so I can't say much about Brian McNeill; the bit that I did catch was very solid and vigorous fiddling, traditional tunes with influences from jazz to Eastern European folk thrown in without a blink of an eye.

Natalie McMaster bounced on with a youthful and exhuberant set and her trademark set dancing (while fiddling!). Even when she wasn't dancing, she was constantly moving with the music, which was in perfect rhythm, clearly played as it was originally meant to be, for dancers. Her fiddle had a very warm, full and loud sound, which contrasted a bit with the sharp lively dance music she was playing. Her set had a lot of Cape Breton dance music, including pieces from Jerry Holland, and her uncle Buddy McMaster, and a mix of Irish and Scottish pieces. On the slow airs, her rich tone really came into it's own, reminding me of Kevin Burke's style. Her final piece included a dramatic display of step dancing and high kicking that brought the audience to its feet with a standing ovation.

The second half started with a short solo set by guitarist Tony McManus, who played several arrangements of dance tunes - one each by Cathal McConnell and Phil Cunningham, and the traditional slip jig Katherine Kelly's. The playing was quiet, with intricate arrangement and deft fingerwork; I always worry on these highly arranged pieces that the tune will be lost in the midst of the fingerwork, but he managed the balance pretty well.

If my comments so far sound only lukewarm, it's only by contrast with what came next: Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill. Martin is from Co. Clare in Ireland and has, most unusually, dedicated himself to playing just in the style of his local area, where most musicians nowadays play bits from every regional style. He has also, like no other musician I know, managed to get under the skin of the music; everything that comes from his bow sounds like he is composing it as he is playing, so much does it come from him. Many other musicians can do a great job taking a tune and doing amazing things to it: with Martin, it feels like it is the tune that has taken him as its voice.

He started his set with the slow air Ruach na Carrige Bhana, played with a hoarse, whispery tone, seemingly letting the tune take him where it would, with no particular rhythm. Within a few bars, you could hear a pin drop at the Freight, and every eye was on the stage as he swayed gently back and forth. Dennis Cahill was superb on guitar, and the two were so in sync that it felt like one person playing the two instruments; it would probably be fair to bill them as a duo, so much did they perform as a unit.

Later sets livened up a great deal, though there too his style is unusual: rather than sawing away furiously, there was still the feeling that the music was very much in control, and of a reserve of power in the playing. At any moment, he was still able to drop back down to a whisper and back up again. This is part of his playing that doesn't really come out in the albums and is the best reason to go hear him live if you can. It was a great experience for me, though I must admit that by the end I was itching for a burst of hell-for-leather, tear-up-the-rulebook playing.

My wish was answered in the very last set, with all five players on stage, though first there was a comic interlude as Brian McNeill announced they were going to have a multicultural event by playing some tune that they all new - and managed an excruciatingly out-of-tune version of kiddies alphabet tune ("Now I know my abc, won't you come and play with me"). It was a somewhat shocking reminder that they were playing the same instrument that shrieked its way through many of our childhoods!

The three fiddles moved into power mode, belting out any number of old favourites, taking solos by turn, which nicely contrasted the three styles. Visually, there were dramatic contrasts too: Brian McNeill almost sitting back while standing, a content look on his face and hardly any bow or finger movement to be seen, just tearing out great music, Natalie McMaster bouncing around under a curly mop of hair, and Martin Hayes, under a very similar mop of hair, swaying around like one mildly possessed. Apart from the contrasting styles, the combined energy and sound of the five musicians made for a memoable finale

All in all it was a great night, with excellent musicians, and an unusual chance to hear three very different styles literally side by side.

Gerard Manning

Copyright (c) 1994 Ceolas.

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