All text (c) Ita Kelly 2009
It’s not easy to sum up the thirty nine years of music making and entertainment that Shaskeen have been at the forefront of Irish Traditional Music. Listening to their new CD ‘Walking Up Town’ it is clear they are going to be leading the way for quite a while yet.
Having been caught up like many musical groups in the whirlwind of the set-dancing era, Shaskeen’s last four albums were of music for the sets. Now they are making a change to concert style performances.
Album number fifteen got its first showcase at the launch in Ennis on January 17th and it marks a return to their original musical formula. It’s an album ‘for listening to’ and features a generous collection of jigs, reels, waltzes, polkas, barndances, and songs. The title tune ‘Walking up Town’ is an American ‘breakdown’, a fun rag-style tune. It’s probably the best summing up the band could ask for.
It is hard to beat well-seasoned musicians and the members of Shaskeen are as experienced as they are skilful. Another winning thing about Shaskeen is that they have maintained the same ethos over the many years and the many variations in line-up. Although quick to tell you how much work everyone else does in the band, the continuity may be because of founding member Tom Cussen who has steered the course of the band and managed its affairs.
There is a great honesty to Shaskeen, in every way, their music, the way they perform and in the way they get along together. The current line-up boasts eight musicians, all well known in their own right, and on ‘Walking Up Town’ they also have a number of invited guests.
Formed in London in 1970, at a time when Irish Traditional Music was at its peak, Tom Cussen responded to a request from the owner of the Oxford Tavern (now changed) in Kentish Town to put a band together to play on Friday nights. Tom had been in London since late ‘67 having moved there from Galway and was playing in sessions in some of the music pubs. The first line up included husband and wife team, Johnny and Maureen Minogue (on accordion and fiddle), Sean McDonagh on flute and Benny O’Connor on drums. Tom and Benny had met through the Fleadh Ceoil Competition in London and a ceili band they competed with called The Old House Ceili Band.
“I think the name came about” remembers Tom, “because I was probably after learning The Shaskeen reel, and I said we’ll call it The Shaskeen Band and it stuck. We played every Friday night for 12 months in the Oxford Tavern, and we had no singer at the time. We sat up there belting out jigs, reels, a few hornpipes and waltzes, and the place used to be heaving.”
Tom returned to Galway in 1971 when he was offered a job there and became immersed in the music scene, playing in pubs and attending the Comhaltas sessions which were held in O’Reilly’s in Forster Street. As it happened, Benny had also returned to Galway and they met one day in Eyre Square. Tom had also met up with P.J. Hernon in O’ Reilly’s and said to him he was thinking of re-starting the band. P.J. was interested and so they started with P.J. on accordion, Benny on drums, Johnny Dooley on guitar and vocals and Tom on banjo. They rehearsed and found they played together well, and began playing in O’Reilly’s on Wednesday nights. Brian Mooney, another legendary character in Galway musical history joined the band when Johnny was unavailable. “It went from zero to log jammed as well” recalls Tom about that early success in O’ Reilly’s. They began playing in other venues around the county and one notable residency they had was in The Shamrock Bar in Tuam where they played every Monday night for two years. “People went out that time four or five nights a week” says Tom, “There was a huge amount of live music.”
P.J. stayed with the band for two years. Connie Murphy joined after that for about six months to be followed by Johnny Walsh from Kiltimagh, Co. Mayo who stayed with the band for some seven or eight years.
They recorded their first album in 1974 with Release Cabaret, and quickly followed it with albums in 1975, 1976 and 1978. The years from the mid-70s to the mid-80s were the band’s busiest time. “We were really up there with the best of them” says Tom. And they were, their records were in every household in the country. Certainly in Co. Galway, Shaskeen were top of the hill, synonymous with dancing and fun. They could be heard on Radio Éireann every week; their records were played regularly, increasing their popularity and fame.
They continued to record, issuing singles, EPs and four more albums during the 1980s. The band line up changed from time to time, with Sean Conway, Mike Fahy and Sean Keane coming in as singers. Charlie Harris was with the band for some 14 years on accordion. Kevin Rohan stepped in and out as he was available and featured on several recordings.
They didn’t confine themselves to Ireland but spread the good music to England going there up to three times a year. “In latter years we’ve travelled to Spain and Germany and Norway to festivals. One memorable trip was when we played in Moscow in 1990.” says Tom. “We did America a good few times but getting into America is hard work – it’s difficult to cover and you need a lot of people doing the groundwork. Now we’d like to go back and do some of the festivals and hopefully with this line up we’ll get invitations to do so.”
The set dancing era descended on Ireland in the early 1990s and dances and the cabaret pub music scene changed utterly. Shaskeen adapted and took to the longer more arduous gigs that set dancing demanded with the same vigour they approached the cabaret and dance performances.
“Dances at the time would be ceili and old time and there would be sets as well.” says Tom. “But there was a great mixture; you’d be doing a quickstep in the middle of it as well. When the set dancing came in, at the beginning you had ceili and set dancing, then the set dancing took over and the waltzes disappeared almost out of it, but they’re beginning to come back again a bit now because people want a bit of enjoyment.”
“Walking Up Town” represents a return to that former style where interaction with the audience and variety in the performance is to the fore. It is augmented by some modern influences introduced by the new members in the band. Tom explains Shaskeen’s early musical formula,
“We were doing the cabaret thing, the folk thing, the jigs and reels, and I think the combination that we had at the time was relatively new, in the sense that we had box, banjo, drums and guitar. There was a right ould kick out of it, even if I say so myself. I think people enjoyed that aspect of it. Maybe it was a bit raw but it was good and lively and the whole emphasis really was on entertainment and talking to people. The idea of talking to people and having the craic and just bouncing off people and they off you, and that’s still happening today and that’s why we want to go back.”
In the current line-up on ‘Walking Up Town’, Tom Cussen is the only one of the founding members still there but Benny O Connor who retired from the group five years ago joins the band for a number of tracks. Eamon Cotter is the next longest serving member with some twenty years in its ranks. Seán Conway who soldiered with the band for many years also makes a welcome return with the great sing along ‘All for me Grog’. P.J. Curtis who produced the album got the gentlemen in the band to provide backing vocals, perhaps the first time we have heard their dulcet tones on a CD. Sean Tyrell who once toured with Shaskeen also guests with the beautiful ‘Angel’s Whisper’, a poem that he recently set to music.
At the core of the band are Tom Cussen on banjo, Eamon Cotter on flute, Patsy McDonagh on accordion, Johnny Donnellan on bodhrán, Pat Costello on banjo, mandolin and guitar, Pat Broderick on pipes and whistle, Tony Howley on flute and saxophone and Geraldine Cotter on piano. Geraldine accompanied Shaskeen on all their recordings for the sets and is now a regular in the band. Pat Costello has a long involvement with Shaskeen having produced many of their recordings before becoming a regular band member.
For their launch in Ennis on Jan 17th last, Shaskeen had the full ensemble present with guests and the additional musicians who appeared on the album – Alan Wallace on guitar and Maeve Boyd on fiddle. It was a joyous occasion and the music was out of this world. The banter from the stage was humorous and entertaining and there was never a dull moment.
A unique spirit in traditional Irish music, Shaskeen has something special. They have an ease and a comfort with each other, a one-ness with the music and a love for the craic and especially for their audiences.