You are currently browsing the monthly archive for July 2008.
All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2008
Fergal Scahill is well known as a bodhrán and guitar player but on his new album ‘The Dusty Bridge’ he focuses on his first instrumental love, the fiddle. Often described as the most expressive instrument, it is also often referred to as the most difficult. “It certainly is the most difficult” Fergal says. “With every other instrument, piano, accordion, banjo, guitar – when you hit a note, that’s the way it sounds whereas when you drag a bow across the strings, that’s not the way a fiddle can sound – and it takes a long time to get the dragging of the bow across the strings to sound nice. It can sound several different ways. To get it to sound like a fiddle should, you have to get the pressure of the bow just right, and get the tuning on the left hand.”
Fergal is well past the stage of worrying about tuning and getting the sound right. In 2002 at the tender age of twenty he won the coveted senior All Ireland title – the pinnacle in a long list of achievements and one of which he is rightly proud and happy. The funny thing is that Fergal, given his way when he was a child would have stayed playing bodhrán. He only mastered the fiddle because he ‘had’ to.
“I remember in Milltown,” he relates, “I wanted to bring the bodhrán to the sessions when I was eight or nine. I was good at it and I played it well. I didn’t have to be thinking of the tunes – but no, I was given the fiddle going in and if I played the ten tunes I knew then I was given the bodhrán for the last half hour and without that, I would never have played the fiddle.”
Fergal is the youngest in a very musical family from Corofin, Co. Galway. He was born into a household where music was part of life, his father Pat (sadly no longer with us) and oldest brother Adrian started Comhaltas in Corofin and conducted sessions in their house. This was the environment that shaped Fergal’s music. He was fascinated by the bodhrán and was beating rhythms with his knuckle on a book before the age of three. On a trip to a Fleadh Ceoil his parents bought him his first bodhrán and that was his main instrument for a number of years. Alongside the very fertile musical home influence, Fergal also benefited from a series of excellent teachers starting in National School with his first teacher Teresa Conway, and moving onto lessons with Bernie Geraghty, herself a wonderful fiddle player and multi-instrumentalist. Later in Secondary school he came under the influence of Mairead Berril another excellent musician and teacher. At the age of five he began performing on stage with the traditional theatre group Siamsa led by another influential person, Cepta Byrne. What started as a once a week performance turned into five nights a week during the summer months and all the Scahills were involved. “I was put into bed at four in the afternoon so I’d be able to stay awake for the show” Fergal remembers. There’s a really cute picture of Fergal taken during those Siamsa years on the sleeve of ‘The Dusty Bridge’. He always sported a tweed cap and in those days had quite a serious face. “We were traditional Irish musicians we were meant to be serious!” he jokes.
Fergal’s main instrument in the show was the bodhrán, but one April he got a phone call from Cepta to tell him hat he would be playing guitar for the summer. His brother Adrian, who was the main accompanist in the show was leaving to go to college and Fergal was to become the new accompanist. He laughs about it now, there was no choice, just knuckle down and do it.
Sometimes that’s the best way and Fergal relishes the opportunity to do something new. Recently he spent a month on tour with Dave Munnelly and his band in America. Dave’s music has a huge jazz swing influence and Fergal, who plays DADGAD tuning on the guitar had to invent the jazz chords required to accompany Dave’s music. He thoroughly enjoyed the experience and the challenge of expanding his skills.
Although Fergal has featured on many recordings, most notably his 2002 recording with Paul Moran ‘Off to a Flying Start’, he had wanted to record his own album for a long time. The opportunity arose when a friend of his, Conal Early from Dublin who had just set up a studio of his own suggested to Fergal that he record with him. They worked out a deal and between Fergal’s house and Conal’s house recorded it in a day and a half. “I had Ryan Molloy for about six hours” says Fergal. “We sat down the two of us and recorded twelve tracks live in the front room – it’s the only way I would record anything.” Ryan is a stunning musician from Pomeroy in Co. Tyrone and Fergal classes him as the best piano player in the country. “No one comes within a mile of him” says Fergal. “He’s got such a different way of looking at the accompaniment. A lot of his influence comes from La Bottine Souriante, their piano player and brass section and the way they approach it. He’s a fantastic fiddle player as well.”
“It’s a good representation of me now. It’s live; it’s exactly what I wanted to do. There’s very little post production. I played guitar, obviously I didn’t do that live. I wanted to keep it as live and real as possible. I wanted it to be fun; I didn’t want it to be too serious. I’m not trying to be anything in it – I didn’t sit down and say ‘This is the way I want my album to sound’”
The tunes are mostly well known tunes – “I pick tunes that I like playing” says Fergal, “Whether or not they’ve been recorded a hundred times didn’t really matter. ‘Jenny’s Welcome to Charlie’ is a tune that has been played and played and played but I love that tune. I had recorded it and didn’t know what I was going to do with it. Then it popped into my head to get Paul Moran to come and dance on it. It’s lovely to hear him doing the few steps.”
Fergal doesn’t have a permanent musical partner and plays with a number of different musicians. He has done a lot of work with Fergal O Murchú’s ‘Ragus’ and ‘Celtic Legends’ based in France. He’s much in demand as an accompanist but the fiddle and his self confessed need to be at the driving force in the music he plays means he prefers to steer clear of commitments in that direction. He loves travelling and loves meeting people and hopes to do as much work as he can with this album starting with an Irish tour in the autumn.
Fergal’s music reflects his personality; it’s full of innovation, enthusiasm and fun. It is intense, fiery and frenetic and at the same time playful. He chose ‘Port na bPucaí’ as the last piece on his album, packing it full of emotion and passion. Jigs, reels hornpipes and barndances make up the rest of the tunes with compositions from Máirtín O’Connor, Charlie Lennon, Josephine Keegan, Paddy Fahey and one tune of his own ‘The Dusty Bridge’ after which he named the album. It’s a very honest recording full of swing and virtuosity – a stunning debut!