JAMES INDUCTED INTO THE COMHALTAS
CEOLTOIRI EIREANN HALL OF FAME.
Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Hall of Fame
Saturday February 21st, 2004
JAMES KEANE Dublin / New York
JOHN VESEY, R.I.P. SLIGO / Philadelphia
Dublin is accordionist James Keane's musical home, despite 37 years in the US, writes Siobhán Long.
Exiting stage left, particularly when it's a leave-taking of an Irish traditional musician, rarely leads to grand entrances almost four decades later.
Although we've exported more than our share of fine singers and players (including Sligo fiddler James Morrison and singer Joe Heaney) across the Atlantic, rarely are we fast enough off the mark to honour their musicianship while they're still hale and hearty.
All too often, in music and in life, it takes a rapid shuffle of this mortal coil to rattle our cages, but maybe the times are indeed changing.
James Keane is an accordion player who hurtles through life and through his music with the same verve as he did 37 years ago when he left his home place of Drimnagh for the bright lights of New York. Neither his energy nor his passion seem to have waned during a career split between playing the tunes and engaging in an odd (but very necessary) spot of career development in the good company of the Big Apple's infamous Rothschild banking clan.
Along with his brother Seán, The Chieftains' peerless fiddler and this year's TG4 Traditional Musician Of The Year, James Keane ate, drank and slept traditional music from the cradle. His parents Patrick Keane and Molly Hanley were both fiddlers, his father from Clare, his mother from Roscommon, and sessions were as core to their existence as short pants and jam sandwiches.
He cut his teeth with the famed Castle Céilí Band during the early 1960s, alongside such Dublin stalwarts as Clontarf flute player and archivist Michael O'Connor.
Des Geraghty, flautist, storyteller, Luke Kelly biographer, former head of SIPTU, and member of the Abbey board, is the man behind the forthcoming celebratory concert. As James laughingly recounts, Geraghty called him up at his home in the US early one recent Sunday morning and announced that plans were afoot to celebrate Keane's music during his annual October pilgrimage back home. Though taken aback at the proposal, Keane wasn't slow to voice his delight at the prospect of a knees-up alongside all the musicians with whom he had played as a young musician in Dublin in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
"It's the warm heartedness of the whole thing that really gets to me," Keane says. "Even after 37 years, I still think of my trips back to Dublin as going home, even though we've raised our family over here and we're longer here (in New York) than there. It's still home. We never really departed from the cultural aspect of it all."
HAVING STARTED PLAYING the box at the wizened old age of six, James Keane chose a particularly surreptitious path into the music, unlike his brother Seán, who took to the fiddle, their parents' instrument of choice.
"There was an accordion that my uncle used to leave in the house, because he was a civic guard in Store Street," he recalls. "I think they discouraged him from practicing it in there for some reason. He'd come out at weekends and have a go off it, and then when he'd leave, it would be put underneath the sofa again, but I knew the hiding place so I'd take it during the week and then put it back exactly as he'd left it every weekend. I was playing away with one finger, ripping along, when the news was given to me by my father that you had to use four. So the puzzlement grew, but I was also helped by a cousin of mine, Jimmy Donnellan from Lanesborough, who lived with us for many years. He was a beautiful accordion player and he was responsible for bringing people like (Galway accordionist) Joe Burke and Joe Cooley to our house in those early days."
Steeped in music though Keane was (his uncle, Peter Hanley, was a member of Dublin piper Leo Rowsome's quartet and his uncle, James, contributed countless tunes to Brendan Breatnach's collection, Ceol Rince Na hÉireann), he still managed to buck the family trend by choosing the box over the fiddle.
"I think as far as my parents were concerned," he muses, without a whit of irony, "if I wasn't going to go for the fiddle, they'd have thought at least I'd go for the pipes. Even going to the Pipers' Club as little lads, we befriended Liam O'Flynn, who at that time was coming up from the country - Rathcoole, that was! We thought that was the equivalent of coming up from Clare or Galway. I'd accompany him to his lessons with Leo Rowsome; I grew up a rebel in that respect. I steered away from the fiddle. I didn't really take it that seriously at the time. It was just a diversion. A bit of devilment really."
James's older brother, Seán, fondly recalls their early years playing together.
"I distinctly remember when he took up the accordion at home," he recounts. "It was an old Hohner and both of us used to be taking skelps out of it, but he quickly went out on the fast lane. He passed me by, and I said 'enough is enough!' and I went off with the fiddle."
The choice of alternative instruments may have gone some small way towards ensuring that the brothers were musical compadres rather than competitors.
"I suppose we'd have had more competition there if we both played the one instrument," Keane offers, "but he went his way and I went mine. He had his heroes and I had mine. Paddy O'Brien would have been a big hero of James's."
JAMES IS QUICK to acknowledge the distinct advantages of growing up with a brother who had as great a love of music as he. Both their musical identities were shaped not just by the playing of tunes, but by their total immersion in traditional music, regardless of whether an instrument was within reach.
"The priority was not only learning the instrument, but gathering the tunes," James recalls. "We already had a library of tunes, and if we sat into a car going to Longford for a visit, the lilting would start, and we'd still be lilting when we'd get back to Dublin. We'd lilt one tune after another, one of us outdoing the other, all the way to Ballymahon and Newtowncashel and back again."
Whatever sparks fly during his homecoming concert, Keane is adamant that he will never dilute his playing simply to garner more listeners or to plamás the music industry.
"I've got into a lot of trouble for speaking out against what I call 'waterfall music'," he says. "It's something that's labelled Irish music which is as far away from the real thing as you'll get. It satisfies the masses, but it's no relation to the music I play. I'm disappointed that everyone claims that because Riverdance brought the spotlight on to Irish traditional music, everyone gained from it. The only people who gained from that were the ones who make the dancing shoes and those outrageous wigs for the kids. There's no getting away from this plastic waterfall music crashing down, where all the tunes sound the same. We know where the tunes came from, who composed them. That's the heart and soul of the music. That's what keeps me playing."
The James Keane Homecoming Concert took place in Liberty Hall, Dublin, on Thursday, October 21st, 2004. It was a full house at Liberty Hall and that an Taoiseach (gaelic for Prime minister) Bertie Ahern was in attendance. Guests included: Seán Keane, Paul Brady, Seán Potts, Kevin Conneff and The Castle Céilí Band. All proceeds went to the Irish Centre, Camden Town. The show was broadcast in two parts on the Céilí House radio show on RTE Radio 1. You can listen to a recording of the show by clicking the links below (Real Player required).
James Keane's lecture recorded for the Smithsonian Institute's Folk Arts Archive
James' annual lecture series at "The Swannanoa Gathering" folk arts workshops in Warren Wilson College, Asheville, North Carolina, was this year recorded by The Smithsonian Institute for inclusion in their Folk Arts Archive. The five ninety minute lectures covered his life among the legends of Irish music and also featured a number of impromptu performances by
Sean Keane wins "Musician of the Year"
MIGHTY CONGRATULATIONS to the 2004 receipient of the Gradam Ceoil award for "MUSICIAN OF THE YEAR", my brother Sean who just happens to be my favourite fiddle player in the World.
Hup, ye boy, ye.
Liam O'Connor wins "Young Musician of the Year"
In addition to his many many awards, young Dublin fiddle player Liam O'Connor has won The TG4 "Young Musician of the Year" award. Liam was a guest on my "Sweeter as the years roll by" CD and is a son of my old pal and flute player Mick O'Connor. Mick is also a founding member of "The Castle Ceili Band".