The best of TradFest: Katie Byrne picks 9 highlights (and learns to play the spoons)
TradFest kicks off in Dublin today
Ireland's largest festival of trad, folk, and world music kicks off on Wednesday and Katie Byrne gets into the mood by learning how to play the spoons with a master musician, plus she's got the lowdown on all the unmissable gigs, right up until Sunday.
We’d all like to have a few party tricks in our repertoire, wouldn’t we?
For my own part, I’d like to be able to wolf whistle for a taxi, body pop for the craic and speak in a Scottish accent without sounding like I’m from Slovenia.
I’d also like to learn how to play the spoons — and lucky for me, the team at TradFest were happy to assist in my endeavour.
Ireland’s largest festival of trad, folk and world music kicks off on Wednesday and, given the occasion, the organisers were able to find me a willing teacher.
And not just any teacher: I was paired with trad musician Tommy Hayes of Stockton’s Wing — a man who has been at the forefront of traditional Irish music for the last 35 years.
Hayes is a percussionist (everything from the bodhrán to the djembe); a music therapist (he returned to college in 2000) and, it transpires, a bit of a virtuoso on the spoons.
He’s also an excellent teacher, as I discovered when we pencilled in a couple of lessons — one in person and one on Skype.
The first step to playing the spoons is finding the right instrument.
I could pick up purpose-designed wooden spoons in a music shop, explained Tommy before our first lesson, but in his opinion, “there’s more of an art” to the spoons you find in your cutlery drawer.
Stainless steel dessert spoons with a flat handle was his recommendation. And while the spoons I brought along were classified as “a bit soupy”, we got going nonetheless.
Spoons are played back to back, with the index finger acting as a hinge of sorts. Unlike other spoon players, Tommy prefers to use his thumb as the hinge. (This finger position didn’t work for me, but it might be worth a try if you’re struggling with the traditional grip).
The spoons should be parallel and the trick is to hold them firmly by wrapping the rest of your fingers around the base of the spoons while still allowing a little space between the spoon heads — they have to clack together, after all.
To play, you strike the spoons against your leg and the palm of your non-dominant hand — which should be suspended a few inches above the leg. It sounds easy enough but, in practice, it’s not. It feels like the spoons are going to slip out of my hand — and a couple of times they do.
But then, by experimenting with the ‘hinge’ point, and placing my fingers lower and higher on the handles, I find the sweet spot and hear my first ‘clack’. It’s not a resounding clack, mind, but it’s enough to impress a dining companion at dessert time.
Tommy has been playing the spoons since he was a child. It was the first instrument he ever picked up — and one that he struggles to put down, when he gets going.
“It’s a dying art,” he explains, as he demonstrates a few more techniques that I can try at home.
The first involves using different parts of the body to generate different tones. The inside of the thighs creates a different sound to the tops of the thighs, for example.
You can also try running the spoons along the fingers of your splayed non-dominant hand for a satisfying click sound. A flat hand and a curved hand will generate different tones.
“Some people do more flamboyant stuff like hitting themselves on their heads, their stomachs and their knees,” he adds. “But you’re best just focusing on the basics.”
As with all instruments, the trick is to loosen up. You don’t want to be rag-doll loose, but you don’t want to be rigid either.
“Work on reels first,” he tells me. “And stay away from jigs at the moment. As you get better, you can go from 4/4 time to 6/8 time.”
Alongside homework, Tommy gives me a few pointers on open trad sessions. Apparently, trad musicians don’t like the loud, and often overpowering, sound of the spoons — one to note if you were thinking of rocking up to The Cobblestone with your new party trick.
He also points me in the direction of some world-renowned spoon players like Artis the Spoon Man, who collaborated with Soundgarden and Frank Zappa.
Then there’s his parting advice: “They’re not the most complicated instrument in the world,” he smiles, “by any stretch of the imagination.”
While Tommy is sorry to see spoon playing dying out in Ireland, he’s happy to report that traditional music is thriving as a younger generation breathes new life into the scene.
“There is some really interesting stuff happening,” he says, before urging me to check out groups like Limerick’s Hoodman Blind (Friday, The Old Storehouse, Crown Alley, 00.10-00.40am) and Sligo’s Moxie.
TradFest artistic director Kieran Hanrahan agrees.
“For a lot of people, its quite cool to play it now,” he says. “But it wasn’t so cool to play when I was learning it in the early Seventies.”
As the presenter of RTE’s Céilí House, and a founding member of Stockton’s Wing, Hanrahan has seen traditional Irish music spread across the world — and he reckons it will continue to spread into some of the farthest-flung corners of the globe.
“Irish music is hugely popular in China, Japan, Cuba, Argentina and Brazil,” he tells me. “In fact, there’s a group of Irish singers and musicians in Moscow and, believe it or not, they speak in Irish. They’re native Russians, but that’s the language they speak when they get together.”
As for instruments, he says the concertina is currently “the most prolific of all of them” and the uilleann pipes are getting a greater foothold — “especially in Cuba”. As for the spoons? Not so much...
If you’re interested in learning about traditional Irish music, you’ll find no end of inspiration at TradFest. Otherwise, you know where the cutlery drawer is.
TradFest, Ireland’s largest festival of trad, folk and world music, runs from January 23-27 in venues across Dublin. For more information, see tradfest.ie
The best of TradFest
- The Pepper Canister Church hosts Ailbhe Reddy, Loah and Sive on Wednesday in what promises to be a memorable concert.
This triumvirate of up-and-coming female talent are all spellbinding artists in their own right. Bringing them together is a stroke of genius. (Doors: 7:30pm. Tickets: €15.99)
- After establishing in Ennis in 1977, Stockton’s Wing went on to record 12 albums and become worldwide ambassadors for traditional Irish music. The legendary group will perform in various venues across Dublin for TradFest.
- If there are tickets still available for Dori Freeman’s debut TradFest performance, grab them now. The 26-year-old grew up in a family of bluegrass musicians and she makes folk and country songs imbued with graceful simplicity. She plays in St Michan’s Church. (Doors: 8pm. Tickets: €15.99)
- Prepare to be swept away as Galician multi-instrumentalist Carlos Núñez — the world’s most famous player of the gaita, the bagpipes of Galicia, takes to the stage of Dublin Castle. (Doors: 8pm. Tickets: €34.99)
- Martha Guiney is a flute and whistle player from Co Down. Aisling Lyons is an eight times All-Ireland Champion harpist and concertina player from County Clare. Expect magic when they come together in City Hall. (Doors: 12:30pm. Tickets €9.99)
- Dublin poet Stephen James Smith — the man behind viral sensation My Ireland — will be performing alongside blues guitarist, singer and songwriter, Martin Harley. Expect roots and rhythm in the Pepper Cannister Church. (Doors: 12.30pm. Tickets: €12.99)
- The Ark in Temple Bar is running a series of family-friendly events, designed for children aged two to 12. ‘Give Trad a Try’ (today and tomorrow from 11am-1pm) will introduce participants to traditional Irish instruments — and there’s no experience required.
- Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh makes music on a 10-string fiddle called the hardanger d’amore, and travels the world as a solo musician, in various duos, and as a member of two bands, The Gloaming and This is How We Fly. He’ll be riding solo when he plays in Rathfarnham Castle today. (Doors: 3.30pm. Tickets: €14.99)
- Mesmeric Donegal sisters Karen, Lorna and Joleen — collectively known as The Henry Girls — play two gigs at TradFest. One on Saturday and one today in The Oak. (Doors: 4pm. Tickets: €3.99)