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A musical journey with Martin Hayes


If you were to give Martin Hayes’ Irish number a ring at any given time during the year, it’s most likely that you will find it switched off. When I contact Hayes, with a bit of luck he’s back in his home village of Maghera.

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Hayes has lived in the United States for the last 27 years, and spends much of the intermittent period travelling as far as Japan and New Zealand to do live shows.

Yet it’s to his native east Clare where he returns to when he can.

“It’s very hard for me to know where I live really, because I’m always on the move. Even if I spend time in one place for a while, I’m continually travelling, so I’ve almost lost that sense of where I call home,” he says with a chuckle.

Hayes is well aware of the journey Irish music has taken, both culturally, and commercially over the last number of decades. Although he spends most of the year playing to packed theatres, in cities thousands of miles from county Clare, he understands where the passion for the music originates from.

His father, PJ Hayes, and his Uncle, Paddy Canny, in the late 1940s, were the leading figures in forming the legendary, Tulla Céilí Band,  kicking off a rich tradition of Irish music in east Clare.

“The initial set up back then would have been to strap a fiddle on your back and travel by bicycle to play a gig in a local school house. Eventually, they got a car, the venues got bigger and they began to play gigs all over Ireland. I’m doing some of the same things I suppose but travelling further a field that’s for sure.”

Learning off various reels, such as Echoes of Erin, was very much an integral part of holding on to a tradition that was in danger of dying back then, says Hayes.

“Irish music is accepted more now than it was in the 40s and 50s. My father’s generation were in a position of trying to hold onto a music they felt was dying away. Not like today where traditional music is flourishing.”

“Going back to an early part of the 20th century, traditional Irish music would have been associated with: the west, rural life, small farms, poverty, even backwardness in many cases. People were looking for modernity and Irish music was kind of getting ditched in that process. In the 60s there was a new cultural awakening, you had the whole onslaught of Seán Ó Riada and The Chieftains. Then in the 70s you had The Bothy Band and Planxty,” Hayes adds.

Even though traditional musicians may well inherit the majority of the tunes they play, Hayes says the path to understanding the mechanics of how a reel moves can take years.

“It’s a life long learning experience: understanding your instrument, knowing your music, it’s not so much that you are creating things but that you are constantly learning. It can take a long time to comprehend a melody, and to get the phrasing right. Getting the swing and the rhythm of a piece is as much discovery as it is creation.”

As well as developing the skills to know how a certain piece of music should be played, adding to the collective repertoire, Hayes says, feels in someway like scribing your initials onto a piece of cultural heritage, which then passes through history.

“There is a big weight of tradition we’re dealing with in these songs, melodies that go a long way back. Unlike other music -where you have one composer- many hands are involved in forging these melodies and every musician shapes them a little bit. The body of melody is an evolving thing, but it’s still using fragments and motives of melody that are quite old. You are dealing with a part of collective creativity, which is very interesting.”

When Hayes first moved to the United States in the early 80s, he began playing in bars and pubs to earn a living. In the first apartment he lived in, a young guitar player lived across the street, Dennis Cahill, a native of Chicago, whose parents hailed from the Dingle peninsula. At the time Cahill wasn’t even playing much traditional music. After some experimenting, it took the duo nearly ten years to properly get together and play.

“I suppose there is a lot of value in the kind of musical relationship we’ve built up over time. At this stage Dennis and I do have a good understanding and rapport.”

Hayes is jovial and upbeat in conversation. If one is lucky enough to catch his live act, you may notice how much time in between songs he devotes to telling anecdotes and jokes. Within the music, however, a darkness looms, and there is a prevailing sense of melancholy.

That expression of isolation, he says, is just working out of a tradition that he inherited from his region, but one that also cuts across several musical genres.

“I think that lonesomeness in the music was part of what I knew in my locality.

We certainly like our lively rhythmic music for set dancing, but among the players in Clare that I was interested in, many of them would have what they call: a plaintive or reflective musical approach. The music itself though is no more grief stricken than a Beethoven symphony or The Blues.”

Hayes maintains that audiences, no mater where he plays, connect pretty much the same to Irish music, which he believes has a universal quality to it.

“Each culture has its own way of responding and reacting to music, but I’ve never been any place where Irish music wasn’t understood by the audience. I don’t really change the approach to how I play music whether I’m playing in east Clare or whether I’m playing in Tokyo.”


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