INTERNATIONALLY-ACCLAIMED Irish traditional band Lúnasa are back on tour in Britain and Kevin Crawford — the band’s whistle / flute maestro — is delighted.
Based in Co. Clare but born in Birmingham, Crawford will get the chance to return to his birth place. But just how did he end up in Clare?
“Any trace of a Brummie accent is gone as I’ve been here over 20 years,” he says down the telephone line.
“I always had a bit of an Irish accent anyway because most of my socialising was with Irish people and even the few hours in school every day was spent listening to Irish accents. My parents are from Clare and I moved back to their home place Milltown Malbay in 1989, but now I’m living a few miles outside Ennis.
“There was always a draw to bring me back to Clare. I had this notion of living the life of an extended summer holiday because all my summer holidays were spent here. It didn’t exactly work out like that but it’s a great old life playing music.”
Was music in the blood?
“Mum and Dad both loved music,” he says, “and they had musicians in the house all the time so I was listening to music all around me. The summer holidays were always filled with music from famous musicians around Milltown Malbay… people like Junior Crehan, P.J. Crotty, Martin Talty and lots of great musicians from that area.
“I just wanted to learn then. I’m the youngest of four kids and my parents realised that I was passionate about the music. I used to come home from school and put on LP’s of the Kilfenora and Tulla Céilí Bands.
“I hounded Mum and dad enough to bring me to music lessons with the South Birmingham branch of Comhaltas and that was the start of it.
“A great fiddle player and fiddle teacher, Pat Molloy, who passed away three years ago, was instrumental in giving me the encouragement to keep playing. Even though he was teaching fiddle and I was learning the flute and whistle he would take me under his wing and play a few tunes with me.
“I could have just fallen by the wayside if I hadn’t had the opportunity to be with somebody who was as passionate about music as him and wanted to share it with you.
“In Birmingham there were great people like Patsy Moloney, Pat Molloy and Pat Brennan. They were all really good at giving me the opportunity to play music and so generous with their time. It wasn’t for profits. It was totally for the love of the music.”
“I do see what’s in it though,” Crawford continues. “I get a similar buzz myself. I get people coming to me for lessons and I don’t really have that much time because I’m on the road a lot, but I do love it so much that I try to make time.
“It’s like it was yesterday that I can remember the excitement I had jumping on the number 11 bus heading out to Hall Green to meet up with Pat Molloy and other people to try and feed my hunger for music.”
Crawford remembers a Birmingham music scene that, back then, had a “real buzz” about it.
“There were lots of bands coming out of Birmingham,” he recalls.
“It was a happening place in terms of Irish traditional music and I was lucky to be part of it. In England it’s as if the different cities and regions have all had their day in terms of when Irish music was popular. London has always been very popular because of the size and the number of ex-pats going there and the amount of second-generation people playing the music.
“Birmingham wasn’t quite like that. It had its heyday in the ’80s and early ’90s and then it seemed to move to Manchester. You had the likes of Michael McGoldrick and Dezi Donnelly and other young musicians coming up.
“In Leeds you had the likes of the Hurley brothers. If you are a musician you kind of know that these places have had their little golden eras. It then seemed to go back to level ground again. I was very lucky to be in Birmingham when it was flourishing.”
Going on to acknowledge the part that the diaspora have played in keeping Irish music alive and spreading it around the world, Kevin said: “London’s contribution to Irish music is immense — the same as New York and Chicago. The unsung heroes are more the Birmingham and Manchester contingent who I firmly believe deserve to be put in the spotlight.
“There were a number of players who came out of the Birmingham scene at that time that are still playing music today. Myself and Mick Conneely — a great fiddle player living in Galway. He plays with De Dannan and different groups.
“There was the Molloy family — Joe Molloy went off touring with The Fureys. He lives in Dublin now and still plays. They are still very much involved in the scene but nobody ever associates them with Birmingham, having come up through the ranks of Birmingham musicians. Manchester is probably better known because of players such as Mike McGoldrick, Dezi Donnelly and John Joe Kelly.
“I like to slag off my contemporaries here in Ireland who were born here and stayed here. I say to them that but for the likes of us coming around there would be nobody playing Irish music now.
“I could name 20 full-time touring musicians who are all from the UK and I could do the same with America so I say to the lads here, ‘But for us the whole thing would be dead and buried and ye would be forgotten about by now.’
“To go back a bit it’s thanks to the likes of Bobby Casey, Tommy McCarthy and Roger Sherlock who went to England and spread the word. They had to leave in search of work and to make life a little better, in terms of a social life, they played music.”
Kevin went to Ireland for a friend’s wedding and stayed. He said: “I got in with some of the great players in Clare. I stayed with Tommy Peoples for a while and eventually ended up playing with Moving Cloud who were a very well-known dance band playing for Céilís. I started presenting a radio show on Clare FM and I got an invitation to join a group called Lúnasa who were going to Australia.
“I had just taken on a permanent job but my wife said I couldn’t turn down the chance to go to Australia so I managed to get six weeks off work and we did the tour. It went very well and we came home and went back to our respective jobs.
“The following year we were invited back again for three months and we decided to give it a shot full-time. Sometimes you just have to throw yourself at things and whatever will be, will be. It was a case of right time, right place.”
Was he surprised at the way Irish music has spread around the world, even to places like Japan?
“It’s funny that you should mention Japan,” he says. “The biggest growing market at the moment in terms of people learning traditional Irish music is actually Japan. We go out there every couple of years and will be heading out there again in December.”
After nearly 16 years together Lúnasa tour about six months every year, which gives Kevin a chance to work on other projects that he is involved with. One of those projects is a new trio with Martin Hayes and John Doyle. By the end of our chat Luka Bloom had arrived to work on yet another project.
Kevin Crawford is certainly a man who is passionate about his music.
Lúnasa With The RTÉ Concert Orchestra, is out now.