SUMMER SAW the release of their new album. The autumn heralds a run of American festival appearances before a return to Ireland, including a major hometown concert in Salthll. Next year sees the band bringing North American fans around the county as part of Galway2020.
We Banjo 3 - banjo players Martin Howley, Enda Scahill, and David Howley, and fiddler Fergal Scahill - could well claim to be the hardest working band in Ireland. They can certainly claim to be the most successful band ever to emerge from Galway. Their 2018 album, Haven, saw them become the first Irish band to reach No 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass charts. They were also the first Irish band to reach the top of Billboard’s world music chart, with 2016’s String Theory.
July saw the release of the quartet’s sixth album Roots To Rise. It received its official launch at the prestigious GreyFox Bluegrass Festival in Upstate New York, where the band were one of the headliners. “One of the important things when touring in the States is to have something new,” Enda Scahill tells me, during a brief break from touring. “We used to try and do an album each year, but there is a shelf life to your ability to do that, so we decided we’d do a live album.
Roots To Rise was recorded in The Ark, Ann Arbour, Michigan, a prestigious acoustic music venue in the US. "We said, ‘Why not?’," explains Enda. "There was a lot of stuff from Haven and our previous album, String Theory, that wasn’t on our first live album. There was a gap and we decided to go for it. There is also a track from our very first album, The Roots Of The Banjo Tree. It’s stuff we haven’t recorded live before.”
The key to We Banjo 3’s success lies in the band's passion and intensity - and also the sense of enjoyment they impart - during their live performances, and for how their music skilfully mixes Traditional Irish with the American folk style of bluegrass.
“We’re not playing straight up, traditional bluegrass and we’re not playing straight up, traditional Irish. We’re merging the two of them together,” says Enda. “What that does for the American audience is makes the Irish music a little bit more accessible, because you’re putting in themes and rhythms they associate with bluegrass.
“For a lot of people there is a nostalgic element to bluegrass. It’s a sound they know from childhood. It also has a pleasant sonic tonality to it. You’re taking the best of Irish trad and making it accessible to people who are not aficionados of pure trad Irish.
“The same applies to pure trad bluegrass. When we play to Irish audiences - and we’re doing Irish music with influences of bluegrass, and even pop and Stevie Wonder - they are having a great time and can relate to the music, without needing an education in it.
'I had an hour long conversation - education - with Rhiannon Giddens. She asked me, ‘What do you think the history of the banjo is?’ She is on a mission at the moment, to un-Whiten the instrument. She's trying to balance the narrative'
“We set out our stall from the very start, because we went to Milwaukee Irish Festival in 2012 and we watched bands entertaining 20,000 people, and we asked, ‘How are they engaging a crowd this large, with just folk music?’ These bands were 80 per cent entertainment and 20 per cent music, and the music was good, and that has been a huge part of our success - we have really, really good music, because we’re bringing that virtuosity that is in Irish music, and have this entertainment factor to it as well. We leave behind this Irish notion that you shouldn’t do that, and stop taking ourselves so seriously. What we do, we do with integrity, but we don’t take ourselves too seriously.”
Bluegrass - an Afro-Irish music
Bluegrass is a point of contact between Irish and American folk and trad, and a source of pride in Ireland, that our native music gave rise to a major American folk genre. “Irish trad is a huge influence, massively,” says Enda. As he points out though, a key instrument of bluegrass is the banjo, the origins of which lie in Africa, and he believes strongly that the African influence on bluegrass deserves to be acknowledged as much as the genre's debt to Ireland.
'As part of 2020, we plan to do two concerts with Symphonic Waves. It’s something a little bit different, because Galway 2020 is county-wide, not just a city thing'
“Irish and Scottish emigrants to the US were meeting Irish indentured servants from the South, who had been playing music with the African slaves, and that melting pot became what is now called bluegrass,” he says. “I had an hour long conversation - education - with Rhiannon Giddens recently. She asked me, ‘What do you think the history of the banjo is?’
"I told her what I knew, which is what has been written academically. The official history of the instrument and of the music is a White history, because history has been written by White people, but she’s coming from the point of view that the contribution of Black people is not in the story, or at least not to the extent it should be. She is on a mission at the moment, to un-Whiten the instrument. She's trying to balance the narrative.”
Back home in Galway
We Banjo 3’s Leisureland concert at the start of next month will see the quartet accompanied by the Athenry Youth Orchestra, conducted by Katharine Mac Mághnuis. “It’s our one Galway gig of the year and our biggest venue as well,” says Enda. “We’ve been in the Black Box and Seapoint before, so it’a a pretty big deal to go for Lesiureland.”
In April 2020 We Banjo 3's will host their third ‘Fan Tour’ which will see American and Canadian fans, “and one man from Japan”, come to Ireland for a week and travel with the quartet in the tour bus for three shows in Galway, and for shows in Westport, Dublin, Cork, Kerry, and Clare. Speaking of 2020, Galway can also look forward to seeing the band as part of Galway 2020 - European Capital of Culture events.
“Galway 2020 nominated We Banjo 3 as International Cultural Ambassadors because of our ability to get out in front of huge crowds in the States and talk about Galway,” says Enda. “When Galway were doing the bid, we sent in videos of 20,000 people in Milwaukee shouting ‘I back Galway’ and holding up signs."
“As part of 2020, we plan to do two concerts with Symphonic Waves. This is the new orchestra for the west of Ireland, partly funded through Galway 2020. We’ll be doing concerts in churches in Ardrahan and Corrofin. It’s to do something a little bit different, because Galway 2020 is county-wide, not just a city thing, and to provide something unique for the Americans coming over.”
We Banjo 3 play Leisureland, Salthill, on Saturday September 7 at 7.30pm. This is a ‘Róisín Dubh presents…’ event. Tickets are available from www.roisindubh.net; the Ticket Desk at [email protected], Shop Street; and The Róisín Dubh.