BELFAST FLUTE player Desi Wilkinson has been one of Irish trad’s leading exponents for more than three decades. Wilkinson was raised in the shadow of The Troubles in the 1970s and was drawn to music as a means of release from the horrors of war.
Ulster has produced many fine flute players over the years and Desi learned his craft directly from the masters of the tradition such as Tom Gunn and James McMahon.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s Wilkinson performed both as a soloist and as an integral part of traditional group Cran and toured with De Dannan, Donal Lunny, Liam O’Flynn, and Andy Irvine and contributed to Dolores Keane’s album Night Owl.
In recent years Desi has developed his interest in ancient roots and Celticism by completing an MA in ethnomusicology at Belfast University. He has studied Turkish and Breton music extensively and has produced many publications including Euro Paddies and Breton Dance Genres in Companion to Traditional Music.
Last year Desi teamed up with accordion maestro Mairtín O’Connor, five-string banjo player Lena Ullman, and old-timey fiddler Frank Hall to explore tunes inspired by Irish traditional and American Appalachian music.
The result of this exploration is a project called Buffalo In The Castle which channels music from Ulster, Connacht, Virginia, Kentucky, Missouri and North Carolina. Buffalo In The Castle promote their eponymous debut album with a show at The Crane Bar, Sea Road, on Thursday December 10 at 9pm.
The musicians in Buffalo In The Castle come from very different musical and geographical directions. Desi is from the Ulster flute and vocal tradition. Lena was first introduced to American folk music as a teenager in Sweden and then developed her interest in Irish trad in Galway. Frank Hall performed bluegrass in his native Indiana before moving to Kinvara, and the virtuosity of Mairtín O’Connor was developed during stints with Midnight Well, De Dannan, and Skylark.
“I suppose the greatest thing about the group is the friendship element,” says Desi. “In the very distant past I did one tour of the States with De Dannan and that was where I first met Mairtín. We have maintained our friendship and our joy of making music ever since.
“I met Lena Ullman many years ago through mutual friends and then five years ago I met Frank Hall when he came to teach at the University of Limerick. I taught him a few Irish tunes and I learned some old-timey fiddle from him. We found that the two types of music were similar in terms of the way people approached them and the spirit of playing. From that common ground the group developed.”
During the 17th century large numbers of immigrants from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales settled in the fertile farmland areas of the American Appalachian Mountains. They brought with them their language, music, and culture and this heady mix provided the backbone of American roots music forms such as old-time, bluegrass, and country. Desi and friends went about re-discovering these roots.
“There’s many historical links between America and Ireland,” Desi says “Especially with the pre-Famine era Ulster-Scots emigration to the Appalachian Mountain region. People brought their musical instruments and their songs with them and it had a very strong influence on the vocal style and the instrumentation of American music in that region.
“In Appalachian music there are no flutes and no accordions so Buffalo In The Castle is kind of a new departure in that sense. What we’ve tried to do is to highlight the differences in the music as well as the similarities. Irish traditional music and American Appalachian music are very similar but they’re not the same. That makes it interesting musically for us.”
So far the group have garnered much critical acclaim for their innovative music project and one reviewer even compared Buffalo In The Castle to the music featured in the Oh Brother Where Art Thou? soundtrack.
“I think it was Siobhan Long in The Irish Times who made that comparison and for her to write that is very flattering,” Desi enthuses. “I think the music of Oh Brother Where Art Thou? is fantastic and I would listen to it a lot. Funnily enough though, it wasn’t in our minds at all when we were thinking of this album. However, for people to call our group ‘Ireland’s very own Oh Brother Where Art Thou?’ is a great compliment.”
For Desi the journey he has made with his good musical friends into American folk music has been a very rewarding one.
“I’ve always enjoyed understanding the context in which music is made,” he says. “I teach about the historical and social context of music but I also play music. For me playing and teaching go very much together and I think that keeps the whole thing fresh”
Tickets are €15 and available from The Crane on 091 - 587419. See also www.thecranebar.com