“Our souls need music, art and poetry, and we need human connection” – The Irish Times

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The thrill of live musical performance feels like a Technicolor dream this summer. The pandemic has kept performers and audiences apart for such a long time that returning to the fray brings the kind of intense joy that reminds us of how much we’ve missed each other.

Martin Hayes has been the director of the Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry since its inception 20 years ago. He continues to organize it with the attentiveness of a parent of a newborn: taking care of the smallest details, finding the optimal constellation of collaborators, place and timing – for the musicians and the public.

This year marks a particularly poignant gathering, with the recent untimely passing of Hayes’ longtime musical partner, Chicago guitarist Dennis Cahill. The duo performed together live at the closing concert of the 2019 Masters of Tradition festival, and neither could have imagined that this would be their last performance together in this most intimate and convivial setting. It had been a long time since the couple first met in Chicago thirty-seven years ago.

We need to eat, to sleep, to have shelter, to keep our bodies alive, but we would die without meaning and we would die without beauty.

“We met in 1985,” says Martin, chatting in sunny Kilkenny, where he performs at the arts festival. “This summer and fall I was working on a construction site, and in the evenings we went to a lot of Irish bars, as well as blues clubs. I saw Dennis play at the Fox bar one night. Dennis was singing at the time. He was such an adaptable and versatile musician.

Traditional music was the last thing on the duo’s mind when electric guitar, bass and fiddle were the order of the day on the Chicago pub scene.

“Strangely, it never occurred to me that this music I grew up with might be a viable option,” Martin admits, with a wry smile. “I just dismissed it as a possibility and thought no one would want to hear that. I was sure of that at the time.”

The fact that Dennis did not come from a traditional musical background did not deter Martin.

“With Dennis, I felt like something could evolve and grow, so I asked him to come with me on the road,” Martin recalls. “He hadn’t really done traditional music before that and he was quite nervous about it, but I was pretty confident he would be very good at it. What I suggested to him was that he do what he knows, that he respond as he hears. There is no set way to play or predetermined route. There was a freedom for him to bring together all the musical things he knew.

The clarity that someone outside the tradition can bring is enormous, Martin believes.

“It’s an interesting thing when you look at Irish music. Seán Ó Riada did not exactly come from the first count. Neither is Donald Lunny, and neither is Andy Irvine. A lot of people responsible for shaping this music come from outside of music,” says Martin.

“I was aware of that and always felt that Dennis was another one of those messengers who brought things from other worlds with him. Knowing the roots of music is essential, but there are ideas happening all around you that can support that tradition, that can help strengthen the expression that’s already within.

The subtlety and delicacy of what Dennis Cahill brought to the duo’s musical endeavors may have been underestimated by some, but it was never anything more than a partnership of equals.

“I never thought of Dennis as an accompanist,” Martin says. “I have always seen us as a duo. In Irish music the main thing is the melody, so of course I got that main role with the melody. And Dennis got it too. We talked a lot about that and what that meant. In my own game, I submitted to the melody. But it wasn’t about my acting: it was about what I considered and thought was beautiful in a piece of music, and what I could do to make it stand out. And Dennis did the same thing: we both submitted to what we thought the melody should do, whatever our roles. We were coming together to support this piece of music.

By temperament, Hayes and Cahill were compatible not only in music, but also in their interest in politics and the world at large. Wherever they went, it was, as Martin describes it, “an easy trip.”

“Dennis was quiet but funny,” Martin says. “There was a lot of comedy there. He was sweet and elegant. You could bring Dennis into any type of business, and he intuitively knew how to be there and how to blend into that environment. He was sweet, kind and caring, quite sentimental and a bit romantic.

Martin’s need to explore wider horizons, through the formation of The Gloaming, the Martin Hayes Quartet (with Dennis, clarinetist, Doug Wieselman and violinist, Liz Knowles) and the Common Ground Ensemble, as well as his collaborations with Brooklyn Rider meant his and Dennis’ duo had to adjust to a host of other projects along the way. Have these various projects put the duo under pressure or threatened their partnership? At the very beginning, maybe they did, a little, recognizes Martin.

“Dennis was initially concerned that these things would interfere with what we had, and he knew it would take space and energy from what we had. But it’s also true that we also had to grow and expand,” says Martin

“With The Gloaming, I think he enjoyed it because a lot of the ideas that Dennis had come up with would have come to fruition in the band. His fingerprint was on everything, even though you didn’t hear the guitar all the time, and the one of his biggest fans was Thomas [Bartlett, the Gloaming’s pianist and arranger]. Much of what Thomas did was inspired by the way Dennis approached music. The Gloaming was a less intimate musical experience, given Dennis’ style of music, but it still had his mark.

“With the Quartet, a lot of chord ideas that Liz [Knowles] and Doug [Weiselman] were working on original ideas by Dennis. So his fingerprints were all over those projects.

The past two and a half years have left their mark, and Dennis’ passing is something Martin will be grappling with for some time.

“Dennis and I last saw each other in 2019 before the pandemic hit,” Martin says. “We entered the pandemic and only one of us came out of it. I wrote a book, so I remembered and digested a lifetime of music. And I started teaching music. It was a period of reflection, an inner journey that I greatly appreciated.

“I had been on a merry-go-round for twenty years. For the first time in many years, I watched spring from my home, saw the trees change, and it was something I hadn’t seen since childhood.

The joy of live performances and the prospect of seeing such talented musicians as Cormac McCarthy, David Power, Lorcán MacMathuna, Daire Bracken and Saileog Ní Cheannabháin reunite in West Cork has added power this summer, admits Martin.

“We need to eat, to sleep, to have shelter, to keep our bodies alive,” he suggests, “but we would die without meaning and we would die without beauty. Our souls need music, art and poetry, and we need human connection. We need to be close to people and we need to experience music in space with others. Zoom will never be a realistic substitute for a real live experience.

LR: Martin Hayes, seated with a violin under his right arm, with David Power, with pipes in his lap and arms crossed, and Steve Cooney, with his arms resting on his guitar

This year’s Bantry Festival is a throwback in some ways.

“It’s really wonderful to see musicians being given a subtle space in which to operate that is supportive and caring. To see so many musicians at their best,” says Martin.

“I have a certain intuitive sense of what will work for musicians – and for audiences too: to be able to touch the roots of music but also touch the extended possibilities of music, to show the breadth of possibilities. To show where it comes from and where it goes. And to find young musicians who discover things and make music in meaningful and interesting ways.

“What’s great is that there are a lot of them and it’s only getting better actually. Younger generations of musicians seem to be more and more thoughtful and connected. Their ideas are so interesting.

The future is likely to hold many more musical adventures, but Martin Hayes is not trying to recreate the inimitable musical partnership he enjoyed for nearly four decades with Dennis Cahill.

“I have no intention of replacing Dennis,” he said. This is a chapter that has come to its own conclusion. I have no intention of reproducing this. I’ve seen others try to replicate things, and it never works.

Masters of Tradition runs from Wednesday August 24 to Sunday August 28; Bantry, County Cork; various locations, times and prices; westcorkmusic.ie/masters-of-tradition/

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