Sometimes you just have to take a break, walk away, find a new passion, get to a clearing where you can seethe wood from the trees. Leonard Barry took a long sabbatical from Irish traditional music, now he’s back, playing better than ever, full of ideas and ready to make a new road of his musical career. You see Leonard Barry has been missing from the scene for far to long, so it was during a late September afternoon in Dublin’s Templebar that Seán Laffey eventually cornered the man with the pipes.
Leonard is from the south West of Ireland, from County Kerry, the tradition in that county favours the button accordion, the tune repertoire is currently dominated by slides and polkas, very much dance music, and it is still being played for dancers in spontaneous pub session around the county, so being a piper in Kerry is an unusual road to take. However, 150 years ago, the great music of the southern half of the country was made by pipers. Today the best pockets for piping in the Province of Munster are probably in Cork. Leinster, Dublin and Wexford have strong piping traditions too. Elsewhere the fiddle had been more or less the major instrument for the past 100 years.
Leonard calls me on his I-phone, he wants to know where I am. I’m on my way down stairs I say, I turn the corner, he turns round and there we are beside the snug door. Handshakes and greetings flow, it’s been a few years now, was it eleven years ago that he released Mind the Pipes. Yes. And wasn’t he living in Kilkenny? Yes he was, but now he’s in the big city, in Dublin, in Inchicore, where the big CIE railway depot is. He is settled into family life, happy out and ready to start making serious music again.
He tells me he moved to Dublin “a few years ago” and began working with the Simon Community. A charity that looks after the homeless and destitute, as the recession bit the job got bigger, there were more casualties of the economic crash to work with, more people in a desperate condition. Professional music wasn’t on his agenda, booking gigs, going into recording studios or following the festival circuit were all put on hold. But he didn’t give up on the tunes. Music was a social release from the day job, a “necessary release”. He still plays a couple of social sessions each week and he loves them. They give him a chance to meet other players, it keeps him on his mettle and there are always new tunes to be learnt . He also teaches classes in a circle of towns 80 kilometres from Dublin: Portlaoise, Dundalk and Drogheda, but it is only “occasionally, it's for the Music Generation Project. Working with young people from disadvantage backgrounds who have talent but not necessarily the money to buy instruments or afford the best lessons.” Which, he says was a challenge at first but it has been really rewarding. “It made me look again at how I play the pipes and it has made me a more mature musician.”
This past year he sat back and re-evaluated his job situation, he’d run his course with the Simon Community, he knew it was time to do something else, he was thinking of getting back to some serious music. He says his family is 100% behind him, and so he began working on the album The New Road, last spring.
There’s a new set of pipes in the Barry household too, which feature on the New Road album. He tells me they have a presence. “They aren’t loud or brash, but they have this something else, they fill the room.” They were a new set made for him by Victor Mullaly in Kilkenny and reeded by Mick O’Brien in Dublin. “Mick and Victor have really done their research with these pipes, I love the sound and how easy they are to play. As Mick is a piper himself he was able to get the best voicing out of the chanter and I’m delighted with the result.”
What of his old set, has he kept them as a back up? No he says, he sold them to Colm Broderick, a young piper from Carlow, “who is really very good and if he gets half the enjoyment I got from them he will be in for a treat.”
So what of the new album, what are we to expect? The tunes reflect the road Leonard has been on for the past decade, for example there is a set of jigs: Apples in Winter / Peataí O’Leary’s / Tom Billy’s and some Hop jigs; Tomeen O’Dea’s / The Silver Slipper / Shaving the Baby with a Spoon, and some big slow airs such as Iníon an Fhaoit’ ón nGleann. He says all the tracks are traditional, with one reel composed by the flute player Hammy Hamilton, on balance the majority of the tunes are from the southern half of Irealdn, form the province of Munster, but there are pieces on the album from the Sligo and Leitrim traditions, because as he says he has “spent many a night in sessions in Carrick on Shannon and at Shoot the Crows in Sligo. Those are legendary sessions in Cryans in Carrick on Shannon and I’ve playing a lot with Andy Morrow who would be the source of the Leitrim influence.”
Expect some glorious solo pieces, but also some interesting collaborations. One of those is with John Carty who plays banjo on the album. “I’d met John at the Shetland Folk Festival in 1997 and we talked about recording some tunes. Then about a year ago we met up and he said ‘why not give it a go’ so we did and the duet made its way to the album.”
The album is a mixture of solo work and ensemble pieces. There isn’t a core band as such, but things are progressing. He says this gives him the flexibility of working in duos and trios and he thinks this will be attractive to festivals when they come to book him. “I have tracks with John Carty (banjo), Rick Epping (harmonica and concertina), Seamie O’Dowd (guitar), Cathy Jordan (bodhran), Conor Byrne (flute), Andy Morrow (fiddle), Tony Byrne (guitar), Cyril O’Donoghue (bouzouki) and Tony O’Connell (concertina). I mean it’s pretty rare to hear the pipes and harmonica, well outside of Wexford it is” he laughs.
The exciting new group which grew out of the sessions for Leonard Barry's new CD, New Road, have played their debut gig with a special guest at Whelan's of Dublin on Tuesday the 25th of February. Opening for the lads was none other than legendary Irish folk artist, Christy Moore, surely no band has got off to a better start, and we expect them to maintain the excitement in their live dates in 2014.
There’s a wide new road ahead for Leonard Barry.
Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Leonard Barry (unknown/from website).