Seán Laffey talks to Kevin Rowsome about a new CD of uilleann piping, Cuisle Cheol na bPíob.
We haven't talked for ages Kevin and I, it's knocking on fifteen years since we sat on a tour bus on one of Petr Pandula's Magnetic Music Festivals. Kevin and his wife Lorraine Hickey were one of the acts on the Irish Festival Tour; they had their 18-month-old toddler with them. Run on to the end of 2016 and now Kevin has two daughters, and they both play the pipes.
Playing pipes in the Rowsome family isn't an unusual thing; the girls are the sixth generation of the pipe-playing dynasty, which originated in Wexford. Not only have Rowsomes played pipes but they have made them too. Kevin confesses to being a pipe-a-holic. "I come home from work each day and I have to do something with the pipes, either play for a couple of hours or go into my workshop and make a reed or two."
That craftsman's approach to pipes is in the DNA of Rowsomes, his grandfather and great-grandfather Leo and William were famous pipe makers. Kevin tells me there was innovation in their industry too, with both William and Leo experimenting with the wide bore concert pitch chanters that had been first developed by the Taylor brothers in Philadelphia. Leo born in Harold's Cross Dublin in 1903 became a much sought after maker and repairer of pipes in the capital. Leo's influence was immense in the world of piping, Leo taught Liam O Flionn, Paddy Moloney and Willie Clancy, to name a few. Kevin had a few lessons with Leo when he was six years old.
Now you'd think with this pedigree Kevin would have sailed through All-Irelands and have been a teenage prodigy, but no, Kevin tells me he never competed in the Fleadh and in fact his teenage years were spent away from the pipes, he played saxophone in the Artane Boys Band. He didn't come back to piping until his twenties and says with an ironic laugh he had it more or less mastered by the time he hit his thirties.
Now the album took almost as long to make, Kevin says he was in no rush to bring out an album and he wanted to do two things. Firstly make a solo piping record. Without guest musicians, recording the pipes on a single track, i.e. no putting the drones and regulators on separate tracks after the melody was settled. And he wanted to bring a number of old piping tunes back to the attention of pipe fans.
All that took about five years. He says it was spare time work, but he loved his trips to the Irish Traditional Music Archive in Dublin, and is full of praise for the staff and the breadth of the collection."I'd visit the ITMA in Dublin and spend hours studying their collection of rare music publications. I'd take a photograph of the tunes and come home, print them out and then I could move them around a table and visualise the potential musical links between them. I'd play them on the pipes, then record them on my mobile phone, and work out their finer points."
Kevin has done much more than create a CD of solo piping, the liner notes show immense scholarship and close attention to deatil, and it goes way beyond the CD's booklet. There is a free download of the notation of the tunes on the CD available on Kevin's website. "I thought that it would also add some context to the recording."
The result is a website that links tunes to a dozen or so collections, where you can see the legacy of five generations of pipers, and if you have a copy of Kevin's new CD you can hear modern interpretations of some old tunes such as the Mummer's Jig and The Pulaski Guards. Kevin might have finished the CD, but his website and the tunes booklet will continue to evolve. "I'll be adding some ornamentation to some tunes now that I have the time," says Kevin.
Kevin cites pipers like Liam O'Flynn and Mick O'Brien as being pipers with truly distinctive styles. Style doesn't come out of thin air. Six generations ago Samuel Rowsome sent his sons to a German music teacher, they learned to write down music, and when it came to passing on tunes, in age before sound recording, they could do so with ease. Kevin sees himself as part of that bigger tradition, of passing the music down the generations. No wonder he was awarded a Bardic award at the Fleadh in Ennis in August.
Photo Credits: (1) Kevin Rowsome, (2) Leo Rowsome, (3ff) CD Cover (unknown/website).