Musical Experimentation Is All In the Family
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Maybe you have to really know Irish music, in the way that you know breathing and heartbeat, before you can begin to take creative liberties with it.
For uilleann piper Cillian Vallely, perhaps best known for his work with the exceptional Celtic fusion band Lúnasa, the seed of experimentation was planted early on.
First came learning Irish music in its purest form at a school known as the Armagh Pipers Club, following in the footsteps of both his father Brian, a piper, and his mother Eithne, a fiddler. Brian Vallely is the club’s director; Eithne, director of music.
“When my father started playing, there wasn’t a whole lot of Irish music at all, and there weren’t a lot of pipers in Ireland,” Vallely explains. And that was the main reason why his father and several other pipers started the club in 1966, he says. “It was a real mission they were on, to keep the music going. For political and cultural reasons, Irish music was almost underground. It was looked down upon then. People were almost embarrassed by it.”
The club gave the early members the opportunity to teach themselves, even as they taught their first pupils.
Vallely remembers trooping off to the club with his sister and three brothers once a week, all of them starting out on whistle, and eventually taking up different instruments. (In spite of the club’s name, it wasn’t all pipers and piping.)
“My father tried us all on the pipes, but they (his siblings) let it go,” Vallely says. “I remember my mother trying to teach me the fiddle. I remember not liking it. I started the pipes when I was 8. I think it was just a case of liking the pipes.”
In retrospect, he laughs, “My life would have been simpler if I’d learned the fiddle.”
As obsessed with traditional Irish music as the Vallelys were, all were expected to branch out in another direction: in this case, classical music. Eithne Vallely was also a music teacher, and Cillian Vallely learned to play flute and saxophone. This is where the Vallely kids began to take a broader view.
“I was probably never just playing Irish music,” says Vallely. “My parents were never too narrow-minded about the music. They were never saying to us that there is only one way to play. We were never above doing other stuff, playing other styles. My mother put together arrangements that, when I look back on it, were pretty modern.”
At the same time, Vallely recalls, he began to be heavily influenced by the Bothy Band, the Chieftains, Moving Hearts, and Planxty, all of which were known for pioneering innovations.
In the end, it was probably a surprise to no one who knew him that Cillian Vallely’s career would take him in many non-traditional directions. And then, in 1999, came an opportunity to play with the band with which he is most often identified.
“I had been playing professionally about four years before Lunasa came along,” Vallely says. “Lunasa was already up and running when they asked me to join. I understood where they were coming from. Their music made total sense to me—that’s what I wanted to play.”
At the same time, Vallely continued to explore other musical collaborations, including the Celtic Jazz Collective, Riverdance, and the New York-based band known as Whirligig.
Perhaps not surprisingly, his collaborations are more familial, as witness his upcoming Delaware Valley concerts with brother Niall on concertina.
“Me and Niall are less than two years apart, but we’ve been playing together since I was 10. He understands piping, and he understands my music. We play different instruments and we only play together maybe twice a year, but we both like the same kinds of music, and we are playing the same style in a lot of ways. His concertina style has been affected by piping. Neither of us have to travel to0 far to play well with each other. “
You have two opportunities to judge for yourself. The Vallelys will appear in a house concert in Voorhees, N.J., on Wednesday, September 26, and on the concert stage at the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series on Sunday, September 30. Do yourself a favor, and go to both.
- Wednesday, September 26, at 7:30 in a house concert in Voorhees, N.J. Get the details here.
- Sunday, September 30, at 8 p.m., at the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series. Visit the Coatesville Traditional Irish Music Series.
- Visit Cillian and Niall Vallely’s website.