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Cormac De Barra reinvents the harp as a rock and roll instrument

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Cormac De Barra.
Cormac De Barra.


The lush, pulse-reducing sounds of the Irish harp – how rock and roll is that?

Not really, when you think about it. For Cormac De Barra, that’s what makes life so exciting.

De Barra is renowned internationally as a versatile harp virtuoso. He continually pushes the boundaries of the Irish harp through his work with a wide array of artists, including Hazel O’Connor, Julie Feeney and Clannad.

De Barra also tours and records with his brothers Fionán and Éamonn in the family group, Barcó. Besides his busy performing schedule he regularly gives workshops and master classes around the world.

Surprising audiences with what the harp can do is the most rewarding thing of all, De Barra says.

“I’m more steeped in trad and classical, but then I was invited by Hazel O’Connor to work on her punk rock album. She pushed me into a different realm where I had to arrange the harp around a punk and rock format,” he says.

“You hear these arrangements and then you have to make sense of it. I never set out to do this.  The people you work with push you into these areas you normally wouldn’t go.”

The people he works with just happen to be some of the most top-notch our culture has to offer.  In fact, he and I are having this chat in between shows of Moya Brennan’s holiday tour.

Brennan, the voice of Clannad, has recorded two albums of “voices and harps” over the last couple of years. Their cover of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” became a hit for them, and it is a testament to how a harp can be applied to almost any melody.

De Barra says he found a kindred spirit in working with Brennan and the Clannad crew. Both his mother and grandmother are accomplished harpists, with many brothers and uncles in his clan possessing a musical flare themselves.

“Moya is one of the nicest, kindest human beings ever to walk the earth,” De Barra gushes. “The music you grew up with, from where you come from, is a joy to play and I think that’s the thing we have in common which drives our creative partnership.

“Since we come from the same place we just naturally weave around one another. Djembe, double bass, bodhrans with the pop harmonies and Irish music is what was so groundbreaking about Clannad, and we did the same thing in our family growing up.

“Trad music wasn’t something that was a museum piece you put in the corner. You played it and put your own stamp on that.”

De Barra has also worked with Brian Kennedy, Maire Breatnach and many other greats throughout the years, and he has made many connections in the Irish arts community from his stint as presenter on the RTE show "Imeall," which means “the edge” in Gaelic.

“I was on TG4 on RTE every week for a few years,” he says. “The idea is that artists interview artists, so people from the same field are interviewing one another.

“It’s an interesting take on how to document the arts, as opposed to traditional ways that have news people try to get in the world of an artist. I did 100 programs over three years. It was a great fun and you got an insight into how other creative people worked.”

De Barra can be found giving back to the artistic community by keeping the harp alive through lessons and workshops on both sides of the Atlantic. He has worked with Brennan to sponsor workshops in Donegal and here.

“It was more of happenstance how I got into teaching,” he says. “There’s a harp festival every year in Ireland and I was asked to play there – eventually, I was asked to teach sessions.

“My grandmother was my first teacher and then I moved onto Leone Paulson, who was the grand dame of the harp, Julliard trained. She was a friend of my grandmother. She used to bring her harp students over to Ireland to play these festivals and then she would bring me over to America which was great.”

Making a difference in a student’s ability or their confidence level is a huge rush for De Barra.

“It’s always a challenge to find out how people learn and get them over whatever hurdle they have in mastering the instrument,” he says. “I really love that challenge, giving people belief in themselves.

“I’m not a teacher per se in that my touring schedule doesn’t allow me to take on regular students, but I really love doing the weekend festivals.”

De Barra is extremely excited about the new album he has been working on with Ashley Davis, the Celtic chanteuse whose album "Down by the Sea" made our “best of” list a few years back. I ran into the pair of them recently at the Irish American Writers and Artists annual gala.

They invited the playwright John Patrick Shanley, the main award recipient that night, to suggest an Irish song for them to play in tribute to him. He suggested Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good” as a joke and the pair gamely tackled it, making it the highlight of an evening full of them!

De Barra has been the point man for Davis’ Irish recording sessions, organizing musicians and studio bookings for his friend. The pair met through a connection with Cathy Jordan (Dervish) and have been friends ever since.

“I adore Ashley,” he says. “She was in the process of doing her second 'Down by the Sea.' My brother was managing Moya’s studio in Dublin and I put the two of them together and then I ended up on the album.

“It helps having an Irish harp onstage when you’re doing Celtic music. I’ve been to Kansas a ton of times, I’m collaborating with her on songs, managing from the ground in Dublin when she records there. It has become a real friendship. She knows how the Irish work and we have such fun.”

De Barra reports that Moya Brennan is doing a full-on duet with Davis, and she is getting more into her bluegrass roots from her Kansas upbringing. This shift into country and bluegrass is what makes working on the album so exciting for De Barra.

“It is so invigorating to be playing this genre,” he says. “The music shares a common ancestry. When you realize you’re in the same groove because it comes from the same place, it has this indescribable buzz to it. It’s instantly at ease and exciting with the joy of discovery at the same time.”

De Barra is looking forward to touring with Davis in the New Year but for now, his mind is focused on Christmas music.

He has just started a Christmas tour with Brennan and her band. Due to logistics, the full band wasn’t assembled in one place until the night before the first gig, but everyone locked in with one another and he reports it has been magical ever since.

“We got a standing ovation for both shows, which has just been delightful and unexpected,” De Barra says.

“Pat Mangan is playing fiddle – he has been the lead for "Riverdance" for six years. Eamonn Galldubh on uilleann pipes has played with Moya for a number of years. It’s a reunion tour for Moya with Feargal Murray is on keyboards. He has been with Moya since the very beginning. He has worked with Celtic Thunder and Celtic Woman for many years as well. Then you have Moya’s daughter Ashling Jarvis on guitar.”

Brennan’s Christmas tour dates can be seen on www.moyabrennan.com. Her Irish Christmas disc stands out in my mind as one of the best Celtic Christmas discs ever made, and the live show I saw a few years back lived up to that hype.

If you haven’t checked out the great chemistry that she and De Barra have with one another on the albums they have made recently, check it out on www.voicesandharps.com.

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