One of the fascinating aspects of Irish traditional music as a “Living Tradition” that keeps up with the times while preserving its essence is exploring what happens behind the scenes of the stage performances, sessions, workshops and festivals. And in the hands of visionary documentary producers who share the passion and the interest in Irish music we gain a greater insight into what keeps its vibrant and thriving as an art form.
Anyone who has spent any time around musicians know how wedded they are to their instruments. The strongest bonds are built by those who actually know and develop a working and sympathetic relationship with the instrument maker, and one of the more prominent ones is flute maker Patrick Olwell, whose colorful career is depicted in The Keymaster: Patrick Olwell’s Story, produced and released earlier this year by Jem Moore and Blayne Chastain.
A Kickstarter campaign raised $5,000 to tell the story of a dedicated artisan craftsman who combined patience and passion to become one of the most-sought after instrument makers in Irish music.
The documentary fills in the essential background on Olwell, a native of Cincinnati who discovered an interest in making flutes while in college in Massachusetts when influenced by South American music played on bamboo flutes. Selling them for $5 a flute was more lucrative than the college library job he had, and more satisfying as he was also starting on a path that define his life’s work from then on.
He was far from finished with library work though as he feverishly dove into tomes displaying early flute history and drawings and many samples at the Library of Congress of early instruments in their collection to learn from the inside out about construction and tonal variations.
Since taking up bamboo flute production in the seventies, his research and curiosity led him to experiment with other wooden flutes and production techniques. It led to painstaking repair work that helped place himself in the market and later produce more exquisitely crafted wooden flutes which eventually became his specialty working in blackwood, rosewood and boxwood in great demand today.
It was a long, hard road to travel for a man who had no master to apprentice with, no tools nor money with which to make this dedicated mission his obsession, but he stuck with it and “lucky accidents” helped pave the way eventually.
He would find old-fashioned equipment at auctions or abandoned in places where they were no longer utilized, and gradually he built a humble shop for himself in Massie’s Mills, in rural Virginia not far from Charlottesville.
He was drawn to the simplicity of Irish traditional music and skillful flute playing and exposed himself to flute players at festivals or concerts and presented some of his wares. He displayed a craftsmanship and sensibility that was aided by his own penchant for playing the flute and knowing what the results should sound like.
Along the way he garnered the affection of well-known Irish flute players like Matt Molloy, Seamus Egan, Kevin Crawford, the late Frankie Kennedy, Brian Finnegan, June McCormack, Colm O’Donnell and Tom Doorley as they passed through the U.S. or in Ireland.
And they, in turn, acquired one of his prized flutes, often one he wanted to keep for himself but offered up when the personal demands from the likes of Egan or Kennedy requested holding onto the flute they were given to “try out.”
Even the venerable Mike Rafferty from East Galway, who admired one of Olwell’s flutes at a Washington, D.C. Irish festival who picked up one of Olwell’s flutes at table to sample was told he would have to wait for six months until he could finish one to his specifications replied, “I could be dead in six months” and purchased one on the spot.
The demands and waiting time grew significantly from those earlier days, and Olwell has been kept busy down in his Virginia workshop. His sons Matthew and Aaron followed him into the traditional arts, with Matthew becoming a foremost exponent of roots-oriented percussive dance and Aaron a musician who plays the flute and fiddle across the Americana spectrum.
Aaron has joined his father in his flute-making practice but they still produce them the old-fashioned way on vintage equipment that gives them the most satisfaction and cost effectiveness for the way they operate.
Whatever the wait for an Olwell flute, the artists and the creator know it is well worth it and that it will be producing quality Irish music for decades to come and the human touch of the master at work and play will also fuel the legacy.