Recently the Irish language station in Ireland, TG4, released the names of the annual winners of their prestigious Gradam Cheoil Awards now in their 12th year. As usual their panel of selectors in the know zoned in on some extraordinary talent in traditional Irish music today whose work exemplifies both the quality and spirit of Irish music that keeps it thriving where ever you find it. The announcement was made in the newly re-designed and constructed Wexford Opera House two weeks ago, where the actual award ceremony will take place in a live performance and presentation on Friday night, April 4 and in a delayed broadcast on TG4 on Easter Sunday, April 12 (www.tg4.ie) and later archived at their site. Leading the distinguished pack as An Gradam Cheoil (Traditional Musician of the Year) is accordion player Charlie Harris. Born in Killmallock, Co. Limerick in 1953, he was reared with the old 78s recordings, LPs, radio and then the early TV programs on RTE featuring traditional music without much fanfare. In the 1970s like many others he went to England for work and fell into the fertile musical community populated by Raymond Roland and P.J. Crotty and so many others who paved over the Irish Sea with their heartfelt devotion to trad music in their new homes away from home. He resettled in Galway in 1981 when music was able to afford him both a living and a pastime, logging significant time and travel with the Shaskeen Ceili Band which so fitting for musician with a penchant for lively accordion playing in the old Galway style that was pure dance music. Garnering the Ceoltoir Og na Bliana (Young Musician) award was 23-year old Conor McEvoy from Navan, Co. Meath, and considering his lineage, he didn't "steal it" when it comes to musical prowess. His father is the superb Connaught style fiddler John McEvoy who was raised in Birmingham, England, and his mother is Dublin-born multi-instrumentalist Jacinta McEvoy who plays the concertina, guitar and piano. Auntie Catherine McEvoy McGorman, one of Ireland's foremost flute players, is married to another flute player Tom McGorman who is Jacinta's brother. John and Catherine were in the Catskills last summer along with Ruairi McGorman (Catherine's son) and gave just a hint at what the music must be like around their households all year long. Conor is a keen fiddle student of all the greats like Michael Coleman, Sean McGuire, Bobby Casey, James Kelly and Sean Keane to name some seminal influences. Successful at all the regular competitions, he enjoys the teaching and playing at workshops and festival around the country and gives every indication that he will be another McEvoy force to be reckoned with and savored in the future. I would love to take the credit for raising the profile of Con Fada O'Drisceoil who won the Cumadoir na Bliana (Composer) honor this year for inviting him to come perform and teach at last summer's Catskills Irish Arts Week where he was a big hit. But I was only taken by the sheer brilliance of his creative songwriting wit like so many others who have experienced it from Cork to Clare and recently compiled in his combination book/CD collection entitled The Spoons Murder and Other Mysteries (Craft Records, 2006). Born near Skibbereen in West Cork to parents who were both primary school teachers, he is a newly retired school teacher and Gaeilgeoir with a bilingual attraction to language and songs from an early age. Also an accomplished accordion player in the Four Star Trio, he was especially fond of humorous songs from fellow Corkonians Diarmuidin O Suilleabhain and Jimmy Crowley. The north of Ireland had it share of musical families, and the home place of Geordie Hanna and Sarah Ann O'Neill in Derrytresk, Co. Tyrone was a haven for traditional singers and musicians. The venerable Sarah Ann is the Amhranai na Bliana (Singer), recognized as she turns 90 this year, is known for preserving the northern tradition of singing in the English language in an older style that suited her approach to singing as an everyday occurrence, and not just for performance technique or folkloric introspection. Singers like Len Graham, Roisin White, Cathal MacConnell and the late Frank Harte were very much influenced by the songs they heard from her and Geordie. Journalist Fintan Vallely calls it the "other campus of Irish traditional music" in talking about the culture and community that surrounded those Irish emigrants who went to England for work in the post World War II era up to 1980s. Out of that milieu came Roger Sherlock, a flute player from Cloonfeightrin in Mayo near the Sligo border town of Gurteen, who was nominated for Gradam Saoil (Hall of Fame) award. Born in 1932, he went to London in 1953 playing with all the renowned musicians over four decades, becoming a central figure in that Irish music world that dominated the Irish dance halls, pubs and sessions. He recorded two LPs in 1969 and 1971 with Sean McGuire and Josephine Keegan and appeared with Bobby Casey on the compilation CD and video Bringing It All Back Home. In 1996 he resettled in Bettystown, Co. Meath. Much of what has been described as a golden era of Irish music in England was captured and documented by Reg Hall, who was at the epicenter of it all and as a historian made sure it wouldn't be forgotten. Born in 1935 in Kent, he moved to London in 1955 and as a piano player got to sit in on many great sessions with the greatest of the Irish diaspora like Michael Gorman, Martin Byrnes, Bobby Casey, Lucy Farr and Willie Clancy and so many others who passed through London Town in "times that were hard but the music was good." Whether encouraging the musicians to make commercial recordings where his sleeve notes were essential reading for the well-informed, or in compiling over 400 original tapes now in the British Sound Library, he was the man for the job. Hall brought further clarity to the an era known as "Paddy in the Smoke" that was encapsulated in a seminal record made in 1968, with that title bringing together so many great musicians exiled across the Irish Sea. He is currently working on a book on his life in the music. Hall will be receiving the Gradam na gCeoltoiri (Musician's Award) which is the newest honor added to this series of honors each year, and meant to symbolize a bualadh bos (round of applause) from the musicians for those people who make it possible for them to be heard on a variety of platforms. These awards come on the honorees unexpectedly and without hubris, and are tendered in the customary fashion of the traditional music world where there is a lot more affinity and respect than discord and that a little recognition extended to some is shared by all in a wider circle who played a part in their lives. What makes them doubly meaningful is that they are given out by a relatively new and modern Irish television station TG4 with a growing reputation for a higher and more exciting presentation for traditional music and dance today in synch with the living tradition influenced by the past, the present and the future.
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