Links » Interviews » Paddy Keenan - October 5, 2013

Paddy Keenan

We interviewed Paddy Keenan, one of the World's top players of the Uilleann bagpipes, for the second time at a house concert on West Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz on Saturday, October 5th, 2013.

~Kasie Talbot and Paul Edwards

Kasie: How did you get involved with the 'Dambé: The Mali Project' documentary?


I went to the Czech Republic to play at a film festival, and I met a few people there. There were all these film actors and directors there, and I met this young lad whose name is Rory (Rúaidhrí Conroy) and he was the little boy in 'Into the West (1992).' It was a very successful Irish movie, to adults as well as kids. It was meant to be a kids movie, and it's about travellers in Ireland and two little boys, and riding horses, and doing all kinds of things.

I met him over there and at this stage he was 25 or something like that, and his girlfriend was working for some film company in Ireland, and she approached me and asked me if I would like to go to Mali with the guy who was playing with me at the time who was Tommy O'Sullivan, and I said, "Ah, we'll think about it..."

But just before that happened I went over and I was talking to the young lad, as I said who was now 25 at the time, and I'd heard that he was the young lad in the movie and I say, "I thought you were a traveller," you know, a real traveller, gypsy, Irish traveller, and he was delighted and thrilled that I thought that he was—that he'd acted so well or whatever, and his father is an actor as well. But he's not a traveller, and he was going out with Dearbhla Glynn, they were a couple. They had already filmed, 'Dust Devils' about Burning Man, and they had gotten an award for that I think, and she approached me asking if I would like to travel through Mali, and they were going to document musicians.

They had already been there and did some ground work and they had some footage of Ali Farka Touré. I don't know if you know who he is, but he is the guy who was in the Ry Cooder documentary about when Ry Cooder brought the documentary to Cuban music—really thought it was going to do everything for Cuba and Cuban music, which it did a lot. But anyway he was in that movie, 'Buena Vista Social Club' which is one of the reasons he is so well known, but he died maybe two or three weeks, maybe a week or something like that [after?] we arrived, and luckily enough they had enough footage to include him in the documentary.

Paul: So you came as a musician?

Yeah. Well in the end I didn't go with my friend who was playing with me at the time. I went with another musician Liam Ó Maonlaí, and they asked him if he was willing to do it. He was delighted to go out even more than myself, because we didn't even believe in Timbuktu at one time when we were kids. We were told we would be sent there as a punishment.

We were there three years, three times in three years, January of every year. The first time we got there we traveled from Bamako to Timbuktu, very slowly. It took us about a month, I mean, it does take a long time to get from Bamako to Timbuktu. It's a huge country. But we stopped off in places like Dogon country which is a line of cliffs (the Bandiagara Escarpment) that goes on seemingly forever.

The Dogon people, they arrived there something like 500 years back. They would have cut down any little bit of green that was around there in this part of Mali and there's quite a little bit of green here and there until you get right out into the Sahara itself, but supposedly the story I got from one of the lads of the Dogon tribe, was that they came in like 500 years ago and they came in in droves and eventually the true people of the caves—I can't remember what their tribal name was—they supposedly left and disappeared, possibly went out into the desert and dispersed amongst other tribal people and stuff like that, although there were some camps I came across which claimed to be descendants of those people.

Now the people who moved in 500 years ago who are the Dogon people say that they were sent there by maybe, I don't know, God, whoever, to protect and keep this secret spot, or sacred spot, sacred and private you know, and safe and whatever, and we went through there and all the way out to Timbuktu, and from Timbuktu out to, I'd say the furthest out festival in the world, the Essakane festival (Festival au Désert) which is way out there in the Sahara. That's where we ended our trip and filmed all the way through. We played at the festival and wandered back in another direction, and I went back there again the following January and the year after that again, three years in succession. The movie is called, 'Dambé,' and it's actually the name of a tea over there, the word itself. It actually was nominated in Dublin, by the film board in Ireland.

Paul: What do you do about spit in the whistle?

Nothing much you can do. It happens. You get condensation buildup, especially in aluminum. It's more obvious in that than it is in the wood because the wood will soak it up, although the wood again will swell and that interferes with the tuning and intonation of the whistle itself when that happens, but there's not all that much you can do really.

Paul: I saw how Julie Fowlis dealt with it. She stuffed a whistle in her mouth and she blew into it and it came out and she kept playing.

Well you blow it out, but you can't really in the middle of the tune. You can but it still interrupts the tune.

Paul: She actually was really quick. Boom! And kept playing. So there's nothing you can put in the whistle or anything like that?

No, not that I know of because it needs that air opening. Maybe if you put a piece of gauze across the top of it or something.

The other day I was shown these whistles that were made in the 1800's. They're boxwood with ivory in the mouthpiece and there's two whistles, and you could close one and open the other and play and you can have a harmony line going on down here with what's happening up here, and there's a friend of mine back home in Ireland, Cathal McConnell, who does that with two whistles. He tapes them and gets all these different harmonies, one against the other.

Paul: He must tape off some of the holes.

Yeah, he tapes off some holes. But on the whistle from the 1800's, there's a piece of wadding or something, in between the joins here, and there are little holes drilled in from where you blow and this is to collect the spit if you like, or the wet or the damp, or water, and the guy from the Lark in the Morning... if you know... Do you know this company?

Paul: They used to be around. It's mostly gone. That's where I got all my whistles for quite a while.

Yeah they sold the business. The company went bankrupt with the people who bought it and these lads who owned it originally (Mickie & Beth Zekley) bought it back, and he has it now again, and he has those old whistles and that would a great idea if someone could find a way to... Like the trombone, or one of those classical instruments that have a little piece on the bottom and you hit a key and the water comes out as you're playing. It's quite possible that you could do that with the whistle because on the back of the whistle before it hits the actual part that makes the sound, there's a sort of a little belly on the back of that and it's possible that if you had some way of drilling a little hole there and putting a key on it you could release the spit.

Paul: The brass players say, "spit happens."

I don't think there's much you can do really but there is a technique of blowing them and just making sure you don't spit into them. Some people use their tongue a lot on trippletts and ornamentation and stuff and that does cause quite a bit of moisture to get in.

Kasie: I wanted to ask you more about Dambé. What the most amazing moment you had on those journeys?

There were many, many of those. I would say for me it was the kids. There was a time I was staying in a hotel, and every morning they would come, because I had played one evening to them a classical piece on the low whistle, and every morning they would come and throw sand at my window to make me up at seven, or whatever time they'd wake up, at six in the morning. They would be there early every morning in rags, throwing the sand up at me to wake me up to get me to play this particular tune, and when I'd play it they'd dance around the desert and that was one of the most beautiful moments of my trip.

When you do see kids who are healthy, they're so, so happy, they're so full of life and with nothing, you know, absolutely nothing. You give them a plastic bottle and it's like giving an iPhone to a kid over here, but that plastic bottle is a very important... They carry their water in it in the desert so it's very important to them to have something to carry water, so that would be more important to them if you like than the iPhone to the kid here.

I tried to tell my daughter that and she was really surprised to hear that something like this was going on somewhere, anywhere in the world, and [I also told her] about the bunch of kids I met once at a cafe who were actually waiting for the bones that we were leaving, and there was nothing much on the chicken itself that we were eating, but they were still waiting to see what the leftovers were so they could eat. We'd buy them a little food or whatever and of course the people in the cafe didn't want them around there—unless if you were buying them something then they were making money so they didn't mind too much—but those kids were something like the Dickens story. They were kids who were sent out during the day to beg and do whatever they had to do to bring back something, anything to the boss man who would give them a roof over their heads and if they didn't have anything, they'd suffer. They'd be punished in some way or they'd be left outside and it's pretty cold in the desert at night. In January it was pretty cold at night. We'd have the heat in the day and in the evening at night it's pretty cold.

There was one moment coming from Timbuktu, Liam and myself were up on a cart, on donkeys, and we're playing the whistles and we've got the turbans and stuff and Liam looked like Lawrence of Arabia, very colorful, and I had this drab old thing on and there was this old lady and she's in a dress, and she starts moving to the music—we're playing a traditional tune—and she starts moving and then a whole bunch of people around her start moving. Part of it is actually in the movie.

And then another [time], this guy was standing there with a pony or a horse and I'm gesturing to him—there are no words being spoken, you know. I'm a distance from him and I'm telling him without speaking that I'd like to borrow his horse and eventually he understands and it didn't take too long actually, with hand language. I come over, and the next thing I know I'm on the horse and I'm falling off and I think that's in the movie, and I'm hanging on for a while sideways on this horse and it's taking off with me and eventually I pulled myself up, and, this is not in the movie but the horse takes me towards the mosque and it's about to take me into the mosque and you know, that wouldn't be... that wouldn't go down at all, so I had to fight with the horse to get him to take me away from the mosque.

There were loads of moments. I can't really... I mean just the colors, sunset, sunrise, sand, the color of the sunsets and sunrise and being up in these caves where the hogons were. The hogon was the boss, the chief if you like, or the medicine man, I'm not sure, something like that, and I played up in one of those caves.

Paul: I've got one more question. You mentioned about being shy, and Kasie and I are both shy people too, you kind of wouldn't know it with me but she's kind of shy.

Oh yeah, it's a lovely quality. Providing it doesn't get in your way.

Paul: There's the thing. I think a lot of people who are shy and they try to play, they'll stop so it has to be a driving force inside yourself to overcome that.

Of course. I didn't talk at one time, in the '70's and into the '80's, and one of the problems was I'm a traveller, I didn't have the education a lot the people had. I was a traveller and my Dad was a traveller so I traveled until I was seven or maybe more, and then when my Dad moved into a house in Dublin with my Mother who was from the settled community, her people actually disowned her for running off with a gypsy as they would see it, and my Dad was the music of the family. He was the musical side of the family and of course they did everything, all kinds of odd jobs to make a living.

The travellers would make money from what the settled people threw out and they had nothing themselves, but in Ireland the people had a habit of finding something they could look down on, something lower than themselves, and if you read 'Angela's Ashes' you'll see that in there, when the Mother was asked, "Why don't you go down to the St. Vincent's de Paul," who were the charity givers if you like, "and at least they'll put shoes on your kids feet." They're in the rain in their bare feet, and had nothing. She was in the dumps. She was as low as you can get, and she turns around to the woman and says, "What do you think I am to be seen down there and classified as a knacker."

The travellers are making do from what they were throwing out, but I lived through that and it was like being, and I hate to say things like this because it sounds racist I know, but it was like being... it was worse than being actually a black person in Ireland at the time, being a traveller.

But I was just saying I went through school with all that stuff you know, kids shouting at me, and when my Dad moved in of course he had the horse and four wheeler. That was the bottom of the wagon without the top of the wagon because we didn't need it anymore—we were moving into a house and it was like being locked up in a jail when I moved in from the road to a house, and school was something else. The nuns were evil to me, or that's how I saw it, as a child, as a six or seven year old.

I just wanted to run away from it, but my Mother really did insist on us being settled, she being from the settled community, but it was really difficult growing up. There were kids at school... "Oh, there's Keenan, they bring the foal in for a cup of tea into the house," you know. My Dad would bring the mare in through the front of the house, in a terraced house, and out into the back garden so it could graze and when the foal was born, yes, he did bring the foal up on the four wheeler and put it in the front room a lit a big fire. The man would burn the floorboards of the house to light the fire to keep us warm, you know, where other people would think that was unbelievably weird. I guess it was and it would be, especially in today's world but back then they had nothing. They'd burn the house they lived in to stay warm.

I heard a quote from a guy in Ireland there recently, now that they have money and they've gone through this huge economy swell... They're worse off than they were before in Ireland actually, worse off than when they were in third world status, because the divide has become greater. All of the money in the country has been swept up and thrown into a corner and we have 38,000 millionaires over there and a whole lot of poverty paying for that. But recently this guy said to me—he had made it—he's got his million dollar house in Ireland. I was talking about my little old farmhouse in Ireland that I got I'm lucky to have, and he says, "Well the only way to warm those old stone houses is to set them on fire!" And I'm standing there at my own stone farmhouse from possibly back to the famine time.

Paul: So where is it in Ireland?

It's down near Kilkenny. Do you know Kilkenny? It's like a medieval town.

Paul: Oh it's a beautiful town! I went up on the round tower. I nearly got blown off.

The old castle is there in perfect condition as well. I think Kilkenny used to be the capitol of Ireland at one time, a small little city. Have you been to Ireland?

Kasie: No, not yet.

You have to go. You have to go and find... Don't go on these bus tours, go find places where you'll be reminded of the past as opposed to what's happening now.

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