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The Connollys of Connemara
by Alex Monaghan -
Issue 27 June/July '98




Johnny ConnollyJohnny Og & Brian McGrath

First there was Johnny Connolly, unassuming melodeon player who played for dances around Spiddal in County Galway. Johnny was born into an island community where music was precious and not always plentiful, where the old 78s circulated amongst neighbours but live music was a rarer treat. When he was about ten, he picked up his brother's melodeon: from then on, the button box was rarely out of his hands. After thirty-five years or so of playing the single-row melodeon, Johnny Connolly is an acknowledged master: Possibly the greatest Irish melodeon player ever, certainly the best of his generation, and the cause of renewed interest in the Irish melodeon style in Connemara and beyond.

The Connemara melodeon is a single-row diatonic instrument with ten treble buttons and two basses, the humblest of the free reed family that includes accordions, concertinas and bandoneons. In the various famines and depressions which have depopulated Connemara, when most valuables were either sold or exported by emigrants, the cheap little single-row melodeon was often the only instrument left behind to accompany dancers and singers alike. Two- and three-row melodeons are unknown in Connemara: all two-row instruments are chromatic (B/C, C/C#, or more recently D/D#), and are popular with younger players since the recordings of Paddy O'Brien, Joe Burke and others in the seventies and early eighties.

Johnny Connolly tried his hand at the two-row chromatic box for several years, but came back to the single-row because of its rhythmic qualities. The melodeon is an ideal instrument for dance music. The melody notes are well separated by the bellows action, and can be punched out as hard as you like because you don't have to keep moving your hand around the fingerboard. What's more, the basses are simple and reliable, providing just the right amount of accompaniment with a regular beat, provided you don't venture into foreign keys! Johnny Connolly's melodeon style makes the most of all these features: it has a very strong rhythm which comes from both hands, the ornamentation is restrained and well suited to the single-row box, and every note is clearly articulated on the right hand.

Johnny has made two recordings of melodeon music on the Spiddal-based Clo Iar-Chonnachta label, and both of them illustrate his deep understanding of the music and dance of Connemara. The first was released in 1991 ("An tOilean Aerach", CICD063, reviewed in LT3) to great acclaim throughout the traditional music world, and a mere seven years later we have the sequel, "Drioball na Fainleoige" or "The Swallow's Tail" (CICD127) on which Johnny is joined by accompanists Charlie Lennon and Steve Cooney who add even more bounce and lift. As well as the compelling dance music on melodeon, this recording features a slow air and a song plus a couple of tunes on the two-row button box, just for variety.

As a master of his instrument, Johnny Connolly moves happily between G, D, A, Bm, Em and other keys. He reckons to fit most tunes onto his ten buttons: the trick is to start in the right key! Most of the tunes he plays are in D, though: fitting a reel like "The Bucks of Oranmore" onto a melodeon is hard enough without trying to play in awkward keys. The fact that Johnny Connolly successfully plays most of the Irish repertoire on such a deceptively simple instrument has awakened considerable interest in the humble melodeon. The fact that Johnny plays this stuff stunningly well has inspired admiration and emulation wherever Irish music is played. The availability of two superb recordings of this master musician should spread his influence even further.

So why the seven-year gap? Well, Johnny Connolly has been busy touring the world with various Irish musicians since his first album was released, something he didn't have time for before 1990 as he was busy raising a family. Yes, there are little Connollys to continue the tradition, not so little now either: one of them has already made quite a name for himself and may even be better known than his father.

Up to now we've been talking about Johnny Connolly Senior, or Sean Johnny, as he's known in Connemara, born on Inis Bearachain in Galway Bay. There is also a Johnny Connolly Junior, or Johnny Og, born in exile in the UK and brought back to Connemara as a babby in 1976. Johnny Og plays the two-row button accordion, and plays it well: he featured prominently on the first recording from the group Anam in 1994 (CACD001, critiqued in "Small is Beautiful", LT15), and was then snapped up by singer Sean Keane to join his touring band, a full-time job and great experience. Johnny Og brings his knowledge of showband music, his emulation of Joe Burke, and his father's music together on a new recording, "Dreaming Up the Tunes" (CICD133). Together with Fermanagh banjo man Brian McGrath, Johnny Og plays tunes from the thirties and forties, tunes written in the nineties, and tunes from a time when nobody worried about who composed the music or when. This recording is the definitive riposte to the joke about perfect pitch ("When you throw an accordion into a skip and you hear it smash into a banjo!"): box and banjo have never sounded sweeter together. Johnny Og's two-row box (C#/D) copes with the chromatic nuances of old and new tunes alike, and Brian McGrath is no stranger to either kind, having helped to shape the sadly defunct Four Men and a Dog before making more traditional recordings such as "The Cat that Ate the Candle" (CICD099) with John Carty (reviewed in LT12). "Dreaming Up the Tunes" includes several gems composed by Johnny Og, including a set of jigs written for his father which Sean Johnny also includes on his new recording: maybe CIC will bring the two tracks out as an EP.

Johnny Og and Brian are both now living in Galway City but spending a lot of time touring with the Sean Keane band. Brian also plays with the post-modern trad band "At the Racket", who also have an album out (reviewed in LT26), continuing his collaboration with John Carty.

And what of Sean Johnny Connolly? After tours of Australia, Barbados, Croatia and Doolin, can we expect to see him taking to the concert platform full time? Probably not: his coronation as "King of the Melodeon" has left him relatively unscathed. At this time of the year he's to be found in a corner of Hughes' Bar in Spiddal, playing for anyone who'll listen, or better still dance.

 

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