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TOMMY HAYES "A Room in the North" Hanna Music OPPCD001
Distributed by Claddagh Records

When the late Seán O Riada posited the introduction of percussion into Irish music via the (re)invention of the bodhrán, he was far from bequeathing an unmixed legacy. "Bodhrán", indeed, has become a dark expletive on the lips of many a fine musician, innumerable potentially good sessions and oceans of crack having been ruined by cackhanded goatbashers.

The victims of these atrocities are unlikely, for the most part, to be unprejudiced at the prospect of a Tommy Hayes record. Sure doesn't his reputation as 'the Wizard of the Bodhrán precede him now wherever he goes? It does, of course; but such timorous folk may breathe easy again, for, on the basis of this record, the bold Hayes never ruined a session in his life.

What we have here, indeed, is not session music as we know it. A Room in the North is one of the most eclectic offerings that I've heard in years (and that's saying something). And, to dispel a preconception before we go any further, Tommy Hayes is not bashing a bodhrán for the entire duration - far from it: a gay panoply of instruments, not all percussive, allow our hero to show off his undoubted skills. To cite some of them, there are jews harps, bamboo whistles and meditation bells, along with obscurer items such as Tibetan singing bowls, cocoon shakers, kanjiras, djimbes and rain makers. I kid you, as Captain Queeg would have said, not.

That list may give you some idea of the sort of record this is. It's not really folk music except in the broadest sense - the Louis Armstrong sense. Indeed jazz, or semi-jazz, analogies leap most readily to mind: one thinks of the likes of Talisker, John Surman, Hamish Moore and Dick Lee, and sundry Loose Tubes alumni such as Eddie Parker. Part of this is due to Tommy's companions, the illustrious Ronan Browne on pipes and flute, the equally illustrious Kenneth Edge (of the Riverdance Orchestra) on saxophones, and Julia Haines on harp. Ah, Julia! I'm normally a 'nil by harp' man myself, but here we have a harper among harpers, one who swings like a shebeen door. It seems that she got a lot of her style from listening to a kora player, and it shows, dear Lord, it shows.

I've missed out one of the most important contributors to this venture: Tommy's aunt, Meta Costelloe, on lilting. Meta makes sure that the record keeps one foot, or a couple of toes anyway, in the realm of folk music. She'd be a grand lilter whatever age she was, but seemingly she's an octogenarian. Caramba!

Excuse the last exclamation - it must be because there's at least one Spanish number in there, the 14th-century "Cantiga de Santa Maria". That, and the polyglot instrumentation, hint at the true eclecticism of this disc. It's seamless, though, and, if anything, gives the impression of a suite rather than a set of discrete tracks. It's certainly not going to have you jumping to your feet and shimmying across the kitchen floor, but it's laden with admirable musicianship by all concerned and is guaranteed to leave you with a headful of good vibes - a rare enough thing nowadays.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 26 of The Living Tradition magazine.