One does not become a famed, award-winning Irish fiddler by playing only Irish fiddle music.
That certainly was not the path taken by fiddler Kevin Burke.
Winner of the U.S.’s highest honour in traditional arts (the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts) and named Traditional Musician of the Year by TG4 (an Irish public service TV broadcaster) in 2016, Burke will be holding a workshop and then a concert at the Beaton residence in Qualicum Beach on Feb. 8.
Noted for his “unmistakable Sligo swing” by the Irish Times (Sligo being a County in Ireland where his parents are from), it might be surprising to note he grew up in London in the ’50s and ’60s.
His first violin teacher was Jessie Chistopherson, “an old Victorian lady — small but scary,” who taught Burke classical music, Burke said with a laugh during a phone interview.
To Burke’s eight-year-old eyes, Christopherson seemed quite posh and intimidating, he recalls in a website biography.
But despite a strict, harsh teaching manner, she was quite open to teaching Burke other kinds of music. It was a rare trait at the time, said Burke.
“There was kind of a divide between the classical musicians and the traditional musicians,” he said. “They both kind of looked down on each other. The classical musicians were too stuffy and too academic, and the traditional musicians were too undisciplined and didn’t really know how to play… but because of my teacher’s open-mindedness, I never really suffered from that, you know.
“She was really enthusiastic about me playing traditional music… I was able to learn a lot from her that enabled me to pick up the traditional music fairly easily.”
That worked out well, as Burke’s parents’ plan had been for him to learn how to play violin in whatever manner was available in London, but learn about traditional Irish music from them and some of the great Irish musicians in London who players could find performing if they knew where to look.
“As soon as I was able to play nursery rhyme tunes, you know… Happy Birthday and Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star… I started to learn Irish tunes as well,” said Burke.
While his classical teaching helped Burke to pick up traditional music, he also learned that what traditional musicians play isn’t exactly what is written in music books, and that they prized something called “The Nyaah” that a traditional fiddler had to cultivate if they were to be any good.
To this day, Burke said he’s not really able to say what The Nyaah is, but that it has to do with performing in a way that touches people’s hearts, or has “soul,” as musicians in other genres might say.
Nonetheless, Burke cultivated The Nyaah in listening to, playing with and traveling to hear traditional Irish musicians, while the world around Burke went through the experimental music of the ’60s.
“The kids in my school were not interested in Irish fiddle music. They were more interested in the Kinks and Manfred Mann and… the Beatles… if we went out together on a Friday night… we’d go to see something like that.”
Burke’s musical interests continue to go beyond Irish fiddle music, despite that remaining his focus.
“I’d hear something that attracted me and I’d try and play it,” he said.
Whether or not he’d perform a piece from a different genre had to do with if he felt he could do it justice within the piece’s given genre.
Now, Burke said he’s practicing a Mexican polka called Jesusita en Chihuahua which he says was a song Pancho Villa would have his bands play during combat.
The tune caught his ear, and Burke said he just might be ready to perform it along with his Irish tunes and some other pieces during his Qualicum Beach concert on Thursday, Feb. 8.
Burke’s workshop starts at 4:30 p.m. with the concert at 7:30 p.m. Cost of the workshop is $30, the concert is $20 and cost for both is $40.
For more info, including the venue location, contact Joyce Beaton at email@example.com.