THE TIN FIDDLE - IRISH ECHO
In the CD player this week is Damien McGeehan’s album “The Tin Fiddle.” McGeehan is a brilliant fiddle player from Co. Donegal and among other things is a member of the trio Fidil. On this aptly-named album, he plays a fiddle with a body made from sheet tin. Borne out of necessity, the tin fiddle is an instrument with a long and fascinating history that well known to the Donegal tradition. It’s this history that McGeehan’s tapped into and the results are fairly stunning.
The tin fiddle was introduced at a time when conventional instruments were scarce and was primarily known to Donegal via traveling tinsmith-musicians. John and Mickey Doherty were two of its most important proponents and the instruments they made were known for a characteristic yet gentle sound.
The instrument’s possibilities are quite surprising. A quick listen to McGeehan’s CD reveals it’s a collection of rich multi-instrumental textures and deeply inventive grooves. The music here really breathes, which is why it might surprise some to learn that McGeehan is the only player on the album. But it’s not just that: McGeehan created every sound on the album was created using a tin fiddle. Melodies, harmonies, drones, strums, and percussion sounds, all – the range of sounds the instrument produces and McGeehan’s ability to not only hear them but make them sound musical together is pretty incredible. Who knew tin had this much potential?
The music here is a mix of traditional Donegal and newly composed tunes. McGeehan is able to integrate the old and new fairly seamlessly, largely because the collection’s focus on (or perhaps better put, reevaluation of) this idiosyncratic musical object affords him the opportunity to be a bit more experimental with form while keeping an ear to what one might consider a “traditional” sound.
Take “O’Rourke’s Highland,” the opening track, where we’re introduced to a fairly wide palette of musical sounding. The tune is a McGeehan original (although you might not know it) and his delivery is variegated and nuanced. The arrangement nests the tune in this kind of dream-like groove built out of tin fiddle sounds and it’s amazing. “The Anvil,” a percussion track and “The Tinsmith,” which, like “O’Rourke’s,” is presented less as a dance tune and more of a programmatic piece that unfolds as if to reveal a romantic drama of some sort, are a matched pair of McGeehan originals that run one into the next. It’s amazing that something that sounds so modern and forward reaching is completely the product of an instrument with such a humble background. Compare these modern takes, then, to the reel “The Gravel Walks to Grannie” or “Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park,” a traditional air from the playing of John Doherty, which not only revel in a traditional sound, but again reveal the instrument’s surprising depth.
Musically adventurous, this album is superbly executed and distinctive in its overall sound. It stands strong as a work of artistic imagination, but also as an explorative reflection on Irish music history. (The booklet includes a fascinating essay on the Donegal tin fiddle by Caoimhín Mac Aoidh that does a quite nice job of telling its story in short form.) This is an album fiddle players will want to hear, but it’ll appeal to anyone who loves traditional music because it’s an easy listener. Don’t let the “tin” in the title fool you, as this isn’t a nasty, tinny sort of album. Rather, it’s quite seemly all around, with a sort of *woody* quality about it from start to finish. Recommended!
Daniel Neely, The Irish Echo.
THE TIN FIDDLE - THE LIVING TRADITION
The Tin Fiddle is exactly what it says - a fiddle made of tin. These instruments used to be common in Donegal when wood and money were short. The travelling tinsmiths could tap together a fiddle body in a few hours with an old neck and some strings attached. They're rare enough now, but Damien McGeehan has borrowed a couple to make this CD. I've heard the odd piece of Irish music played on a tin fiddle before, and there was a record by James Byrne back in the eighties called The Brass Fiddle, but this is certainly the only album I've seen which is entirely tin fiddle music.
Because of its less rigid construction, a tin fiddle is strung at a lower pitch than a conventional violin, but the skill of the old Donegal tinsmiths was such that the body often very closely resembles a wooden fiddle, and the sound can be sweet and clean although quieter than a normal fiddle. McGeehan has used two tin fiddles to create all the music here, multi-tracking melody lines with the percussive effects available from tapping and brushing their metal bodies. There are several pieces from the repertoire of John Doherty, travelling tinsmith and fiddler par excellence in the mid 20th century, along with some other traditional pieces and six of Damien's own, all powerfully arranged. The eerie O'Rourke's Highland is followed by the virtuoso reel The Gravel Walks To Grannie about three semitones below its usual pitch, and then Peadar O'Haoine's Jig which is from Damien's family repertoire. The playing is crisp and intricate, recalling McGeehan's performances with trio, Fídil. His compositions The Anvil and The Tinsmith make the most of this instrument's possibilities, as does the Doherty showpiece The Four Posts Of The Bed, which has become a fiddle standard, with a distinctive sound here as the bow taps the tin fiddle. John Doherty's Waltz is one of many Donegal tunes which sound as though they belong in continental Europe, while Paddy's Rambles Through The Park is, to my mind, one of the most beautiful Irish airs and is not surprisingly attributed to a fairy piper. A couple of good Scots tunes complete the traditional content of this album, again showing McGeehan's mastery.
The Tin Fiddle ends with three of Damien McGeehan's own pieces. The oriental percussion and tones of The Last Day Of Summer have the tin fiddle sounding like a combination of tabla and thumb piano. Eleven Oaks is a soulful bowed slow air with a tone just like a standard fiddle, delicate and graceful, accompanied by harp-like pizzicato. The final Waterfall is an entirely free-form piece, beautifully evocative, a meditation rather than a melody, ending this CD with zen-like perfection.
Alex Monaghan, The Living Tradition.
Damien McGeehan - The Tin Fiddle album review: Fidelity to a forgotten fiddle
The tin fiddle has been a central feature of the music of Donegal, and is particularly associated with the playing of John Doherty. Damien McGeehan, a founding member of the superb and now sadly defunct trio Fidil, uses this most unusual of instruments as the jumping-off point for a freewheeling exploration of the music of his home place and beyond.
McGeehan exploits the surprisingly rich potential of the tin fiddle through a number of original and traditional pieces, stitching textured rhythms into the body of his chosen tunes. The breadth of influences is striking, stretching(unsurprisingly) from Scottish highlands and a gorgeous waltz from John Doherty to Duke Ellington’s Caravan on The Tinsmith.
McGeehan’s musical literacy opens up a whole new vista on an instrument long marginalised, and reveals some rich pickings in the process.
Siobhan Long, The Irish Times.
Damien McGeehan - The Tin Fiddle
Donegal’s distinctive fiddle tradition goes beyond the music. For generations, fiddlers in that part of Ireland struck their bows on instruments fashioned wholly or partly out of tin that could be made and repaired more quickly than timber ones (although their durability was far shorter, usually 40-50 years). It would seem a rather esoteric concept on which to base a whole album, but McGeehan’s exploration of the tin fiddle is far more than some exercise in obscure folklore.
McGeehan, part of the pioneering Donegal fiddle trio Fidil, uses the tin fiddle to generate a host of multi-tracked sounds – bowing, scraping, strumming, plucking, tapping (on strings and the body) – that cover the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic components of traditional Donegal tunes as well as his own compositions. He stitches and layers these together with results that make for an astonishing variety, from hypnotically spare and delicate to sinuous and powerful.
One of the most notable Donegal fiddlers, John Doherty, came from a family renowned for making and playing tin fiddles, and McGeehan pays him tribute with a sequence of three tunes from the Doherty repertoire: “The Four Posts of the Bed” – which features the motif of a tapping bow, on each corner of the fiddle, to represent the four titular posts – the haunting “Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park” and a waltz that sounds like it originated many, many miles east of Donegal.
McGeehan’s strengths as an arranger are evident throughout “The Tin Fiddle,” but particularly so on “Hettie McKenzie”: It starts with an accented percussive beat and some bluesy picked notes before laying out into a stirring 2/4 march with a mesmerizing drone underneath, and then breaks off into a warp-drive reel with multiple leads.
In some cases, McGeehan patiently develops a motif or theme in one track that blends into – or dramatically changes on – the subsequent track. “O’Rourke’s Highland” (a McGeehan original) builds off a plucked four-note pattern into the melody, gradually segues into a richly textured improvisational passage, then heads back the way it came, until suddenly McGeehan bursts into the well-known traditional reel “Gravel Walks to Grannie,” mimicking via overdubs the octave duet style of fiddling common to Donegal (and Kerry).
“The Anvil” is a collection of percussive rhythms on the fiddle body that serves as a prelude to “The Tinsmith,” with a jagged-edged bow-chopping undercurrent on which McGeehan unfurls a series of semi-distorted jazzy runs inspired by Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” and Stephane Grappelli’s “Minor Swing.”
The outlier is “Peadar O’Haione’s,” a jig much favored by McGeehan’s great grandfather, a fiddler himself. McGeehan plays it straight, with no overdubs or special effects, and thus gives us a sense of what it must’ve been like to listen to a Donegal tin fiddle back in his ancestor’s day: somewhat muted but resonant in its own way, and thoroughly captivating.
Sean Smith, www.bostonirish.com
The Tin Fiddle, MCG001
Own Label MCG001 12 Tracks, 43 Minutes
This is a strikingly unique album. It’s a full recording of solo fiddle playing on a tin fiddle, featuring a mixture of the unique Donegal style repertoire in addition to a number of newly–composed tunes from McGeehan himself.
The tin fiddle used to be a very popular instrument in the Donegal tradition; tinsmiths manufactured fiddles regularly and played them on their travels, probably the most famous being the great John Doherty. McGeehan was fortunate to borrow a tin fiddle from his neighbour Peter Oliver McNelis. The remarkable thing is that this entire album was recorded by multi tracking a single tin fiddle and the result is highly impressive.
The opening track sets the scene with a multi–tracked setting featuring plucked arpeggios, drones and effects resulting in a rhythmic build–up of sound. O’Rourke’s Highland emerges in the distinctive Donegal fiddle style sitting comfortably in a rich, layered string arrangement, which gradually gives way to a gentle improvisation. On track two we encounter McGeehan’s personal approach to the well–known reel The Gravel Walks to Grannie. Featuring lots of Donegal techniques, this track showcases ‘reversing’ or playing in double octaves. I particularly like the key choice of this tune in the setting of E minor. Track 3 adds a nice modal sounding jig, whilst track 4 and 5 showcase a rich build of rhythmic layers. The Donegal repertoire is in plentiful supply here; there’s a beautiful waltz taken from the playing of John Doherty. The classic air Paddy’s Rambles Through the Park is presented in the key of E minor adding to this unique setting. He also borrows from the Scottish tradition in a march learned at the Blazin’ in Beauly fiddle festival.
Orchestration appears to be second nature to McGeehan who creates a fabulous string arrangement in track ten. Eleven Oaks is a stunning self–composed march in the key of F, this setting highlights the harmonic beauty of the lower strings. The final track highlights a more ethereal, earthy quality in the fiddle, inspired by a waterfall near his hometown of Ardara. Engineered, mixed and mastered by Terry Mc Ginty at Valley Music Studio in Ballybofey. To conclude, this is a really refreshing album of solid Donegal fiddle music with a modern twist on the tin fiddle. A must–have for all Donegal and fiddle aficionados.
Edel Mc Laughlin, Irish Music Magazine.
Damien McGeehan - The Tin Fiddle (Self Release)
Damien McGeehan's renown as one of Ireland's best fiddlers is founded on the fine contribution he made to the now disbanded Donegal ﬁddle trio Fidil. To many, then, an entirely solo project may seem like a brave departure, but due to some nifty production techniques and an exquisite handling of his instrument, McGeehan's THE TIN FIDDLE tricks the ear into presuming that many musicians are at the mike.
Not so. It may be difficult to grasp the notion, but this album's array of delicious sounds comes from a single Frankenstein's monster of an instrument; a fiddle whose parts have been salvaged from a long-retired instrument and bashed into shape by a master tinsmith. Yes, every note, scratch, bash, pluck and tap on this collection of twelve tunes is the work of one man and one tin fiddle.
There are moments of sprightly delight such as The Gravel Walks To Grannie and the familiar The Four Posts of the Bed, each with its fair share of elbow-shattering scrapes and nimble pizzicato, as well as moments of melodic elegance such as the sweetly evocative Eleven Oaks and the haunting Paddy's Rambles Through The Park. The album ends with the brand new composition The Waterfall which is easily the most painterly of the pieces on the record, its abstract melodies coiling dramatically around ripples of strings and ambient, rain-like fiddle-body percussion to close what is, at once, an album of traditional simplicity and stout-hearted invention.
Liam Wilkinson, Northern Sky.
‘The Tin Fiddle’ - Damien McGeehan - as distinctive as it is intriguing.
The tin fiddle is, unsurprisingly a little known instrument. The result is a unique both in appearance and sound. Donegal fiddler of some repute, Damien McGeehan has released an album of music using his talents and a tin fiddle. Appropriately titled ‘The Tin Fiddle’, the album mixes original and traditional tunes, to create an album that’s as distinctive as it is intriguing. The influences range far and wide and the result is an exploration of fiddle music, especially fascinating when you realise that this is McGeehan working on his own, layering as needed to achieve the overall effect.
From ‘O’Rourke’s Highland’, which introduces the instrument with plucked strings and percussive hand strokes, through an effervescent ‘Gravel Walks to Grannie’ and the noble tones of ‘Peadar O’Haoine’ to a combination of influence from Duke Ellington and gypsy music with ‘The Tinsmith’ this music is utterly fresh and inventive. The traditional tune ‘John Doherty’s Waltz’ receives an imaginative edge, ‘Hettie MacKenzie’s’ sweeps and soars, while as a pizzicato march ‘The Last Days of Summer’ struts-its-stuff with powerful assurance.
There’s much to enjoy with ‘The Tin Fiddle’ – listen and you will find it a distinct pleasure to join Damien McGeehan on this enticing tour around the tin fiddle.
Charlie Elland, folkwords.com