An Interview with Desi Wilkinson
“Try to play musically and dynamically. Play only tunes/songs you’re mad about. Don’t play too fast.”
Desi Wilkinson has worked and toured with most of the best-known musicians and groups on the traditional Irish music scene, like Dé Dannan, Donal Lunney, Liam O’Flynn, Máirtín O’Connor and Andy Irvine. He has toured the US as guest star with Dé Dannan and has arranged and performed music for the theatre. (He even did a bit of acting in the Eden Court Theatre Company of Inverness’ production of The Brahan Seer). For three years he worked for the Arts Council of N.Ireland as Artist in the Community, setting up traditional music projects and carrying out research, and he also found the time to get himself an M.A. in Ethnomusicology from Belfast University, where he developed a taste for Turkish music and learned to play the baglama, a Turkish lute. From 1992 – 1994 he lived in Britanny, learning, playing and studying Breton music. Desi speaks French fluently. In 1993 he was part of a pan-European music project, Hent St. Jakez, based on the medieval pilgrimage to Santiago, in which he performed all over Spain, Portugal and France and also composed three items in the piece. These can be heard on the C.D. Hent St. Jakez, Shamrock Records,1993.
Around the time of this interview, Desi had completed a solo album (with guest appearances by Mairtin O’Connor and Gerry Culloty) and was doing research at the University of Limerick. He plays with the popular group Cran, which includes the piper Ronan Browne. His playing also can be heard on Dolores Keane’s CD “Night Owl.”
- Cosa Gan Bhroga, Gael-Linn, 1987 (with Gerry O’Connor, Eithne Ni Uallacháin, and others.)
- The Three Piece Flute, Spring Records, CSP 1009
- Hent St. Jakez, Shamrock Records,1993
- Cran The Crooked Stair, (with Sean Corcoran and Neil Martin)
- Cran Black Black Black, Claddagh CC63CD (with Sean Corcoran and Ronan Browne)
- Cran: Lover’s Ghost, Black Rose Records BRRCD003 (with Sean Corcoran and Ronan Browne)
Interview date: April 1998
Q: Belfast and the North have generated an inordinate number of excellent flute players, such as yourself, the late Frankie Kennedy, Hammy Hamilton, Marcas O’Murchu, Gerry O’Donnell, Larry Nugent, and of course Cathal McConnell from Fermanagh, to name but a few. And flutemaker Sam Murray has his workshop in Belfast. Is there a long tradition of flute playing in Belfast and the surrounding region? Or is there just something in the water?
A: There is a tradition of marching bands, playing originally fife and latterly piccolos in both political traditions. Cathal McConnell was very influential, I would say, in leading the way for all of the players listed above, in that he was from the North and a regular visitor to Belfast. He was just slightly older than the rest of us; we were peers. Mrs. Sheila Gunn, Tommy’s wife, ran a bed and breakfast …Cathal [and many other musicians] stayed there often. I remember as a kid sitting in on the early days of the Boys of the Lough in the Gunns’ kitchen. Fermanagh and its repertoire consequently figured in the early tune learning experience of all of us.
Q: To my ear, the “Belfast style” of flute playing, at least the style that I tend to hear most commonly from Belfast players, seems to have a lot in common with the tradition of Leitrim and Sligo/Roscommon…a forceful, loud tone and a lot of use of the breath to provide rhythmic pulse. Do you agree? Any thoughts on the factors that may have influenced the Belfast flute style?
A: In part because some–myself at any rate–tended to look to this style and repertoire [Leitrim/Sligo/Roscommon] because it was significantly different from that of Fermanagh, our first real brush with percieved authenticity. If there was anything indigenous to Belfast itself I’d say it was the staccato style of the flute bands which were a constant in our early lives. You couldn’t avoid them even if you wanted to. I don’t think any of us share a style as such. Repertoire, social commonalities, early life experience perhaps but not a common ‘Belfast’ musical style as such.
Q: Tell us about your own musical influences. Fiddler Tommy Gunn was a big factor early on, wasn’t he?
A: He was…also people like Donegal fiddler Charlie O’Neill — the old timers were/are very important to me. There are many people, singers and players, from everywhere and anywhere who influenced me. It would be impossible to cite them all. I like to think that my musical life is a constant journey of discovery. I think if I start to feel that I’ve arrived somewhere I’ll stop playing music.
Q: Who made the flute(s) that you play? What sorts of qualities would you look for if you were shopping for a flute?
A: I play an old Montzani and two new Sam Murrays. I have a Murray because it’s light but strong. Also Sam lives up the road so if I’ve a problem he’s easier to hassle!!! I like the work of many of today’s flute makers, among them Patrick Olwell in the States. Better than many of the old flutes. I play one of his bamboo jobs…it’s great.
Q: You also sing, play the Highland pipes and fiddle, and play music from other countries as well as Ireland. I imagine you must play some Breton music, due to your long friendship with Jean-Michel Veillon. Do you feel that any of this “cross-cultural fertilization” has changed the way you play Irish music on the flute?
A: No doubt. I deliberately set out to play Breton stuff on the clarinet, an instrument I didn’t play at all. I think I learned a lot from that experience because Jean Michel’s Breton style on the flute is so damn good I needed to go to basics before I would attempt to emulate it. I never really did try. I find that to mark the difference in style, which is immense, I need to stick to the clarinet for Breton music and the flute for Irish and related.
I reckon that even if people think they are not involved in “cross – fertilization,” they really are …it’s unavoidable, natural, and desirable!!!
Q: Many of the people who read the online Irish flute guide are just starting out on the flute. Can you offer any advice to beginning players — a few tips on playing, practicing, learning?
A: Try to play musically and dynamically. Play only tunes/songs you’re mad about. Don’t play too fast. Flute players are among the worst offenders in the speeding stakes. I know: I’ve been one of them. Listen to lots of players, not only fluters; emulate what you like and then do your thing.