Interview #1 - Kevin Burke

May2007: Kevin Burke (Part1) (Vol.3 No.5)
Interview recorded by S.Kenan on 04/04/07

On his recent tour of Australia, Kevin presented a series concerts and workshops on Irish fiddle. This was his first trip to Australia and the following interview was recorded at the Masterclass conducted at the Canberra School of Music. Kevin taught here for three days prior to the National Folk Festival Easter 2007, and this exclusive interview with the Fiddle News will be presented in two parts. Next month's issue will cover Part Two of Kevin's interview.

Introduction "I began to see that songs could be very powerful as a social commentary and history and wondered if instrumental music had a similar power. Obviously a tune is a bit more abstract than a story with words but I was pretty sure that music was pretty powerful stuff. Around the time that I was pondering all this I heard Jimi Hendrix playing and he confirmed my suspicions about the power of music. I didn't really think too much about the words to his songs, the sound of his guitar playing is what enthralled me! I immediately thought back to my music teacher Jessie Christopherson and what she said about Michael Coleman (Sligo fiddler 1892-1945) "He finds the soul of his instrument." Nobody had ever told me before that musical instruments even had souls! That was an exciting bit of news-another revelation!" Kevin Burke

Q. Did you ever imagine in your early days, the success and stature you would later receive as a musician?
I'm still not really aware of it. It's funny, I know within this small circle of Irish fiddlers, fiddling fans, I am a noted figure. I still see myself as one of the gang, struggling to get a few tunes together. I don't feel I have reached any dizzy heights. Maybe I should.

A. Born in London of Irish parentage, Kevin Burke has earned his place amongst the truly great players of Irish traditional fiddle music. He started classical violin lessons aged eight then moved on to traditional music at fourteen years of age. He was invited to the United States by Arlo Guthrie and members of his band when they heard him play fiddle in Ireland. Arlo's record 'Last of the Brooklyn Cowboys' was recorded in the 1970's and features Kevin's fiddle playing on a couple of tracks. While he was in America at this time, Kevin recorded his own album of traditional fiddle tunes titled, 'Sweeney's Dream.'

The Bothy Band produced their first record in 1975 and Tommy Peoples was the fiddler. On their next recording 'Old Hag You Have Killed Me' Kevin Burke took over the role of fiddle player after Tommy's departure. The Bothy Band inspired many people to become devoted to Irish traditional music. This band was made up of master players like Matt Molloy, Paddy Keenan and Donal Lunny. The sets of tunes often were innovative mixes of slides, slip jigs, jigs and reels. The arrangements allowed for individual players to be featured in solos and duets unlike the Ceili dance bands of the day where the musicians all played together as a large group.

The Bothy Band produced a new and exciting sound. Each instrument had a chance to break away and sing its own song before an avalanche of sound exploded when the band returned for the final tunes of the set. Kevin moved to the USA after the Bothy Band disbanded and since then has consistently toured and performed music on his fiddle. He has gained re-known as a teacher and Kevin has produced a series of instruction tapes and DVD's on Irish fiddle for Homespun Tapes. Kevin's masterclass in Canberra consisted of 23 students, 18 females and 5 males. He entertained us with his stories and captivated us with his fiddle playing and passed on his knowledge in a warm and friendly manner.

Q. What is your earliest memory of the violin or fiddle?

A. Probably when I started learning. Before I even started playing I knew what it was. I'd seen other people playing and my grandfather played. I can't pinpoint any memory of seeing a fiddle before I started playing one myself. But I remember when I started going to lessons with all these other people I knew that I thought that one day I would be able to play like them. I remember thinking that.

Q. Who were these people? Did you see fiddlers in the house as a child?

A. Yes, friends of the family. I think I just kind of took it for granted. You know, like the first time you start learning to ride a bike. I think I can actually remember the first time I got a bike to go, I was in control of it. I don't remember the first time I sat on one. I know I had lots of failed attempts. So I remember starting the lessons because it seemed like a big step you know.

Q. Did you make the decision to start lessons or was it your parents?

A. No, I didn't want to play.

Q. Was it ever a struggle for you to learn?

A. Yes. I felt I didn't want to do it. I would rather play with my train set, play football, going up to the park to play on the swings and all that. I didn't want to sit in a stuffy old room with this old woman, and me scratching on my fiddle. But when I was about thirteen, I started to really like it and wanted to play, but by then I could play.

Q. What prompted this switch? You weren't going to pubs at that age were you ?

A. I was, yes. I was probably going to pubs before I even started playing. It probably wasn't allowed but my father was a policeman, he would probably have a word with the guy. My father didn't drink, he was a teetotaller , well not a 100% teetotaller, but more or less. He might have a drink on a Christmas day. So there was never any drinking involved with us. He loved the sessions and he though it would be good to bring me along and it was probably better than getting a babysitter. My mother liked it as well so we would all go and sometimes I would sleep in the car.

Q. Do you have brothers and sisters?

A. I do now but I didn't then. I was an only child when I was thirteen. My parents were young then so it was kind of easy for them to bundle me along. They would go and meet their friends and just hang out. Sometimes it was in pubs, sometimes it was in houses. Sometimes people would come to our place. There was music anytime there was a get together. I suppose I just kind of took it for granted I think. I discovered at some point that most kids didn't learn to play music and that was a bit of a surprise. I seem to remember, thinking, 'Oh yeah, I'm a bit unusual.' I thought it was the other way around, that they were a bit unusual and then I realised there was more of them than me.

Q. Did you have the old Michael Coleman 78 rpm records
in the house?

A. Yes, I listened to them a lot. When I was about thirteen, I heard one of these records that I had heard a thousand times before, but all of a sudden something registered and it was like, what he is doing is on the instrument I'm playing. I could do that if I wanted to and it sounds great. Yes, I'm going to try to do that! I was lucky because when I wanted to play I already could. I had already gone through the frustrating side of finding out how to tune it and get a decent sound out of it. I could do all that. I saw lots of my school mates who wanted to play guitar, to be rock and roll stars, the Beatles and Chuck Berry and all that. Very few of them persevered through that awkward stage.

It is frustrating when you want to play and you can't. When I wanted to play I already could. I had done all that drudgery work when I was seven, eight, nine, ten years of age. I had gotten over all that. For those early years I wasn't really interested…well, mildly. It wasn't driven. I had to be persuaded to play all the time and I see the same thing in my own daughter.

She's twelve and she plays the piano really well but when she was younger she had no interest. We had to nag at her. She didn't want to do it. I used to say "Look, it's like any other chore. You have got to make your bed, you have got to brush your hair, you have got to play the piano. Twenty minutes a day, its got to be done. You can like it or not but you are going to have to do it." First of all she accepted she had to do it and she had a timer so that as soon as the twenty minutes was up she was out of there. But then my wife and I noticed sometimes the timer would go off and she would keep going. Then we noticed we didn't have to tell her every day. She plays pretty well. We are not pushing her at all to have any excellence. I just want her to know how to play the piano. I don't want her to be a musician for life but when she is thirteen or fourteen and if she wants to pursue music she will know what she is doing. If she doesn't want to pursue it, that's fine. She already knows enough I think, she understands what music has to offer.

Q. You are a very relaxed player. Have you had physical problems associated with repetitive strain injury?

A. My right shoulder, my bow arm shoulder, probably about ten or fifteen years ago. I had a pain in my shoulder and I went to several doctors and a doctor friend of mine said it was a worn rotator cuff. He said it was typical of baseball pitchers from that repetitive throwing motion. I was doing the same, waving my arm around. It was not a lot of force, just a lot of repetition. I tried lots of things, physiotherapy, sports doctors. This friend of mine told me that there was a range of options, one was an operation which he said probably wouldn't be successful. Others were cortisone injections, not using it for months. None of the options seemed good. Surgery was one extreme and learning to live with it was the other. A few months after that someone told me about an acupuncturist. I had no experience with acupuncture. I wasn't exactly a sceptic but I didn't have much faith in it because nothing else had worked. So I had about five or six visits and eventually it was fine. It cured it about ninety five percent. I still have a bit of a ghost of a memory of what it was like but other than that it cleared it up.