In 1993 a new group, the “Celtic Fiddle Festival”, released its first CD. This is the story of the group’s beginning and how it developed and changed over the next decades.
The story begins with Johnny Cunningham and Kevin Burke – two great friends, two great fiddlers, one Scottish, the other Irish. Throughout the 80’s and early 90’s these two friends would often “gate-crash” each other’s concerts, entertaining the audiences and each other with their music and their often irreverent banter. They enjoyed these impromptu meetings so much that they often spoke about what fun it would be to go on the road together as a duet. They rightly suspected, however, that most concert promoters would be slightly wary at the prospect of hosting two fiddlers for a night’s entertainment – who in their right mind would want to see that!
But then up stepped Robert Browning from the World Music Institute in New York City. He said that was exactly what he would like to promote – a concert featuring Kevin and Johnny as a duo. It turned out to be a great night and the success of the evening together with Robert’s encouragement renewed and strengthened the idea of the two fiddle playing friends going on tour together. The Herschel Freeman Agency was then approached about booking the tour. Herschel readily agreed but did make the observation that, while it might be a very attractive show for people who knew both Kevin & Johnny , he felt it would be even more successful if another element could be added to broaden the appeal somehow. Kevin & Johnny put their heads together and, realizing that most people in the US were probably unaware of the beautiful music of Brittany, they got in touch with their friend, the great Breton fiddler, Christian Lemaitre.
Both Johnny and Kevin had visited Brittany many times, spending countless hours with the local musicians and becoming enamored with the music and traditions of that region. They asked Christian if he would like to bring his music to American audiences and he graciously accepted the invitation. The booking of dates for this trio of fiddlers then began in earnest. The Herschel Freeman Agency gave a name to the group and from then on Johnny, Kevin and Christian became known as “The Celtic Fiddle Festival”.
For their accompanist the fiddlers contacted Johnny’s good friend, John McGann. (In April 2012 came the sad news that John had passed away after a short illness – a tragic loss to his family and friends and to all who knew him and his music). John’s musical skills, his incredible versatility and his gentlemanly demeanour proved to be a wonderful addition to the group. Night after night the Celtic Fiddle Festival played to packed houses all across the US, receiving overwhelming ovations from the audiences and rave reviews from the press and promoters. So much excitement was being generated by this new group that a second ‘follow-up’ tour for the next year was already being booked before that initial tour was over. The group members realized very quickly that something very exciting was happening. They decided it would be a good idea to record some of the concerts, as a souvenir if nothing else but perhaps for future release.
A CD The Celtic Fiddle Festival was indeed released on Green Linnet Records, admirably capturing the energy and excitement of the concert tour.(Many thanks are due to the people who organized and recorded those concerts at Mercy Academy Auditorium, Merion, Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin Music Hall, Madison, Wisconsin and the Fairchild Auditorium, East Lansing, Michigan.) Over the years the CD has proved to be a very enduring collection of music with such standout tracks as “Suite de Loudeac”, “Music for a Found Harmonium” and John McGann’s beautiful “Canyon Moonrise Waltz”.
Each night the concert began with a short solo performance from each fiddler to demonstrate the uniqueness of the individual styles of music. The musicians would then all play together to show how these different styles were indeed very closely connected. Or, as Johnny used to say, “We try to show how three distinct cultures have been destroyed by one common instrument!”
Tours of both Europe and US took place over the next few years and a second CD was recorded – Encore. By now the group’s accompanist was the amazing Breton guitarist Soig Siberil. Soig was a band mate of Christian in the famous Breton band, “Kornog”. As Soig became more and more successful as a solo performer The Celtic Fiddle Festival then turned to Scotland for an accompanist – the amazing Tony McManus. By the time the band made it’s 3rd recording, “Rendezvous”, Ged Foley from the Battlefield Band and Patrick Street had become the ‘resident’ guitarist.
In December 2003, while preparing for another tour and another CD the Celtic Fiddle Festival was hit with a desperate tragedy – Johnny Cunningham died suddenly from a heart attack. Amidst all the grief and emotional turmoil came the question, “should the group continue?” or an even starker question was “could the group continue?”. After much soul searching and after encouraging words from Johnny’s friends and family it was decided that the Celtic Fiddle Festival should “Play On” – once it was pointed out that it was what Johnny would have wanted. The next tour was due to start in just a couple of months but performing without Johnny was a huge challenge for the Celtic Fiddle Festival. Several prominent Scottish fiddlers sent their condolences and volunteered to help in any way possible but the feeling within the group was that having another Scottish fiddler join would invite unwelcome comparisons and would appear as an attempt to replace the irreplaceable. The decision was taken to look to another branch of the Celtic music family tree.
When André Brunet from Quebec joined the group he proved to be an inspired choice. His youthful energy and powerful playing lifted the spirits of the group to no small degree. The sadness of losing Johnny was impossible to ignore but André’s upbeat nature was the perfect antidote. The next tour, the first with André, was a great success and the ensuing CD was dedicated to Johnny and bore the title, in his honour, Play On.
Ged Foley made one more recording, Equinoxe, with the group and then decided to leave the band. The Celtic Fiddle Festival again turned to Brittany for an accompanist and are honoured to have the wonderful Nicolas Quemener in the cherished role of ‘fiddler’s labourer’.
In 2013 Celtic Fiddle Festival rejoiced in 20 years of unique, compelling,and powerful music with their sixth recording, Live in Brittany, released on May 21, 2013 on Loftus Music. It was recorded in January 2013 in the beautiful, centuries-old Breton town of Guémené-sur-Scorff, home to Nicolas Quémener, the group’s talented guitar accompanist. Featuring all newly-recorded selections, the album represents the rich cultural traditions of Ireland, Quebec, and Brittany, with performances that include freshly composed pieces as well as tunes whose origin is beyond living memory. Live in Brittany encapsulates both the energy and excitement that can be generated in a live performance as well as the beauty and vitality of this ageless music.