Within a couple years of their immigration in 1980 to Portland, Ore., I saw former Bothy Band members Kevin Burke on fiddle and Micheal O Domhnaill (1951-2006) on guitar and vocals in concert together at the Alternative Museum on White Street in lower Manhattan. Surrounded by avant-garde art and perched not far from a subway whose low rumble added periodic percussion, I sat with about 200 others to see and hear one of the greatest duos in the history of Irish traditional music. It was the first time I saw Micheal sing “Lord Franklin,” one of two songs to which he’ll be forever linked (the other is “The Death of Queen Jane”). During intermission, the crowd sipped wine, gazed at the art, and chatted about the music.
On another occasion at the Alternative Museum, I marveled at the music and laughed at the banter from another famous duo, brothers Johnny Cunningham (1957-2003) on fiddle and Phil Cunningham on piano accordion, members of the popular Scottish traditional band Silly Wizard.
“Did you see the two piles of CD’s for sale?” Johnny asked the audience as he pointed to them right after intermission. “That very tall, unsold pile is the CD’s of my brother Phil, and that wee, nearly sold-out pile is my own CD’s.”
On Oct. 14, 2003, just two months before he died of a heart attack, Johnny gave back-to-back concerts with Phil in Leonard Nimoy Thalia, a theater inside Manhattan’s Symphony Space complex. It was a night full of virtuosic fiddling and accordion and piano playing, and no shortage of kidding. Said Johnny to Phil, who was testing the keys on a Yamaha piano: “Do that a few more times, and you can get a record contract with Windham Hill.” The irony, readily apparent to the audience, was that Johnny had been a member of Nightnoise, a Windham Hill act who included Micheal and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill.
In hindsight, how can you possibly place a price on that night’s performances, displaying the late Johnny Cunningham in unforgettable form? Whether at the Alternative Museum, Symphony Space, Washington Square Church, Town Hall, Borough of Manhattan Community College, New York University’s Skirball Center, Highline Ballroom, or several other venues in New York City, the best in Irish and other Celtic traditional music remained a staple of the richly diverse concert programming organized and presented by Robert Browning since 1975. He and his wife, Helene, were responsible for those concerts by Burke and O Domhnaill and the Cunningham brothers. For the past 26 years, Robert Browning, now age 70, has been the executive and artistic director of the World Music Institute, a not-for-profit, concert-presenting organization founded by him and Helene, its publicity director.
Another crowning achievement and memory of WMI for me came in the period between Oct. 2007 and May 2008 when it presented a series of 14 concerts featuring 42 National Heritage Fellowship winners in 4 different New York City venues. Among the National Heritage Fellowship honorees who performed were Joe Derrane (2004), Kevin Burke (2002), Mick Moloney (1999), Donny Golden (1995), and Liz Carroll (1994). The Nov. 30, 2007, “Ireland in America” concert at NYU’s Skirball Center was a special treat, showcasing Derrane accompanied by John McGann, Carroll accompanied by John Doyle, Moloney joined by Doyle, Billy McComiskey, Jerry O’Sullivan, Dana Lyn, Brendan Dolan, and Robbie O’Connell, and Golden stepdancing with John Jennings and sisters Cara and Jean (“Riverdance”) Butler.
Also performing under the aegis of WMI over the years were Altan, Lunasa, Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill, Danu, Dervish, Tom and Maureen Doherty, Len Graham and Cathal McConnell, Andy McGann, Buttons & Bows, Karan Casey, and Patrick Street.
Along the way Robert and Helene Browning have grappled with more stringent visa requirements for overseas artists after 9/11 and the ever-present budgetary need for grants, donations, underwriting, and fund-raising to sustain WMI’s brilliantly eclectic programming each year. The recently shrill clamor from many politicians for shredding government support for the arts has only made the situation more difficult.
On May 13 Robert Browning will officially step down as head of the World Music Institute, although he will serve it in an advisory capacity. His successors will be Karen Sander and Daniel Binderman. Helene Browning will continue to work in publicity and promotion.
It’s impossible to encapsulate the impact that the World Music Institute under Robert and Helene Browning’s guidance has exerted not only in the New York metro area but also throughout the United States. In a time of rising xenophobia, WMI has allowed Americans to witness firsthand the artistry and beauty of many musical traditions not their own. In that sense, Robert Browning is not just a world music pioneer. He is also a peacemaker.
Happy retirement, Robert. You earned it. We cannot thank you enough.
Renamed CCE branch
Galway musicians Mike Rafferty, a National Heritage Fellowship recipient in 2010, and Joe Madden (1938-2008) were the best of friends and musical partners in the N.Y./N.J. region. Throughout the decades Rafferty on flute and Madden on button accordion provided an unmistakable lift at any session, ceili, or concert in which they were playing.
To honor that long-term, deep-seated friendship and music between them, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann’s Michael Rafferty Branch will end on May 15 and be reborn as the Mike Rafferty-Joe Madden Branch. Members of the Rafferty and Madden families will be present at the newly named branch’s ceili at 3 p.m. on May 15 at the VFW Hall, 239 Leonia Ave., Bogota, N.J.
Expect plenty of jubilant music and dancing.
Three new publications of note
One of the most enjoyable albums I heard last year was “Seoda na n-Oilean” (“Island Treasures”) by flutist Marcus Hernon and button accordionist Johnny Connolly. Living in Rusheenamanagh, Carna, Co. Galway, Hernon has recently published “The Grouse in the Heather” (“An Chearc Fhraoigh”), a book comprising 25 of his own compositions, all inspired by or titled after birds, such as “The Peeping Plover,” “The Chattering Stormcock,” “The Diving Gannet,” “The Bobbing Sandpiper,” and “The Warbling Robin.” It’s a handsomely designed, tuneful, avian-themed delight that includes information and photos or sketches (the latter by Marcus’s son Breandan) of the birds. To obtain the book, which I highly recommend, contact Marcus Hernon through his website, www.marcushernon.com, or phone number, 011-353-95-32585.
Two new books of verse have just come out from writers who deserve far more recognition than they’ve received: “Falling Out of Bed in a Room with No Floor” by Terence Winch, a founding member of the Irish traditional–and original–band Celtic Thunder, and “A Fast Life: The Collected Poems of Tim Dlugos.” I will formally review both these books in future “Ceol” columns.