Irish Music Old-Style

Famed fiddler Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill return to Tucson for an evening of trad tunes

Superstar Irish fiddler Martin Hayes is on the line, calling not from Ireland as you might expect, but from his home in Madrid.

"My wife is from Spain originally," he explains, speaking in a low-key brogue that doesn't quite match the swooning sounds he gets from a fiddle. "I've been two years here. It's lovely."

Spain has plenty of connections with Ireland—there's a Spanish Point overlooking the Atlantic in County Clare, Hayes's birthplace, he points out. In northwest Spain, a couple of provinces long ago settled by the Celts still have music that shows their influence.

"My wife's family is from Asturias," (one of the Celtic heritage regions) "and they do pipes (bagpipes) and drums there."

But Hayes—who plays his gorgeous traditional fiddle music this Sunday in an all-instrumental concert at Berger Performing Arts Center, accompanied by Irish American guitarist Dennis Cahill—has not delved into Spanish music. Spain, for him, is a respite from the road.

The packed tour that will bring him to Tucson is typical of his travels: it's a month-long marathon that will take him and Cahill first to the U.S. Southwest and California, into Canada and on into Europe.

"It's pretty intense," he says. "When I come back home to Spain, I have a quiet life. I love the tapas and coffee."

Celebrated for his soulful playing and his "heartbreaking musical washes ... and moments of sheer, sparkling exuberance," as an Australian critic had it, Hayes is much in demand. He's collaborated with Yo Yo Ma and Silk Road Ensemble, with Paul Simon and Sting and with a galaxy of leading Irish musicians, including the group The Gloaming.

Hayes is happy to work with musicians in different genres, but his deepest musical roots go back to Clare in the west of Ireland, the seacoast county known among fans of traditional Irish music for its distinctive musical sound. The Clare style, he said, has a dual nature, characterized by both "traditional rhythmic lift and ... by a highly expressive lyricism."

Hayes was born in 1962 in the East Clare countryside, between the small towns of Tulla and Feakle. His grandmother played concertina and while his parents had a dairy farm, his father, P.J. Hayes, was a renowned fiddler who played with his Tulla Céilí Band for 60 years. His uncle, Paddy Canny, was also a fiddler in the band.

Martin learned the fiddle from his father in the farmhouse kitchen.

"He sat in front of me and played a few bars," he recalls. "I started imitating him."

Hayes may be in the last generation to learn the old traditions at a parent's knee.

"I witnessed the last kind of this music teaching," he says. "It's less common now. More now are going to school to learn."

Hayes insists that his singing isn't worthy of public performance—"I can lilt and sing tunes but it's mouth music"—but he took readily to the fiddle. By the time he was 13, a veteran of six years of playing at home with his dad, he won the All Ireland prize for fiddle competition. That same year he became a professional musician.

"I started going out with my dad and his band. I did it all through high school. When I was in college, I came home and played on weekends, so I played with then for eight or nine years."

The Tulla Céilí Band played for dances all up and down Ireland and the UK, but Hayes had joined up at the end of an era. Ireland was discovering country-western, and the old music seemed to be on the wane.

"The heyday of that kind of music was the late '40s, '50s and '60s," Hayes says. "In the '70s, those dances were beginning to fade out. We were the last céilí band from the '50s."

Hayes considered his prospects. He had studied business at the University of Limerick, majoring in marketing and accounting, but "I was terrible at it." The Irish economy was cratering and the Celtic revival of the 1990s had yet to happen.

As so many Irish before him had done, Hayes decided to leave for America. In 1985, he went to Chicago.

"I thought I'd stay for a year or two," he said. "I started playing in bars and I met Dennis Cahill," the virtuoso guitarist with a jazzy touch who would become his regular music partner.

Hayes wasn't always doing Irish music.

"I played bars in a rock-and-roll band, Midnight Court. It had drums, electric guitars, bass. It should have been Midnight Corpse," he jokes. "I was longing to get back to pure traditional music."

He was leading the impoverished life of the "true artist."

"I remember looking at equipment I wanted," he says. "It cost $250. I'd spend most of the year saving up to get that kind of money."

He finally bailed and went to Seattle, where he had his first real success.

"I made my first album in Seattle," he says. "It took on its own life. I got a bit of recognition. It was a little springboard."

And after touring around with various guitarists, he called his buddy Cahill back in Chicago. Twenty-two years and a stack of albums later, they're still performing together.

In Tucson, Hayes and Cahill will be playing "what we've been doing all along: old tunes, new arrangements, with a certain amount of improvisation."

Hayes doesn't write his own music, as many of the new generation of Irish trad musicians do. He doesn't see the need. Instead, he luxuriates in the "older traditional tunes" that are held in living memory or captured in recordings or collected in Irish manuscript libraries, where the written tunes go all the way back to the 1600s, he says.

He also relies on sean-nós, "old-style" a cappella songs still sung in the West of Ireland.

"There are thousands and thousands of melodies," Hayes says. "The richness is already available."

Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill
Irish instrumental music concert
7 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 1
Berger Performing Arts Center, 1200 W. Speedway
All seats reserved. Advance tickets $25 regular and $23 seniors. $3 more at the door.
Advance tickets online at, and at Antigone Books, 411 N. Fourth Ave., 792-3715, and The Folk Shop, 2525 N. Campbell, 881-7147.