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Kevin Conneff: The rhythm and the voice

Updated: Jun 7, 2022

Not every big trad musician had felt on the cauldron of reels and jigs when they where born, but this doesn't make them less worthy of praise and reverence.

The voice and beating heart of the legendary group The Chieftains, Kevin Conneff, was born and raised in the heart of Dublin City, but for him 'corny and weird' would define the music that his neighbour Breandán Breathnach used to play, a uillean piper and theorical of the irish traditional music of great importance.

This doesn't mean that he didn't like music, he was an avid listener of the music that used to play on the radio at his time.

His interest in Irish traditional music just came when he was 18. After he started to work on a printing company, he was invited by workmates to attend to music festivals in other parts of the country, the fleadh ceoil.

“The first place I really encountered the music was in Mullingar in the midlands of Ireland when I heard these people playing, farmers really. I was absolutely knocked out,” he said. “I remember thinking; these guys are as good as the (jazz) musicians like Charlie Parker I’d been listening to on records.”

Since this first weekend in Mullingar followed many others, besides sessions in Dublin ans many other summer festivals around Ireland. Kevin's involvement was unavoidable, learning more and more songs and developing his skills on the bodhràn.

In the mid 60's, when the folk revival came to Ireland in full throttle, Kevin and some friends created and managed a listeners club, the Tradition Club, dedicated to traditional music and song on the basemento of Slattery’s Pub. The idea was that the music was the focus, therefore people must be quiet at the bar, which was unusual at the time. We can suspect that the nowadays culture of asking for silence when somebody is going to sing may b«come from that.

The invitation to become a Chieftain came in 1976, due to the departure of the one who, at the time, played bodhrán in the group, Peadar Mercier, who was already of some age.

Paddy Moloney got in touch with Kevin, as they had met on a fleadh years earlier, inviting him to record some tracks in London for the upcoming Bonaparte’s Retreat album.

“I was working in the darkroom when I got the call from Paddy” remembers Kevin. “I said I would have to square it with my boss first. When I asked him for a week’s holiday he told me it was okay as long as I had all my work cleared up and there was nothing in my in-tray. It meant working overtime to clear my work but I did it.”

In the middle of the recordings, Paddy invited him for a pint and then made the proposal to join the group permanently. That meant being on the road at least six months a year and taking time off from work and friends, but after weighing the conditions, he accepted.

His stage debut was nothing less than a concert alongside Eric Clapton at the Crystal Palace Festival.

Despite their promising debut, for over a year Kevin had a hard time adapting to the band's lifestyle, especially when they were traveling. The Chieftains always had separate seats on the plane and stayed in hotel rooms on different floors, so they rarely saw each other except for rehearsals and concerts. The lack of social life and the distance from family and friends led him to try to leave the group, but he eventually got used to it.

Boil The Breakfast Early, the Chieftains' ninth album and his third was the first to feature Kevin Conneff as a singer, a role he played very strongly from then on.

In addition to many years on the road, countries visited, concerts, awards, he released a solo album “The Week Before Easter”

The importance of this great musician is not in bringing anything really new to the tradition, but precisely in taking that tradition, as something new, to the world. Without cheap virtuosity, but with consistency and passion. What he did with the Chieftains and continues to do may seem simple, but that's exactly where his greatness lies.

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