Leahy: Staying True to the Tune

(from left) Erin, Angus, Maria, Donnell, Agnes, Doug, Siobheann and Frank / Photo by WLIW New York

By Bridget English, Contributor
October / November 2006

Leahy sure knows how to bring a crowd to their feet. The Canadian group’s music fills a listener with the intensity of unfiltered joy, a rare experience in an age where songs lose their power after having been played to death by radio stations. This raw energy can perhaps be attributed to the group’s unwillingness to compromise their values.

Fiddle player Donnell Leahy explains his belief in “pure decisions” which allow him to stay true to the things that matter most – his family, health, and music.

In a world looking to capitalize on the next big star, staying true to these values can be difficult, and luckily Donnell has the help of his seven siblings, Agnes, Angus, Doug, Erin, Frank Jr., Maria and Siobheann, who make up Leahy.

But, while staying true to its core values, Leahy is still fast becoming the next Celtic phenomenon. With its electrifying performances – a combination of folk, classical, country, Celtic and Canadian music, and dance, the group toured the U.S. and Canada as the opening act for Shania Twain, opened for the Chieftains in Ireland, and was recently featured on PBS in a concert special.

Growing up in a farmhouse in Lakefield, Ontario with no television, music was an important part of the Leahy household. As Donnell remarks, “Music was the only way to get out of working on the farm. And it was your ticket out to the parties and dances. If you couldn’t play you sat in a corner by yourself.”

The family’s three-bedroom farmhouse had only one piano and three fiddles.

“We all started on the piano,” Donnell explained, “but if Agnes was on the piano then I had to pick up the fiddle, so we all mastered everything. We were performing at a dance one time and we needed a drummer, so Frank learned drums.”

While this kind of willingness to improvise, combined with natural talent accounts for Leahy’s success, Donnell emphasizes that Leahy’s musical ability is the product of hard work and not just some gift. “I want to stress that when I say we had no formal training that doesn’t mean that we just sat down and started to play. Freedom in music comes from mastery of the basics.

“It was Dad going like this,” Donnell says, imitating his father correcting hand positions on the fiddle. “It was important to him that we got the form right because you can’t progress to the more complicated pieces without the proper form.

Frank Leahy Sr., whose grandfather emigrated from Mitchelstown, County Cork in 1825, is an accomplished fiddle player in his own right. He and his wife Julie, a champion Canadian step dancer, imbued their children with a love of music and the discipline it takes to succeed. And Donnell and his siblings have certainly taken their music far beyond the basics. Their passionate performance on PBS which premiered in the New York area on August 5, covered everything from classical to rousing ragtime and the jaw-dropping feats of novelty fiddling, in which Erin plays the fiddle upside-down and between her legs. Among the most memorable pieces is the “Wedding Day Jig,” which Donnell performs with his wife, Cape Breton fiddler Natalie McMaster. The couple wrote the tune for the guests at their 2002 wedding.

The members of Leahy take great pride in their Irish roots and their Canadian upbringing. Indeed, part of what makes Leahy’s music so unique is its fusion of Irish and French folk music with some German and Russian mixed in.

Donnell explains that this wonderful melange of styles was a result of Canadian, Irish, French and German lumberjacks playing music together to while away the long winter nights.

Leahy’s own influences are found close to home. When asked what musician has had the most profound influence upon his own music Donnell does not name a famous band, but rather his parents and accordion player Colum Quigley, the owner of the local Irish pub in his hometown. ♦

 

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