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Na Píobairí Uilleann NPUDVD017

Another fine DVD in this series from Na Píobairí Uilleann, this time featuring players from the major centres of modern Irish piping: Dublin, Belfast and California. Well, Boston actually: Joey Abarta was born and raised in Southern California, and his Wicklow mother introduced him to the Riverdance renaissance of Irish music. Starting out on the bodhrán, Joey soon shifted to the pipes under the tutelage of Patrick D'Arcy, but US piping was all happening on the east coast so he found himself travelling and staying over and eventually settling in Boston. Robbie Hannan is a more root and branch piper, growing up in the piping community in Belfast and serving as chairman of Na Píobairí Uilleann himself a few years ago. Gay McKeon is the current CEO of NPU, Dublin born and bred, taught by piping royalty such as Rowsome and Reck: his two sons Conor and Seán have followed him into pipe music, taking up the old inflatable golf bag and becoming exceptional young pipers.

Each player performs six sets of tunes on this DVD, interspersed with interviewing by Peter Browne who focuses on the background and technical aspects of the tunes. The camera work is also very enlightening, often splitting the screen for close-ups of fingering, or pulling back to show the piper's posture and regulators and bellows and all. Joey's tracks are mainly dance music, with a distinct American accent, some innovations of his own but also an older style drawing on archive material by the likes of Clancy, Ennis and Reck. He ventures into slow airs with Limerick's Lamentation, greatly embellished on the regulators, with surprisingly wild open chanter fingering. That older style comes through in single jigs, and in a Tuohey version of the march Garryowen - an apparently simple tune which Abarta turns into a virtuoso piece here.

Robbie has a more closed style, plenty of deep crans, and very busy fingers on the chanter, especially his right index finger: it all goes to show that there's more than one way to be a master piper. Interestingly, Hannan starts with tunes from the Munster pipers' collection by Canon Goodman, although his icons are again Seamus Ennis, Willie Clancy and Tommy Reck, with a nod to the Dorans. He plays some rousing old tunes, reels and jigs and hornpipes, including the piping version of Toss The Feathers. There's a slow air Amhrán Na Trá Báine learnt from the playing of Liam Óg O'Flynn, but also carefully researched from recordings of several singers, sparsely ornamented on chanter and regulators. Robbie Hannan plays a C set by Martin McIntyre from Letterkenny, producing a lovely rich full sound. The audio on the interview passages between each set is a little variable, but the music is recorded superbly.

Gay is a very measured piper, a great session player and completely relaxed here. His style is more delicate than the other two pipers on this DVD, but no less impressive. Taught by Leo Rowsome, McKeon's playing is typical of today's Dublin pipers: close, disciplined, not overly ornamented. Tunes such as The Hairy-Chested Frog and The Flax In Bloom are offset by a pair of slow airs: Caitlín Triall and An Buachaill Caol Dubh in very lyrical settings. He refers to the dangers of "musical polyfilla" at one point, a piece of wisdom which ranks alongside Fred Finn's comments on knowing which notes to leave out.

As well as the chat, the advice, and the great music, Piper's Choice 10 is visually appealing with its Regency drawing-room setting and the different sets of pipes on show, plus of course the sartorial choices of these master musicians. Of the nine other DVDs in this series, I only have a couple myself, but every fan of Irish piping should dip into some of this material, and the real devotees will probably want to collect the full set.

Alex Monaghan

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This album was reviewed in Issue 120 of The Living Tradition magazine.