Eamon Murray, Bodhrán Boy

Having been chosen to represent Northern Ireland in the New Music Plus project, the Randalstown percussionist considers the popularity of trad

‘One high-flying goat-whacker.’ That’s how Irish Philadelphia describes Eamon Murray, the Randalstown-born bodhrán player who for over a decade now has been building a formidable reputation as a rising talent on the Irish traditional scene.

That special talent has just been recognised by Murray’s selection to represent Northern Ireland in New Music Plus UK, a two-year development programme created by PRS for Music Foundation. New Music Plus will bring together 12 young music professionals from across the UK to learn about aspects of the music industry such as promotion and collaboration, and develop new creative projects.

‘To bring adventurous new music to new audiences’ is the main aim of the New Music Plus project, according to Rosa Solinas, Head of Music at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland, part-funder of the initiative. ‘Eamon Murray has been recognised and selected due to his high quality, innovative music.’

Though Murray is obviously delighted by his inclusion – and the broader recognition that any media coverage will give the bodhrán as an instrument worth learning – he is quick to point out that he was initially a reluctant convert to the instrument. ‘I tried everything else and I was no good!’ he admits.

It was Murray’s mother who prompted the trying, and the example of his three musically gifted sisters. Murray’s early grapplings with the banjo and whistle, however, yielded little. ‘All I wanted to do,’ he remembers, ‘was play the drums. I wanted to be Animal from The Muppets! So the bodhrán was a kind of compromise.’

Compromise or not, it was immediately obvious that the eight-year-old Murray was made for the instrument. ‘It’s quite a rewarding instrument straight away,’ he comments, ‘because you can learn the basics easily. I took to it quite quickly.’

So quickly, in fact, that by his mid-teens Murray had already racked up a remarkable four All-Ireland bodhrán titles in his age-group, including three consecutive victories. He cites the Irish folk group De Dannan as a key shaper of his early musical development. When asked about specific influences on his bodhrán playing, however, he has an unexpected answer.

‘The way I play the bodhrán now would be more inspired by the kit. I would listen to Steve Gadd for inspiration more than I would listen to other bodhrán players,’ he says, referring to the legendary New York drummer with a list of stellar collaborations to his credit, including Steely Dan, Paul Simon, Chick Corea, Eric Clapton and Al Di Meola.

Murray is in no doubt about the direct effect Gadd’s licks have had on his own particular style of bodhrán playing.

‘I try to recreate a lot of stuff that I hear. Popular music would definitely influence me a lot more than traditional. What I like about Steve Gadd is, when he starts playing the drums, you know that it’s him playing the drums. It’s full on, he’s just a machine. And it’s so musical. You know that’s definitely a Steve Gadd groove there, a Steve Gadd fill.’

Murray’s interest in areas of music beyond the Irish traditional repertoire that the bodhrán is firmly embedded in has found expression in the many different groups and individuals he has played with, including Solas, Cara Dillon, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, the Ulster Orchestra, and the Netherlands drum ensemble Drums United.

That eclecticism has also constantly found expression in Beoga, the band Murray founded ten years ago, whose pushing of the musical envelope has led The Wall Street Journal to dub the five-piece ‘the best new traditional band to emerge from Ireland this century'. For Murray, Beoga’s iconoclasm and bold, cross-genre exploration was deliberate policy from the outset.

‘To us it was always just about doing something different that hadn’t been done before, that might have a bit more appeal to younger people. I was 16 when the band started, so it was quite a young age when you’re maybe conscious of Irish music not being the coolest thing. We tried consciously to make it a bit more innovative. That kind of makes for interesting stuff, I hope.’

Beoga will in no sense be put on the back burner while Murray participates in the New Music Plus initiative. Indeed he sees the industry skills and networking opportunities he will acquire there as contributing strongly to Beoga’s future development.

‘I’m going to have a mentor,’ he explains, ‘and attend six different workshops of training in the arts, looking at things like funding and cross-programming. What they’ve done here is given me a blank canvas to organise a programme of events in The MAC [Metropolitan Arts Centre in Belfast] in the near future.’

Murray is visibly excited by the prospect of collaborating with Belfast’s newest arts venue – ‘a very open, cool organisation,’ he enthuses. He already has plans brewing for the concerts he will put on there as part of his New Music Plus involvement.

‘I think I’m going to stick with modernising traditional music as a loose theme,’ he mulls. ‘I have a few bands in mind. Also getting people to collaborate that you would never see together. Possibly folk music with more DJ-ey, electronic kind of stuff, or folk music with Indian and world music. I know from experience, playing with people, that this kind of pairing completely can work.’

Murray will also continue with his extensive teaching activities, an important strand in his busy profile as a modern, multi-tasking professional musician. Interest in the bodhrán is, he says, currently at unprecedentedly high levels.

‘The interest abroad especially is phenomenal,’ he comments. ‘I taught last year at a workshop in Germany, and there were 85 German bodhrán players at it. That’s exceptional for a culture where there’s no real Irish diaspora.’

Where exactly does he think this surge in interest has come from?

‘The Dubliners and the Chieftains did great work in the 1960s and 70s. Particularly as far as Australia, America and Canada were concerned. Those guys broke the ice for a lot of bands coming after them. Riverdance as well in the early 90s helped things.’

Add the influence of the internet – ‘I teach now on Skype!’ Murray chuckles – and the picture of a growing world-wide community of bodhrán devotees and players comes more fully into focus. Murray is undoubtedly one of those spearheading it.

His own mantra is simple: you never stop learning the bodhrán. ‘Now for me, it would be all about complexity of time signatures and cross-rhythms, the jazz, Latin-American kind of thing. I would look at that now more for inspiration.’

And with that, Eamon Murray slips off into the Belfast night. He has a couple of Americans to teach on-line that evening, some lighting cues to write for Beoga’s tenth anniversary concert in Cookstown, and more creative thinking to do about his MAC residency. High-flying goat-whacker? That just about describes it.