My Cultural Life: Willie Drennan

English is this Ulster-Scots folk musician's second language

Did you always want to be a musician?

No. I found music boring at school. My mother was a trained singer in a choir and she told me I couldn't sing. I started playing music when I was about 16 in a flute band and that encouraged me to pick up other instruments such as guitar, tin whistle and mandolin. I decided I wanted to be a musician when I was in my mid-20s when I started busking with my penny whistle in Holland out of necessity and people started throwing ridiculous amounts of money into my hat. I realized this was the career for me.

You're well-known as a folk musician, but did you ever want to be rock star or a classical musician?

Well actually, our latest CD is called Wired Up and Plugged In. It is kind of trad rock music. In Ulster Scots we'd call it Rock and Rowl.

As the founder of the Ulster-Scots Folk Orchestra you work to promote Ulster Scots traditional music. Why do you think that is important?

I lived outside of Northern Ireland for 21 years. In Canada I began to work professionally as a traditional musician and storyteller. When I played the music that I grew up with, people said it sounded Scottish. I realized that my distinct Ulster-Scots culture was not recognized

outside of Ulster-Scots areas. It was important to me to express my distinct cultural identity, which was overlooked when Irish culture became commercialised in the 1970s.

What inspired you to form the USFO in the first place?

The idea was to set up an association that could access funding to support a youth programme and therefore develop young musicians in this tradition.

The USFO proved successful – but as well as the big gigs you still play at small community venues. Is the community/roots aspect of your music important to you?

Yes, I feel it is crucial to maintain the grassroots culture. It's only in the local communities that this can survive.

You’ve also played gigs in America. Was Ulster-Scots music well-received there?

Yes. In particular, we played in Kentucky and Atlanta. In these areas there is a consciousness among the old time fiddlers that the roots of their music is in the British Isles and particularly in Ulster.

If you could have any guest musician play with the USFO, who would it be?

Van Morrison. He refers to himself as an Ulster-Scot. A couple of our professional musicians have played with him in the past (for instance, John Wilson, our present drummer has performed with Van in the past). It's maybe not such a far out notion.

Whether you call it a language or a dialect, Ulster-Scots can be pretty impenetrable to someone not used to it. Are you fluent or have you ever been stumped about what someone is saying?

I am totally fluent in Ulster-Scots. For years I have told people that I am bilingual, but in actual fact I shouldn't say that as I realize I don't have a great handle on the English language!

Tammy Moore


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