Townlands Carnival: “A Bit Like Life, Really”

Ahead of the return of Townlands Carnival to the ancestral home of the Irish festival circuit, Macroom, Co. Cork, Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks with team members Sami Beshoff and Greg Woods about its growth and the future.

In the annals of Irish music history, and more to the point, that of our annual parade of summer festivals, there is only one town in this country that can rightfully claim to be the spiritual home of the phenomenon: Macroom, nestled away in the outer reaches of County Cork. In many ways, the first Mountain Dew festival in 1977 was a reaction to difficult circumstances for a town left behind by economic development, a destination event to counter the town’s rep as a stop on the way out west. Publicity stunts, like inviting Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, helped whip up mainstream curiosity about the festival format, but the arrival of Rory Gallagher onstage, sprinting from an Aston Martin in a straw cowboy hat and out to a baying, sold-out crowd, cemented the festival’s popularity for the following years, and laid the foundations for festival weekenders as a summer institution for generations of music fans.

The emergence of a spiritual successor to Mountain Dew’s legacy could also be seen as a reaction to the festival circuit in recent years, with a gap in the market opening up for a community-based alternative to a mainstream festival scene largely caught between detached festival “experiences”, nostalgia-show pandering, and late-teens rites-of-passage. Four years ago, a team of festival professionals took it upon themselves to go rogue, creating Townlands Carnival. Organiser Greg Woods talks about the festival’s creation. “The ethos of Townlands is in the name. We consciously chose to call it a Carnival and not a festival. A festival is something you turn up to, a carnival is an event you take part in. More and more festivals are becoming just billboards for advertising. We feel that if you take part in something, you get much more out of it. To this end, we have lots of workshops and participatory events, to give revellers an experience they won’t forget, because they were part of its making. The scene four years ago was also very biased towards the east of the country. Every summer, there is a mass exodus of talent from Munster. We felt it was time to harness all that creative energy, and showcase it on its home turf. The natural beauty of Rusheen Farm is perfect for us, it gives the decor/creative team a diverse environment to play with.”

Year one of the festival was always going to be part of the process of trial and error. Organising a festival, corralling together talent & people, and dealing with marketing all present unique challenges the first time out, and for Woods, this was compounded by geographical issues.

“Over the years many small festivals have tried what we are trying to achieve. There’s a reason why many festivals end up in the same catchment area of a couple of hours away from Dublin: the logistical difficulties that arise. All the infrastructure is more expensive, and harder to get at this end of the country, and the catchment is far bigger up there. The core team all had many years’ experience of working festivals at home and abroad, and a wide range of experience in the field. However, it’s a massive subject area and there are always going to be areas you lack expertise and experience in… and that means you go through a series of very steep learning curves. Luckily, we have managed to gather a group of hard-working volunteers and professionals that are very supportive and giving of their expertise. In many ways, you have to know that if you step back and look at it, taking on an operation of this scale involves a certain level of insanity. Ultimately, you have to just jump in, hope you’re making the right decisions and give it your all. A bit like life, really.”

Building a festival from there across a number of years, the team worked on the essential elements of expanding Townlands’ reach – working on relationships with potential headliners, dealing with the scale on which the festival operates, and setting in stone an aesthetic for the weekend that has kept dedicated revellers returning annually. Woods gets into the nitty-gritty and the growing pains. “For a small independent festival, we started ludicrously big in our first year. We tried to do all the things that we had wanted other festivals we’d worked on to do. We’ve learned the hard way to show a little restraint.  In the first year, we started with nothing except ourselves and some bare field. We had to make make our own workshops, rebuild sheds for storage, and then make a stupidly ambitious Townlands fantasy world from scratch, using materials we scavenged from here, there and everywhere. In your first years, persuading bands to come onboard just for the love of it is quite a struggle, but we still ended up with some serious line-ups. It doesn’t stop at the bands: persuading suppliers to take the risk on an unknown has its challenges too. Thankfully, we’re a bit more time-served now, and it’s more of a case that we a daunting number of bands applying. Year on year, we have managed to change and grow, providing new twists for our participants, whilst still maintaining all the elements that make us stand out.”

While Townlands has always assembled something for all tastes across its weekends, the past year or two has seen it attempt to broaden its reputation for electronic music, booking a wide variety of headliners and local draws that this year includes Sister Sledge, Neil Barnes of Leftfield, Choice nominee Bantum and recent Kerrang! magazine featurees Bailer. Booking specialist Sami Beshoff goes into the balance necessary to put together a well-rounded festival. “In year one, we had eight stages, and funnily enough, we have eight stages again this year. But in year two, we had fourteen. We really bit it off and went for diversity. We want people to feel that there is something for everyone, we want everyone to participate, and find new music that they’ll love, across genres and styles. Building the platform each year. This year, we’ve gone with Sister Sledge and Leftfield, two old-school names that (a broader audience) will recognise and identify with. (It’s especially important) for our locals that we didn’t want to be perceived as just a dance festival. Each year, our locals have come and enjoyed it, warmed to us, and last year, our biggest area of growth in ticket sales was with them.”

That spirit of outreach this year saw the festival feature a Battle of the Bands across the county, putting on events in towns that have been otherwise starved of new and original music in recent years, like Mallow, Skibbereen and Fermoy. The winner, decided right after this issue was going to press, gets a spot on the festival’s new Rising Sons stage. Beshoff discusses the idea and the dividends it’s had so far. “I think this is huge for us. It’s been on the back burner for a few years, and it’s great to have Rising Sons as partners this year to facilitate this. We want to be able to give everybody that chance. There’s a huge amount of bands and a huge amount of talent in Cork, and to harness that talent, and give them a chance to be seen… just looking at the applicants for Mallow, for example, a friend of mine that I hadn’t seen play in six or seven years applied, and I was shocked.”

This year’s Carnival is a few weeks away, and when asked about his thoughts heading into the event, Beshoff is enthused. Things are on the up-and-up, with the emphasis this year being on improving the festival-goer experience. “I can’t wait. Ticket sales are strong, stronger than any other year. We’ve moved sites this year, so it’s quite a different show to put on. We left five stages behind last year for different reasons, and we move forward this year, with four new stages. Lots of change, but change for the good. The layout caters for the customer a lot easier: less walking, closer to your car, closer to the arena, and it’ll be a lot more intimate of an event. It’ll filled up better with sculptures and installations. A whole new Townlands.”

With the first four years of the festival nearly down, and a great deal of positive momentum behind it, Townlands Carnival looks set to be a pillar event in the festival calendar for new and independent music in Ireland. When quizzed about the future, however, Woods opts to leave some things to mystery. “Ahhh. now that would be telling (laughs). The feedback from last year and the buzz for this year is great. There’s a lot of competition, but we have something unique, and we are just going to build on that. Onwards and upwards. We don’t want to go massive. We want to get to our capacity, and just do what we do as well as we can.”

The Jazz at 40: Past, Present and Future

It’s said that history happens when no-one is looking, and this could certainly be said of the origins of the Cork Jazz Festival. Mike McGrath-Bryan takes a look at the Jazz’ development, and what lies in the future for the October Bank Holiday institution.

Suffice to say, festivals in Cork were a far different kettle of fish in 1978 to the current state of play. While the city’s music scene was beginning to shift shape under wider influences, and Macroom’s Mountain Dew shindig had just entered its third year, the festival calendar in Cork wasn’t the hectic onslaught of genre celebrations and all-dayers that the city’s culture vultures are au fait with now. In fact, the city’s most enduring music festival wouldn’t even have happened if the Metropole Hotel on McCurtain Street hadn’t been able to go through with an altogether more pedestrian booking for the State’s first official October Bank Holiday. Jazz Festival co-founder Pearse Harvey explained the Jazz’ roots to the then-Cork Examiner for a special supplement in 1998: “A National Bridge Congress which had been booked in to the Metropole for the last weekend in October was cancelled. Jim Mountjoy, then marketing manager at the hotel, was in a dilemma as to how he might recoup some or all of his lost business, and he contacted me with an invitation to discuss a jazz idea he had for the hotel. Over lunch Jim explained the implication of the bridge cancellation, and asked me what I thought of the idea of staging a mini-jazz festival in the hotel over the weekend, and would I help set it up.”

Harvey’s jazz acumen, and Mountjoy’s prowess as a pitchman, helped seal the deal with the Jazz’ first sponsors, tobacconists John Player, a sponsorship move that would be unimaginable in the current climate. In October of 1978, the first annual John Player Jazz International was announced, booked by a committee of members of the recently-defunct Cork Jazz Society, in a manner that might be deemed ‘DIY’ in modern terminology, cold-calling agents and bookers to determine talent availability and fees. Their efforts bore fruit, as Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen packed out the Opera House, while the Ronnie Scott Quintet with Irish jazz pioneer Louis Stewart, sat alongside George Chisholm, Monty Sunshine, Will Bill Davison and Betty Smith among others in the billing at the Metropole, in addition to a strong lineup of local outfits, including Leeside jazz staples Harry & Friends. Many traces of the multifaceted music event with which we are familiar today emerged can be traced back to this community endeavour: the Metropole of course played home to the Festival Club and indeed a great amount of the programme, while the festival’s current Jazz Camp strand of events got its start in workshops hosted by Louis Stewart on guitar and Shaun Forde on jazz percussion, the latter becoming an impromptu jam with attendees.

Despite some hiccups in the early going, including the second installment’s headliner Oscar Peterson cancelling his appearance owing to illness, and the Dutch Swing College Band ending up in Shannon owing to a flight diversion, the festival swung from strength to strength. Leading lights of the oeuvre came through town on European swings in touring to lend weight to the event in its infancy, including Art Blakey, Memphis Slim, and headlining the third installment in 1980, the immortal voice of jazz herself, Ella Fitzgerald, performing matinee and late shows amid a massive media presence and a warm civic reception. The rundown of eighties lineups indeed read now as a ‘who’s who’ of jazz and blues history: Sonny Rollins, Mel Torme, Buddy Rich, B.B. King, Acker Bilk, and Stephane Grappelli are but a handful of the legends who came Leeside to put their mark on a rapidly-growing civic institution.

1981 saw the John Player company pass on further sponsorship, casting doubt on the festival’s development. Amid rumour and controversy that the white-hot festival would be relocated to Dublin, Guinness took the mantle, becoming main sponsor in an arrangement that continues to this day. Speaking on the matter in 1998, Mountjoy outlined his pitching process to the Dublin brewery and how the risks paid off. “I put my ideas to them on how I saw the Festival going forward – a large Pub Trail, a Jazz Boat from the U.K., a Jazz Train from Dublin, and greater domestic & overseas marketing of the event.. the results were immediate, with all types of accommodation within a 15-mile radius, and up to 35,000 visitors of all age groups attending the festival. Many of my friends (in marketing) consider the Jazz to be a classic in off-peak creative marketing.”

Jennifer Gleeson, sponsorship manager at Guinness, reflects on the company’s current relationship with the festival. “We’ve seen it grow and develop over the years, from what started out as a small gathering of people into what is now one of the most prestigious and hotly anticipated cultural events of the year. It takes a lot of effort year in, year out, and what’s really brilliant is that the passion for the festival just grows year-on-year. It’s definitely one of the finest examples of collaboration between ourselves and the Cork Jazz Festival committee, Cork City Council, Failte Ireland and all the publicans, hoteliers, venue owners and restauranteurs who play such a huge part in ensuring people leave the festival with such amazing memories and a longing for their return next year.”

As the eighties gave way to the nineties, and the Jazz become entrenched in the Leeside gigging calendar, the likes of Chick Corea, Dave Brubeck and Dizzy Gillespie headlined the festival, solidifying their legacies as attractions in the twilights of their careers. As the new millennium dawned, the Jazz Festival Committee began the inevitable expansion to a wider audience via jazz-influenced artists, as well as taking on crowd-pleasers like Damon Albarn. Jazz Festival Committee member Fiona Collins explains the balance behind the festival’s oft-scrutinised booking decisions. “It’s about looking at the quality of the acts, and seeing what best suits the venues we’re going to, and the type of audiences they will draw. For example, this year, we have the Miles Davis tribute on Saturday at the Everyman, and Soul II Soul at the Opera House at the same time. Both come under the broad jazz umbrella, but both are at completely different ends of the spectrum. So it’s about maintaining and figuring out that balance.”

With said balance in mind, the Jazz Festival has undoubtedly grown into the marquee weekend of music in the city. Case in point, the Jazz opens on Friday evening with Paddy Casey and Brian Deady, two well-travelled songwriters, in a free outdoor show, and the Festival Club is headlined by Ronnie Scott’s All Stars, in association with the late jazzman’s eponymous club in London, bringing the festival staple full-circle on its anniversary, also marked by an exhibition of behind-the-scenes photography from late Jazz committee chairman Bill Johnson.

Elsewhere around the city is a feast for music aficionados regardless of taste and age to get lost in, adding to the atmosphere and eclecticism of the Jazz. Says Collins of the festival’s atmosphere: “For me, the festival is Cork. You can’t have one without the other. I love that over the weekend, that you get to experience parts of the city that you don’t normally experience. For others, it’s getting out and exploring the streets of Cork – getting out and hearing the marching bands, getting to feel the buzz. It doesn’t matter what street you’re standing on, you’re going to feel it.”

Cork Jazz Festival: A Celebration of Music

The fortieth annual Cork Jazz Festival brings with it a jam-packed line-up of music from across the board. Mike McGrath-Bryan runs through some of the live highlights.

That time of the year approaches. Cork city fills up with the rambunctious strains of jazz standards from bands simply wandering the city, as the customary straw hats begin floating around for October Bank Holiday weekend. Meanwhile, the venues, pubs and spaces of the city ready themselves for a diverse programme that acts as an annual showcase for the city’s music scene for the thousands that roll in every year. Celebrating its fortieth anniversary this year, the Cork Jazz Festival sets out its stall with a line-up that places jazz at its forefront, while shining a spotlight on the city’s vibrant and vital music community through performances, workshops and other events, running from October 27th to October 30th.

The Opera House, as ever, provides some of the festival’s marquee names for the weekend, including a much-welcomed focus on homegrown crowdpleasers on Sunday night. On Friday night, festival perennials Booka Brass Band tread the big boards, while Saturday night is marked by a performance from late-eighties chart-botherers Soul II Soul, led by OBE-winning producer Jazzie B. At 6pm on Sunday, Imelda May continues her explorations away from the pop-laden rockabilly with which she earned her rep, venturing into blues, folk and gospel influences. From the stages of Waterford to drawing 10,000 people to their appearance at Electric Picnic (opposite a screening of the All-Ireland final!), King Kong Company are a favourite among audiences on the annual festival grind for a reason, and Sunday night’s late show sees the Buckfast-toting boxheads bring the Jazz to a close with a bang for the city’s landmark music hall.

Jazz stronghold The Everyman Palace provides purists and genre enthusiasts with the best tickets in town for the weekend, with a mixture of new and veteran voices. In what is sure to be a sellout, Australian pianist/vocalist Sarah McKenzie shares a double-headliner with double-bassist Gary Crosby and the Nu-Troop, recreating Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue’ for its 60th anniversary. Saturday night sees Grammy-winning trumpet virtuoso Nicholas Payton and his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape fuse genres and sounds spanning jazz history into something new, in a double-headliner with fellow Grammy honouree Kenny Garrett and his quintet. On Sunday, the Palace plays home to its last double-header of the weekend, with veteran vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater and the Monty Alexander Trio rounding off a marquee lineup. The Triskel Christchurch continues its run of support for jazz on the weekend also, with ECM Records supergroup Quercus headlining on Saturday, and jazz/trad fusion outfit Notify performing on Sunday evening before a double-header of Sue Rynhart and the Michael Wollny Trio that night at 8pm.

The eternally-busy Cyprus Avenue offers up a double-dose of headlining acts alongside a packed Bank Holiday schedule, kicking the festival off in earnest on Thursday night with a set from blues wizard Eric Gales. Meanwhile, Soulé, arguably one of Ireland’s breakout talents of 2017, shows Cork the vocal prowess that’s made her a quick favourite of music press and the Irish hip-hop scene alike on Friday night, becoming one of the youngest headliners in Jazz history to boot. Among other big-name acts appearing at Cyprus over the Jazz are DJ/producer Ben Sims, Kormac (with a full A/V set) and our own Stevie G, with his ‘Good Music’ night holding down the student crowd after Gales’ set on Thursday. Downstairs from the venue in the Old Oak bar, a constant stream of tunes for the weekend is on offer, but one would be remiss to miss local neo-soul smoothies Shookrah (Friday 7pm, Sunday 4pm) and funk 14-piece Quangodelic (Saturday 5.30, Monday 5.30) offer a madcap mix of funk/Blaxploitation classics and their own compositions.

The Music Trail has always been where it’s at for more discerning music heads, and among the strongholds of new and original music in the city, another anniversary is being celebrated, as Cork’s rock & metal outpost Fred Zeppelin’s marks its 20th year with, among other events, a celebratory gig put on by local metal promoters Pethrophile, headlined by noirish synth-rockers Unkindness of Ravens. Meanwhile, the newly-reopened PLUGD Records curates a weekender in its new home in the Roundy on Castle Street. Friday and Saturday are headlined by DJ sets from the residents of Gulpd Cafe staples Dim the Lights and Not How, When!, while Sunday features a titanic double-header of improvisation, psychedelia and exploration as The Bonk, led by O Emperor man Phil Christie, launch their new LP in a double-headline show with Cork jazz outfit Fixity, led by drum prodigy and community music advocate Dan Walsh.

Scrobarnach: Up from the Undergrowth

Heading into its third year and placing its roots in Watergrasshill’s Ballindenisk House, Scrobarnach Music Club’s annual festival brings the best in Irish electronica together. Mike McGrath-Bryan speaks to festival heads and artists. (N.B. – this article ran the day before this year’s installment announced its cancellation!)

With a name that quite literally means “undergrowth” as Gaeilge, Scrobarnach Music Club’s eponymously-titled annual events have been true to their word, allowing for Ireland’s electronic music community to breathe and spread its wings in wider, more secluded spaces. Heading into its third year, and moving to its new home of Ballindenisk House in Watergrasshill, festival co-founder and director Ian Hart explains the process behind establishing the new fest. “Scrobarnach was the brainchild of a group of event organisers and club promoters – myself, Tim Dowling, Paul Daly and Jasper Mathews, who all worked regularly together at various events within the industry. In the summer of 2015, they sat down and decided they would put their combined skills to use and create their own unique festival experience “Scrobarnach”. The aim was to create an independent, affordable, and eco-friendly event which supported the local industry, hence the BYOB and “leave no trace” policies which has been applied since the start.”

The communal creative process behind the name for the festival exemplifies its DIY spirit, the result of ingenue and banging a few heads together, according to Hart. “The name took a while to get! We spent a few days going back and forth on ideas, the festival was set to be held at the Moneytree, a site right on the outskirts of a beautiful forest outside Portlaoise. The site was quite wild and had some amazing natural features, we wanted to hold on to its charm, so this had to be in the name too, however we eventually thought up “Undergrowth”. This didn’t have much to it in terms of an attractive name, but after some time it was Paul Daly who had the idea to use the Irish, which is “Scrobarnach”, we all knew straight away from there this was it”.

The emphasis on genres of electronica unrepresented on bigger festival bills has helped establish the festival, with days of programming dedicated to psytrance and drum‘n’bass garnering equal billing among the festival’s attractions. Festival operations manager and Cork electronica staple Jamie Behan discusses this. “The goal of the festival is to give festivals ‘back’ to (fans of) psytrance, back to drum‘n’bass. These are the people who started off these festivals, Life was a psytrance festival originally. They’re being ignored by bigger festivals, so we’re bringing them back in. It’s not just us, there are loads of smaller, festivals around the country, that have come up in response to the changes the bigger festivals have undergone. What we want to do is bring psytrance and drum’n’bass back into the fold, alongside house and techno, and not treat them like they’re dirty genres. There is a crowd for them, a massive following, and we want to recognise them.”

It’s a diverse line up, that puts Irish talent firmly in the limelight and sees them comprise the majority of the billing, while allowing a choice selection of international headliners like Neil Landstrumm, Stranger and Ansome, to help the festival reach a wider base. Behan outlines the festival’s gradual process regards finding artists and DJs to place on an ever-growing platform. “At the very start, the first thing we looked at was techno, and we wanted a really impressive lineup. More underground techno acts that we liked, rather than booking Dax J or Blawan, and for supporting acts, we were just going to look around the country, for the best Irish techno that there is. It was literally as simple as that. Same when we moved into house. After choosing techno acts, we found that we didn’t have enough room for everyone that we wanted from Ireland, and when we moved to booking the house stage, we did the same thing, and we thought, ‘do we really need to look outside Ireland?’. There’s enough talent on this island, with established acts like Fish Go Deep and Sunday Times. And then, what we noticed the amount of collectives there was, and that’s when we focused on collectives and takeovers from the people that were pushing quality music around the country. Techno & Cans in Dublin, D.I.E. in Limerick that have been doing amazing things in Limerick for seven or eight years. Looking further into the undergrowth, if you will, the Labwork guys are putting on house, techno and disco on Sundays in Mullingar, and drawing big crowds, in Mullingar for underground electronic dance music. These are guys doing amazing things for electronic music outside of the main hubs. Next year, we’ll be expanding our Irish offering further.”

A promotional emphasis on the work of electronic music collectives is seldom come-by for a festival, even though many cities’ scenes and music communities are dependent on collective endeavour. Many of the country’s collectives will be hosting takeovers of stages during the weekend, showcasing their efforts and providing a feel for what they’re about. Representing Cork’s Vinyl Below collective of DJs and promoters is Stephen O’Byrne. “There are a number of hard-working collectives in Cork that spend each month promoting their party and aiming to win the biggest crowd that they can by putting on the best and most interesting shows. As the scene for electronic music in the city is limited at best, there isn’t a huge crowd to go around. A festival that showcases most, if not all, of the electronic music collectives in Cork is a great way of giving people a sample of what they might have been missing, or might not have even heard of. All of our local electronic music talent, as well as a host of spectacular international acts playing on our doorstep is a great way to maintain and boost the interest in the genre. We’re looking forward to seeing what the weekend will bring, it’s something that Cork has lacked for a long time.”

Also appearing at the festival are Cork hip-hop crew Cuttin’ Heads Collective. Resident cutman DJ JusMe outlines the importance of collectivised work to creating, establishing and hopefully raising the bottom line for a genre or subgenre in a city. “Speaking from a hip-hop perspective, the (idea of the) collective has had a huge positive impact for Cork. You can go see a couple hip-hop gigs a month that will be well attended, fun nights. It’s an outlet for local artists to perform, it’s a place you can go have a drink with like minded folks, meet other artists and DJs.”

The festival is now well-established, and is fully fledged in attractions, layouts, etc. Behan goes into what lies ahead for the rapidly-expanding weekender and the music club behind it. “We have plans for 2018 to hold more one-offs, with focus on certain themes, or genres. Those are in the works. As for the festival itself, we’ll be looking to turn it into more of a multimedia event, having workshops on music production, discussion panels, etc. More of a music festival in a broader context, with workshops providing audience participation.”

Scrobarnach 2017 happens on August 11th and 12th at Ballindenisk House in Watergrasshill. Tickets for the BYOB camping event are available, as well as exclusive guest podcasts, from scrobarnach2017.com.

Mallow Arts Festival: Bringing the Arts Home

Mallow Arts Festival is currently underway, reprising the town’s original summer arts programme for a new generation. Mike McGrath-Bryan talks with festival curator Tadhg Curtis.

Established with the stated goal of establishing the arts as a part of life in the North Cork town, Mallow Arts Festival kicked off last night with a performance from John Spillane in the inaugural performance of the current incarnation of the festival. Over the course of the next few days, a number of acts will appear around Mallow, from Louisiana’s Sweet Olive String Band and the Shandrum Céilí Band, to Shandon Guesthouse improvisers The Quiet Club and upcoming acts, like Saint Caoilian, Ealadha and Outsider Y.P., in addition to the town’s first major visual arts exhibition in two decades, film showings curated by Cork film-maker Ger Browne, one-man theatre from veteran performer Dominic Moore, and other local arts attractions.

Various efforts have been made over the years to kickstart the arts in Mallow, succeeding to varying degrees. Mallow Arts Collective co-founder Tadhg Curtis explains some of the history behind contemporary arts in the town. “The first Mallow Arts Festivals were held back in the 1970s, when a group I was part of at that stage, while I was in my twenties, called the Mallow Arts Collective, a group established by Danny McCarthy, held a number of festivals. We managed to attract national names such as Clannad, Freddie White and Paul Brady to play Mallow. We also hosted national touring exhibitions, and equally, with cinema, we had late-night showings of Fellini films. That led onto the formation of the Mallow Arts Alliance in the ‘80s, where we teamed up with the then-Arts Club and the Pilgrim Players theatre group. Mallow Arts Alliance had a number of festivals again through the 1980s, up to the early ‘90s, at the stage then, it disappeared off the radar, and there hasn’t been an arts festival in Mallow for quite a number of years.”

The collective was assembled from local individuals with track records in the arts with the intention of bringing their experience to a submission process for a major announcement in the town. “There’s an umbrella grouping in Mallow called the Mallow Development Partnership, a grouping of state agencies, community bodies and the Chamber of Commerce. Mallow last year heard the announcement that the County Council were looking to establish an arts centre in the old Town Hall. MDP decided it should make a submission in regard to the use of the Town Hall, and what ideally they’d like to see. They asked me to do it, but I decided I wouldn’t do it on my own, I’d approach people that had been active over the years in the arts. I approached six or seven people who all came onboard, they joined in making the initial submission, and then forming Mallow Arts Collective.”

Twelve months ago last week, Mallow Arts Collective assembled a pair of arts events, the Living Space weekenders. A kite-flying exercise for the viability of arts in the area, their purpose was laying the groundwork for the longer-term goal. “After we made the submission, we took a look and said ‘is this arts centre going to be successful?’. We looked at a number of arts centres around the country which had become white elephants, because there wasn’t a community group based around them. We decided that if Mallow was to have a successful arts centre, that there needed to be a more vibrant arts scene. We agreed that we would promote and co-ordinate arts activities in the region, to help make that happen.”

The first year of a flagship arts festival in any town is always a matter of convincing people nearby of the viability of the endeavour. And while not every venue has been responsive, a number of high-profile establishments in town have lent their weight to events happening throughout the weekend. “In the case of (the Hibernian Hotel and adjacent venues, run by local entrepreneur Darren Owens), absolutely no challenge, totally welcoming, totally positive, right from the very beginning. Anything we’ve asked for in relation to that complex, be it Ocana’s, the Hi-B or Keppler’s, full, 100% co-operation. Regarding some other publicans, our initial idea was to try and have something in every single pub in Mallow. That hasn’t proved possible up to now, maybe ‘twas overambitious for a start. Think we mentioned it to about four other publicans, and three have responded. We’ve jazz in Jim Keeffe’s, who’d normally have country-Irish on a Friday night. We now have the likes of Ringo: Music Bingo in Maureen’s, a pub that would have very little entertainment, etc., and again, in Albert Lynch’s, we have a pub with an entertainment history, it has embraced the concept of having a bluegrass band, a folk band, and a post-rock band as well. All of that is very positive.”

Programming arts in a town that hasn’t had much exposure to the arts in the bones of a generation presented challenges in terms of creative direction, in terms of a balance to be struck between what might play well locally and taking risks. “We have to say to the community that as a new group, we can provide a little of what you want, or what you’d be interested in. That was the idea between being conservative enough in the main attractions, like John Spillane, who we anticipate would have a general appeal anyway. The Shandrum Céilí Band are dual All-Ireland champions, and that may be another safe bet to some extent. Beyond that, we’ve experimented with everything else. Bluegrass, jazz, ambient, electronica, hip-hop, we’ve brought in a number of different sessions that’ll all be strange to Mallow. We’re saying to people in Mallow, ‘we can do what you want, but we’ll also open your eyes to what else is out there’.”

The multidisciplinary line-up for the festival has been announced locally over the past couple of weeks via its website and social media, culminating in last week’s brochure. Curtis gets into how the lineup has been received and what the feedback has been. “It’s been positive, I must say. People were deprived of any sort of a festival, really, and they’re looking at the brochure and I imagine there’s a few raised eyebrows. But the message is that the vast majority of the acts and artists are free. Come along and find out what it’s all about. If you get involved, state what you like and sample what’s new, you can have a part to play in ensuring the future of the festival.”

With a full bill of arts and music ready to go, asking Curtis to choose his own highlights results in a moment of something between enthusiasm and indecision. “Everything. (laughs) Practically all of the music, like the all-dayer in St. James’ Church on Saturday, very experimental. I’m a fan of bluegrass, so I’m looking forward to the Sweet Olive String Band at Albert Lynch’s. Finally then, we have the best guitarist in Cork, Robbie Barron, in his blues band Bate to Debt on Sunday night at Keppler’s. At that stage we’ll be over the worries, and I’ll be enjoying it.”

This year’s festival is in readiness, and surely thoughts turn to the next step for the Mallow Arts Collective. “The whole idea is to try and stimulate and invigorate an arts scene in Mallow in preparation for the Arts Centre in Mallow. It’ll be two or three years before that comes on stream so what we need to do is keep having events, having festivals, try to keep having people motivated and mobilised, so that at the end of the day, when the centre comes, people will be dying to get into this, they’ll know what they want from it and have a variety of activities they’ll want to be part of.”

Mallow Arts Festival is ongoing, until this Sunday. More information on times and venues at mallowartsfestival.com, and on their Facebook & Twitter.

Jeru the Damaja: “It Feels Like the Nineties Again for Me”

Hip-hop survivor Jeru the Damaja arrives at Townlands Carnival this weekend with nearly thirty years of tunes at his disposal. Speaking with Mike McGrath-Bryan, he touches on hip-hop’s golden age, his own experiences, and the challenges that await him in the future.

The sign of a relevant artist is one that refuses to rest on their laurels, always looking forward with the knowledge that you’re only as good as your last idea, especially in an increasingly hectic music industry. Emerging in the early nineties in collaboration with Gang Starr cutman DJ Premier, and running with the legendary duo’s Foundation group at various intervals over the years, New York rapper Jeru the Damaja has his sights set on his future. After a legendary solo career, including 1994 magnum opus The Sun Rises in the East, he’s headed in a new direction with collab funk/hip-hop project The Funky Pandas, alongside longtime consort Psycho Les. In good form and clearly optimistic about it all, Jeru gets into the spontaneity behind the project. “We toured a lot… We’re friends, and have been friends for such a long time. We were in a bar in Berlin, having a few drinks, smoking a little chronic, making a few jokes about getting a group together. Next day we were in studio, we did, like, five songs, and that’s how it began.”

The duo’s debut long-player drops early next year – the result of a relaxed and collaborative creative process, liberated from the constraints of Jeru’s own legacy and either man’s previous stylistic leanings. He’s quick to inform us of what we can expect. “I mean, if you’re expecting Jeru the Damaja, you’re gonna be disappointed. It’s all-new. It’s The Funky Pandas, Black Panda (Jeru) and Dr. Love Panda (Les). But it’s very good quality, very creative, real hip-hop. Just feelgood music. It’s gonna be fresh, it’s gonna be funky. I think it’s gonna be the reinvention of what people our age and our generation, fans of that golden era, early nineties are gonna like, but also new people are gonna like it.”

This being festival season, attendant crowds, including those at Townlands Carnival this weekend, will want to be hearing his classics. It’s a balancing act between entertaining longtime fans and briefing new recruits on his work, and one that he sets out to accomplish, considering his urgency to continue creating. “I’m gonna do all my classics. I love doing the old stuff, don’t get me wrong. I’ve had a long career and that’s the reason I’m able to do The Funky Pandas, because of the things I’ve done with Premier, and R.I.P., Guru, and I’m thankful for that.”

Last year also saw Jeru, alongside former stablemates Big Shug and Afu Ra reassume The Gang Starr Foundation mantle, sans live involvement from Premier, to go on tour around the continent. How was it to see audiences around Europe receive that work and the legacy of Gang Starr live? “I mean, it’s great. The fact that something you did twenty years ago, almost thirty years ago now, and still to this day, people love and respect it… it shows that it’s good music, it’s to the point, it stands the test of time. I couldn’t imagine anything else, the way music is today, I didn’t think it’d be like this, so… generational, where ‘we don’t listen to this’, or ‘we only listen to this’. When we grew up, we listened to everything. I grew up listening to my mother’s music, y’know?”

That period of his career is framed within the context of hip-hop’s golden age: from running with innovators like Gang Starr, to testy interactions with performers that became staples of hip-hop mythology, like Biggie Smalls and the Fugees. A lot surely goes through his mind now, when he looks back on that period of his career, in the early 1990s. “It was a great time. You gotta realise that (hip-hop) was super, super-new back then, y’know what I mean? Hip-hop was barely twenty years old, so it was fresh. But for me, as a youth, I was twenty, twenty-one years old, it was the best part of my life at that time, because I was innocent, I was naive. Y’know, I thought the world was the way that it wasn’t. The joy and the wonderment you have when you look at it is there because you’re not jaded yet. I try to keep that point of view nowadays, everything fresh, like a child.”

Speaking to him, you get the sense that Jeru’s wide-eyed wonder is the result of a lot of thought on his own part, especially when he touches back on the matter of what is arguably hip-hop’s first generation gap, emerging in recent years as phenomena like so-called “mumble rap” and its own DIY-inspired sentiment have taken the fore in the genre’s mainstream. When questioned on who gives him that same feeling, he stops to consider it carefully. “I heard someone who’s really good, but they’re older, their record’s out now, a guy called Ransom. I’m all about the lyrical. I like beats, but I like clever wordplay. I like to consider myself a wordsmith, and I haven’t found anyone like that (lately). I listen to some stuff, but I’m on the road so much, it’s hard. I’m in a bubble.”

Jeru’s last solo E.P., The Hammer, came out in 2014. After a period of semi-retirement following his critically acclaimed first pair of LPs, Jeru’s self-released material has taken a back seat, with sporadic extended-plays and albums finding their way to shelves intermittently. Surely an itch is there, then, to be scratched for fresh kill, amid all the current activity? “For sure. I have another record done, pretty much. I’m just prioritising now with the Pandas, ‘cause it’s fun. It’s fun. I’ve been doing Jeru my whole life. It’s fun to deal with another MC and another producer, you guys get in the studio and come up with some crazy ideas. It’s that old feeling: it feels like the nineties again for me. I know what my past is, I know what my successes are, what some people might consider failures and what I might consider a failure. But you only move forward. You only go back if you kinda forgot something and have to go get it (laughs).”

Jeru the Damaja is playing Townlands Carnival this weekend, something of a coup for a fest in its relative infancy, and after twenty-five years of coming here while on tour, is no less enthusiastic about turning up and showing the Rusheen Farm crowd what he’s about. “Oh, man, Ireland is always good! I’m just gonna rock the house, man, I’ve been coming back here since 1992, Gang Starr. It’s always been a good time, it’s never disappointed. I can never say I’ve come to Ireland and been disappointed. I’ma party hard, and the show is always super-good, super-energetic, and fantastic.”

Jeru the Damaja headlines Townlands Carnival this weekend at Rusheen Farm in Macroom, performing on the Main Stage at 6.30pm on Saturday. Last few tickets are left over at townlandscarnival.com.

Right Here, Right Now Festival: “There’s a Lot to Be Proud Of!”

A celebration of the current Cork scene that sees a variety of acts across the genre spectrum take centre-stage on the largest stage the city has to offer. That’s the underlying philosophy behind Right Here, Right Now, a festival co-presented by the team at Douglas Street venue Coughlan’s Live and Cork Opera House. It’s been a labour of love for both parties, as Coughlans’ Brian Hassett explains. “As Coughlan’s Live Promotions, we have been involved in putting on a number of shows already in Cork Opera House over the last few years, and through that we’ve gotten to know the team there. I think we had all been expressing recently about just how much great music was being created and released throughout Cork, and that planted a seed of thought with Eileen, the CEO of Cork Opera House. She asked us to call in for a meeting as she was keen to have an event that we could work on together to celebrate this current scene. Right Here Right Now was born from that, a weekend to focus a spotlight on these songwriters and bands that are currently releasing all these great albums. In Coughlans we work regularly in a very grass roots level with many of these groups and it’s amazing to have Cork Opera House, which is such an iconic venue, wanting to be so actively involved and working to develop that scene within the city.”

The collaborative process behind the festival has seen the operating power of the Opera House line up with the ground-floor knowledge of the Coughlan’s team to provide opportunities for local artists to be part of something truly special. “Well, I would say we have really been working as a team on it, and that everything along the way has been through discussion from both sides. It’s something that we have all really come together on through a shared passion. The main theme of the festival is bringing together lots of groups all under the one roof that have great songs, great songwriters and great performers. So with curating it, we all talked about the tremendous amount of bands throughout Cork that are active right now, putting out new music and touring before we quickly realised that there was likely enough there to fill numerous weekends, really. A major benefit to the festival was funding secured from The Arts Council through Cork Opera House to enable what is going to be the big centre piece of the weekend, Jack O’ Rourke & Band, Strung and Anna Mitchell all teaming up with The Cork Opera House Concert Orchestra for a show in the main auditorium. For both the musicians as well as the audience this show is going to be a pretty thrilling experience and an amazing one off opportunity.”

Friday gets the festival off to a strong start with Interference returning to the Opera House after a sold-out show in January – what are Hassey’s thoughts on the band’s current incarnation? “We’re delighted to have Interference back to open the festival. Their previous show sold out so quickly and left a lot of people unable to get tickets. Fergus’ passing was a massive loss to so many people and it was really special to see the band together performing a stunning show to a packed out Cork Opera House. The band were joined by a whole hosts of guests including Glen Hansard, Liam Ó Maonlaí, Joe O’ Leary, Jerry Fish, Jack O’ Rourke, Mundy, and many others in a night that honoured Ferg and the great catalogue of Interference songs. It was an extremely memorable show and they’ve recently released a stunning album, ‘The Sweet Spot’ so I’m really looking forward to welcoming them back. There’s lots of special guests lined up once again (which is a closely guarded secret for now), but let’s just say you definitely won’t want to miss it!”

Saturday is headlined by Cork singer-songwriter Jack O’Rourke with the COH Concert Orchestra, a spectacle in itself, as well as Anna Mitchell and Strung. The preparation for this centrepiece event has been thorough, with a pair of composers adding their work to expand each artist’s sound for the night. “We’ve been really lucky to team up with John O’ Brien who is writing the scores for Jack’s show and Cormac McCarthy who is writing for Anna Mitchell & Strung. John will then conduct and direct the Orchestra throughout the night. Both of them have been incredible with working alongside the artists, adding so much to the music. It’s a very rare opportunity for artists to get to reimagine their music and play with a cast of over 30 musicians so we’re all very excited for this.”

Sunday is the busiest day of the line-up by far, with Mick Flannery, The Shaker Hymn, Shookrah, Hank Wedel and more, a very varied line-out. Hassett takes us through the day and gives a little insight into juggling all the elements of the day. “Sunday sees six different shows in the one day, with twelve acts performing and for this we will be utilising two different spaces: The Right Room, which is on stage at Cork Opera House, and The Green Room which is in the backstage area. The shows will be staggered so that there’ll be very little overlap from one show to the next, with the live music going from one room to another throughout the day. Two of the shows I’m really looking forward to on the Sunday would be both of the late night shows; Marc O’ Reilly & band and John Blek & the Rats in The Right Room; and then also Shookrah in The Green Room, as these will be the final shows of the weekend, running until 2am, and it will feel pretty great to be able to settle back a little and enjoy them fully.”

We’ve seen the Green Room as of late in Cork Opera House events, but The Right Room is getting its debut with Right Here Right Now – what can we expect from this addition to the Opera House?

“As part of the festival, we wanted people to be able to have new and different experiences at Cork Opera House, and we hope that through the different setups and spaces there will be a different participation from the audience also. We’re taking over the backstage area for the weekend, transforming it and inviting everybody to come and share in it. So in The Right Room, the audience actually joins the bands on the stage, for the show. The whole thing happens ‘behind the curtain’, so to speak. For certain shows it will be nice and intimate with seating & tables, and for others it’s going to be much more of a party. Did I mention there’s also going to be a bar on the stage?”

The scene in Cork seems to be going from strength to strength with the development of fests like Quarter Block Party, Coughlan’s Live Music Fest, and now Right Here, Right Now. Hassett is full of enthusiasm for the development of the scene in recent years. It seems there has always been great music coming from Cork but definitely of late there has been a real abundance of wonderful albums. There are a lot of tirelessly working passionate musicians and in the last few years there has been a real growth in more of an industry and opportunities for them. There are festivals, venues. promoters, DJs, booking agents, studios, journalists, etc. all working together with musicians in sharing this wealth of great music. With the scene in Cork, right here, right now, there’s a lot to be proud of!”

The question at the end of all of this is simple – what about the festival going forward? What will the long-term hold? “Right Here Right Now ’17 is a three-day festival, but it could very easily be a week long with the amount of other groups we would have loved to include. We would love for this to become a yearly event in the calendar in Cork, an opportunity for people to come see some of the best music, both established and emerging.”

Right Here, Right Now happens throughout the weekend at Cork Opera House. Tickets are available at the box-office and at corkoperahouse.ie.