”Shady Woods? Sounds like a right dodgy geezer,” I'd remarked when Desi Wilkinson first told me about the working title for his new album, but then there’s always been an ingenious element in Desi’s music which surpasses the imagination of most Irish traditional flute players. The woods in question are the variety of wooden flutes, some constructed by his home-town flute-maker, Sam Murray, which the Belfast-born Desi employs on his first solo album for fourteen years, Shady Woods.
Two years in the making, Shady Woods is a complete departure for a flute-player known for playing some of the most hard-hitting music to come out of Ireland over the last couple of decades, not least with the formidable trio Cran (whose other members are singer/bouzouki-player Seán Corcoran and the uilleann piper Ronan Browne). Desi’s first album was an enjoyable, fun-packed affair, mirrored by its title, The Three Piece Flute. In contrast Shady is the product of a conscious decision to explore the more mellow sound of the wooden flute, as Desi puts it, ‘allowing the instrument to dictate the pace itself, let it make its squeaks and things the way it wants to’.
For those who rightly thought ‘Hang on, aren’t most of the flutes used in traditional music wooden?’ the answer is, naturally, affirmative. The difference here is that Desi has chosen to use the simplest form, in other words, ones lacking any keys whatsoever. Though obviously blown differently, this form of the instrument is otherwise played similarly to the tin whistle, using overblowing (hence the ‘squeaks’) to produce the higher notes and cross-fingering to generate accidental notes (though these rarely feature in Ireland’s traditional music). The sounds produced vary according to the kind and quality of the wood used (hardwood, yew or bamboo in this case), the instrument’s tuning (determined by its length) and, of course, the player’s technique.
However, it’s not just the choice of instrument, but the selection of tunes and their arrangements which makesShady Woods an atypical Irish flute album. Again, this was deliberate on Desi’s part, selecting tunes which ‘do not slot into any category, simply ones that I enjoy playing’. The overall effect is reflective, relying on the wooden flute’s resonance and sparse accompaniment, a little percussion there, harmonised vocal drones elsewhere, and the sound of the waves rolling onto a beach in Clare. Accordionist Máirtín O’Connor can rarely have played so few notes in one piece as he does on Le Petit Bal De La Marine, a waltz evoking the afternoon dances held in Paris café in the 1920s. Shady Woods also presents probably the first musical marriage of the Irish flute and the Indian shruti box, a hand-pumped miniature harmonium, operated here by Graham Henderson of Dónal Lunny’s band, Coolfin..
Such an atmospheric combination might lead some to suspect that Desi has fallen foul of the ethereal, ambient doodling which blights an element of Ireland’s traditional music, producing albums of haunting melodies for the tourist trade, but this is far from the case, thanks to Wilkinson’s mastery of his instrument and the cosmopolitan strengths of his material. Apart from tunes from Northern Ireland, such as Lisburn Lass, there are also several pieces which reflect Desi’s passion for Breton music (he spent several years living in the region during the 1990s) and another, The Long Woman, written while he took part in Hent St. Jakez, a 1993 pan-European musical project which followed the medieval pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Northwest Spain.
Over the years Belfast has produced an array of fine flute-players, including Gary Hastings and the late Frankie Kennedy from Desi’s generation and, more recently, Marcas Ó Murchú and Harry Bradley, so it’s difficult to resist the temptation to ask for his views on the reason. He harks back to the 1970s when the Troubles were at their height and ‘there was an intensity about the music scene which saw us all in the crucible at the same time’. While some flute-players had graduated from the fife and drum bands, Desi came under the spell of the Cathal McConnell and Tommy Gunn of the original Boys of the Lough. As a consequence, along with Gary and Frankie, he sought out the older players from Gunn and McConnell’s native County Fermanagh, from where it was but a short hop across the border to the hotbed of traditional flute-playing, East Connaught (counties Leitrim, Sligo and Roscommon) and musicians such as Packie Duignan and Josie McDermott.
Three Scores Of Boxty, learned from the Derrygonnelly flute-player, Eddie Duffy, is one tune on Shady Woods which derives from Desi’s travels at that time. Nowadays, when he is not touring Europe or the USA with Cran, Desi is based in Limerick balancing a career as a research associate at the city’s university with the demands of life as a professional musician. Cran’s fourth album will soon be in the pipeline, but for the moment it’s time to promote Shady, but, as the man says himself, the album’s tunes are timeless, so why hurry?