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“The violin sings, but the fiddle dances.”
It may be an old musician’s proverb, but it’s one that fittingly applies to the unique and contemporary style of master fiddler Donnell Leahy.
“Speaking from the objective of a fellow fiddler, Donnell takes the violin and truly soars,” says Natalie MacMaster, Donnell’s wife and an expert on the bow-and-strings in her own right.
“It is remarkable how he can play with this intense power, but maintain the sweetness and tone of the instrument. He’s absolutely precise and articulate – a must-see t0 believe.”
Adds record executive Geoff Kulawick:
“Donnell Leahy is quite likely the greatest fiddle player in the world right now.”
But you don’t have to be a musician to appreciate the finesse that Donnell displays in his performance.
“You’re not a fiddler, you’re a genius!,” a fan recently proclaimed after being dazzled by a 90- minute performance.
Donnell continues to dazzle: As leader of Leahy, the Lakefield, Ontario-based eight-piece family outfit that bears his surname, Donnell has helped Leahy achieve more than half-a-million copies in combined worldwide CD sales of Leahy, Lakefield, In All Things and Live; propel them onto the global stage in a highly-praised run as the opening act for Shania Twain’s Come On Over world tour, and earn them multiple Juno Awards – including Best New Group, Best Country Group and Best Instrumental Album.
Leahy isn’t Donnell’s sole musical concern either: He also occasionally performs with his wife, Cape Breton fiddling sensation Natalie MacMaster, and the duo intend to take to the road for a three-month tour spring 2010.
Spending time touring with both families is crucial to Donnell.
“It’s phenomenal to be able to tour with your family,” he explains. “I go out with my brothers and sisters on tour, and my three brothers and me may hang out together on a Tuesday afternoon.
“I know that other brothers haven’t got that opportunity because they all have separate lives
and separate jobs. We really like our family and our group – we’re just best friends. To be able to hang out like that is amazing.”
And with three young children of their own, it’s also important that he devotes meaningful time to Natalie, a situation that can be complex when one spouse is on the road without the other.
“Touring has always been a challenge, and with children there are always a lot of logistics to work out,” he explains. “But we want to be together as a family, and we want to play together. Although Natalie’s style is very different from mine, we love the combination. Everything makes sense for us to tour together.”
There is that third component: the fiddle.
Just as it’s impossible for anyone to extract Donnell from his family roots, it’s unfathomable to distinguish the self-taught master fiddler from his instrument.
“The fiddle is such an extension of my body,” he admits. “The bow is literally an extension of my arm, and the energy I have in my arm goes into the bow.
“It expresses my personality, my spirit.”
Not to mention a palate of emotions that are verbally unspoken, but fervently articulate.
“I’m not the greatest with words, but on the fiddle, I can tell the whole story passionately,” says Donnell. “If you want to play a sad piece, it’s easy to be sad playing it. I’m aggressive, a quick mover, spirited, athletic and that comes out in my fiddling. I’ve always been willing to take risks and try anything on the fiddle.
“And I think I’ve learned that you really have to believe what you’re playing.”
Those that watch the mesmerizingly strident, exultant and high-energy performance from Donnell – as well as his Leahy siblings Angus (fiddle) Doug (fiddle), Frank (drums), Siobheann (bass, piano and fiddle, dance and vocals); Agnes (dance, vocals, keyboards); Erin (piano, vocals, dance) and Maria guitar) – are quickly converted into believers, lapping up every amazing moment of the troupe’s riveting concert, with the eldest Leahy brother serving as its animated sparkplug.
It’s been a lifetime of practice: Exactly how early did the Donnell Leahy story begin?
“Probably when I was in my mother’s womb,” he admits, half-jokingly – especially since Leahy parents Frank and Julie led their own band.
“They would play at local square dances, round dances and weddings,” Donnell recalls. “Our parents had plenty of house parties and ceilidhs. We witnessed that as kids and it was just natural for us to play.”
Encouraged to start early, Donnell received his first fiddle at three-years-old and Frank – a fiddle player -- and Julie – a pianist, singer and step dancer -- started the lessons.
He credited his parents with teaching him how to hold the instrument.
“It allowed me to shift into all the positions and do things with my bow that one probably wouldn’t be able to do if you didn’t hold it properly.”
Only one year later, Donnell began playing competitively.
“You need a reason to play,” he explains. “You can’t tell your kids just to practice – you have to get them an audience and have a reason to play.
“I’d be the four-year-old playing against the 12-year-olds,” he recalls. “I moved up to the older class, although it wasn’t about the winning. It was about getting better.”
Donnell would practice incessantly on the family beef farm homestead in Lakefield.
“Dad would take me to the field when I was a young lad,” Donnell recalls. “He’d be working ground or baling hay and he’d put me under a tree with shade. Every time he came round with the tractor, he’d be able to watch me. Of course, I’d have my fiddle with me. I’d sit there and play the fiddle under the tree. The next time he came around I’d be asleep.”
Donnell’s competitive streak spurred him on.
He became intimately familiar with the music of New Brunswick fiddling sensation Don Messer; All Ireland fiddle champion Sean McGuire, Cape Breton master Jerry Holland, Ontario’s Graham Townsend, and Quebec’s Ti-Jean Carignan, listening to their records and learning each song note for note by ear.
“I was exposed at the right time to all these different styles of music,” Donnell notes. “Along the way, I heard a bit of classical and then the magnificent Stephane Grappelli.
“But my style is Canadian, my own thing.”
As family members grew into their instruments, the octet (out of 11 children!) Leahy was formed: and then during a six month residency in Germany, Donnell discovered the music of a young Cape Breton fiddler named Natalie MacMaster and decided they had to meet.
“I met her music first,” Donnell recalls. “We were playing in Germany and one of my sisters had a cassette she would play. I asked her about it, found out she was an 18-year-old girl from Cape Breton. When I heard that style being played by a young girl, she tweaked my interest, and I decided I had to meet her.
“The day after I got home from Germany, I jumped in the car and drove to Cape Breton. I found out she was in Truro at Teacher’s College, so I drove there and asked her out for dinner.
“I said, ‘I don’t know what you look like. Maybe if you brought your fiddle, I’d know who you were.’ We went out for dinner, played some tunes, and the rest is history. As Natalie put it – we dated for two years, broke up for 10, and then got married.”
Although the Donnell Leahy/Natalie MacMaster tour will mark their first series of extended dates together, Donnell says this venture will complement his studio and performances with Leahy.
“My performances with Natalie and Leahy fulfill me in different ways,” admits Donnell. “Both remain career priorities.”
And if life isn’t busy enough for Donnell – did we mention he’s a farmer as well? – he will also help continue to run the annual Leahy Music Camp, co-hosted by Natalie MacMaster.
This year’s edition runs July 5 to 9 at Viamede Resort in Stoney Lake, Ontario.
“Three years ago we decided to hold a music camp in our hometown and invite people to come from around the world and learn the Leahy way,” Donnell explains.
“Natalie and I had talked about doing a fiddle camp, but we merged the idea of doing one with Leahy. We provide teaching for fiddle, piano, guitar, and step dancing – basically everything we do.
“It’s three days of solid instruction with concerts, talks, special guests – and it’s a great camp, if I do say so myself. People attend from all over the U.S., Canada and Europe.”
No wonder Sir Yehudi Menuhin once described a violinist – or, less formally, a fiddler – as “half tiger, half poet.”
Donnell Leahy certainly fits the bill.