At a Glance:
-Born in Montreal, but he considers Cape Breton home as his family is from there
-Ben decided to move to PEI after spending one day here
-Loves the strong music community & fine folks here in PEI
-Has played the uilleann pipes (the Irish version of bagpipes) for four and a half years
-Busks at the Charlottetown Farmer's Market on Saturday mornings
Tell us where your love for music and Gaelic traditions comes from?
My family has always held on to our Scottish heritage quite strongly. I grew up listening to Cape Breton and Irish music. Although we didn't play, music has always been a big part of my family.
Can you tell us about uilleann pipes?
The uilleann pipes are the Irish version of the bagpipes. They were developed around the 1700s. The story goes that the English had outlawed the larger form of Irish as an instrument of war, so the uilleann pipes were developed so the people could continue playing their music on an instrument that requires you to be seated while you play, and thus, can't be carried into battle. The uilleann pipes are a bellows-blown instrument which means that you don't blow into it like you would with Scottish pipes. Rather, you pump the air into a bag with a bellows strapped to your arm and then squeeze the bag to send air through the chanter to make the melody. There is also a set of drones that sit on your lap which create the constant droning sound. Then, there are regulator keys on top of the drones so that you can chord along with yourself as you play the chanter.
How many uilleann pipers are on PEI?
I'd say there are about five or six active uilleann pipers on PEI at the moment.
When it comes to music, what are you most passionate about?
Sharing it with others. A lot of the ideas I'm planning out for the next few years focus on getting music out to the community, particularly kids and young adults. Mostly traditional Irish music because that's what I know and it's what resonates with me. I want to help people start playing music of any type. If someone comes to me to learn the uilleann pipes then starts playing jazz, classical, or baroque music on the pipes, I think that's fantastic!
Who or what has inspired you to follow your passions and take the leap to becoming a musician?
I started playing music about seven years ago in Boston. The bodhran (Irish drum) was my first instrument but, with encouragement from some fantastic musicians in Boston, I picked up the pipes. It wasn't until about three years ago, when I was living in Ireland, learning from musicians there and busking in Limerick, that I decided to become a full-time musician. Prior to that, I was working on Bachelor of Arts in History and operating my own landscaping business.
Reflecting back on it, what were some of the most inspiring and exciting moments you experienced as a musician?
Probably the first time I was asked to co-host an Irish music session. That really solidified in my mind that I had "come of age" as a musician. Being asked to co-host a session with someone whom I respected as a musician was incredibly encouraging. I still get that feeling all the time when friends of mine, musicians who I look up to in experience and skill, say, "Hey, do you want to perform with me here?" It never gets old. Having the opportunity to play with musicians much better than myself gives a great adrenaline rush and it motivates me to become a better musician.
What advice do you have for aspiring musicians?
Practice. It's pretty important. Also, focus on the positive feedback. There's always going to be naysayers, but don't let them stop you from pursuing your passion. That being said, it's really important to be able to separate when someone is just being negative and when someone is providing constructive criticism. There's going to be someone out there who is a better musician than you, if they constructively critique your work, pay attention.
What advice were you given through the years that stuck with you?
Relax. Things will get sorted. Just do your best, if it doesn't work out, try again or try something else.
What's in-store for you in the coming months?
Music. Once The North Atlantic Tionól finishes, I hope to attend some of the Festival of Small Halls. Then, it's back to work performing music and planning for next year's Tionól. In August, I'm also hoping to attend the Gaelic College in St. Ann's, Cape Breton and probably Celtic Colours in October.
Tell us more about The North Atlantic Tionól?
The word Tionól is Irish for "gathering." Lately, it's come to be used mainly in the context of uilleann pipe gatherings. The North Atlantic Tionól came about largely because the nearest Tionól that takes place is in New York and the PEI Uilleann Pipers Guild wanted to start something that the Atlantic provinces could get involved in. Our main focus is to help the Irish music community grow in the Atlantic provinces, not just PEI. However, it's now become an international event. We have quite a lot of attendees coming from Ireland, the UK, and the US.
We are going to have some world-class Irish musicians performing and teaching at the Tionól. We have Patrick Hutchinson from Boston and Debbie Quigley from Toronto teaching pipes. Mickey Dunne from Ireland is one of the most recognizable names Irish traditional music as an uilleann piper and pipe maker. Karine Gallant will be joining us from Summerside to teach fiddle. And, for our opening concert on Friday June 12, I am absolutely thrilled to say that the world-renowned uilleann piper, Paddy Keenan will be performing. Paddy is one of the founding members of the Irish group The Bothy Band that helped revive Irish music in the 1970s.
We will have concerts on each evening at 7pm. Friday evening will be Paddy Keenan, accompanied by Stuart Peak. On Saturday evening, our instructors will all be performing. On Sunday evening, there will be an open mic for anyone who would like to participate. It provides an opportunity for the students, instructors, and anyone else who came up just to perform. Following each concert, there will be an open session for all musicians to join in and play with each other and everyone is invited to stay and listen to those after the concerts as well. The tickets for the concerts are $20; $15; and $5 respectively.
The classes and workshops are open to everyone. Our main classes are Intermediate/Advanced fiddle. Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced piping. But also, there is an introduction to Irish whistle class available. It is especially geared for people, young, old, and everything in between, who aren't familiar with Irish music or who don't play an instrument but would like to. Stuart Peak, a very accomplished instrumentalist from Boston, is going to be teaching the Irish whistle classes. Those are one-hour classes for $20 each hour and you can either bring your own whistle or the Tionól has whistles for sale.
Where can people get more info about The North Atlantic Tionól?
Where can people see you perform this summer?
Well, I'm often busking in Charlottetown or at the Farmer's Market on Saturdays. This summer, I'll be playing at the DiverseCity Multicultural Festival in Charlottetown on June 28 and in Montague on July 4. I'll also be performing at the Mermaid Tears Seaglass Festival in Souris in late July with my band, Mo Thogaire.
What is the kindest thing anyone has ever done for you?
The support I've gotten from my family and friends while organising the Tionól has been phenomenal and there's not enough time to mention how many things they've done for me. As for a single instance of kindness that springs to mind, I guess when my uncle invited me to live with him and his family on PEI. It provided a great opportunity for me to focus on music and a few other plans without having to worry about where I'd live.
Who is the one person you’d like to thank and what would you say to him/her?
Amy Basse. She is a fiddler who I played with frequently in Boston. I credit her with my passion for music. She was one of the very few people who really encouraged me from the beginning to learn the uilleann pipes and she helped me become a more confident musician. I would say to Amy, "Come for a visit sometime. I miss you."
(Paddy Keenan playing the uilleann pipes)