Follow the piper

Irish uilleann, pronounced (íll-en), pipes are not to be confused with the big, Highland bagpipes of Scotland. Uilleann pipes sound sweeter and quieter, and they have a wider range of tone and notes.

"They are the most complex pipes in the world," says piper Paddy Keenan. "They're also called elbow pipes because they are played by inflating a small bellow with an arm, not by blowing into a bag. There are 13 keys on an uilleann pipe used to play chords and rhythms to accompany the melody, like a backing system."

Keenan may be the best uilleann piper performing today. In 2011, the Irish Music Association recognized him with a lifetime achievement award. The IMA named him top uilleann piper in 2010, and in 2002 he was named Irish National Traditional Musician.

Keenan, along with San Francisco guitarist Richard Mandel, will perform new arrangements of traditional Irish roots, along with American folk music and some of Keenan's self-penned music, at 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 20, at the Unitarian Fellowship, 87 Fourth St., Ashland.

Tickets cost $20 in advance and can be purchased online at, by calling 541-535-3562, or at Music Coop. Tickets will cost $22 at the door; $10 for ages 12 through 17. Kids 11 and younger get in free.

Keenan, born in 1950 in Dublin, first gained fame with The Bothy Band, a group of six who played traditional Irish music together for about four years in the '70s.

"We played around Ireland and Europe, and we traveled to America once," Keenan says. "I was about 24 when that band came together. It worked because of the talents and backgrounds of its musicians. I think we made an impact on our generation in America, and I think it's still influencing some musicians of today's generation.

"Other bands, like The Chieftans and The Clancy Brothers also made an impact on traditional Irish music," he says. "Though the Clancys were more like balladeers. It was their singing voices that made them famous."

The Bothy Band has several recordings to its credit. When the group disbanded in '79, Keenan began recording solo. Then in the mid-'80s, Keenan gave up music and opened an antique store in West Cork.

In 1991, Keenan's desire to create music was rekindled. He relocated to North America, and, in 1997, recorded "Na Keen Affair" at Dadyeen Studios in St. Johns, Newfoundland, Canada. Guitarist Tommy O'Sullivan appeared on the album, and this led to the pair recording "The Long Grazing Acre" in 2001.

Keenan — whose father gave up the life of an Irish Traveller, or Gypsy, after Keenan was born — began playing pipes when he was young.

"I played with my family band, The Pavees," he says. "Pavee is an Irish word for Traveller. My dad and my two brothers and I played around for many years.

"When it comes to traditional Irish folk music, it comes down to tempo. The reels are the fastest, and the airs are slow. The jigs are another tempo, and there are single jigs, double jigs and slip jigs. They're all meant to be danced to."

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