The connections of music

Living

IN TUNE John Hoban playing the fiddle in the old Gillespie house in Ballycroy.

Edwin McGreal

John Hoban appreciates the power of music more than most.
The legendary Mayo musician was just 16 years old when his father died. His mother had passed away some years before that.
The family home in Castlebar was sold, so he found himself homeless. He had no money and no parents. He moved to Dublin and then London, very much a nomadic lifestyle, but music sustained him. He’s now one of the most renowned traditional musicians around, as well as being a teacher and a writer.
After playing in the old Gillespie homestead in Ballycroy (see ‘Raised on songs and stories’, page 39), rekindling the dances that used to take place here regularly until 1937, he found himself reflecting on his own journey through life and the richness and sustenance that music has provided.
He travelled to Ballycroy to fulfill a commitment to his friend Peter Masterson and play in the ancestral home.
“Playing here is the real deal. I’d go anywhere for that. This is what the sound was like, this is what they played back in the 1930s,” he said.
“Music saved my life when I was 16 and had no place to go. I lived on the streets of London. The spirit I lived with in music, I could have been here in 1937. I lived the life of a travelling musician.
“Music saved me and brought me to houses like this. It is through music I met Peter,” he said.
A key element of music for John is the connections you make and the unique story of everyone’s own background, how a person’s identity, community and culture informs their music.
“When I am playing music, I am always intrigued by where people come from. There is always a story behind the music.  
“The connections are so key. I feel really connected through music. It is priceless to be here [in Ballycroy] and there is a great joy to be connected through music.
“When I met Peter, the individual connection meant that I could come here and feel at home with the music, meeting his brother John,” he said.
But he is keen to stress that there needs to be a blend between what people bring from the collectives of their communities and cultures and a person’s own individuality.  
“In the community, the individual can sometimes be sacrificed for the community or the family. The individual has to develop also. The individual life I was given is almost a thing of the past. It existed in all cultures. Moorish cultures. Tibet. There was always nomadism, nomadic cultures and music.
“There’s individual sounds then. For example, a Ballycroy accent. People here would talk and sound like no one else. That would be the value I would have, rather than it having to sound like someone else or be like someone else.
“When I met John [Masterson] and heard him playing the fiddle, I said it reminds me of Donegal, the sound, the Campbells or Dohertys playing, just the sound of it. I’m delighted to be here.”