Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo, and three leading Irish musicians, Donal O'Connor, Jack Talty and Jim Murray, come together to explore common themes, to break new ground and to celebrate all that is robust and healthy in the world of traditional music, for a nationwide tour this January. RTÉ lyric fm's Ellen Cranitch tunes in...

The Y chromosome has a lot to answer for.

According to recent genetic studies from Trinity College Dublin, for us in Ireland our strongest human relatedness is with the Northern Iberian peninsula, this genetic signal being strongest in the people of the west of Ireland. The same study produced the heart-warming confirmation that Irish badgers are Spanish, but British badgers are not, and this may go a little way towards understanding why we have such warm affinity and friendship with Galicia, its music, culture, and folklore, and why it was a perfect fit in 1601 when Red Hugh O'Donnell was on the run.

Listen: Anxo Lorenzo, Donal O'Connor, Jack Talty and Jim Murray perform The Lass among the Etnoch's / The Millner's Daugher / The Monaghan Jig / Anderson's Reel

This first Music Network tour of 2020 brings together Galician piper Anxo Lorenzo, and three leading Irish musicians, Donal O'Connor, Jack Talty, and Jim Murray, to explore common themes, to break new ground and to celebrate all that is robust and healthy in the world of traditional music. Between them, they have access to a massive store of repertoire, each at the top of his game, as players, composers, arrangers, producers and sound artists. The challenge will be whittling it all down to concert length.

Listen: Anxo Lorenzo, Donal O'Connor, Jack Talty and Jim Murray in session for RTÉ Arena

As with all of these collaborative projects that Music Network devises, the four gentlemen had known each other from afar, but never played together before. A leap of faith certainly, and one which appealed to their sense of adventure. All are highly skilled in the studio as producers and arrangers, but did a hierarchy emerge? "Touchy feely" is how Donal recalls their first rehearsal back in October. "For me, I approached this with a light touch, bearing in mind that there are three other brilliant producers in the room. In my studio life I often work with people who may not have strong ideas about those aspects, so I was happy to take a bit of a back seat. As the tour goes on, I'm excited to see how it will twist and morph, we have so many ideas that we know can work."

Donal is well used to a variety of influence, and his own musical upbringing was underpinned by a sense of rock-solid tradition in parallel with that outward-looking aspect that characterized the music of his parents, fiddle maestro Gerry O’Connor, and singer and composer, the late Eithne Ní Uallacháin. Their band Lá Lúgh toured the world, sharing stages with the likes of Romani virtuosi Taraf De Haidouks, oud master Anouar Brahem, and Hungarian singer Marta Sebestien and Musikas. Eventually joining the band himself, it is no surprise that young Donal’s ears were rinsed clean of any parochial blockage that might impede his natural musical curiosity.

Likewise with Jack Talty, whose personal heritage pretty well guaranteed a career in music. His first teacher was his uncle, the legendary Noel Hill, through whom he learned so much about the culture around playing music, the community, its social importance and the temperament and demeanour of those who played traditional music. And crucially, that it transcends age. His close engagement with older musicians of his locality consolidated a vast knowledge and deep respect for the traditional tunes, and ultimately led him to a freedom to step well outside that tradition. "There is a sense of perspective that allows you to not be afraid, to not have hang-ups about looking beyond... though in no way do I feel that I’ve done the traditional thing now, and I can move on because that would sound like I’ve it figured out. I’ll never figure it out, and that excites me more than anything. Traditional music is so strong and expressive, and nothing I could do can jeopardize that."

At the same time, Talty admits that there were a lot of people who had to fight a hard battle when traditional music was endangered, but "we own it too, and there is so much to be explored."

Exploring comes naturally to Anxo Lorenzo. A regular visitor to Ireland since 1996, and veteran of several William Kennedy Piping Festivals, his own brand of high-octane gaita playing is fuelled by the lapel-grabbing immediacy of his live performances. He is generous and enthusiastic when it comes to fellow musicians, his excitement at this tour fizzing down the phone line from his native Moana. "I just love Ireland! And I think on this tour the music will be very varied, we will create a new composition as well as older tunes. In Galicia the music is very powerful, full of history and heritage... though there are too many gaita players! Twenty thousand! So I play whistles as well."

Lorenzo will also bring his excursions into the world of South American dance forms to the project, bearing out Donal’s observation that "music has always borrowed from other musics outside of its own, and there are no boundaries anyway".

Certainly not to Jim Murray, one of the most versatile, thoughtful and in-demand guitarists. His former life as an accordionist gives an understanding of melody lines, phrasing and internal rhythm of tunes that is not always available to accompanying instruments. Being the go-to guitarist for so many first class musicians, he is often on the road or in the studio, but he has managed to make time to create an online teaching programme, carefully crafted and constructed, sharing his insights and discoveries with generosity, enthusiasm and encouragement.

Part of the plan in this tour is to create a brand new collective composition, reflecting each musicians’ personal style and character. A gamble surely, as four very strong ideas and methods are on the table and compromise is inevitable. Or is it? "A huge part of this was getting to know each other as a four-piece," observes Jack, "just chatting, socializing, trying to learn what our identity was, and that was by far the most efficient way to work together, to spend time together as a unit. A collective personality emerged, listening as much as playing, and letting that non-verbal telepathic communication take place."

And with the collective act of music-making, particularly with such an international dimension, it can often lead to a reconnection with basics, with one’s own heritage, an affirmation of origin and place. Donal makes the point that "sometimes it leads to a sort of out-of-body experience, you see yourself in a different light, and challenge yourself. You realize you actually need to drill deeper into the well of tradition, ask questions about why we use ornamentation, why the solo voice is so important... and if a tradition ceases to hear what’s around it, is it even relevant anymore?"

So, forming and re-forming, the constant and ever evolving discourse between tradition and innovation sounding across a global bandwidth, and in the hands of these four extraordinary musicians searching for connection, for communication and a good tune. Another opportunity created by Music Network to facilitate experiment and adventure, this formula has yielded so many intriguing partnerships over the years, many of which have become lasting and fruitful collectives, and a validation that in these strange times of aggressive tribalism and ugly exclusion we need this more than ever.

Music has never needed a passport, its true practitioners never will tolerate the vain self-regard of national boundary. Instead it reaches over and calls to open ears. Listen carefully. It is our privilege.

Anxo Lorenzo, Jim Murray, Dónal O’Connor and Jack Talty are on tour with Music Network from 14th - 30th January 2020, with concerts in Dublin, Newbridge, Castlebar, Clifden, Drogheda, Dún Laoghaire, Letterkenny, Ennis, Cork, Bray, Wexford, Baile Mhúirne, Birr and London. Tickets cost from €10-€20, depending on the venue. Find out more and book tickets here.