Piper a fixture in local music scene
BY SEAN SMITH
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
Coming to Boston represented both a commitment and a leap of faith for Joey Abarta.
By his early 20s, the Los Angeles native was already an accomplished uilleann piper, having toured with the likes of Mick Moloney and Athena Tergis. But if he was going to make Irish music his full-time vocation – and all manner of signposts and tea leaves seemed to indicate this was what he should do – he knew that, as his friends told him, “I needed to be where things were going on.”
New York City was one such place, but an opportunity to go to Massachusetts, and Boston, presented itself, and off Abarta went. Although he’d visited Boston before, and had some contacts in the area, there was certainly every chance that things wouldn’t work out, and he’d have to drag himself back to California.
Four-and-a-half years later, the move east looks to be one of the best decisions Abarta has ever made – along with, say, opting to immerse himself in the great Irish piping tradition. He’s the very definition of a “fixture” in the local Irish music scene, helping organize or playing at sessions, ceilis, concerts, and festivals, and teaching at the local Comhaltas Ceóltoirí Éireann School of Music. And it’s not only his musical ability that has made an impression, but also his old-school wardrobe, which often includes suit, waistcoat, tie and fedora, even at events or gatherings where jeans, khakis, t-shirts, and other informal wear are in the majority. And then there’s his amiability, and his genuine, palpable enthusiasm for having found a place where things are going on.
“It’s wonderful to have a family away from home,” says the 28-year-old Abarta. “The music may have been what helped bring me here, but the community is what’s made me stay. I’ve been helped and supported by so many people and organizations in and around Boston, and I’ll always be grateful for that. Before, I would travel around a lot and always thought of my home as being in California. Well, I still do quite a bit of traveling, but now my home is here.”
His time in Boston has coincided with several formative experiences, life-wise and professional-wise, one of them being the recording and release of his first full-fledged CD, “Swimming Against the Falls.” Unlike his other, limited-run recordings, this one is Abarta and Abarta only, solo pipes through and through.
“I kept coming across tunes that I really enjoy playing, and it prompted me to think about their origin and history, and that maybe I should get them on a CD,” he explains. “As a young person playing music, you’re constantly touring, moving around, and you don’t always think about a serious recording project. I talked with a lot of different people about it, and they would ask me, ‘What do you want to do this for? Do you want to be famous? Make some money? Put forth some sort of project?’
“My feeling was, if I could do a little of everything, I’d be happy. I just really felt strongly about this being a solo pipes recording, which is not very commonplace. I did wonder, ‘Am I shooting myself in the foot by not having an accompanist?’ But I look at it this way: I’m young enough so I’ll still be able to make another recording some day, with other musicians. This time, I wanted to make a statement, about my love of piping and respect for the pipers who laid all the groundwork for Irish traditional music, as well as piping.”
Twelve tracks in all, “Swimming Against the Falls” mixes some pretty familiar tunes – jigs like “The Pipe on the Hob” and “The Battering Ram,” the hop jigs “Rocky Road to Dublin” and “Dusty Miller” (Abarta says the latter is “a piping standard that I think can’t ever be overplayed”), the song air “Dear Irish Boy” and reels like “The Morning Star” and “The Morning Dew” – with fascinating, uncommon material, such as a march from the repertoire of blind Sliabh Luachra fiddler Tom Billy Murphy that is paired with a tune composed by William Reeve for an 18th-century pantomime, “Oscar and Malvina.” The venerable Napoleonic song “The Bonny Bunch of Roses” appears here as an air, Abarta bringing out its full emotional range; he cites a Seamus Ennis recording as the source, one of numerous eminent names from the piping tradition – others include Patsy Tuohey, Tommy Reck and Willie Clancy – appearing in the CD’s sleeve notes.
Abarta’s much-admired dexterity on fast tunes, his sensitive touch on the slower ones, is in evidence, along with his singular use of the pipes’ regulators – keys that play chords or harmony or add rhythm to the melody. And there’s no aural airbrushing of the pipes here, as the instrument’s sometimes cranky nature asserts itself with an occasional, but by no means debilitating, squeak or groan. It gives the CD the dynamic of a field recording, honest, authentic and powerful.
“Joey has a ‘retro’ outlook – and I don’t mean in terms of his clothes,” says Dan Neely, whom Abarta recruited to produce the album. “He knows a lot of the nuances; I don’t know that many other young pipers who are so committed to that aspect of the music. He has his own sound, and while you can tell he’s drawing on the older pipers, there’s not one style or influence he favors over another.
“He reminds me of Ted Williams who, in addition to being a great player, was a great student of baseball; Joey is a great piper, and a great student of Irish music.”
If California would seem to be an unlikely launch point for an Irish musician, then at first glance someone with the last name of “Abarta” would seem an unlikely candidate for Irish music. Abarta’s family history is rich and colorful, however: it includes French and Basque ancestry on one side and, on the other, a great-grandmother from Wicklow, whose father played concertina and whose brother worked his way from the Midwest to Los Angeles as a theatrical set carpenter, and eventually wound up in the film industry, constructing sets for “The Wizard of Oz,” among others.
Perhaps most importantly, though, it was Abarta’s great-grandmother who bought the then-teenaged Abarta his first bodhran, sometime after he had seen a broadcast of “Riverdance,” and was intrigued enough by the uilleann pipes solo of Davey Spillane to start taking up Irish music. He taught himself the instrument, also added tin whistle to his luggage, and by 18 was playing in a band. Then, at a pub in Santa Monica – right near the beach, of course – Abarta once again encountered the pipes, in the person of Dublin native Patrick D’Arcy.
“I was amazed at what he was doing, and I was hooked from then on,” Abarta recalls.
Abarta is quick to note his gratitude for the many favors and kindnesses people have shown him over the years, and that especially includes D’Arcy, who not only gave Abarta lessons – “He never mentioned anything about money,” Abarta adds – but got him involved in the Southern California Pipers Club, one of the largest in the US. The club members, in fact, put together a set of pipes for Abarta to use. (Abarta’s appreciation, by the way, also extends to his father, who would drive for an hour to take Abarta to piping lessons, and sleep in the car until they were over.)
Which is why when, years later, Abarta was mulling the logistics for recording “Swimming Against the Falls,” he initially resisted the idea of using a Kickstarter campaign to fund the project.
“Before moving to Boston, I was very much ‘in-between,’ practically homeless,” he explains. “I stayed on a lot of floors and couches, got fed and housed, and the hospitality was just amazing. I didn’t feel like I could ask all these people to help me again – I don’t want to be ‘that person’ who’s always needing something. But as I talked with friends and acquaintances, they convinced me that crowd-sourcing was how to get it done, and that it would be worth it.”
The results speak for themselves: 24 hours after launching his Kickstarter, Abarta had achieved his goal of $3,500, and he wound up raising twice that amount. Abarta was able to make 1,000 copies of the CD, and he has needed every one of them to meet the demand; at the beginning of last month, he had a little over 100 left.
Not that Abarta is bragging. In the end, what matters most to him is the music, and the enjoyment and sense of responsibility that comes with it.
“I love playing, but I also feel my job is to pass on the music to those who haven’t heard it, and perhaps who might want to play it. Sometimes that not easy, because the pipes are a real pain to keep in working order, and they have quite the personality.
“But there are certain situations where I feel the most alive: when you’re in a big session, and your pipes – for once – are working, and everyone is on the same pulse, switching tunes without having to say a word or even looking at one another. That’s when you know it’s worth it all.”
Abarta is helping co-organize, and appearing at, an ongoing series of ceilis at Doyle’s Pub, 3484 Washington St. in Jamaica Plain. The next one will be held Feb. 8 at 7 p.m.; a donation of $10 at the door is asked. For more information, send e-mail to email@example.com.