State of the Nation


State of the Nation: Niwel Tsumbu

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It’s a sign of Niwel Tsumbu‘s talent that as an absolute outsider to the Irish music scene a few years ago, he’s found himself on stage with an absolute who’s who of our city’s music right now. The Congolese born guitarist has fingers in a lot of pies. His latest project RiZA is his third that I’ve been particularly taken with (on top of his solo work and his guitar contributions as part of Donal Dineen’s Parish), and explores seriously personal themes (the first single about his kid turning out not to be genetically his) in gorgeous Central African language Lingala.

I caught up with Niwel to learn about promoting African music in the Irish market, the background to his new project and his numerous other explorations…

Tell me about the idea behind RiZA. It’s a phenomenal line up; how are you all going to work together and fuse your styles? 

RiZA is based on Risa, a fictional planet located about 88.2 light-years from earth, known for its beauty and relaxing tropical atmosphere. It is a world commonly sought by interstellar vacationers and starship crews on shore leave.Anybody into Star Trek would know this.

After I released my last record “all vibration”  in 2011, I went into a whole different journey of operas, theatre and performing with bands like Republic of loose, New Triangle, D.F.F ,The Multiverse, Donal Dineen’s Parish, Crash Ensemble, Treelan and Anarko Flamenco in Spain. I could not focus on my music that much. I was also  part of the Cork Opera house production of  Astor Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires, Roger Doyle’s “Burned” opera and also the Abbey Theatre’s fantastic Risen People-a rendition of  James Plunkett’s best selling novel Strumpet City.

So, I went for a long period without playing my own form of music and I started missing it. Strangely  enough I really missed singing, as with all these projects I was just playing the guitar. Last year I was having  really tough time and that’s when I decided to use sound to create an environment just like RiZA here on earth and viola  the concept of RiZA- A place of beauty and relaxing atmosphere. As you may have noticed I changed the “S” to “Z”

I am really happy with it,It is a line up of super stars in their own right. Eamonn Cagney is my long time collaborator, we have done so much together that it is nearly telepathic between the two of us at this stage. Paddy Groenland plays in many bands around town such as Ensemble Eriu, Manden Express and others and I am enjoying paying with him. I really like his touch. He then introduced me to Ema and Sally who are sisters and when they sing together- we used to call it “murder”.

I wrote all the music for this album but I am already looking forward to our second  one as I want  everyone involved to contribute with their composition for this one.

How easy do you find it to ‘sell’ African musical styles in Dublin? I’ve certainly seem some impressive live reactions. Does the language barrier prove an issue?

I don’t think it is that difficult if you know how to sell it.  There is a dedicated audience of “world Music” who would be used to listening to  music with other languages. In Ireland I notice when people talk about “African music” they mean West African music, more precisely Malian or Senegalese music. I asked a promoter friend of mine once, why do you mostly bring west African stuff here Africa is big?

Her answer was it is easier to sell. As soon as you  mention a griot from Timbuktu  or something the tickets fly out of the door.So,that is the angle…

State of the Nation: Aidan Cuffe (GoldenPlec)


While the point of ‘State of the Nation’ has been to examine the ups and down of the Irish music scene at present, I could hardly leave out projects just because I’m part of them, could I? Aidan Cuffe has been running GoldenPlec as the most all encompassing of acts of love for the Irish music scene for 13 years. That’s expanded to include festival stages, links with the Irish Independent, some huge name interviews, and of course the very magazine that Stephen Byrne and I now head up. Unsurprisingly, the man has plenty to say about progress in Irish music, and his own role in it…

GoldenPlec is one of the biggest and certainly one of the most all-encompassing music sites in Ireland at this point. What were the key steps in getting there?

It’s not easy getting through as much stuff as we do, but getting from where we were 10-13 years ago when we started out to where we are now has been relentless hard work. For me personally it’s a daily sacrifice to keep the site up to date. Over the years we’ve built up some great relationships with bands, promoters, brands and PR and we couldn’t operate as we do without those relationships. We have a built up trust and in this industry, trust goes a big distance.

There’s a fine line between supporting a scene and the virtual version of standing around waving pom poms. How do you stay the right side of that?

Honesty is our only policy. I have no interest in telling a band they are great for the sake of it. Our writers are asked to purely write what they feel about the album, but to back it up with valid and constructive criticism or praise. If you can’t back up what you’re saying, don’t say it.

It’s actually a hard line to draw, everyone wants coverage and we’re one of the places where a lot of bands get a lot of coverage but album reviews are subjective, it might just be that the person reviewing it just didn’t like it. Sometimes I wish we were a blog and we only posted stuff we liked, because we would be able to be universally positive. It’s hard telling a band who have put blood and sweat into their work that the person who reviewed their material just didn’t like it, even the most constructive of criticism can be stinging and it’s hard seeing the dismay in their social posts or if you meet them in person.

What are the biggest good and bad sides of the Irish music scene right now?

Well Irish music probably couldn’t be in a better place. There is so much good stuff out there right now, the quality of releases Irish acts are producing is international quality and there is so many outlets for music in Ireland.

We’ve got great independent record stores, we have a thriving multi-genre scene with quality oozing out in all kinds of different types of music, where before there might have been a slight lean towards indie music we have everything from pop, rock, metal, folk and more all bursting through with great tracks.

Ham Sandwich hold the #1 spot right as I type. That to me isn’t just a great story, it’s a validation of the quality of their music that we’ve been banging on about for years. Sometimes you feel like a broken record talking about the same bands. We were supporting Kodaline when they were 21 Demands. They played a show in a local community centre in Swords way back when they were honing the sound that’s now pretty much a global phenomenon. 10 years ago Delorentos played a charity gig for us in the Sugar Club, we thought back then they were the business and now Ireland is properly taking notice.

I guess that’s the only bad side of Irish music. Sometimes we take a decade to realise as a nation we have world class music in our back garden. That’s why I love festival like Knockanstockan, Vantastival and BARE in the Woods and more. They have all the bands you’re going to be listening to in 5-10 years playing now, growing as artists and showing anyone who will listen why they deserve that place in your earbuds.

State of the Nation: David Judge (Abner Browns/ Canalaphonic)


What do hairdressing and the Irish music scene have in common? If you’re aware of one of the coolest and most unlikely venues in the city, Rathmines-based Abner Browns, the answer will jump out at you. David Judge is a hairdresser by profession, but has found himself stuffing his salon with music memorabilia and turning it into a BYOB cultural hub that hosts some of the best acts in Ireland (it recently welcoming a small show from Duke Special, and Michael Stipe dropped in for a chat).

And that was all before his latest project – recently rebranded Canalaphonic from Canalapalooza, after a frankly outrageously hypocritical legal challenge from Castlepalooza – got underway. The festival will take place on canal barges and around Rathmines, and has already announced acts like The Hot Sprockets and Gavin Glass. David, in short, knows what he’s talking about. So here he is on his own heartlands, and Irish music in general:

Abner Browns is an unusual combination to say the least. How did such a venue come about, and how do the businesses compliment each other?

Well first of all it’s only one business, cutting hair is what i do for a living and what puts food on my kids table , the music is for me at the moment anyway. It’s just something I love doing, though its kind of taking over my life as I seem to have created a monster! But each does complement the other, the shop is a bit of a music museum, vintage guitars, gramophones, vinyl etc on the walls, so the music at night fits in nicely. The music and gigs have been great for the business and has increased our customer base in a huge way. This was never the intention, it started off with a guy playing some songs on the couch on a busy Saturday and has grown organically from that. But as a marketing tool it has been fantastic, we couldn’t buy the publicity we get .

What’s your vision for Abner Browns?

I don’t really have a ‘vision’ as such, the thing has become extremely popular and we seem to be known all over Ireland as well as getting mails from abroad. We’ve featured in inflight magazines and been filmed by Spanish TV.We’re part of the Dublin Now project which is basically the 100 coolest things in Dublin.The ‘brand’ and our name has grown and people want to involve us in stuff like the new Canalaphonic festival and some other festivals coming up in the summer. I’m promoting a couple of gigs and also managing Sinead White, one of the GoldenPlec’s 2015 picks, so who knows whats next ! I’ve a background in business and marketing before this so i do approach things in a slightly different way to some in the music industry.

State of the Nation: VannMusic

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VannMusic have just released their latest EP Running, which quickly found its way to the top end of the Irish charts, including a number one ‘physical single’ in Boy (you can get hold of the new releases through their site, here). The Dublin-based rockers have been slowly inserting themselves into the upper echelons of the local music scene over the past few years, and have stuck to their guns impressively, not least in their insistence in valuing their art (they won’t play for free no matter how big the gig) and in their determination to stay independent. Bizarrely, they were recently recommended on Twitter by none other than Piers Morgan.

For the latest ‘State of the Nation’, I spoke to Aaron about the learning process involved in breaking into the Irish music scene, their philosophy on live shows, taking bookings and music in general, and if there’s enough support out there:

Irish music seems to be on a high but the music industry in general on an ever declining spiral. Is that your view? Do you wish you’d been doing this two decades ago? 

Back two decades ago hardly any Irish bands were signed, there were less labels on offer and it was harder to get a record out then than it is now, unless of course you were U2 or The Cranberries.

If you were lucky enough to have a label you would’ve gotten more money from your label than you might get now if you were signed. I think I read somewhere before that the frames got £150k from ZTT to do “Dance The Devil” in the late 90’s. That kind of money just isn’t around now to make records. In saying that though, you can’t live in the past, Its easier to make records now as an independent due to the availability of good recording gear

Two decades would we be doing the same thing as now? Yeah, we would. We’d be trying to get ourselves on the next rung and grow the band both inside and outside of Ireland.

Is the industry in decline? That’s the business side of things & our secondary focus. Our main goal right now is getting our album together, writing good songs. I think we need to let the industry figure things out for itself. Two decades ago there were two main outdoor gigs in Ireland, Feile and Slane. Now there are a couple of festivals on every weekend from May to September. Most of these festivals are populated with Irish artists, who two decades ago wouldn’t have gotten the chance to play.

What are the greatest pros and cons of working on the Irish music industry at the moment?

I think the pros out weigh the cons. There are so many great Irish acts right now that are creatively pushing each other to bigger and better things. The level of music now doesn’t compare to any other time in recent memory.This has led to burgeoning communities amongst artists. More bands are getting on Irish radio /TV / newspapers. The only cons would be maybe if we had one or two more labels to help artists get their music to a wider audience that would help.

What are the biggest challenges you come across starting out as a band? Are they financial/ publicity related/ building a brand/ simply writing good music?

Thinking back to day one, there was too much excitement about the sounds we were working on to interfere with the start up phase. I guess the fundamental things like getting the music recorded properly, getting the CDs made, deciding on artwork, planning a show and so on, this was all fun and interesting to us. It was only the next stage which was seeking the correct team to manage our affairs. The music industry is full of excellent go-to people, for example a booking agent or a publicist which I guess for a new band, is the number one priority when wanting to get out there, show your music off and play gigs. You need to have the following; No.1 decent music. No.2 a decent fan base and No.3 a decent level of exposure and track record of selling out shows and an over all presence online and in your region. We have had the experience of several different avenues which we learned a great deal and one thing we had to get a hold of early, was where to spend the little bit of money that we had. Money is always going to be a thorn in the side of any unsigned band but we have learned to utilise it as best we can. It’s all about strategising. We have an a1 size white board which we regularly work from and if we have a problem we brainstorm how to get around it. When there’s a will…

State of the Nation: Gary Doyle, Street Ceol TV

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It’s always great to see new outlets trying to make an impact on Irish music, especially when their support is direct towards those who can’t afford to push themselves into our consciousness, and the work is done right at the grass roots. While they’ll admit themselves that they’re very much a work in progress, Street Ceol TV, who will launch their new website this week, are doing just that. Specializing in producing videos for acts across all genres. Here, Gary Doyle tells us about what they’ve been up to so far, future plans, and gives us his thoughts on the Irish music scene in general.

Congratulations on the new website. For those who are new to Street Ceol TV, who are you and what are you up to?

Thanks, we’re thrilled to be taking a step forward! We’re just normal guys really. We all have full time jobs away from the project. Louie started Street Ceol TV by himself about two years ago. He set up Facebook and YouTube accounts and started recording a few musicians using a very basic hand-held camera. Myself and Adam got on board just over a year ago and Dave has come on board more recently. Our aim with Street Ceol TV is to give independent musicians a tool to promote their music with. By tool I mean, a video recording of a live performance of one of their songs. We’ve worked with 20+ different artists so far, none of whom we’ve ever asked for a single cent. Outside of that, we use social media to commentate on the Irish music scene and to try to grow our following. Everything we do is in the hope of attracting more fans which we see as being so important for us in our bid to help independent musicians. The more fans and followers we have, the more people we can introduce to the musicians we work with. The website is an extension of that and the next piece of the puzzle in our mission to connect amateur musicians with larger audiences.

How do you decide what’s worth taking on, and are their plans to expand the scope?

Our immediate aim is getting the website up and running, which is going to take a good bit of focus and attention in the coming months. We have to get to grips with consistently producing great content to keep people interested in that. We certainly intend to expand in any way we can, and I think for that to happen we need to start generating a small bit of cash for us to invest in more recording equipment. Over the past year we’ve spent almost €2000 out of our own pockets buying a couple of cameras and other recording equipment. Thus far we’ve been rather limited with regard to who we can work with due to resource constraints.

The recording interface we’ve been using only has two microphone inputs, which has prohibited us from working with bands due to the lack of microphones we can use at one time. Just recently, though, we’ve invested in a new 16 input interface which will allow us to start investing in more microphones, in turn allowing us to start working with groups. Now that we’re generating more of a following and more credibility we want to improve, keep pushing the boundaries, and see if we can turn the project into something better than we ever imagined. How do we decide what to take on? So far we’ve just been grabbing every opportunity we could. It is getting more difficult now given the rise in incoming messages from musicians looking to work with us. I think that, plus the fact that we’ve been speaking for a while now about trying to run live gigs showcasing the talents we’ve worked with, means we may look to expand the team further to deal with increasing demands. We’re currently on the lookout for people interested in contributing to written content on the website. Anyone interested can contact us at streetceoltv@gmail.com.

You’ve already made quite a few videos for a good range of Irish acts. Who’s been particularly interesting to work with, and who were you most impressed with musically?

One thing we’ve always tried to do was cater for all genres. We didn’t want to put any restrictions on who we were or weren’t going to work with. We’ve also tried to harness that in the development of the website by allowing users to browse videos by genre.

In terms of who we’ve worked with, I really enjoyed the ‘Figured Out’ by LCG feat. Funzo video. I remember when we were doing the session and we all just knew it was going to turn out brilliant. It’s probably been the best video for us too regarding feedback from fans and the two lads themselves. They released an official music video soon after which was very successful. We were really happy knowing how much of an impact our production had on the success of the overall promotion of the song. We were very humbled to hear those words from LCG himself. I mean that’s the whole point of Street Ceol TV really – to do what we can to help aspiring musicians – and to get that gratitude from someone who we really did make a difference for is fantastic. I have to say though, we’ve thoroughly enjoyed working with everyone along the journey so far and have been fortunate to work with some very talented people. Everyone has been so lovely and really accommodating. We usually just set up sessions in the musician’s living room or kitchen and everyone has always been so good to us. We’ve made some great friends along the way.

State of the Nation: Bettine McMahon (Knockanstockan)

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There’s something about Knockanstockan. I’m not sure if it’s the carefree atmosphere, the lake-side location, the air of discovery that comes with their eclectic line up, or that it’s just so rustically hippie dippy it practically seeps into your pores. It really reminds me of settling into a corner of Glastonbury and bedding in for the weekend, something I’ve always wanted to do in theory, but suffered from too much fear of missing out to go through with it (my rave review for State.ie from 2010 sums it up, really).

I’m not sure the organizers realise it (see Bettine’s answer to my first question!), but there’s also a growing mythology around the place. It comes out in the stories people come home with, in the talk of early days and in the way the festival seems to infuse the entire ethos of a certain section of Irish music culture. That, and they just seem so, so nice! A case in point: not only has Bettine given me a fantastic lowdown of what the festival is all about here, she’s thrown in an exclusive early band announcement, too. Read on!

I hear Knockanstockan has quite a back story (I may be totally wrong, but I heard a story of a squat community turning into gigs and then festivals). How did things start, how did they develop and when did it all become so real for you?

Ha-ha that is hilarious! You’re not too far wrong though. The festival started from the idea of a group of musicians who were gigging tirelessly and finding it hard to get slots at the bigger festivals. At the time, in 2007, there weren’t really any small festivals around that booked unsigned and independent Irish artists, so the idea was to build our own.

What started out small soon began to take momentum and every year, we all wanted to make a bigger impact for the musicians than the previous year. More people volunteer their time every year and we learn to grow with the imagination and skills of the community. “Blood, Sweat and Volunteers” as we say.

In 2010, a bunch of the crew did move in together into a large house which has space to rehearse, record, build stages, make music videos and much more. It’s not a’ squat’; it’s more a base for some very creative people!

It became very real when we realised we weren’t there to party, but to run a festival!

You can see the house in the Hot Sprockets video ‘Comin On’:

State of the Nation: Kenneth Killeen (12 Points)


One thing that’s always impressed me over my seven years or so living in Ireland to date is the diversity of festivals. The big ones are great, but the small ones – Other Voices, Knockanstockan, Vantastival to name just a few – have always come across to me as the place to meet fellow music obsessives, and the place to track down the best atmosphere on offer. Multicultural and multifaceted jazz festival 12 Points, which announced its line up this week and takes place in April, is one I’m fairly new to, and has all the makings of something wonderful in that it’s curated, diverse and simply trying to be good at what it does.

Festival director Kenneth Killeen kindly took the time out of his frantic festival build up schedule this week to tell me about what they’re doing, why they’re doing it and why it’s important. And to throw in a few tips on the Irish jazz scene along the way. I’m off to spend a couple of hours on Soundcloud… 

12 Points was specifically set up to interlink Dublin with other places in Europe, musically. What’s come of that, so far? Has it matched expectations?

I think it’s safe to say that it has matched expectations. As we go into our 9th edition of the festival, looking back gets a little easier. There are more reference points in the past to measure our impact, and crucially, time has passed, which allows you to see results. 12 Points has always been an ambitious project and one with a strong concept around linking urban centres in Europe through music. I suppose we had many questions when we started, such as, “What does it mean to be a jazz musician in the 21st Century?” or “Do other countries & cities face similar challenges to the creative practices in Ireland?”.

Through the festival itself and our 12 Points PLUS programme from 2011 to 2013 we have succeeded in linking Dublin and Ireland with multiple festivals in Europe. Thankfully the 12 Points brand is one that European promoters and festival bookers have come to trust; they trust our curation, distillation and presentation of 12 acts each year and use the festival as a benchmark for emerging European talent. And it’s great that it is seen as an Irish brand from an Irish organisation. I think that’s important.

Being a small country, on the periphery of Europe geographically, we’ve managed to insert ourselves right in the middle of the European music scene, through 12 Points. But we still have work to do in this area. I would like to see more Irish artists represented at the large European festivals and industry showcases like Jazzahead. The Irish scene is very progressive, with a lot of talented musicians and an urban voice that is unique to this country. Its only when you hear bands from all across Europe that you can get a sense of that. 12 Points has highlighted some of these bands over the years and, as 12 Points grows, I hope that performance opportunities for Irish artists abroad will grow also.

State of the Nation: Ciaran Byrne (Cauldron Studios)

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Cauldron Studios is a popular central Dublin recording, producing and mixing facility that’s recently hosted the likes of Hozier and Eleanor McAvoy. They function on a side of the music industry that many of us music-consuming fanatics can easily forget, but their role if vital in the product that we’re all so passionate about. Having played a prime role in our city since their formation back in 1999, Cauldron has seen, enjoyed and suffered through the modern-day history of Irish music. Co-owner Ciaran Byrne took time out of his day to give me an in-depth lowdown on the way things are…

You’ve been in business 16 years and seem to be going well. What are the greatest challenges involved in keeping a studio running?

The Studio business is like the longest Roller-coaster ride you’ve ever been on. There are times when you’re coasting along nice gentle stretches with plenty of great acts coming through the door with the best new music you’ve heard in ages, and then WHAM! you hit this massive dipper and you’re wondering: are the phones working, has your address been removed from the directories or has the website just died.

I think that to some extent that’s the way it’s always been, but over the last 27 years that I’ve been working in the studio business it has changed dramatically, especially since the early to mid 2000’s. The fall of major labels interest in supporting development of acts has in some ways given the power back to the artists, but it has also removed the structures that allowed bands to fund recording projects. For us, we’ve had to adapt quickly to changes and offer more varied services to artists. I think because it’s such a small team with just myself, Bill Shanley. Michael Manning and Trish Nowak you’re able to make decisions in minutes. Then we get Trish to make us stick to those decisions!!

Our biggest challenge over the years have been working to stay unique to the industry here in Ireland with an affordable studio, in the city centre, that has great equipment and instruments that you just won’t get in other studios. The studios that I’ve worked in since I started have always had a kind of sterile, functional look to them and they never really appealed to me. Yet when I’ve recorded in a few studios outside of Ireland, some had this creative and comfortable personality to them that induced good work out of everyone there. This may have been down to a bit of cool furniture, decor or colours on the walls or good lighting , but you can tell when you walk into one of the good ones that the vibe is right.

Usually though it’s the people working there that create that sensation for you as the musician or engineer or producer. You need to feel like this is YOUR creative space while you’re there and that everyone working for the studio is here to make it the most enjoyable, productive and hopefully fun time you’ve had in a studio. I would hope that when people walk through the doors in The Cauldron that they get that same feeling. I know that there are days when I’ve been away or working somewhere else and I walk back down the steps and in through the door I get hit by that.
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