Brongaene Griffin knew what she wanted at age 14, and she's never wavered
When fiddler Brongaene Griffin launched into 'Lord Gordon's Reel' with Celtic legend Kevin Burke last month at the Hollywood Theatre, it was a student's dream.
Griffin has been Burke's most dedicated disciple since 1983 Ñ when she could catch him in his adopted hometown for lessons. Burke's schedule takes him on the road for one and two months at a time.
And he only plays about one concert a year in Portland, so if Griffin hadn't performed with him last month, she'd have had a long wait.
The flame-haired Griffin (her first name is pronounced 'brahn-win'), looks the epitome of an Irish fiddler. She collared Burke after his annual Portland show in 1983, and he told the story from the stage, laughing at the recollection.
'She asked me if I'd teach her, and I told her I'd be out of town for a couple of months,' he said. 'The first day I was back, the phone rang at eight o'clock in the morning, and I thought, 'Who on earth is that?' And Bronny said: 'When can I start?'
'It wasn't the first time I'd given a lesson, but I don't consider myself a teacher. But she was so determined to learn, I thought it would be obscene not to try and help her out.'
Burke is one of the premier Celtic fiddlers in the world, along with Christian Lemaitre and Johnny Cunningham, with whom he sometimes performs. He's also played with Christy Moore, Kate Bush and Arlo Guthrie and has been a member of the landmark Celtic bands the Bothy Band, Patrick Street and Open House.
Burke began to give the 14-year-old Griffin one-hour weekly lessons when he could and was delighted at her level of proficiency.
'I tried to shake her off,' he says, 'but she was insistent that she wanted to learn this kind of music and I was her only link. She didn't know anybody in the world who played it, let alone in Portland. So the first time I asked her to play to see what I was dealing with. She was really good.'
Burke started teaching Griffin the little inflections and details that aren't written on the music sheets: grace notes, ornaments, double stops, triplets, shakes, rolls and bowing techniques.
Fiddle students who aren't so lucky can buy videos on Burke's Web site nowadays and watch him demonstrate these touches.
Griffin started learning the violin when she was 7 years old but was catapulted into a world of cutthroat competition, she recalls.
'I was forced to play in contests by my dad,' she says. 'People I loved became bitter enemies, and I ended up hating playing and crying afterward. When I was 12, I just quit.'
Lessons with Burke were different, Griffin says:
'Kevin had a way of making lessons stress-free. It was like a sanctuary for an hour a week when he was in town. I nearly always knew what he'd given me to learn. I always practiced and rarely came to a lesson unprepared.
'But if something happened Ñ I lost the cassette or whatever Ñ he was never nasty like some teachers. He'd make a joke, and we'd start over. And he didn't combine music with competition!'
Burke certainly had plenty to teach.
'How many songs can I play? It must be in the hundreds, maybe thousands. Recall is the only limitation,' he says. 'One book I've got is from a guy called Capt. Francis O'Neill. In Chicago in the 1920s, he put together the definitive collection of Irish music. It has over 1,800 tunes in it. I never sat down and learned every one, but I expect I'd know half Ñ and that's just one book.'
So, Burke would teach Griffin and then go on tour, leaving her tapes to practice with. As Griffin learned, she became curious about Ireland, and Burke encouraged her to go there.
'She was always going on about how she hated Portland,' he says. 'I told her to travel and see another way of living. Just remember that this is your home, and you'll probably end up thinking it's great.'
In her search for the heart of Celtic music, Griffin found Belfast Ñ where she landed in 1990 Ñ to be a relatively closed musical society.
Celtic music 'is reserved for people's nieces and daughters,' she says with a sigh. 'Ireland is like a dream you can't get out of. It's so depressing.'
Griffin found that music in Northern Ireland had sharply divisive religious overtones, reflecting the society. These overtones were missing in the Irish Republic, but she and her husband, Richie Martin, whom she met in Belfast, never moved to Dublin, where she could have played more.
'We were always going to be coming back to America, and we kept putting it off,' she says.
By the time Griffin returned to Portland in 1997, it looked much prettier than she recalled, and she was energized to share what she'd learned.
These days she plays with harpist Elizabeth Nicholson and with the band Cul An Ti, 'when fiddle player Skip Parente is out of town,' she says. Cary Novotny of Cul An Ti is also Griffin's booking agent at Celtic Productions NW.
Griffin plays a $400 violin with a tone she likes, but at one time she had one worth several thousand dollars. Just before leaving Nantucket, Mass., for Portland in 1987, an airline representative told her she could carry only one item Ñ and she had two, the violin and her Yorkshire terrier, Kiwi.
'I chose the Yorkshire terrier, and the airline lost my violin,' she says. 'Kiwi was 4 years old and lived another 11 years, and he was more important. But I hadn't insured the violin, and so the maximum liability was $1,500 Ñ which doesn't buy a very good violin.
'I played every violin in every shop, and some prestigious names made in Paris sounded awful. Then I found this fiddle made in eastern Washington!'
Though Griffin can be heard in a number of places around St. Patrick's Day, she has recently refocused her musical efforts, collecting 60 tunes about cats for a planned CD.
A determined cat lover (she has 20 Ñ down from 32), Griffin is a big supporter of the Feral Cat Coalition, which spays and neuters strays. She hopes that a cat CD will raise money to help the association and plans to tour behind it when she's finished.
Griffin's love of cats is something she doesn't share with her mentor. 'Kevin thinks I'm insane,' she says. 'He's never had cats in the house.'
After almost 20 years, Burke is delighted with Griffin's musical progress.
'I'm not her teacher anymore,' he says, shaking his head as the two sit in his Northeast Portland living room.
'Yes, you are!' she fires back at him.
Burke shifts in his chair before the fire on this rainy afternoon.
'Music is a learned thing, not a taught thing,' he avers. 'All a teacher can do is open the door; it's up to the student to step through.
'I got the feeling the first time I saw Bronny playing that there's a peace of mind she can achieve through playing music that's really precious to her. I think that's stuck with her.'