There’s a whole lot of fun to be had this May Bank Holiday weekend down west, as Ballydehob Jazz Festival organiser Joe O’Leary, who is feeling excited, explains.
“Thousands come into the village over the weekend…it’s amazing, all the bars, cafes, even the church has music (a jazz mass),” he says.
One of the returning headline bands is ‘Home Jazz Band’, this year featuring the enigmatic lead vocalist Milda Stasaitytė. “These guys are amazing,” says Joe “they’re from Villnius in Lithuania, which is the hotbed of new jazz and new swing. They got voted the best swing band in Europe a few years ago. They can’t get over Ballydehob, they absolutely love everything about it.
Home Jazz Band is an innovative and playful traditional jazz and swing band and will have swing dancers tearing up the dance floor all night long.
“It’s the first time we’ve put on a Friday night act, so we’ll see how that goes.
Trio Balkan Strings are a father and sons guitar trio from Serbia who have played concert halls all over the world.”
This is music that is rich, unconventional, fresh, spontaneous and brimming with energy, fusing several Balkan styles — Serbian, Gypsy, Macedonian, Romanian, Moldavian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Mediterranean and Greek — with jazz, Gypsy swing, classical music, asymmetrical rhythms and original guitar interpretation.
Saturday night with Barrence Whitfield and The Savages, Joe says “is gonna be nuts”.
“He’s like a Little Richard, a real character.” This full-on soul man has been described as the owner of an incredible pair of lungs, with limitless energy and unmatched enthusiasm for his music and his audience.
With top bands from all over the world, this sounds like the festival to be at this May weekend. “And the music trail is free, which is amazing,” says Joe “as you’re getting really good quality acts.
“We’ve tried to get the right balance between really good local and international acts, so there are lots of Cork artists in the mix, including Sam Clague, Clare Sands and Ballydehob’s very own community choir Acapellabella.”
Niwel Tsumbu with Eamonn Cagney will also be on stage, promising an explosive concert, both intimate and elaborate.
Oh Pep! one of Australia’s most compelling and favourite bands performing jazz influence indie folk pop, following on from a successful workshop in Ballydehob last month, will play on the Sunday.
“Even though you get funding it’s never enough, as many of the artists are coming a very long way, Australia, New Orleans…” explains Joe “so we’ve sold raffle tickets and held flag days, you name it, doing everything we can to raise the necessary funds to make this an amazing show.”
Joe is no stranger to the stage himself. Although he says he doesn’t have time to play gigs anymore – “between running the pub and getting tricked into running festivals, I don’t have time” – the former Fred lead vocalist is not missing out. Running Levis’ Cornerhouse in Ballydehob with his partner Caroline O’Donnell, Joe is enjoying the challenge of turning this village pub into a favourite music venue, hosting top international acts from all over the world.
“I think that artists are more trusting of someone who has worked in the business, so the venue Levis’ is starting to stand on its own feet now,” says Joe proudly.
A grandnephew of the late sisters Nell and Julia Levis, who ran the bar for many years, Joe took over the pub when Nell died. The pub is 110 years in the family.
“We moved down five years ago, in March 2013. It feels like 25 years ago,” he admits laughing.
Growing up, Joe spent summers at his granny’s house in Lisheen. “Nell and Julia would call over every Sunday afternoon between 11 and 3, the only time the pub closed,” he recalls. “They were amazing women, an institution…the amount of good feeling we get from people because of them, all over the world, is astonishing!”
On Nell’s 104th birthday, Joe and a friend played a trad music gig for her in the hospital. “She conducted us from the bed,” he recalls smiling.
Nell passed away the week that Joe and Caroline moved down to Ballydehob. Joe’s mum Joan O’Leary was running the bar at the time. “There might have been eight people in the pub on a Saturday night,” he says. The couple started giving Joan a hand in the pub and before they knew it Ballydehob felt like home. “We decided we loved where we’re living. Great people and a great place, what more could you want?”
Joe and Caroline have a little girl now so life is even more of an enjoyable challenge. “Johanna is 16 months and wonderful,” says the proud dad “and she loves music.”
Caroline works from home so childcare is juggled during the week between Joe and the local crèche. “It’s organised chaos…late nights and early mornings, but we love the life down here!”
For the summer season Levis’ will open Thursday to Sunday. Gigs at the music venue are mostly pass-the-hat. It’s a concept we picked up touring in Canada and the States,” explains Joe. “People give what they can at the gigs and are mostly very generous. That’s how the band is paid. We couldn’t afford the acts otherwise.”
One ticketed event, which has proved very successful and happens at Levis’ on the first Sunday of every October is ‘Secret Song’. “We fill a room with people and they have no clue who’s playing, even the bands are in the dark,” explains Joe. “It’s really great, a mix of international and local bands. We had 20 acts last year.
“I’ve no regrets,” says Joe who admits he actually studied Earth Science “rocks” in college. “There’s a reason for everything,” he says laughing “building funded my music habit for 20 years.
“You do have to work harder to be able to live and work in West Cork but how bad…it’s worth it!”
For the full line-up at Ballydehob Music Festival, which runs from May 4-7, go to www.ballydehobjazzfestival.org.