Family matters

When Irishman Michael Leahy landed on Canadian shores in 1825, he brought with him a well-worn fiddle and a long memory for jigs. But surprised he might be if he knew that five generations later, his DNA would spawn the band Leahy — the Canadian Celtic group made up entirely of Leahy brothers and sisters.

Leahy family bands go back generations, but this one — composed of 9 of the 11 children born to Frank and Julie Leahy of rural Lakefield, Ontario — cracked the mold as a part-time family act when eldest son Donnell turned out to be the most ferocious fiddling prodigy of the entire clan. By age 16, he was a poised veteran of the contest circuit, exhibiting a startling command of Celtic, jazz, bluegrass and classical styles. And while blazing the competition trail, Donnell also perfected the art of working the crowds.

“Growing up,” he reminisces, “we played a lot of local fairs where people expected a certain kind of fiddling, dance and country music. We learned how to get the standing ovation — how to set it up and how to get it.”

And they got it.

The Leahys (pronounced LAY-hee) were the subject of an Oscar-winning 1985 documentary, The Leahys: Music Most of All, which featured their black-Irish allure, electrifying music and spectacular French Canadian step-dancing.

Unlike other famous family bands such as the Jacksons or the Osmonds, the Leahys were not some financial afterthought of greedy parents who happened to notice that their kids had talent. No, it was simply a foregone conclusion that all the Leahy children would play music in some capacity.

“Yes, we can all play the fiddle,” admits sixth sibling Maria, a guitarist, as if 11 fiddle-playing kids in one family were the norm. “Growing up, we didn’t watch television. Mom and Dad realized with the first few kids that TV wasted precious time. Instead we played music. We didn’t know anything different.”

Frank Leahy taught his entire brood to play fiddle, which they squeezed in between farm chores and homework assignments. Their mother, Julie, was a step-dancing champion from Cape Breton who provided their first dance lessons. And the senior Leahys gave their brood a leg up in other ways, too.

“We got our start playing in their band,” says Maria. “As each of us learned to play, we would join our parents on-stage. We were like little guest performers in their act.”

The siblings traveled and performed together every summer for 15 years. Finally, after a grueling six-month stint playing three shows a day at Phantasiland (the German equivalent of Disneyland), the family band broke apart in 1990. “We were all burntout,” confesses Maria. Not to mention that life just got in the way.

So off they went in their separate directions, with only fiddle virtuoso Donnell and his piano-playing sister Erin left to carry on the family legacy. For the next three years, the pair played local pubs, continuing to polish and refine the songs of their forefathers. Meanwhile, the abdicators (who all still lived in Ontario) were invited to join the duo for an occasional reel or two when they weren’t too busy.

“And everyone dropped in,” says Donnell.

But Maria Leahy attributes their current incarnation to a family friend who insisted that the musicians reunite. So the siblings morphed from the frilly-shirt-wearing darlings of the country-fair circuit to the present black-clad, fiddle-driven artists you see on tour today.

Once they re-formed in earnest, the demand for their performances snowballed, says Maria.

“Over the course of two weekends, we made our first CD. … We just went into the studio and laid down tracks of all the tunes we’d been playing in the pubs,” she remembers. “We just played it and produced it.”

Soon after that fruitful recording session, a studio employee brought a Virgin Records executive to hear the band play in Toronto, and the group scored a contract. On the heels of that deal, ueber country-pop star Shania Twain, a fellow Canadian, personally chose the Leahys to open her 1998-99 maiden world tour after she caught the family act when they both headlined Canada’s Juno Awards.

The group has been skating on the sheer strength of this one, self-produced, self-titled CD ever since. But now they’re finally back in the studio, working on their second project (due out this summer).

“Our new music has more of an edge,” claims Maria. “We take the raw and beautiful aspects of a traditional tune and make the arrangement more complex.”

Their first disc is an instrumental compilation of traditional Irish, Breton and Quebecois tunes the Leahys grew up playing. On the upcoming album however, all but two of the songs are original and will showcase Denise as lead vocalist.

“We are all multi-instrumentalists,” Maria notes nonchalantly. “The three guys usually play fiddle, but there is always one number in every performance where everyone plays fiddle.”

That feat alone makes this group worth seeing. The Leahy clan makes its greatest impact on-stage. Their dynamic presence and wild, percussive step-dancing simply cannot be communicated on disc. And, like the fiddling, they’ve all got the moves.

“We actually use step-dancing as an instrument … just like the fiddle, piano or drums,” Maria points out.

Canadian stepdancing is more fluid than standard Irish choreography. There’s more body movement and the hands are freer, a style hybridized by the French lumberjacks who worked in Canadian lumber camps. And though their fiery dancing looks effortless, the Leahys don’t take their athletic prowess for granted.

“You have to think about the breathing and timing, and that can be tricky,” Maria says about their flashy moves. “But it gets to the point where your body becomes an extension of the music itself, and the dance becomes second nature.”

The upcoming pair of Leahy concerts, part of Diana Wortham Theatre’s Mainstage Series, are truly command performances.

“More people asked when Leahy might return for another performance than any other show we have ever had,” acknowledges DWT Managing Director John Ellis. “Folks who saw them once want to see them again, and the folks who missed them the first time won’t miss them this time around.”

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