Oisín’s primary instrument is a little-known frame drum from Ireland. He started developing an interest in it before he could even walk, following the example of his father, Steáfán Hannigan, known for writing the “Bodhrán book”. He started teaching bodhrán at the age of 7 and began developing his own unique melodic style of playing at around 13 years old. He is currently working on a new method of teaching this instrument and often travels to teach workshops to students in different cities around Canada.
The style he plays and teaches heavily emphasizes the pitched nature of the drum. Using specific overtone muting and precise manipulation of the pitch, he is able to play accurate melodies within a 2 octave range. While most people stick to either the single stick or double stick approaches, Oisín favors a sticking technique that doesn’t sacrifice the advantages of either.
The bodhrán that he plays the most at the current time is a 14 inch drum skinned with a newly developed more elastic membrane and a solid ash shell, made by Shaw Percussion, a maker of some of the finest bodhráns available. Having been endorsed since early 2020, Oisín is now working closely with Phil Shaw to develop a drum optimized for his unique style of playing.
Tar & Other Large Frame Drums
Growing up surrounded by his mother and father’s instruments and immense talents, Oisín has had the opportunity to pursue nearly any musical path of his choosing. However, he has always naturally gravitated towards frame drums. It was at the North American Frame Drum Association’s festival in 2008, at which his father Steáfán Hannigan taught, where he saw and met players such as Andrea Piccioni, Glen Velez, David Kuckhermann and many more inspiring musicians. This event triggered in him an intense fascination with frame drums that has no end in sight. He now plays frame drums in a variety of different styles and they have become an intrinsic part of his musical journey, second only to the bodhrán.
Finger style frame drums exist in one way or another on every continent on the planet, apart from Antartica. Nearly every culture, in some form, has a version of them. A frame drum is one of the most simple instrument one can create as it’s simply a shallow frame with a membrane stretched across. In the mid 90s to the early 2000s, there was a surge in popularity in the western world where people took techniques primarily from the Middle East and North Africa and blended them with their own styles of playing. It is this new wave of playing that informs the way that Oisín plays these instruments.
The incredible tar that he plays was made by Phil Shaw of Shaw Percussion, a small Canadian drum maker, whom he is currently working with to create his very own take on many other instruments.
Hundreds of years before they were ever given the name of bodhrán, Ireland has had a longstanding tradition of frame drums. Instead of the recognisable and cohesive techniques that we have today, it was a far more fragmented and inconsistent tradition. The regional differences varied so widely that the drums in question could scarcely be considered to be the same instrument, differing greatly in both playing style and size. Some were played with sticks or knucklebones in interesting ways, while others used a vast range of different hand techniques. A few of them even had zills or cymbals.
The particular style that Oisín plays is one that bears a striking resemblance to a lesser-known tamburello style from a small remote village in southern Italy which was introduced to the larger frame drum community by Andrea Piccioni. It is a hand style played on a smaller drum which uses the thumb and lower half of the hand rotating around the first finger to produce two distinct tones, with the thumb sounding out a low bass note, while the lower three fingers strike a higher note. It also makes use of the fingers of the opposing hand to bend the pitch, similar to a pandeiro, by squeezing.
Oisín learned the style from his father, Steáfán Hannigan, and has since made some adaptations such as occasionally incorporating the first and ring fingers to produce a more consistent sound when needed.
The darbouka/darbeki/doumbek is a goblet drum with a long and storied history from the Middle East. It has existed in various forms for at least a thousand years. In its current form, it is used in a huge range of different genres from across the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa and even the Balkans. Today, it is a hugely popular instrument, and with its natural inclination to be an impressive and downright virtuosic soloist instrument, it has garnered a large amount of attention from percussionists the world over.
When Oisín was around 4 years old, after discovering the local Arabic music stations on his first radio, he attended a WOMAD festival in the UK at which his parents were performing. At the festival, he and his mother, Saskia Tomkins, went off to look at stalls and came across a tent full of Turkish instruments and tapestries. As the story goes, upon entering the stall with his mother, he made a beeline for a small Turkish style drum and exclaimed: “Look mummy, a darbouka!”. At which point, the stall owner, who had heard the remark, came over and was so impressed that this toddler knew the name of the instrument that he gave it to Oisín. As it happens, he’s kept hold of that drum and still has it to this day.
Oisín is currently studying darbouka with the acclaimed Lebanese player and teacher Joseph Khoury in Montréal. When he was younger, his approach to darbouka was a more contemporary style blending Turkish and Arabic techniques. This was taught to him by his father Steáfán Hannigan, who himself learned from the great Rony Barrak. While he took an extended break from the instrument in high school to further develop his bodhrán playing, he is now eagerly pursuing a more traditional Arabic technique. He wishes to learn the music from the perspective of a musician that comes from the tradition as best as he can, rather than from the vantage point of an enthusiastic outside observer. Coming from a place of tradition himself, he sees how incredibly important it is to learn the whole tradition and not just the instrument.
Oisín first started learning this instrument in early 2018, but it wasn’t until meeting the late Michel Merhej backstage at a concert in Toronto that he really fell in love with it. Although it’s a more recent addition to his musical arsenal, it is one that is quickly rising through the ranks to becoming one of his favorites.
The riq is a small frame drum played primarily in classical Arabic ensembles, but also in various styles and forms across the Middle East, Mediterranean and North Africa. As such, there are many different and diverse ways of playing it. Oisín is currently working on the classical form as well as a more traditional Arabic style. In the future, he wishes to turn his learning to the plethora of other techniques available.
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While Ireland has had whistles in a large array of different sizes for a very long time, the modern version of the low whistle is a more recent addition to the tradition, having only been developed in the early 1970s. Despite its much shorter history, it has cemented itself as a part of the sound of Ireland at least in part due to large production stage shows such as Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, and its prominent use in cinematic music in Hollywood films.
Since a very young age, Oisín has always been enamoured with the incredibly mellow, if not haunting tone of the low whistle, as well as its expressive nature. He has always particularly been interested in its use in slow airs, a form that he had always been drawn to. In 2018, he was given his first low whistle, a Chieftain MKII Low D, by his father Steáfán Hannigan. Steáfán, who authored “The Low Whistle Book”, started him off with a focus on breath control and playing long tones over speed. Due to this focus, and him having grown up with hearing the instrument daily, he already knew the sound of the notes he was reaching for, and thus, it didn’t take him long to begin to play it at a performance level. Oisín primarily uses it today with his trio “A Small wee Band”, but always relishes a chance to take it out of the case, which he carries everywhere with him.
The tin or penny whistle is a small but popular fipple flute from Ireland. Thanks to their incredible affordability, relatively easy fingering, and cultural status, it is an instrument that nearly everyone from Ireland has had an opportunity to play at some point in their life.
Oisín is no exception to that rule and has been playing the instrument on and off since he was about 7 years old. Despite his access to it, he didn’t start to take it seriously until he was about 18, mostly due to not wanting to diverge too much from his focus on percussion. Since then, he now counts it as an important part of his sonic profile and has gone on to regularly use it in concert, and on multiple albums.
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Oisín Hannigan is not an accredited scholar of history, nor ethnomusicology. As such, any claims to the history of his instruments that he makes could be factually inaccurate. However, they are made in good faith to the best of his understanding as a player and student of the instruments and come from the information that he has gathered through conversations and experience in the field. If anyone takes issue or finds a flaw in what has been stated, feel free to contact the team through the Contact page and make the issue known, as we are always looking to improve our knowledge. Thanks.