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Robert Zielinski is ‘simply one of the best Irish musicians in Australia’
Doug Spencer, former ABC Radio National presenter

'Robert Zielinski is a musician's musician'
Rod Vervest, former Fairbridge Festival director

'Robert Zielinski's Torbay Suite was a sublime musical-visual journey, the highlight of the 2019 Brave New Works Festival, inspiring the biggest standing ovation I ever seen at the Civic Centre'
Peter Keelan, former festival director

Robert Zielinski grew up in the Perth hills, learning traditional Irish music since he was eight years old, first with Sean Doherty and later Mick Doherty. Mick was a member of a family of traveling fiddle players, storytellers and tinsmiths from Co. Donegal. Mick’s uncle was the iconic fiddle player Johnny Doherty, featured on many recordings and the documentary “The fiddler on the road”. At seventeen years of age, Robert moved to Ireland, where he spent 14 years living on the West coast. He has toured in the USA, Europe and Australia. He taught for three years at the Galway School of Traditional Irish Music and in 2000 he won Ireland’s Michael Coleman Traditional Fiddle Player of the Year Award. Robert is also a violin maker and performs on a violin he made himself.

Robert Zielinski is an Australian fiddle player, collector of rare tunes, composer, violin maker and above all a highly regarded traditional Irish fiddle player. He first heard the fiddle when he was seven and recalls being transfixed by the sound. He started playing at eight years old by ear with a family friend, Hilda Blakey. As luck would have it, his neighbour Eddie Lowe was a fine Irish Australian fiddle player and his wife Karen played the concertina. Every week Robert would learn a tune from Eddie and there was often a session afterwards with them both. Eddie brought young Robert to perform at the Hills and Armadale folk clubs, where Robert remembers a very rich tradition of singers from England, Scotland, Australia, Ireland and Wales. 

At ten years old, Eddie brought Robert to Toodyay Folk Festival and it was there that Robert met Sean Doherty. Sean from Co. Mayo is a much loved and instrumental figure in the Perth Irish community, having taught many to play, giving so much of his time and energy. Sean Doherty, Ray Deeley, Aidan Cruise, Kevin Saunders and Margaret Doherty were having a session on the street and while Robert was standing there listening, Sean spotted him and asked him to play a tune. From that day on, Sean took Robert under his wing and introduced him to Perths Irish community who kind of adopted him. Every Friday night Robert went to Sean’s house to learn tunes and here Sean gave him a record of Paddy Canny, PJ Hayes, Peader O’Loughlin and Bridie Lafferty, Robert’s favourite album. He also gave him a recording of Michael Coleman. Almost every weekend there were Ceilidh band outings with Sean and the above mentioned, and house sessions and parties. All this while Sean was telling Robert about a great fiddle player who lived down in Rockingham called Mick Doherty. Mick wasn’t playing at the time due to a very tragic event in the family. When Robert was 12 he finally met Mick in a house session in Seans. Sean used Robert to kind of bring Mick out again. They hit it off immediately and Robert recalls being totally captivated by Mick’s tone, his command, the swing and also great sense of wildness and depth in his music. Mick asked Robert to visit him and immediately sorted him out with a great fiddle that cost $200 at the time. To give some idea of the draw that Mick had on him, Robert would ride his bike 80 km round trip with the fiddle on his back to see Mick. They became great friends right up to when Mick passed away at 90 years of age in 2014. On this first visit, Mick told Robert they needed to have a chat man to man up in the house as oppose to the shed where they normally played. Mick, leaning over and looking right through Robert, told him all about his family of travelling fiddle players, story tellers and tinsmiths from Co. Donegal. He then told Robert not to mention this to anyone as he didn't want them to know, a tactic Mick learnt in London to avoid notoriety around the pub scene where he only wanted to go and play a tune as Mick. Robert recalls a funny story when James Byrne heard Robert in 1992 playing a highland. He enquired where he did get it, to which Robert replied his friend Mick Doherty. James immediately said he must be one of the Doherty’s to which Robert clammed up much to James gentle amusement. James then said he spent a great night sitting on a bag of turf listening to Mick some twenty five years before on Mick’s last trip home. He then said to Robert he needed to get every tune than man knows.

On a visit to Melbourne when Robert was 15, he met and heard the Fitzgerald’s, Joe, Paddy and John RIP. On the plane coming back, Sean suggested to Robert he should go to Ireland and immediately Robert remembers thinking that’s what he would do. He worked on an orchard for two years after leaving school and at 17 left for Ireland not knowing anyone there.

Arriving in Monkstown he soon thought he needed to get out of there and left for Willie Clancy festival. While hitching in Co. Clare, he was picked up by Mark Gregory. Mark quizzed Rob why he had come to Clare and Robert said to meet Paddy Canny. Unbeknown to Robert, Mark doubled back and pointed to a distant man in a field and said there’s Paddy Canny. Robert remembers his gentle nature and large hands. After Willie Clancy festival, Mark brought him back to Feakle where he found Robert a job gardening and working on an old house for bed and board. It was there that Rob met Joe Bane, PJ Hayes, Martin, Francie Donnelley, and many more. He formed a special friendship in particular with Joe Bane, a tin-whistle player.

Robert went over to London for the winter and then back to Feakle the following spring. That summer he met Andy Davey, the Sligo fiddle master, and Declan Folan. Robert studied and played with Andy for ten years and credits him as the most musical man he has ever met. 

He returned to Australia for a year, then back to Ireland where he lived for 14 years in Co. Kerry, Cork, Galway. In Ireland he met too many players to mention, but the stand outs for Robert were always the older generation: Bobby Casey, Junior Creehan, Joe Ryan, Paddy Fahey, Paddy Jones, Andy McGann, Andy Davey, James Byrne, PJ Hayes, Martin Rochford,…

In 2006 Robert had to stop playing, teaching and making violins due to a severe repetitive strain injury. This eventually resulted in him returning to Australia and serendipitously reconnecting him with Mick Doherty. Being a bit older, Robert suddenly realised what a resource Mick was, separating if you like the friendship from the tradition that Mick represented. He realised that he needed to record and learn as much as he could from him. Thanks to JP Sweeney, Mick was introduced to Kevin Bradley, the National curator of folklore in the National Library of Australia at the time. Kevin invited Mick and Robert over to the National Folk Festival of Australia where he spent three days with Mick documenting his family history. Mick Doherty's uncle was the renown travelling Irish Fiddle player Johnny Doherty. 

Robert then set about to record Mick. With the help of the National Library of Australia, Out West was released at Fairbridge Festival when Mick was 88 years old. This record has been called a classic and has been re-released by Cairdeas Na BhFidileri. A solo Mick album of recordings made by Robert is also in the pipeline. 

Robert credits Mick for bringing him out of his shell as a player, encouraging him to just play, take risks and enjoy the music.

Getting back playing after not being able to do so for five years gave Robert a whole new lease of life and joy of playing. Mick encouraged him to do concerts and helped him build the confidence to do so. 

After Mick passed away, Robert released his first solo record, The Day Dawn, a collection of old recordings from when Robert was 23 to the present day. Robert was ultimately unhappy with this release and subsequently took the inspiration of this idea and searched for more old recordings, adding new ones and removing the ones that didn’t sit right with him, largely due to some rather domineering guitar. With the consummate help of Lee Buddle, Paul Gurney and ultimately Andy Walter, a senior mastering engineer at Abbey Road studios in London, the Day Dawn is now finished and set for release very soon.

The Torbay Suite is a chapter that demands a whole other narrative. The Suite has finally all been recorded and mixed and a release date is being planned as we speak, so stay tuned.

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