Monday, June 01, 2015

Scotland and New Zealand: Inge Thomson and Maisey Rika

Fair Isle, Scotland, is a small place, lying about half way between Orkney and Shetland to the far north of mainland Scotland. North Island, New Zealand, is quite a bit larger in area and ar distant from Fair Isle, lying as it does at the opposite end of the world in the southern hemisphere off the coast of Australia. Both places, though, are connected and bound to sea and weather and distance. Those things arise in and influence their music, as well.

Perhaps that is one of the reasons the music of Maisey Rika, who is of the Maori people indigenous to North Island, and Inge Thomson, who comes from Fair Isle, seemed to resonate one with the other on a winter evening in Glasgow.

The two artists did not perform together at their concert at The Tron, which was part of Celtic Connections. Yet there was resonance.

Rika began the evening with a song in Maori telling of the legends of the sea and how the Maori people came to be in New Zealand. Many of her songs through evening were in Maori -- she has won many awards for her work as a songwriter and a tradition keeper in that language -- and, recognizing that however international the audience at Celtic Connections concerts often is, not many would be fluent in Maori, she gave gracious and thoughtful and occasionally witty insights into the meaning of the words she sang. Sharing several songs she has recorded in English showed another side of her music, a more easy listening sort of sound. While listeners at The Tron enjoyed both aspects of Rika’s music, it was the music of her native language and the stories told with that music that clearly kept the audience engaged. Rika also often shared the spotlight with her supporting musicians, stepping aside as they took lead voice or instrument, and at times supporting them with harmonies as well. It was, however, Rika’s powerful voice and engaging storytelling through music which anchored the time -- and the audience enjoyed her inclusion of swirling the traditional poi, as well.

Rika’s most recent recording at this writing is Whitiora with all songs in the Maori (Te reo) language, which includes a song referencing the earthquake in Christchurch and that song telling of Maori legend with which she opened her Celtic Connections concert, called Tangaroa Whakamauta.

For her part of the evening, Inge Thomson focused on the music of her project Da Fishing Hands.

Inspired by consideration of the geography, natural environment, and stories of Fair Isle, the music she and her bandmates offered readily evoked wind, water, sea, northern travels, and the interconnection of these things. Thomson herself sang, in a light soprano, and played accordion as well as the occasional bit of electronic addition to the atmosphere, which fit in surprisingly well with acoustic instruments and human voices. The songs she offered, with lyrics of her own and also ones by her cousin poet Lise Sinclair, who passed away as they were working on the project together, included Wind and Weather/The Fishermen and The Sea, The Snowstorm, Dark Stacks, and Here We’ve Landed.

As Rika did in her set, Thomson also made the music a truly collaborative journey with her supporting musicians, who included Sarah Hayes on flute and vocals, Fraser Fifield on sax, pipes and other instruments, and Steven Polwart on guitar and vocals. Thomson, who was perhaps best known to most of the audience as member of songwriter Karine Polwart’s band, delivered music and stories creative, thoughtful, and unusual, and showed that she is well able to carry a concert in her own right.

Both Maisey Rika and Inge Thomson offered music that draws from their home lands and their knowledge and love for the stories told in word, music, landscape, weather, and change drawn from those lands. Stories of an island in the South Pacific and one the North Sea: differing one from the other, but connected by experience of water, weather, time, and music. Indeed, this concert offered just the sort of thoughtful and unexpected -- and not so likely to occur elsewhere -- connection and resonance that marks out Celtic Connections as one of Europe’s top music festivals.

At this writing, World Oceans Day is on the near horizon. Listening to the art of these two talented musicians would be a good way to celebrate.

“From a cultural point of view the sea has always been a life giver to the island, it is so important we look after our marine resources for future generations.” ~ Inge Thomson in an interview with Folk Radio UK.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter and were made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story
Celtic Connections 2014
Scotland's music: Capercaillie: At the Heart of It All

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Monday, May 25, 2015

Celtic Connections 2015: images

Celtic Connections is perhaps Europe’s best winter festival -- it is certainly one of the world’s best music festivals. Held in Glasgow, Scotland, in the latter part of January each year, the festival hosts concerts of music both traditional and not, from the many traditions of Scotland and the Celtic lands, from the Commonwealth countries, and from other traditions such as, in recent years, those of Malawi, Mali, and Mongolia.

Events are held in venues across the city center, ranging from the Royal Concert Hall to the repurposed church that is now Oran Mor, from the National Piping Centre to City Halls to the Old Fruitmarket to The Tron Theatre. There are exhibits of visual art, late night song and music sessions and an after hours festival club, as well as competitions for rising stars and live radio broadcasts.

Here is a bit of what some of the events looked like this winter past

... and there will be more to come.

Photographs are by Kerry Dexter and were made with permission of the artists, the festival, and the venues involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Celtic Connections: 20 Years of Extraordinary Music at Wandering Educators
Celtic Connections 2014: reflections, part one
Celtic Connections 2013: Images

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Ireland's music: Danu: Buan

One of the hallmarks of the music of Ireland is connection, and another is conversation. Between musicians, with listeners, with the strands of irish tradition, with contemporary music which draws on tradition -- connection and conversation happen in al these ways. For twenty years, the musicians who join together as the band Danu have been working on this. Their album Buan clearly shows that they just keep getting better at these connections and conversations.

Across the years and through a few changes in membership, the band has retained the bright fire with which it began in Waterford those years ago and added the seasoning and maturity that twenty more years of living and playing music will bring. With musicians coming from Waterford, Dublin, Donegal, and Kerry they choose music which draws the range of Irish landscape into the conversation.

They invite listeners into the musical conversation of Buan with an opening set of slides and reels in which the traditions of Donegal meet those of Kerry. Bouzouki joins with flute, accordion takes its place as the tunes unfold and fiddle leads a lyrical dance on the closing tune as all the while bodhran speaks of the beat. Musical conversation continues with Nic Amhloaibh singing a song from Dingle in Irish. A lively set of jigs including two from McAuley’s pen flows into Nic Amlaoibh’s thoughtful rendition of Lord Gregory, a story of star crossed lovers which shows well not only Nic Amhloaibh’s fine voice but also the players’ ability and skill in supporting and illuminating a story told in song.

That skill is also evident in another and very different song. Donal Clancy’s choices in singing and phrasing work brilliantly to tell the story of Willie Crotty, an eighteenth century outlaw from the Waterford area whose colorful life is told in a song written by Clancy’s cousin Robbie O’Connell. The fast paced melody and upbeat playing only enhance Clancy’s storytelling flair.

The musical conversation in Buan continues in equally interesting fashion through a set of reels and a set of two lighthearted songs in Irish that the band dedicates to their children. The men of Ireland’s east and north were inspired by the west as well as a lovely set of a waltz composed by McAuley leads into a march composed by Clancy, both written after the band spent a week of rehearsal in West Kerry last spring.

The enigmatic, poetic, and image filled song Passage West by John Spillane of Cork provides a gorgeous showcase not only for Nic Amhlaioibh’s voice but for all the band members working together to create a vibrant story told as much through melody as through word -- and the words and singing themselves are powerful enough that they could stand alone.

Reels and hornpipes taken over from pipes music make up a set following Passage West, which makes a graceful bridge to The Willow Tree, a quiet song which weaves modern day love song with myth, legend, and landscape and which Nic Amhlaoibh learned from the singing of its composer, Padragian Ni Uallachain. That makes a fitting close to this conversation in music -- rather than a close an invitation to a quiet pause to reflect on the journey the conversation has taken, really -- a pause which will very likely lead to repeated listening.

Danu are: Éamon Doorley, guitar and bouzouki, Oisín McAuley, fiddle, Benny McCarthy, Accordion, Dónal Clancy, guitar, voice, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, voice, flute, and whistles.

Joining them on Buan are producer Donal Lunny on buzouki, zook, harmonium and bass bodhran as well as former band members Tom Doorley on flute and whistle and Donnachadh Gough on pipes and bodhran. For the concert at which the photographs were made, Oisin McAuley was delayed by weather from arriving in Glasgow, so former member Darragh Doyle stepped in. Phil Cunningham on accordion and Julie Fowlis on voice and whistles were also guests at the concert in Glasgow.

Photographs were made by Kerry Dexter at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, with permission of the artists, venue, and festival. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Robbie, Aoife, and Donal: The Clancy Legacy
Julie Fowlis: Every Story

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Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Ireland's music: Matt and Shannon Heaton: Tell You In Earnest

For their album Tell You in Earnest Matt and Shannon Heaton decided to choose songs framed in conversation between two people. The reason for that choice, Shannon says, was twofold. For one thing though Matt and Shannon both have been and continue to be involved in bands and side projects, for a good while now, “ and now maybe more than ever,” Shannon says -- the husband and wife have made their duo performances and recording their home base in music. The second reason, she explains, builds on that.

“It’s great to play with a whole band, it’s lovely,” she says, “ but there’s something just really intimate and spectacularly expressive about a conversation between two people. Maybe a third party wanders into the story in a song, maybe a cello wanders in, but ultimately it’s about the essence of two people and what they can say to each other and how they can listen to each other. So I think,” she continues, “ it was meant to be this overt demonstration, musically, of what a duo is, which is a bunch of different conversations in a bunch of different moods.”

Different moods and different sources, too.

To open the recording, there’s Cruel Salt Sea, a song which had its origins in the traditional ballad Outlandish Knight. Shannon describes the evolution of the song to the version on Tell Me in Earnest. “That song always grabbed me. I always thought it was the outlandish knight, like the craaazy knight! But he was from the northlands, the outlands,” Shannon says. From the traditional version she’s learned on a recording by Shirley Collins “I started changing the words around - of course -- first because I wanted to condense some of the verses. People aren’t going to listen to twenty five verses. So to condense, I have to rewrite a little bit, and then I always like to change any super weird vernacular stuff. But there were still a lot of verses, and so I felt like there had to be resting places, so I added the repeating lines, and then I added a bridge -- I really like the bridge -- and then before I knew it I’d taken away the words outlandish knight and added the words cruel salt sea. So I changed the title. Tinkering around, that’s what trad musicians do!”

Giving their own stamp and creativity to music from the tradition as well as creating their own music is indeed what the Heatons do. On Tell You in Earnest focusing on the idea of dialogue or conversation songs (“Each song is like a mini play,” Matt says), they also take on the Child ballad Gallant Hussar, following mostly traditional words and melody enhanced with original instrumental breaks. There’s Richard Thompson’s classic set of conversations between a guy and a girl about a bike -- and much more -- in Vincent Black Lightning 1952. There’s the dialogue between mother and son that creates a powerful anti war message, all the more powerful when you realize it was written some centuries back -- called Mrs. McGrath. There is a mostly traditional version of a song called The Demon Lover, framed in a conversation with the devil and its consequences, and on a happier note, an over the top Thai love song, Mon Rak Dawk Kam sung in Thai, blending the Heatons’ understanding of Irish traditional music with Shannon’s longtime connections with Thailand. That song, whose title translates as The Enchanted Flower of Kam Tai, proved to be a way into an aspect of this recording the Heatons had not expected. Shannon credits her time spent as an exchange student in Thailand with opening the door to her love of traditional music -- her own heritage tradition of Irish music -- by immersing her in another set of older traditions from another culture. In recent years, on occasion they have worked some of this in to their Irish music repertoire. “As we were thinking about conversation songs, Mon Rak Dawk Tam Kai is a beautiful conversation song, so we thought let’s try it. We were messing around with the idea of including a Thai song on the album and then it got a little deeper. We realized, you know what, that’s part of who I am. And Matt -- he loves electric guitar, he loves surf guitar, he’s played in rock bands since he was a kid.” Parts of that aspect of Matt’s music come out on his work on On Rak Dawk Tam Kai as well as his funny original Easy Come East Go and the well traveled traditional ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low. In the past, they have included touches of these things here and there in their bedrock devotion to Irish traditional music. “But this time,” Shannon continues, having those touches in their music on this album “That’s really our authentic musical expression, that’s really who we are.”

Matt and Shannon Heaton met in Chicago, when flute player Shannon was called for a wedding gig and needed a guitar player to accompany her. Matt grew up in Pennsylvania, turing the pages for his father;s professional concerts before heading off into his own explorations of rock, surf, tango, and Irish guitar. Shannon’s parents took their kids with them as they lived in several different countries; it was as a young child in Nigeria that she first fund herself drawn to the flute. Later, she studied classical music and ethnomusicology in addition to spending that time in Thailand.

All that may not sound exactly like the background you would expect for two of the most highly regarded players, composers, singers, and teachers in contemporary Irish music. That is a the strong strand of their heritage, however, and they have spent time learning music in Ireland as well as immersed in the vibrant Irish music community of their home base in New England.

The characters in the songs on Tell You in Earnest come alive through the conversations in the lyrics, and through the conversations opened up through the Heatons’ lead and harmony singing, and through their thoughtful and well conceived melodies and intros and instrumental breaks as well. They offer a range of human experience, from the hauntingly poetic murder ballad Edwin of the Lowlands Low to Matt’s funny original song Easy Come Easy Go, in which he imagines what could happen if a bit of story often found in traditional songs went awry. There are grim conversations and supernatural elements, over the top love songs and funny ones, all told in conversations framed in the Heatons' always creative take on carrying tradition into the present.

Give a listen -- these are conversations you will want to return to again and again.

Photographs of Matt and Shannon Heaton (with guest Mike Block on cello in the top one) by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Lovers' Well: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Another Fine Winter's Night: Matt and Shannon Heaton
Listening to Ireland: Patrick season

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Saturday, April 11, 2015

Ireland's Music: The Alt

Knocknarea, near Sligo in the west of Ireland, is a place of history marked by stones and tombs going back to the Neolithic Age. It is a place of legend and story, going back, perhaps, beyond that. It is also a place of connection and friendship, qualities much in evidence when three Irish musicians gathered near there to rehearse for what would become a new collaboration. They named they decided to name their band and the first recording they would create after a glen on the side of the mountain which is called The Alt. I

t is not that John Doyle, Nuala Kennedy, and Eamon O’Leary were looking for extra things to do: each has a lively career in solo work, in bands, and in teaching. When Kennedy and Doyle crossed paths on Cape Breton Island at the Celtic Colours Festival, though, they found a musical connection they wanted to explore further, and soon added O’Leary to the mix. Each of the three is an accomplished singer. Kennedy plays whistles and flutes. Doyle and O’Leary are both guitarists and play bouzouki. All of them are rooted in the music of Ireland, and have deep knowledge of songs and tunes of their native country, and each has experience of living and traveling in other lands.

All of these things play into the music they chose to record together. Though each is an accomplished writer of song and tune, they decided for their first album together to focus on music from the tradition. Each brought music to their gatherings, songs and tunes with story and melody that spoke to and of the traditions of the music of Ireland and to qualities of life, connection, and story that speak across time as well. There are love songs of varied sorts, songs of travel and of change, despair and hope, a touch of wry humor, and through it all, really fine stories well told. There is journey in the words and in the melodies as well, from quiet to rollicking, from rhythms to dance or tap your foot along to ones to lean in and listen closely. Songs include Finn Waterside, Willie Angler (also known as The Banks of the Bann), The Eighteenth of June, Lovely Nancy, Cha Tig Mor mo Bhean Dhachaigh sung in Scottish Gaelic, a nod to Kennedy’s longtime residence in Edinburgh), and One Morning in May.

Trading lead and harmony singing, lead lines and backup on their instruments, Doyle, Kennedy, and O’Leary create music which is at once intricate, delicate, strong, and straightforward. Begun in the shadow of Knocknarea in the west of Ireland and brought to recorded form in a quiet cabin the Appalachian Mountains of the southern United States,The Alt holds history, melody and stories well told, and the heart of friendship in the sharing of them all.

You may also wish to see
Shadow and Light: Irish Music from John Doyle
 music and journey

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Friday, April 03, 2015

Music for an Easter Weekend

Two meditative pieces which go well with the contemplative nature of Easter weekend, though neither of them have precisely to do with Easter itself.

Classical violinist Nicola Benedetti plays The Lark Ascending, which she has recorded on her album Fantasie.

Julie Fowlis sings the lament/song in praise of Calum, called Do Chalum. She has recorded this on her album Gach Sgeul / Every Story.

you may also wish to see
Scotland's Music: Julie Fowlis: Every Story more about this album
Scotland's Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming -- A Scottish Fantasy a different album from Nicola Benedetti, on which Julie Fowlis also appears
Lessons from an Old Lament thoughts on an Irish song often sung at this season

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Monday, March 23, 2015

Music & Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer Continues

Songs come to musicians in all sorts of ways, and they make notes and shape ideas and work out words and melody in all sorts of ways. “If you line up eleven songwriters and ask them their process, they’ll give you eleven different ways,” says Carrie Newcomer. “For me there’s there’s kind of literary bent to it, I guess, where I do a lot of poetry writing, and short stories, and essays. From those pieces, songs emerge.”

She isn’t thinking about the songs while she is immersed in other sorts of writing, though, not directly. It is, rather, the ideas and characters and flow of things she is working on -- or working out.

“I might have to write the whole essay to get tot he one line that starts a song,” she says. “Also, a lot of it is how I process -- people say I’m pretty prolific, as a songwriter, but I think it’s just how I process my world, and my life. So I’m always writing, and I do a lot of poetry.

“Once I have the poem or the essay or maybe even a series of poems,” she continues,”I have all this language, and all these ideas I’ve been musing with -- it’s like I have this whole palette of stuff to work with, and I’ve thinking about it, mulling the idea over. Then when I go to write the song I might have some language I’ve been thinking through, but the words and the music happen together.”

What has also happened recently is the publication of Newcomer’s first book, called A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays. It is a companion piece to her album A Permeable Life. Newcomer turned to community funding for this recording, and at first was going to put together a small collection of poems to thank those who had helped make the album possible. “I had started a blog and begun posting some of my poems, so there was some interest in seeing a collection, so I thought I was going to put together a few poems that people might see as having a connection to songs,” she says. “But as I was doing that and we started sending them out, the response I was getting was really wonderful, really heartwarming, and we decided -- actually, my husband really encouraged me, he said you know, let’s just release this as a companion piece to the new album. So I said, yeah, sure, let’s do that!” Newcomer says, laughing.

”I’m used to putting out albums, and there’s a certain kind of thing that happens whenever you put out an album, or a song.You’re taking a certain kind of risk -- whenever you put yourself out there artistically, there’s certain kind of vulnerability to it. I’ve done enough albums now that I’m expecting it -- that doesn’t mean it gets any easier, it’s just that you’re familiar with it,” she says. “ But I had never put out that kind of art work before.”

There are thirteen essays and twenty six poems in the book. It is not necessary to know Newcomer’s work as a musician, or to have heard the songs on the album A Permeable Life, to appreciate what she’s doing as a poet and essayist, though the ways she tells stories and the ideas she choose to emphasize, and the language she chooses, do cross points and paths across the two projects. There are some pieces which relate directly to songs, and some which do not, or for which the connection is less clear. What is clear, however, is that Newcomer’s gift for observation, for including details of the natural world, and now and then bringing in her wry sense of humor come through whichever art she is practicing. So, too, does her gift for making the personal universal, and the thread of finding the sacred in the ordinary. In the essay called In the Sitka Pines, for example, an experience of the wilderness of Alaska an learning about Alaskan salmon forms the gateway into thoughts on transformation, in a piece that’s slightly longer than a page and all the more powerful -- and all the more leaving room to draw the reader in -- for its brevity.

Transformation, the idea of thresholds, and the practice of being present are threads which run through the songs on the album A Permeable Life and in differing ways through the material in the book A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays as well. The poem To a Titmouse finds transformation anchored in connection to an encounter on a snowy walk; Dharamsala, a poem begun after an experience while visiting India, suggests presence, connection, thresholds, and the possibility of transformation as well -- all done through an account of a procession and those watching it.

As a songwriter and singer, Newcomer has command of her tools and uses them to invite community, reflection, and the asking of good questions about life, faith, and change. These too are present in what she creates with her essays and poetry.

Countless prayer flags lifted in the mist
It was like music,
Light and fleeting,
LIngering in the quiet,
Filling the world with longing
And our own good intentions.

~excerpt from Dharamsala copyright Carrie Newcomer

You may also wish to see
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer
India to Indiana in song and image
Ireland's Music: The Small Hours: Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Ireland's Music: Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts

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