Irish, Scottish, folk, and country music from many different neighbourhoods, and sometimes, from behind the scenes
Tuesday, June 18, 2013
music of the waters
Water -- ocean, river, lake, waterfall, or rain -- is one of the earliest sorts of music people ever heard. The sounds made by waters have inspired musicians from classical composers to rock bands to bluegrass ensembles to Gaelic singers to those who make music in the languages of the First Peoples. Whether your experiences are landlocked or water borne, take a trip out on the waters with these songs.
Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh is from Donegal in Ireland’s far northwest, a place where people are well acquainted with the many moods of the sea. Ni Mhaonaigh ‘s father, Francie, wrote a song celebrating the freedom of sailing out on the waters. Whether you understand Irish or not, still, the message of freedom and celebration come clear in Seolta Geala.
Bill Staines is from another part of the world well acquainted with the ways of the sea and the people who live along it -- he’s from New England in the United States. His song, too suggests the connection with nature and freedom to be found at the ocean’s edge inSalt Air
The Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico are the waters Del Suggs navigates in his music. Saltwater music it is, and on Break in the Weather he speaks of finding a way on sometimes rough and uncharted waters, all the while seeking a safe passage home.
Cathie Ryan knows those rough passages, too. While walking by the sea in Ireland and seeing the things cast up on the strand she realized that there could be a lesson in this -- and a song, which became Be Like the Sea.
Ryan often chooses images from the waters in her work. Another song well worth you listening, and which also came from Ryan’s time living in Ireland, is the graceful story of grief, loss and resilience told inThe Farthest Wave.
Through all the ideas these songwriters offer there is a sense of lessons learned and hope renewed with the turning of the tides and the winds upon the waters. As Claire Lynch sings. when a good wind blows your way, Be Ready to Sail.
Cape Breton, on the far north coast of the Maritimes in Canada, is a land of forest and sea, woodland and mountain, winding road and fishing port. It is also a land where many emigrants, especially those from Scotland, have found harbour. It is a place where the language, music, and culture of Scotland thrive and flourish and intertwine with landscape and in community with other peoples who have made Cape Breton home. All of these things make their way into the sounds of Cape Breton.
“I was drawn to the language first,” says Mary Jane Lamond. “ My grandparents were Gaelic speakers so I was always interested in the language and the song tradition, and began spending time with people who were interested in songs. It became a passion for me, and I think I really found my voice when I started singing Gaelic songs.” Lamond has carried that passion and understanding of Gaelic music across Canada and the world and back to Scotland as well with her appearances at concerts and festivals, as she has become one of the most renown artists of Gaelic song.
Her musical partner at many of these gigs has been Wendy MacIsaac, who plays fiddle and piano and has been known to step dance on stage as well. MacIsaac started out in step dancing, in fact. “My mom used to teach step dancing lessons with Natalie MacMaster’s mother, actually. They’d go around to the dance halls in surrounding communities on Cape Breton and teach, and I’d go along with them and picked it up by getting into the circle . It was definitely my first bit of music -- and then when I did learn how to play the fiddle, I almost immediately began playing for dances. I have to say, that was my practice, really -- when you play for three hours a night several times a week, you have to know a lot of tunes, you learn tempo, you learn what people like to dance to.” MacIsaac had the rhythms of Gaelic on Cape Breton by heart, as well. “My grandparents were Gaelic speakers,” she says, “so although I don’t always understand everything that Mary Jane might be saying in a song, I understand it, you know.”
It is with a set of tunes which invite dancing that the album Seinn starts of. It winds through varied story and song, traditional and contemporary, of the sounds of Cape Breton of its landscape and people. Nearly twenty years ago now Lamond and MacIsaac crossed paths in the music community on the island, and became friends. Though they’ve each done many project together and separately, Seinn is their first recording to focus on their sound as a duo.
“We were both overdue to put out an album,” says MacIsaac, “so it seemed like it was time. When we first sat down to figure out what we wanted to do, we didn’t have every track in mind. We probably had five songs we knew what direction we were going in. Then what Mary Jane would do is run songs by me, ones that she really liked, and what I would do a lot of times is pick a tune that would compliment the song.”
What draws Lamond to a song? “Melody,” she says, “I like to have different kinds of rhythms on a record, and of course the story in the lyrics, too, and a certain kind of, I guess, rootedness.” She finds that in songs from the tradition and from contemporary writers. For example, The Blue Mountain’s Lullaby is a contemporary song by Jeff MacDonald and Brian O’hEadhra, while The Soldier’s Song reaches back into the history of the isle of Skye.
MacIsaac often interweaves tradition and present day as well. That opening set, Yellow Coat, comprises two tunes from Scottish and Cape Breton tradition, a tune from Cape Breton musician Kinnon Beaton, and another from Irish fiddle player Tommy Peoples. Then there were times when MacIsaac wrote tunes for the project. “I haven’t writing many tunes for my own albums, and I don't know why that is!” she says, laughing.
“For a set called Boise Monsters, there’s a tune a wrote basically half way through the record - we were thinking we needed something in that spot maybe a little different from the traditional sound.” Another MacIsaac tune, called Keeping Up with Calum, got its name “ because while we were working on the the record my one year old son was busy rearranging my house!”
The tunes and songs flow naturally across Seinn from dance to air, from songs with the rhythm of work to tales told of love to stories of place. In Lamond’s graceful voice and MacIsaac’s fiery playing you hear the sounds and voice of Cape Breton present and past, and the sounds of connection and friendship. “Joy,” says Mary Jane Lamond. “That’s what I would like people to take away from this album - a sense of being joyful, being uplifted by this music. Because that’s how I feel about it!”
It took nearly a year for Lamond and MacIsaac to put the album together as they balanced creating it with their other commitments. One benefits of this, though, was that they were able to include in addition to their regular musical collaborators Seph Peters on guitar and Cathy Porter on percussion and other instruments, several musical friends, including people you’ve met here along the music road before. Among the guests are the women of T with the Maggies from Ireland, and from Scotland Tim Edey, Corrina Hewat, and Dave Milligan, as well as Ashley MacIsaac and Patrick Gillis from Nova Scotia.
photograph of Wendy MacIsaac at the Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow, made with permission of the festival, the artist, and the venue. It is by Kerry Dexter and is copyrighted. Thank you for respecting this.
Frances Black and Mary Dillon are both from Ireland. Black grew up in Dublin, while Dillon is from Dungiven in Northern Ireland. Each is a gifted singer, and each has taken a bit of time between albums. As much as the new music each has chosen differs one from the other. each recording offers music which Illuminates aspects of the spirit of Ireland, and reaches beyond the island as well.
Mary Dillon’s album is called North, appropriate enough as the music is in the main sourced from the North of Ireland and the recording was created there as well. Dillon has a gentle and natural phrasing, a voice and style well suited to the songs she has chosen and the stories she tells with her own songwriting.
Most of the songs she’s chosen for North comes from the tradition and tell of love gone wrong -- but have no worries there are cheerful ones as well, and reflective pieces too. A particular standout is The Boatman, filled with vivid and compelling imagery which frames ideas of love, loss, hope and history. It stands well in company with songs from the tradition and from other writers. Among these are the lost lover returns in disguise tale told in The Banks of the Claudy, the anti war meditation in John Condon, and the woman missing her man tale in Bleacher Boy, a song with lines which may sound familiar, even if the song itself does not, as they are turns of phrase which have traveled into the songs in Scotland, Canada, and the American west. Another standout is Ard Ti Chuain, a song of love of a place, which Dillon sings in Irish.
Mary Dillon comes from a musical family -- her sister is the singer and songwriter Cara Dillon. Frances Black is from a family in which music, both traditional and popular, was part of her everyday life growing up too. For her album Stronger Black has chosen ten songs by contemporary writers, thoughtful and poetic in their lyrics and lasting in their melodies, songs which, you could say, are parts of the next steps in storytelling tradition.
These include songs which allow the singer to muse on the many facets of love and resilience, which Black does in a distinctive voice and style that well invite the listener in to consider the stories she tells and the ideas she suggests. Anna McGarrigle, James Taylor, Carole King, Gary Burr, and Paul Brady are several of the writers she’s favored. Rise invites thoughts of that resilience, while I Would Be Stronger Than That asks questions about the not always straightforward paths of love. Long Ago and Far Away, Black notes, was the first song she ever sang in public, when she was around fourteen years of age and was asked to sing at a friend's birthday party, while Heart Like a Wheel was a song she first heard her sister sing when they were kids, and later learned to sing it when a friend asked her to do so. You’ve no need to know a thing about the connections that weave in and out of these songs, or Black's family connections (her sister Mary is one of Ireland’s best loved singers, her brothers Martin, Michael, and Shay have all worked as professional musicians, and all five have at times worked together, as well) to appreciate the beauty of what she offers here. Whehter you know any of thsoe things or not, though, you may hear a bit of resonance with tradition and family, a resonance which only adds to the grace of the music, and to Frances Black’s standing as a gifted interpreter of song.
Love songs, songs of the road, vivid tales from history, stories of family, of change, of choice: you’ll find all of those things in the music of Claire Lynch. Lynch bases her work in bluegrass, and does that so well that she’s received a number of awards in the genre. In that high lonesome sound Lynch finds inspiration rather than limitation, though, branching out from that base to explore aspects of country, Celtic, swing and folk ideas in the songs she chooses and the songs she writes -- and she does that so well that she’s recent been honored with a prestigious United States Artist Fellowship . Before all that recognition, though, her peers knew Lynch was worth paying attention to. Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and The Seldom Scene are among those who have been drawn to record Lynch’s songs. Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, and Jesse Winchester are among those who’ve asked her to add her voice to their projects.
Take a listen for a moment to the song Kennesaw Line and you’ll readily hear why this is so
Co writer Louisa Branscomb’s three times great aunt saved letters her brothers had written to her during the Civil War, letters which provided the spark for the title track of Lynch’s most recent recording, Dear Sister.. There’s a country blues tinge to the story of loves ups and downs in How Many Moons, and full on bluegrass rules Buttermilk Road/The Arbours. Lynch’s cover of That Kind of Love, written by Pierce Pettis, adds new dimension to an already reflective song.
Through the album, Lynch’s clear soprano and thoughtful phrasing are well supported by her regular band mates Mark Schatz on bass, Matt Wingate on guitar and mandolin, and Bryan McDowell on fiddle. Musical guests include Tim O'Brien vocals nd bouzouki and Alison Brown on banjo. It is Claire Lynch’s voice which defines the music on Dear Sister, though.
Celtic Connections, which takes place each January in Glasgow, in Scotland, is an experience like no other. In the snow and sleet and wind of Scottish winter, musicians and listeners gather in venues ranging from a hotel conference room to a historic church to a lively pub to a grand concert hall to, at times, stairwells and concert hall steps to share the bonds of music which connect across time and space and place. The Celtic and the Connection are equally strong elements of the festival, which this past January marked twenty years.
Artists and listeners came from across the word, from Mali and Senegal, from Mongolia and Portugal, from all across the United States, from Canada, from Ireland, and from every part of Scotland as well, rising artists and established stars, sharing their songs and stories in one of the world’s most vibrant music cities.
I’ve been fortunate to attend Celtic Connections through many of the years of its two decade history. The Ireland and Scotland strands of music are those I most often follow. What’s above is a bit of what that looked like this year. If I’ve done my job well, you will hear a bit of the music through the silence of these images.
These photographs were made with permission of the the festival, the artists, and the venues involved. They are copyrighted, and I thank you for respecting that. The artists shown here include Mick McAuley, Cara Dillon, Zoe Conway. Mike McGoldrick, Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh, Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, Karen Matheson, Tim Edey, and Cyril MacPhee..
Music for a Cinco de Mayo road trip to the southwest: while there is a great deal of fine Mexican and Mexican American music to be heard. my one choice for you is Tish Hinojosa. Take a listen:
The border lands between the southwestern United States and northern Mexico are places where cultures of several sorts intersect, and where’s there long history of political, social, and cultural change on both side of the border. Those things find their expression in music as well.
History and culture play into the celebration of Cinco de Mayo. This day in early May is not Mexican independence day -- that is Diez y Seis, the sixteenth of September. Cinco de Mayo the anniversary of the battle of Puebla, in which Mexican forces, though outnumbered, defeated the French. Mexicans living across the border heard of this and celebrated, and so, Cinco de Mayo celebrations were born in the 1860s.
It has become, across the years, a day to celebrate Mexican and Latin identity and community, especially in the United States and Canada.
Culture Swing is perhaps Hinojosa’s most well known album, but there are more than a dozen more to enjoy, music which illuminates her experiences as is as a first generation Mexican American in the southwest.
Aquella Noche, which is an all Spanish album, is a fine choice, as Homeland, with songs which speak of cowboys, border crossings, and growing up on the west side of town in San Antonio.Dreaming From The Labyrinth offers a mystical take on the voyages of explorers, on thoughts during a rainstorm, and on journey on God’s own open road. Our Little Planet, at this writing her most recent recording, finds her continuing to draw these threads of life and culture together with an artist's gift for idea, word, and melody.
Scotland: it is a country whose people hold both poetic voice and pragmatism, straightforward speaking and lyricism. Karine Polwart is an artist who embodies each of those qualities in the words and melodies she creates, and in the way she draws on folk song tradition while often speaking to contemporary issues such as AIDS, social justice, and ecology.
Her album Traces, at this writing up for several awards in Scotland and the UK holds each of these elements. Polwart is a firm believer in the idea that a song should stand on its own as it is heard, making its own impact regardless of back story. Her songs on Traces and across her career, live up to that standard.
That said, you may like to known that the song Cover Your Eyes was inspired by her thinking about the changes, both in nature and in community, resulting from the Trump International Golf Links in northeastern Scotland. Neither polemic nor protest song, it offers images from memory and nature in a way that might almost suggest the calling forth an ancient spell. KIng of Birds brings in the architecture of Saint Paul’s in London, the flow of history, and the idea of change.
You may also like to know that Polwart has academic background in the study and teaching of philosophy, and as a social worker. She’s been interested in music since she was growing up Stirlingshire, and when she decide to return to that calling, she was a member of Malinky and the Battlefield Band before setting out on her solo career. She releases her albums on her own Hegri label (hegri is the word in Gaelic for heron, Polwart’s favorite bird and one about which she’s written an inspiring song weaving images of nature with ideas of resilence and change) and now her work will be available in North America through W2. She’s the first artist on that label, a project of Canada’s well respected Borealis Records. You’ve met the work of many Borealis artists here along the music road before, among them Stan Rogers and The Once.
In honor of this partnership, in addition to Traces Borealis has released Threshold, an album containing eleven tracks from across Polwart’s recordings, a gathering which includes her own writings and covers of traditional songs. Follow the Heron is there, along with the Dowie Dens of Yarrow, Rivers Run, Medusa, and a live performance of Terminal Star.