Irish, Scottish, folk, and country music from many different neighbourhoods, and sometimes, from behind the scenes
Friday, October 21, 2016
Katie McNally Trio: The Boston States
Across history, travelers and emigrants have carried fiddles with them. It’s one of the most portable and versatile of instruments. That is one of the reasons that people coming form Scotland to Atlantic Canada brought their fiddles and their music across the ocean. People from Nova Scotia and other parts of the Maritimes, heading south to New England in search for work, brought heir tunes and songs and dance steps and their fiddles along too.
It’s that legacy and connection across landscapes and communities in New England, Atlantic Canada, and Scotland that Katie McNally has chosen to honor in her album The Boston States. In Boston, McNally learned the fiddle with renown Scottish style fiddle player Hanneke Cassel, studied at Tufts University, and listened and played at sessions and dance halls where the musics of these landscapes met and mingled.
With her trio members Neil Pearlman on piano and Shanucey Ali on viola, McNally went to Cape Breton make the album, and enlisted top class Cape Breton fiddle player Wendy MacIsaac to produce the project.
The trio kicks things off with music from contemporary Cape Breton composers Dan R. MacDonald and John Morris Rankin. The tunes Colin McIntosh and Black Horse offer a lively introduction to McNally’s fiddle playing which proves to be at once strong and graceful,. The set also showcases the fine way Pearlman’s fast paced piano and Ali’s low notes on the viola combine with McMaslly’s lead to create a set that evokes fast flying dance steps while showing the musicianship is in good hands with all three members of the trio.
Each musician has varied strengths and musical backgrounds, which work well together across the ten tracks on the disc. Pearlman’s understanding of Cape Breton piano and the way that interacts with fiddle music is bone deep -- yet he also brings in subtle touches of his other interests and projects in Latin msuic and in jazz. Shauncey Ali studied classical music and moved into playing bluegrass. McNally, in addition to learning fiddle in Boston, studied ancient and modern Scottish Literature and Scottish traditional music at Glasgow University and The National Piping Centre in Glasgow.
The three musicians are thus well prepared to take on traditional music of Scotland -- although, as McNally points out in her notes, they often favor versions which came their way through the playing of Cape Breton musicians including Joe Cormier and Troy McGillivray. The trio’s gifts for bringing these ideas together are apparent in the set pairing the jig Scotty Fitzgerald from Cape Breton fiddler Sandy MacIntyre with the traditional tune The Hills of Glen Orchy.
Another good place to hear that at work is the track which joins Scottish composer Niel Gow’s strathspey The Fir Tree with a fast paced piece of McNally’s own composition, Batmoreel, which, does, yes, have a Batman connection which can learn of it the liner notes.
There are five more tunes by McNally herself on the album and one by Pearlman, which stand in good company with the tunes which they have chosen from the tradition. Many of the sets are lively music, but the trio does well with slower pieces also: listen out especially for the traditional tune Down the Burn Davie Lad.
Katie McNally’s family roots go back into Atlantic Canada and to Quebec, and her experiences encompass neighborhood dancehalls in Boston where Cape Breton and Scottish tunes ring out, as well as studying and teaching at fiddle camps across the United States, in Scotland, and elsewhere. As a player and as a composer she understands and respects how these strands come together. On The Boston States, McNally and musical partners Neil Pearlman and Shauncey Ali have created a collection of tunes that will set your feet dancing, and your spirit dancing as well.
“It’s my love letter to the West,” says Aoife Scott of her song All Along with Wild Atlantic Way. That it is, with visits to places from Croagh Patrick to Dingle, framed in the happy memories of a woman long gone from the area. There’s a bit more to that imaginative story -- it’s a love story between husband and wife across time and place really -- but the lively melody and Scott’s fine voice will draw you in however much of the story you catch on to or not.
It makes an excellent choice with which to open Scott’s debut album Carry the Day, showcasing her songwriting ability along with the colors of her voice -- and the fact that she knows well how to use her gorgeous voice in service of a song and its story.
That’s equally true when she moves to the rather more serious tone of We Know Where We Stand, as with All along the Wild Atlantic Way a song she wrote with musical collaborator Enda Reilly. It’s a song appropriate for and as Scott writes in the liner notes, somewhat inspired by the marking of the the centenary of the Easter Rising. In just a shade more than three minutes Scott and Reilly call forth many aspects of that hundred years and beyond, with images both familiar and new. “We stand on the hill of Tara with our hurleys in our hands” -- there’s resonance in that image for anyone with a connection to Ireland.
Down by the Shelleybanks is a quiet gem, a reflective piece in celebration of an area near Dublin which Scott knows and loves well. It’s framed in specifics, yes, but will reach all who have found a place to go for quiet reflection and the healing aspects of the natural world.
These are the first three tracks of a dozen Scott offers on the recording. About half the songs are originals. One takes a song her brother Eoghan wrote as a rock song into a folk/country direction. There’s Slan Leat, an original in Irish which is sort of a goodbye but our paths will cross again idea, and a bit of Irish too in Fásaim, a song inspired by her brother’s wedding. Songs by Si Kahn, Adrian Lawlor, and Sharyn Dimmick continue Scott’s interest in story told through character. A standout among these is Briege Murphy’s The Hills of South Armagh with its thoughtful take on the emigrant experience.
Aoife Scott has a fine voice and a clear understanding of ways to use it to tell stories she creates and admires. Though this is her first recording as a solo artist, she is not new to the music business. She has toured with the band The Outside Track and has appeared with Cherish the Ladies, Altan, and the RTE Concert Orchestra among others.
Though Scott originally thought she’d have a career behind the scenes -- and did, working successfully in television production for several years -- eventually music won out.
One reason for that might be family background. Aoife is the daughter of renown singer Frances Black. Her aunt is international star Mary Black, and her uncles Shay, Michael, and Martin have all worked professionally in music. Her brother Eoghan is a guitarist and producer. Her cousins Danny O’Reilly of The Coronas and singer songwriter Roisin O are making own marks in the music business as well.
With Carry the Day Aoife Scott continues to stake out her own place as a creative singer and songwriter in the next generation of ever evolving Irish tradition, and in the next generation of her family legacy as well.
In times of change and seasons of uncertainty, musicians who write their own songs and interpret music from the tradition often have some of the best wisdom to offer and most thought provoking questions to ask. Continuing this series of articles pointing to songs and artists you may want to know in light of these ideas, here are Tish Hinojosa with an original song and Emily Smith with words of a poet from the past set to a new melody.
In Spanish and English, Tish Hinojosa offers what could be an anthem for hope and unity. She has recorded this song, Bandera del Sol, on her album Culture Swing.
On a quieter note, Emily Smith and Jamie McLennan have put the words of poet Thomas Carlyle to melody. The Sower's Song is recorded on Emily's album Echoes.
Musicians and poets and others who create with ideas and music at times have the best and the deepest things to say about what happens in the world. There is such deep and lasting music from the tradition -- the traditions -- of many countries, handed down the generations, changed and adapted and yet holding truth that resonates.
There's music newly written too, pieces that speak to immediacy of event and feeling and yet hold ideas and connections and ways of thinking that last beyond a specific moment.
These two songs, written in very different times and places each from the other and from what is happening in the world as I write this, yet resonate with each other, and offer hope in times of sorrow and anger as well as in times of peace. Take a listen -- take several.
Carrie Newcomer wrote I Heard an Owl as part of her response to the events of September 11. You may find it on her album The Gathering of Spirits.
Walk On is the track Eileen Ivers chose to open her recording Beyond the Bog Road. The fiddle and banjo introduction intertwines a bit of Irish melody and riff within other lines which evoke Cajun, old time, and a shade of blues; Tim Shelton’s singing adds in bluegrass, gospel, and old time ideas. Ivers wrote the piece and in addition to the fiddle plays banjo and mandolin on this track. It is a piece that sets the scene and opens up the ideas she explores across the music on the album among them the experiences of emigration and immigration of Irish people to North America and the connections their music and community found with other communities on the new shores.
One aspect of the lives of those immigrant travelers that Ivers was thinking about was resilience. “There’s heart wrenching stuff but also joyous celebration that can come out of their journey -- even when life dragged them down they just kept moving on in such a positive way. That inspired Walk On, which became a sort of Cajuny Irishy sort of journey. You keep going and you keep the faith, basically, is the spirit of that song,” she says.
That is a lot of ground to cover and a lot of scene to set in the space of a touch more than four minutes. Ivers and her colleagues -- in addition to Shelton they include Buddy Connolly on button accordion, Leo Traversa on bass, Ben Wittman on percussion, and Greg Anderson on guitar -- do a fine job of it, creating a song that both stands in its own right and works as introduction of what’s to come.
What’s to come is an exploration of threads that tie and bind and weave in an out of the music of Irish immigrants in North America, the joy and sorrow that lives in Irish music and connects across time and reaches back to those bog roads in Ireland and out to Cajun, African American, Cape Breton and other communities of people building lives in a new country as well.
That is a theme Ivers has been exploring in her live concerts for several years, and for far longer than that in her life and in her music.
“It’s been a lifelong thing, for so many years, trying to put all this together,” Ivers says. “and for so many reasons, from as personal as my parents coming from these bog roads, these little back roads in the west of Ireland and as a kid going to Ireland with the family and my sister and I having our summers there running around on those bog roads and not knowing that was different from any other kind of American kid experience to playing in all these different configurations and with chatting with all these different folks over the years and hearing their stories and music.”
The daughter of parents who came from County Mayo in the west of Ireland to New York, Ivers grew up in the Bronx. She was drawn to the fiddle “and I sort of bothered my mother to rent me one, though she really wanted me to play piano,” Ivers says. She began learning from Martin Mulvihill “who was a brilliant teacher, and such a gentleman, you just wanted to please him,” she says. While still in her teens Ivers won the first of nine All Ireland championships in the fiddle. After a time studying for a degree and doing postgraduate work in mathematics she went into music full tilt, becoming a founding member of Cherish the Ladies and a featured cast member of Riverdance, playing with rock stars, world music ensembles, and symphony orchestra and pairing her Celtic based fiddle in a trio with a classical violinist and another whose specialty was jazz.
For Beyond the Bog Road Ivers felt called to return to her Irish roots, but with a bit of a different perspective than she’d had when exploring Ireland’s connections to other world musics in the past. It was that idea of the lasting faith and community and the changes and connections people from Ireland encountered in North America which guided her research and thinking as she prepared for Beyond the Bog Road concerts and for the album which would come from them. “I’m not like a typical traditional Irish player -- I love learning tunes but I wouldn’t be content just to keep learning more and more Irish tunes and playing them in sessions. I love that but I’ve always loved learning about other cultures,” she says.
Learning about the ways these other cultures met up with the music Irish people brought with them to North America informed her choices for the music on Beyond the Bog Road, both the pieces she wrote herself and those she chose from the tradition. From the Irish/Cajun/faith/bluegrass mix that makes the bones of Walk On, Ivers pairs Kitty’s Wedding from Ireland’s tradition with the American old time tune Smith’s Delight, making a set of tunes which showcases the lively aspects of her playing and reminds that dance rhythm makes a vital part of music making in both communities.
Dance formed a part of the inspiration for Crossroads, too, although in a different way and to a different musical result. In Ireland a few years back, Ivers and her husband Brian Mulligan helped organize a gathering in the village her father had come from. People met at the crossroads “and life was again celebrated through music and dance,” Ivers says. She was struck by a comment from one of the people there that he couldn’t bear to think of the hardships people who had emigrated from Ireland went through. That insight about people who stayed and people who left led Ivers to compose this quietly lyrical piece which readily invites reflection about travels and journeys of all sorts.
The Green Fields of America, sung by Niamh Parsons, is an emigration song which mixes regret and hope, while Linin’ Track is a lively set which pairs two songs of working on the railways at the turn of the nineteenth century, the bluesy Linin’ Track which railroad workers used to help keep the rhythm of their work going on and and the Irish jig Paddy on the Railway. It marks another joining of cultures through music.
Perhaps the least expected piece on the album is one with music composed by Louis Armstrong. It’s a little known -- until now -- piece of his work, celebrating, as Ivers explains in her notes, the dance off traditions which often featured African American and Irish tap dancers and played here with more than a hint of New Orleans in style.
On other songs and tunes Ivers ventures to the music of Quebec, to Galicia, to Cape Breton, and other aspects of her family experience in Ireland and Irish in America. The set which begins with Mackerel Sky pairs an idea from her mother’s home place in County Mayo in Ireland with a Cape Breton idea of strathspey, while the other tunes in the set, all written by Ivers, come from other aspects of her family life.
What began as project about music of the Irish diaspore and connections with other communities in North America took on several different hues as the process unfolded. Ivers was “floored by the amount of stuff I was learning --I probably came out a different player after realizing some of this stuff, “ she says. Life events took hold too. During the course of making the album Ivers and her husband welcomed their son Aidan home, and not long after “our family lost my father John, father in law Barney and mother in law Alice. Just before these sad losses we all welcomed our son home. They all waited and welcomed him with joy.
“I had this big roadmap of the record and the history points I wanted to hit,” she says. “Then these tender life events took hold, and because this record came up from my lifetime, all these things began coming out in what I was writing and how I was playing.”
Circling back in a way to the affirmation of faith found in Walk On, Ivers closes the album with the quietly reflective original tune Waiting for Aidan.
Photograph of bog road by Pamela Norrington; photograph of Eileen Ivers by Kerry Dexter. Thankgn you for respecting copyright.
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Scotland's Music: Karen Matheson, Gaelic, and story
Home, and story: those are two things you will hear woven through the songs Karen Matheson offers on her recording Urram.. You will hear those things whether you understand the Gaelic in which Matheson sings them or not.
It’s not the album Matheson thought she’d be making. She is known for her work with the band Capercaille, who have been bringing the sounds of Scotland to audiences in their native country and abroad for more than twenty years now. Every so often she releases a solo project too. She was working on one which would include contemporary songs in both English and Gaelic when she found changes in her life calling her in another direction.
Her father passed away, and not long after his death her mother became ill and soon died as well. “The recent loss of my parents sent me on a journey of discovery, which has been both eye opening and healing,” she writes in the notes which accompany the recording.
Matheson grew up in Argyll in the southwest of Scotland. Her mother was from Barra, in the southern tip of the Western Isles. Gaelic was her mother’s first language, but when she moved to Argyll for work as young woman she found that she was not allowed to speak the language at all, that it was looked down upon. Calling to Gaelic was bred in Matheson’s bones it seems though, as she sought out teachers who would help her explore the language. Her mother, Matheson told Tim Cumming for Songlines “would never have dreamed that I would go on to make it my life and passion, but she had a great pride in what we did. She did see the tide turn before she died.”
Matheson traveled back to Barra, where she heard songs and family stories, ideas that had made their way across time and generation. She also started looking through family photographs. Connecting faces to names, landscape, and story inspired Matheson to create an album of Gaelic songs, songs which in varied ways speak to the story and landscape of Scotland, and of those family photographs.
It is not that Matheson is a stranger to Gaelic song. Singing in Gaelic has been part of her work with Capercaille. The band offers songs in English and Gaelic as well as tunes in their recordings and concerts, have won awards for their work, and are credited with bringing the language to wider audiences with their work across the years.
One of those earlier songs:
Still, looking through the photographs, Matheson felt a deeper connection. “The hardships their people endured, the tales of poverty. the losses of war and emigration -- all the more poignant when able to connect a face to a name,” she writes.
The tracks on Urram sound a bit like the sort of narrative you’d find were you to sit in on a session at the kitchen table with a singer of Matheson’s gifts. It is not a spare album, though: her voice weaves in and out of arrangements which include guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, string quartet, harmonica, various sorts of percussion, flute, and African kora and Indian sarod. Most arrangements were made by Matheson and husband and musical partner Donald Shaw. They clearly know what they are about, telling the story of a song as much through instrument as through voice.
Wondering about the kora and the sarod? Both are melodic instruments which add color and texture to the project while fitting right in with what is going on with guitar, fiddle, bouzouki, keyborads, and flute. These African and Indian instruments are in the hands of masters too, Seckou Keita and Soumik Datta respectively. Those on the traditional instruments are top class as well. Among them are Donald Shaw, Matheu Watson, Innes White, Michael McGoldrick, and Signy Jacobsdottir.
The thirteen tracks of the album include waulking songs -- songs with the rhytms of work which may tells tales fantastical, amusing, or thoughtful -- a cradle song sung to Bonne Prince Charlie, a song about a dog, a call and response song of argument between two bardesses, a lullabye, a prayer, a song in praise of a boat, one celebrating the Hebridean island of Lewis, and a powerful and reflective love song. They come sourced from Matheson’s own memories, her research in the archives of the School of Scottish studies, and in one case, her work with Capercaille.
The sea is very present in these songs, honoring the seabound nature of the Western Isles and all of Scotland. There is a certain cultural crossroad inherent in water’s edge, too, and that comes to play especially on a song from Matheson’s work with Capercaillie which has lyrics by poet Catriona Montgomery set to music by Donald Shaw. It is framed as a prayer for all those who have been affected by famine, especially those in Africa. It resonates with the famine times in the past of other lands, as well, and stand in good Gaelic company with the other songs Matheson has chosen.
Choice on how the songs on an album are sequenced are part of the story an artist wishes to tell with a project. That plays out in both word and melody with Urram. Whether you know Scottish Gaelic or not, you will be well repaid by listening to the tracks as they are set out. If you’ve time for only one or two to begin with, though, A Bhirlinn Bharrach, a song in praise of a boat from Barra, and ‘Eilean Fraoich, about the isle of Lewis, are good gateways.
Whether you listen to two songs or all thirteen, chances are you will be drawn back to listen again. Chances are you will also learn things about story, family, and home -- and Scotland. As Matheson writes in her notes “The title urram sums it up -- respect.”
Photographs from Karen Matheson’s concert at City Halls in Glasgow at Celtic Connections 2016, made with permission of the artist, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.
It is the turn of seasons just now, on the Northern hemisphere winter to spring, which might bring clear days and brisk night -- or rain, or blizzards, or snow or scudding clouds, or all of these. A time for contemplating change, for marking Easter, Passover, and other holidays heralding renewal.
Musicians think about these things too.
Speaking of change: Emily Smith, from Scotland, explores that idea with Americana writer Darrell Scott’s song The Open Door. She has recorded it on her album called Echoes.
Cathie Ryan looks at the story of Good Friday with a reworking of song often sung in Ireland on that day, Lament of the Three Marys. It is on her album The Music of What Happens.
Further on the contemplative side, the four women of RANT Fiddles offer the tune East Church, which was composed by Lauren MacColl who is a member of the quartet. It is on their album RANT, which was recorded in East Church, Cromarty.
Carrie Newcomer considers change, growth, loss, connection, and faith in the space of a song called The Clean Edge of Change. Change and edges of time, place, learning, time... Newcomer has recorded the song on her album called The Geography of Light.
Music can be the best of companions in times of change. Take a listen, and explore.
Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.