Sunday, December 31, 2023

At the year's turning: 5 songs for new year's reflection

At the turning of the year, it is a time of looking forward and looking back. As ever here at Music Road, the stories found in music are company along the way, and guides to help think about the challenges, acceprt the sorrows, and share the celebrations of the turn of seasons.

Carrie Newcomer’s song Singing in the Dark works for this point in the seasons and beyond.

The idea for the song sparked for Newcomer when she spent a bit of time at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. A respected writer, artist, and thinker on matters of the spirit, she’d been invited to experience the place where spiritual teacher and writer Thomas Merton had lived.

While there, she attended several of the services through which the monks keep hours of the day -- matins, lauds, vespers, compline, for example -- some of which occur in the dark of night and the dark of very early hours of the morning.

On new year’s eve and other times, someone is always singing in the dark...

You will find Singing in the Dark on Carrie Newcomer’s album A Great Wild Mercy.

Waitin’ on Mary is a Christmas song, yes. It also works really well with the atmosphere and events going in in the world just now: finding reasons to hope amidst despair, for one thing. Gretchen Peters wrote it. You will find it on her album Northern Lights.

Rani Arbo has set words of Alfred Lord Tennyson to music in Ring Out Wild Bells. Each of the verses she’s chosen speaks to today as much as they did to Tennyson’s time.

You will find it recorded on the Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem album Wintersong.

In Scotland, the celebration of midnight as one year turns to another is marked by and is called the bells. Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem’s song is a nod to that, and so is this...

Auld Lang Syne, as well known as it is, really does belong as a part on one year turning into another. Here’s a fine version of it by Hannah Rarity and Blazin’ Fiddles. You will want to listen, yes, but then perhaps second time round go ahead and sing along.

Bittersweet as the turning of a year may seem at times, it is also a time which invites celebration, connection and hope. Cajun musicians Canray Fontenot and Michael Doucet caught that ideas well in their song Bonne Annee. So did Rani Arbo and daisy mayhem in their performance of it, on their album Wintersong.

Wishing you all the best at the turning of this year, and as the new year unfolds.

You may also wish to see
Three more songs for the new year, from Kris Drever, Fara, and Olivia Newton-John
Ireland, Scotland, and story
December: msuic for a time of hope and reflection at Wandering Educators
Music for peace, undersatnign, and connection at Wandering Educators

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Sunday, December 24, 2023

Christmas eve and the coming days: music as companion

Christmas eve, Christmas day, the days leading up to the turning of the year: they often make for a time of reflection.

All things happening in the world, alongside what challenges and changes may be arising with each of us in our personal circumstances, at times make the quiet and the mindset for such reflection seem hard to come by.

As you’ll know if you’ve been following my work here and in other publications I find music to be a gateway and a good companion to such reflection.

Two recordings to consider

If you may be looking for an especially lively and seasonal recording with singing you will want to join along with, then have a listen to Glad Christmas Comes. from Eliza Carthy and Jon Boden.

The English duo offer a mix of Victorian carols -- such as the title song-- and other favorites and originals. Even if you’ve not heard familiar song done quite the way they offer, or the songs are new to you, the creativity and energy of their singing will engage you.

Tracks to note: Shepherds Arise, Glad Christmas Comes

With her recording O Come Emmanuel Hanneke Cassel offers a more contemplative take on the season.

Cassel’s main instrurment is the fiddle, with which she draws on Scottish, Cape Breton, and Americana flavors to frame her interpretations and create her original music, For this album she has also invited along several of her musical friends to add their voices to different tracks, All the the music is well worth your listening, at the winter season and at other times.

Standout tracks: Silent Night, O Come Emmanuel/Star of Wonder

Wishing you a reflective, peaceful time, whatever way you may be marking this season.

You may also wish to see
Music for December: time for hope & reflection at Wandering Educators
Christmas Eve Reflections at Along the Music Road, my new newsltter at Substack
Another album from Hanneke Cassel
More Winter listening.

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Sunday, December 03, 2023

Advent and music: first week in Advent

Advent: a time os ideas, a time of change....

Whether this season is part of your faith calendar or not, this time at turning of season and turning of year is a good time to reflect.

It may be challenging to pause, perhaps even more so to find interior silence in which to do that reflection.

Music makes a good gateway into reflection.

Though there’s plenty of great seasonal music about, if that’s not what engages you, there are other possibilities too.

Several ideas to consider

Lauren MacColl is a fiddle player and composer based in the north of Scotland. Her album Haar is not seasonal music. It is. however, a collection of thoughtful pieces which make good companions for quiet thinking.

MacColl is joined by musical friends including Rachel Newton on harp and spoken word, Anna Massie on guitar, James Lindsay on double bass, Mairearad Green on accordion, Jennifer Austin on pianos, and Alice Allen on cello. Their collaboration gives added interest and depth, which along with MacColl’s stellar playing, invites repeated listening.

The Lonesome Chronicles from The Kathy Kallick Band takes things in a bit of a different direction. Kallick is an award winning singer, songwriter and guitarist based in northern California; her band memebrs are based all across the US west.

When they get together, it is powerful music they make. For The Lonesome Chronicles, as the title suggests there are songs that consider being lonely and ways of living through that and learning from it.

The album takes listeners on a journey, really, from those considerations of coping with being lonely to celebrating coming out of it ). There are both songs and tunes, a well rounded collection with original music from Kallick and her band members along side well chosen covers of music from William Golden, Earl Scruggs, and John Prine.

For seasonal music, as Advent begins take time to explore three winter seasonal albums from the top Irish American band Cherish the Ladies.

On Christmas Night, Star in the East, and Christmas in Ireland find the group offering varying modds in song and tune, from traditional to original pieces. Heidi Talbot is lead singer for On Christmas Night, Michelle Lee Burke has that role for Star in the East, and Hannah Rarity is lead singer for Christmas in Ireland.

Flute and whistles from band leader and founding member Joanie Madden and guitar from founding member Mary Coogan are creative presences on all the albums, with keys from Kathleen Boyle, accordion from Mirella Murray, and fiddle from Nollaig Casey making part of the mix too.

Each of these albums is well worth taking time with at the winter holidays.

Also to explore: Cherish have put together a digital holiday album with tracks from these albums and other sources featuring Cherish the Ladies with guest singers Heidi Talbot, Hannah Rarity, Don Stiffe, Kate Purcell, Michelle Burke, Bruce Foley, and Seámus Ó'Flatharta. It is called Ultimate Christmas Mix and you can find it on Bandcamp.

...and look for the album Christmas, from Cherish the Ladies founding member and guitarist Mary Coogan.

More to come on music to listen to during Advent as the season unfolds...

You may also wish to see
More ideas for music for the first week in Advent, from a few eyars back
Music for Starry Winter NIghts at Wandering Educators, with a track from On Christmas Nigh form Cherish the Ladies along with music from Andrew Finn Magill, Matt and Shannon Heaton and more
One More Christmas from Austin based musicians Christine Albert and Chris Gage
Learn about Through Wind and Rain, a recording from Cathie Ryan, who was lead singer with Cherish the Ladies for many years

Two ways you can support Music Road -- and thank you!

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Tuesday, November 07, 2023

Scotland's music:Elan from Rachel Hair and Ron Jappy

Elan: that’s the name Rachel Hair and Ron Jappy have chosen for their most recent album.

As it is a word meant to describe something done with energy, style, and enthusiasm, it makes a description reflacting f the duo’s music.

Rachel plays the harp. Ron’s instrument is the guitar. The two thus bring together Scotland’s oldest instrument and one that is newest to the music of Scottish tradition.

They each bring love, respect, and knowledge of that tradition to the ten tracks on Elan.

Eight of the ten tracks are sets in which several tunes are linked; six of the ten include original compositions from Rachel. Other tunes come from traditional sources and from the work of contemporary musicians who draw on Celtic traditions.

Harp and guitar are in good conversation all through the sets and single tunes.

There’s the lively set Tom Toi’s Polka, for instance, with the title tune by Rachel written for a harp learning friend, followed by Battle of Augrim from Irish tradition, and another tune which they write in the sleeve notes “we found when sourcing new material; it obviously caught our eye because of its name!” It is called Harper’s Frolics and comes from English tradition. The light notes of Rachel’s harp dance against the upbeat rhythm of Ron’s guitar through the tunes. Adam Brown adds the beat of bodhran to the mix.

MacLeods of Waipu is a reflective tune that hold stories of journeys and discovery within its notes. When Ron and Rachel were on tour in New Zealand, people kept telling them they needed to go to Waipu as it it s place important to people from Scotland who emigrated to New Zealand.

On a day off they worked in a visit, and sure enough upon visiting the town’s museum, they found connection not only to Scotland but to Ullapoll, the very town in the northwest Highlands where Rachel was born.

Turns out that a school teacher (MacLeod of the tune’s name) during the time of the Highland Clearances led folk from Ullapool first to Cape Breton in Atlantic Canada and several years later to Waipu in North Island.

Cape Breton. comes in for further reference on the album, too: the Cape Breton Jigs set comprises three tunes by three Cape Breton fiddlers, set over to good effect on on harp, guitar, and bodhran.

Daybrak is a quieter set, also taking inspiration from landscape. The title tune comes from famed Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson. The duo pairs it with Rachel’s Dinan Dawn. That is “a Breton style tune inspired by early morning walks to teach harp in the beautifully medieval town of Dinan, Brittany,” she said.

The engaging music on Elan goes to show why Rachel and Ron each have many projects on the go in addition to their duo gigs and recordings.

Ron comes from a coastal village in Scotland’s northeast. He’s been involved in music since he was in primary school and holds a degree from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. He’s in demand for recording and touring in folk and traditional music projects.

Rachel is one of the top folk musicians in Scotland, known for her teaching as well as her performance. These skills and her love for the music of Scotland take her to countries across the world. Rachel has released six solo albums to date and often works on collaborative projects as well.

Rachel’s regular travels take her to teach harp once a month to the Isle of Man; it’s also where her husband comes from. So it’s natural that there’s be a nod to music of the Isle of Man on Elan.

The set Rachel and Ron have chosen to close the album references the Isle in its title, To the Rock, and in its tunes, which include music from Manx tradition and from contemporary Manx writers. That good conversation between harp and guitar (with Adam Brown’s bodhran again joining in) continues through the set.

Clarity, grace, creativity, and, yes, elan inform the tunes themselves and the playing of them through the album.

All the tracks on Elan are well worth your attention, worth your repeated listening in fact.

Lively sets and reflective ones, traditional tunes and newer ones, the music Rachel Hair and Ron Jappy have created becomes soemwhat like enjoying a conversation with good friends, a conversation to which you will want to return

You may also wish to see
Lossan, an ablum from Rachel Hair and Manx Gaelic singer Ruth Keggin
Caoir,. new album from gaelic singer Joy Dunlop, on which Ron plays guitar
Fas, an album celebrating nature from top Scottish band Breabach
Thar Toinn/Seaborne from Irish musician Muirieann Nic Amhlaoibh
The Woods from Scottish musician Hamish Napier

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Symphony Nova Scotia and Natalie MacMaster: a celebration of Cape Breton music and more

Symphony Nova Scotia is marking its 40th anniversary this 2023/2024 season.

As part of the celebration, they have invited longtime friend Cape Breton fiddle player and composer Natalie MacMaster back for two concerts in Halifax in late September to open the autumn schedule.

Perhaps you might associate Symphony Nova Scotia with classical music -- and rightly so, they’ll close the season in May with music director Holly Mathieson conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, for example-- but the talented musicians of the symphony regularly venture into other repertoire, especially from artists and sorts of music which make up the many strands of Nova’s Scotia’s heritage abd present day ranging from Afro-Cuban to jazz to the sounds oc Cape Breton.

Natalie MacMaster knows those Cape Breton sounds well; she grew up in Cape Breton, step dancing to the music early on and taking up the fiddle at age nine. She released her first album when she was sixteen, and has been recognized with Grammys and many other awards.

“ I heard my uncles play, I heard my aunts sing, I heard my cousins play,” MacMaster said. ” I come from a big family, a musical family. It was part of life.”

Those sounds of Cape Breton music, which can range from fiery to gentle, draw on the music which people from Scotland brought with them across the waters. That is the heart of the music MacMaster makes, but like the musicians of Symphony Nova Scotia. she enjoys taking that musical perspective into conversation with other sorts of music.

One place that is evident is in MacMaster’s most recent album Canvas, a duo project with her husband Donnell Leahy. Over the years the two have worked out ways to bring her Cape Breton style and his fiddle playing from Ontario into creative collaboration; this is their third album together.

With unexpected time away from their busy touring schedules during the pandemic they let the music lead them into tunes which are rgounded in their distinctive creative styles, while exploring music which includes flavors of jazz, the music of Ireland, Scottish Gaelic song, bluegrass, and classical cello among others. Several pieces from Canvas will be part of MacMaster’s concerts with Symphony Nova Scotia, along with others from across her repertoire.

What is it like for an artist from a folk tradition to work with an orchestra? “There are charts -- I work with a great arranger, Becca Pellett -- lots of charts,” MacMaster said.

It’s the work of an arranger to plan ways the different artists, instruments, and sections of musicians in an orchestra frame and support a guest musicians’s work. Charts communicate this.

The physical experience is a bit different too “It’s different, being out in front of the musicians and communicating with them through the conductor, instead of how I do with my band on tour on when I go back home to Cape Breton to play a square dance. It’s a whole different way of communicating, a whole different way of organization.”

MacMaster has often worked with orchestras in her career. When she returns to Halifax to appear with Symphony Nova Scotia, it holds an additional resonace, though.

Symphony Nova Scotia was the very first orchestra I’d ever played with,” she recalled. “ I was in my early twenties at the time. I’d never even been to a symphony performance before and when I was invited to do that I was invited to do that I thought: I have arrived!” she said, laughing.

Scott Macmillan will conduct Symphony Nova Scotia for MacMaster’s shows. He was the conductor and arranger for those first concerts as well. “In 1995, the Symphony, Natalie, and I shared music across Nova Scotia on a fantastic tour,” Macmillan said. “We’re going to pick up right were we left off!”

For two evenings at the beginning of Symphony Nova Scotia’s 40th anniversary season and with MacMaster’s return to join them, excitement and expectation will be high on all sides, and it’s sure to be a fine pair of evenings for those on stage and those who come to listen.

At this writing tickets are still available. The concerts take place on 28 and 29 September.

You may also wish to see

Symphony Nova Scotia’s website where you may find information about schedules, tickets, the symphony’s musicians, and a 40th anniversary book for which MacMaster wrote a forward. You may also explore video recordings of small ensembles of symphony musicians supporting guest artists made during the pandemic.

Natalie MacMaster’s website where you will find information about her tour schedule including her upcoming family Christmas tour, and all her recordings. For one of those tour dates, Natlaaie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy are set to take part in the closing concert of the Celtic Colours International Festival in October; no guarantees, but there’s a good chance that concert will be livestreamed.

Natalie MacMaster’s album Sketches
Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy: One
Leahy Live in Gatineau
Cape BretonMusic: essentials for exploring
Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming: Scottish classical violinist bridges classical and folk genres with collaboration from Scotland musicians Julie Fowlis, Duncan Chisholm, and others

Photograph of Symphony Nova Scotia courtesy of the Symphony; photographs of Natalie Macmaster by Rebekah Littlejohn

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Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Shorelines: Nuala Kennedy

The sea has been a constant in Nuala Kennedy’s life. She grew up and first began learning music in County Louth in Ireland’s east, not far from the Irish Sea. She has lived and traveled in other parts of the world with sea connections, from Scotland to Cape Breton to Spain to Australia and beyond.

In recent years Kennedy has been based near the coast of Clare, in the west of Ireland.

That sea connected life has presence in Kennedy’s album Shorelines.

The music on Shorelines tells stories of the sea, and draws on sea changes to tell human stories. So too the music, especially the songs, on Shorelines, offer stories of changes and of resilience in women’s lives.

As she was making those sea borne connections and choosing music for Shorelines, Kennedy was reflecting on her own life as woman, artist, wife, mother, and friend, and how changing circumstances require change. That had her considering the many ways resilience comes about in women’s lives That perspective too informs the music on Shorelines.

Shorelines is a title which reflects the shifts and changes in both coastal waters and the resilience of women. It is journey with a fine balance in tune and in song of original music and music drawn from traditional and contemporary sources.

Drawn from is one of the operative phrases, as Kennedy and the talented folk she’s invited along on this journey stay true to tradition while adding their own gifts to illuminate the stories they wish to tell.

Kennedy is a flute and whistle player, a singer, composer, and producer. Each of those aspects of her talent comes through clearly in Shorelines.

You will be well rewarded by following the path Kennedy has laid down through the nine tracks on the album, most of which are sets with tune and song in combination or comprising several tunes.

Several highlights:

The journey begins with the song Sally Sits Weeping, which finds a woman lamenting a false lover. Melody and variations of the verses have shown up in Ireland, Scotland, Australia, and North America; Kennedy has chosen a story which finds the woman weeping, true, but as the tale unfolds she “sets sails of silver” and heads in other directions.

On the recording this moves into Blue Devils’ Jig a lively original tune named for the melancholy Ishmael falls into in Moby Dick.

Saltwater and Flow are two lively original tunes which move gracefully into the song Cúcúín, sung in Irish. It’s a song Kennedy says that she often sings to her own young children, in which there’s a conversation between a mother cuckoo and her chicks. There’s another dimension, which aligns with aligns with the ideas that pull through the music on Shorelines. “In the Celtic tradition,” she points out, “cuckoos were considered to have toe ability to travel between worlds.”

Wake is an original tune “composed while meditating on the wake of a boat,” Kennedy writes. It is a reflective piece which points up her gentle power with the flute and the connections the musicians who join her bring as well, in this case especially Tara Breen on fiddle and Caoiminh Vallely on piano.

They move from Wake into a lively set called Sea Reels with original tunes inspired by Cape Breton bracketing a Scottish maritime reel, with Tony Byrne on guitar and Todd Sickafoose on double bass joining in.

Marguerite is a song which also references Atlantic Canada. Contemporary writer Scott Richardson drew on a true story from Newfoundland in 1542, which speaks of a woman facing circumstances which certainly tested her resilience.

Kennedy mentions that she first heard this song from Geraldine Hollett of the Newfoundland band The Once. That is how I first heard it as well. Kennedy brings her own gifts as a singer and storyteller to the tale, adding her own illumination to the powerful story. It also fits well with the intertwined themes of sea borne stories and ideas of resilience on Shorelines.

When you get to thinking about it, the story told in The Cavan Road leaves many things unexplained. It clearly has a happy ending though, which is why legendary flute player and singer Cathal McConnell taught it to Kennedy some years back when she asked for a song with just such an ending -- a rare thing in Irish love songs.

In addition to the musicians mentioned above, Moira Smiley and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, two artists whose work you’ve met here along the Music Road before, add subtle, interesting backing vocals to several of the songs.

There is more to explore, including a song suggested by Mick Moloney, an open ended version of a ‘died for love’ song, and tunes inspired by the coast of Clare.

Each of the tracks on Shorelines is worth your repeated listening. There’s more to discover each time in song, tune, and story, all offerd with top class musicianship.

You may also wish to see
Nuala Kennedy’s website, with details of her other recordings and her tour and teaching schedule
A short piece about one of Nuala’s earlier albums, The New Shoes
Learn about Day Is Come from The Alt, a trio in which Nuala joins up with John Doyle and Eamon O’Leary
Thar Toinn/Seaborne from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh
Another one of those rare Irish love songs with happy ending, Carrick a Rede from Cathie Ryan and John Doyle
Learn a bit about the music of The Once, from Newfoundland

Photographs courtesy of the artist

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Friday, June 02, 2023

Lossan: Ruth Keggin & Rachel Hair explore music from the Isle of Man

Lossan: that’s a word in Manx Gaelic that means shimmer, flicker, particles of light in darkness such as you might glimpse when looking at light reflecting on water at night.

It is also the title that Ruth Keggin and Rachel Hair have chosen for their duo album.

“It felt very fitting to title the album this way,” Ruth said. “The word also has connections to sea and sky and it’s these things that connect us both and are so important to our homelands.”

Ruth is a singer, native to the Isle of Man, and an artist who has played a part in the resurgence of interest in the Manx Gaelic language in recent times.

Rachel Hair’s instrument is the harp. She is from Scotland, currently based in Glasgow. Her music has taken her as far afield as Japan, the United States, and Australia. She’s been visiting the Isle of Man for a number of years to teach and play.

Ruth and Rachel met more than a decade ago at an after hours session one night on Man. Off and on since then, they have been playing together, including a gig at the Edinburgh International Harp Festival.

“For years now I have been inspired by the culture on the Isle of Man and its music, song, and language,” Rachel said. “I’m so grateful to those involved in the cultural scene on the island for welcoming me.”

Ruth’s and Rachel’s collaboration on Lossan adds to the creativity of Manx music in both song and melody -- and there are a few tunes from Scotland and Ireland in their set list as well, tunes which help illuminate connections among Celtic traditions, and the work of those who bring those traditions forward.

The whole of Lossan is well worth repeated listenings; indeed the balance of intricacy and simplicity that marks the duo’s arrangements and choices of music readily invites that.

That said, tracks to listen out for especially include

Graih Foalsey is a traditional song from the Isle of Man about about a lover who has proved false to her man. If you know other Celtic tales of false lovers you might hear hints of those in word and melody both. In this tale, though man knows of the circumstance, he remains hopeful. That likely explains why the song is reflective in tone rather than angry or sad It’s a piece Ruth and Rachel each enjoy performing when they are working on their own, so it made a natural choice to include in this duo project.

For the Tri Nation Harp Jigs Set, Rachel features on her own with a set that moves from a traditional Scottish tune to a Manx one to one from Ireland; Ruth similarly has a track on her own with an a capella take on the traditional Manx song Arrane Saveenagh, a song which has similar lyrics in the same vein as Rock-a-bye Baby.

You might at this point be wondering a bit about Manx Gaelic and Manx music and where they come from. They’re Celtic: if you have Scottish Gaelic or Irish a few words might catch your ear .

The Isle of Man lies in the Irish Sea, about halfway between Ireland and Scotland. Through history it has had connections and influences to the cultures of both countries, and to the Nordic lands also, as it made a good way station for traveling Vikings.

The Isle of Man has remained its own country, though, and being an island a bit out on the sea, has developed its own languages and culture from all those elements.

Another set to listen out for on Lossan is Eubonia Soilshagh, which comprises a lively collection of drinking songs, several with trad Manx lyrics set to contemporary melodies by Manx musician Annir Kissack. This is also a track on which guests join the duo: Adam Brown on bodhran, Adam Rhodes on bouzouki, and Isla Callister on fiddle.

The whole of Lossan offers a way to explore an aspect of Celtic music and Gaelic song that’s perhaps lesser known than others.

It also offers a master class in how singer and instrumentalist can work together to explore song and melody.

All that comes together especially in another track: Arrane Oie Vie, also known as the Good Night Song. It too is a traditional Manx song, one which is often used to end an evening of music.

Ruth Keggin and Rachel Hair have chosen this song to draw their duo album Lossan to a close, as well.

There’s much more to enjoy on Lossan. Take time with what Ruth Keggin and Rachel hair have created; you will be well rewarded.

Ruth and Rachel each have other albums in release, which you may find out about at their respective websites.
For English language lyrics of the songs on Lossan, go to the media tab of Ruth’s website.

Photographs of Ruth and Rachel by Amore du Plessis Photography

You may also wish to see:
A Celtic autumn celebration on the Isle of Man
Alterum from Julie Fowlis, with songs in Scottish Gaelic
Thar Toinn from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh with songs in Irish

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