Saturday, October 13, 2018

Scotland's Music: Sarah-Jane Summers: Solo

Image, emotion, connection, story: these elements are parts of what makes music, and what connects musician and listener. At times musicians use words. At other times sound of the instrument holds the stories and ideas.

So it is with the recording Solo, from Sara-Jane Summers. In it, Summers and her fiddles stand alone, and yet they are not alone, as they hold dear and convey a wealth of stories.

Often Summers shares her gifts of playing and composition in collaboration. The Nu Nordic band Fribo, the chamber folk ensemble RANT, the contemporary string quartet Quatuor Bozzini, the Celtic fusion Grit Orchestra, top Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis, are some of those with whom she has worked. There are also the albums Summers has made with her husband, Finnish guitarist Juhani Silvola, which have won wide acclaim.

For her album Solo, however, Summers wanted to create what the title suggests: just the woman and her fiddle. She recorded it in a church near her adopted home in Norway. Summers, who comes from the Highlands of Scotland, has long been drawn to and has studied music of the Nordic lands. Elements of that infuse her work. Her heart, though, is in the Highlands, and it is to that music she looked first when choosing what to include her solo project.

There are slow airs, and there's a snap of strathspey. There's a nod to the Nordic lands on one tune, and one original composition which stands well alongside material from the tradition. What comes clear is the sound of Scotland. Though it is not spoken, what comes clear is the cadence of Gaelic. In the faster paced tunes such as the set including three traditional strathspeys, one can hear the cadence of the dance, as well.

For the most part, the music Summers has chosen here tends toward the side of reflection. That's not to say it's quiet, always, though that's included. What stands out is, rather, the quiet intensity and the deep connection among musician, instrument, and the music she's chosen.

It is a recording well worth your time for repeated listening in order as Summers has set it out. If you've only time for a taster to begin, though, the opening track, Lath' a' suibhal Sleibhe Dhomh/ On a day as I traversed the mountain makes a fine place to start. Riddell's Lament for King George V, that set of strathspeys which begins with the tune Are You Always Pleased, and Morning Prayer, a tune written by Summers herself, combine to make a good introduction to the whole. You will want to listen to all of them, though, and to read the sleeve notes in which Summers gives a bit of history and context to each the tunes.

Some of the tunes Summers has chosen from her own research; some are ones she's known most of her life; in several she makes tribute to her teacher the late great Donald Riddell, and to his teacher, Alexander Grant of Battangorm/ Sandy Battan, who was a relative of Summers. "Donald was very excited to give the gift of the tradition back to my family and this circle has always meant the world to me," Summers says.

A gifted and creative tutor herself (she has. among other things made an instructional dvd focused on the strathspey), Summers keeps the giving of gifts going with that work, with her collaborative projects, and especially, with this recording, Solo.

You may also wish to see
Scotland's Music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum
website of Sarah-Jane Summers
Celtic Music and Nordic Music Meet: Fribo

Photograph of Sarah-Jane Summers by Johannes Selvaag.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Scotland's Music: Patsy Reid: A Glint o' Scottish Fiddle

A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle—that is the name Patsy Reid has chosen for her most recent recording. It is a title that fits the music she’s chosen. It fits  the point in her work she’s chosen to record a new solo album, too.  

The sets – there are ten of them -- include both music from the tradition and more recently composed music.


Reid was a founding member of the award winning group Breabach. Time came when she chose to step back from that work – and what she stepped into was a career as one of the most in demand fiddle players and arrangers working in Scotland.


She has visited India a number of times and collaborated with Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi musicians. She’s played with Zakir Hussein’s Pulse of the World in London, with the Celtic big band The Unusual Suspects, and participated in the Cecil Sharpe Project.  

At the 2018 Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow she appeared as part of Scotland's Wild Heart, at Innes White’s New Voices concert, and in support of award winning Gaelic singer Julie Fowlis. Recently she supported US folk and country songwriter Gretchen Peters at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth. Reid has also worked on record and in performance with Donald Shaw, RANT, Ross Ainslie, Ali Hutton, Robyn Stapleton, Hamish Napier, and others.  

It’s been several years since Reid last released a solo album ( Brightest Path, in 2014). She has had in mind and been working on another solo album for some time. As much as she loves creating music with others, she wanted to focus on her own sound for a bit. “I had reached a stage where I could see myself only working on other people’s projects and never having enough time to so something of my own. So I’m taking the risk that I might have to say no to something exciting, and I’m investing in my own music. I wouldn’t want to regret not giving myself the chance to do that,” she said.  

For her listeners, and one would expect, for her own musical path, A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle proves a worthwhile investment.

The music Reid chose for this recording was in some ways a look back. It includes music she's known since childhood, and pieces she learned and played while attending Alasdair Fraser’s fiddle camps, winning the Glenfiddich Fiddle Championship, and studying for her university degrees.   

That's not to say these are simple tunes, nor is the feeling nostalgic. What Reid offers is a clear eyed and clear hearted take on a well chosen gathering of tunes which move within the history of the fiddle in Scotland and at times reach its diaspora.  

The works of James Scott Skinner, Niel Gow, and the unnamed composers of Scotland’s long held fiddle traditions were companions of Reid's own learning and of her finding her own sound in music. She has repaid that favor, honoring the tunes while adding her own mark to them.  

Most of the tunes come from Scotland’s east coast traditions, whether they are from the likes of named composers or not.  Reid well knows how to balance tunes which invite the step of the dancer with those which suggest the more contemplative and thoughful side of the life of Scotland.  

The opener for the first set, Strathearn, is a strathspey from the tradition with which Reid invites thoughts of the wilder sort of Scotland’s landscape and weather, before heading into a lively collection of old reels. Another notable set includes The Quartz Jig from Grainne Brady, The Double Rise, composed by Phil Cunningham, and Halloween Jig composed by Donald Shaw. Two more especially outstanding tunes are the haunting slow air Mrs. Jameson’s Favourite and a nod to the late Angus R. Grant with his composition 2:50 to Vigo.  

On these as through all the tracks, Reid is accompanied by Alastair Iain Patterson on piano. This makes an excellent collaboration which allows both participants to be fully in service to the music, and to their creativity.  

Every set on A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle is a keeper. It’s no wonder Reid is in such demand as a collaborator for concerts and recordings. It’s great that she also chooses to take the time and focus to create solo projects as well. If you’ve interest in the fiddle, the music of Scotland, or fine acoustic music well played, then A Glint o’ Scottish Fiddle is your album.  

A note on the photos: I was fortunate to be at the Celtic Connections concert in 2018 when Reid and Patterson debuted this album. That’s where these photos were made.  

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Alterum
Hamish Napier: The River
Capercaillie: At the Heart of It All

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Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Scotland's Music: Hamish Napier: The River

Rivers were some of the earliest ways people traveled, connected, and explored. They were also, quite possibly, part of the first music people heard, and made. These aspects of rivers have held true through history, and still do today.

Hamish Napier grew up alongside a river, the Spey, in northern Scotland. His family fished explored and traveled the Spey, and its music formed the background to Hamish’s learning on the instruments he’d make his own, flute and piano. 

Hamish is a well respected player, composer, and teacher who has worked with many of Scotland’s top musicians, some of whom you’ve met here along the Music Road, among them Karen Matheson, Emily Smith, and Eddi Reader.

A few years back he was commissioned to compose an hour of music as part of the New Voices strand at Celtic Connections. Others who have been asked to compose for that well respected strand include Nuala Kennedy, Hannah Fisher, Maireard Green, and Sarah-Jane Summers.    

Hamish turned to his past and present experiences of the River Spey for ideas, creating the music which would become the recording called The River. . These ideas he framed in a range of traditional music – reel, jig, strathspey, slow air, and more – weaving his ideas about aspects of the river’s voice and history to create a new story which becomes lasting.


That new story is drawn from traditions of the music of Scotland, and traditions, both of nature and man made, along the river.    

If you’ve ever seen a water bug dart above flowing water, you will appreciate The Mayfly. With the tune called The Dance, Napier reflects on the changes in ways a river flows, and the connections it makes as it does so. In the sleeve notes for The River he remarks that “The natural cycle of the river is one epic, glorious and ever changing dance… everything around us is interconnected and flowing.”  

Flute, piano, and keyboards are how Hamish Napier speaks about this this dance, from whirlpools to the story of floating down the river now and in the past, from the sweep if the Spey’s course to the small conversations of those humans who are part of its life.

There is light (listen out for the tune called Huy Huy, and the vigorous dance of the salmon in Out to Sea) and there is shadow in life along and within the Spey, as well.

Napier takes account of the shadow side especially through two tunes. The Drowning of the Silver Brothers, 1933, which was inspired by a somewhat mysterious tragedy, and Iasgairean nan Neanhnaid (The Pearlfishers). The second of those is in the form of a . warning pibroch – a piper’s warning call. The idea came both from a childhood experience of encountering those who were making destructive raids on the river’s freshwater mussel beds to take their pearls, and, some years further on, considering what effects pollution may be having on the river.  

The eleven tracks on The River . draw to a close with two pieces which in various ways bring together the stories and the music Napier creates of the journey. There’s the lively Speycast (Part 1) through which you can well imagine the arc of fly casting on the Spey – particularly as one needs to take into account not snagging one’s line on the trees growing along its banks. Spey Cast (Part 2) bursts into joyous celebration of a lively and lighthearted raft race that takes place on the Spey.


As creator and composer, Napier has well chosen his companions on this river journey. Sarah Hayes adds alto flute, James Lindsay plays double bass, Martin O'Neill is on bodhran, Andrea Gobbi does synths and post-production, and Calum MacCrimmon, rather than playing the pipes as he often does, in this case sings Canntaireachd as part of that warning pibroch of The Pearlfishers. Natural sounds oystercatchers, blackbirds, curlews, heron, and the River Spey itself also take part. Classy, intricate artwork and the design of the album come from Somhairle MacDonald.              

You could enjoy these pieces  knowing nothing of the River Spey and the landscape in the north east of Scotland which frames it – but the stories Hamish Napier has has chosen to tell through his instruments will draw you into the land and the life of and along this river, and, perhaps, enlarge your vision of other rivers and watersides you may encounter.    

Hamish Napier has been working on another recording project since The River was released. It also has to do with life in the northeast of Scotland, but in a rather different way: it is called The Railway . The Railway and at this writing is planned to be released in August. I hope to bring you more about that recording then – meanwhile, here is more about The Railway ..

Photos by Peter Trimming and Kerry Dexter  

You may also wish to see  
Scotland’s Music: Emily Smith: Echoes .
Ainie Minogue: In the Name of Stillness .
Julie Fowlis: Alterum .          

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

Ireland's Music: Altan: The Gap of Dreams

The landscapes of Donegal suggest mystery and legend. There is connection and there is solitude. There is history and there is the moment as immediate as the blooming of a flower or the rise of a wave up on the shore.

The music of the band Altan holds all these as well. Their story as a band began in this far northwestern part of the island of Ireland. Though they have traveled the world with their music, it is to Donegal the band returned to record their album The Gap of Dreams. 

Their selection of song and tune draws in the many strands of life, landscape, and history. Édaín O’Donnell’s album sleeve art work helps set the stage for the music.

There are songs in both Irish and English, some recently written and some handed down in the tradition.

The tunes, too, come from varied sources, recent and traditional, learned from fellow musicians and written by members of the band. There’s as much story in the conversation among fiddle guitar, bouzouki, keyboard, and accordion in the tunes as there is in the word and melody of the songs. I

t is a story of landscape, life, love, and imagination. When she was growing up in Donegal, founding member of Altan Mairéad Ni Mhaonaigh recalled, she’d sometimes ask older players where they got a tune. I heard the fairies sing it, they would tell her. That became part of the idea behind the music choices and the title for The Gap of Dreams. 

Altan is Ni Mhaonaigh on fiddle and voice, Martin Tourish on piano accordion, Ciaran Curran on Bouzouki, Mark Kelly and Daithi Sproule on guitars and vocals, with Tommy McLaughlin sitting in on keyboards. For Gap of Dreams, Mairead’s daughter Nia Byrne and Mark’s son Sam Kelly each contribute an original tune to the recrding. They play on them on the album too, Nia on fiddle and Sam on concertina.  

With the title slip jig The Gap of Dreams composed by Mairéad, the tunes from Nia and Sam -- Nia’s Tune and The Beekeeper -- comprise the lively and engaging set which begins the album. 

Several of the tune sets pair music from the tradition with recently composed pieces. One such is Seán sa Cheo / Tuar / Oíche Fheidhmiúil (A Spirited Night), in which Seán sa Cheo (John in the Mist) comes from the tradition and Tuar and Oíche Fheidhmiúil are tunes accordion player Martin Tourish has written. 

Each of the tunes in The Tullaghan Lasses set -- the others are The Cameronian  and The Pigeon on the Gate-- come from the tradition, albeit in the different ways. The first is one often played by great Donegal fiddler John Doherty, which may be a very old tune he had learned from local sources. The Cameronian came over from Scotland -- trade, family, history, and geography  have made many connections between Donegal and Scotland. The Pigeon on the Gate is a tune which shows up in Celtic lands and has crossed the ocean to North America as well. It is a well known tune to Donegal traditional players. This set, in fact, is a fine example of Donegal style fiddle playing.

The gentle reel Port Alex, which Mark Kelly wrote for his nephew, draws in strands of quiet steadiness in journey, with no words spoken or sung.

Bacach Shíl Andaí is a gentle song, too, with words from a nursery rhyme well known in Donegal. The warmth of Mairéad’s voice in the song well suits that idea.

Several of the other songs Mairéad has chosen are a bit more dramatic. There is a lost and wandering lover pining for his lady through the landscape of Donegal’s northernmost place in Dark Inishowen. An Bealach Seo ‘Tá Romham (This Road Ahead of Me) moves with a sense of journey and hope, perhaps in the physical world and perhaps through that gap of dreams to the otherworld the journey of this album explores. Either way, Mairéad sings it and Altan plays it in service to the ideas of journey and connection. The song was written by Moya Brennan of Clannad along with her father Aodh Ó Dúgáin.

The song Altan have chosen to bring The Gap of Dreams to a close is a collaboration in a different way. Songwriter and scholar Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin who comes from the east coast of Ireland in the Oriel region, heard Shetland fiddler Tom Anderson’s tune Da Slockit Light. It inspired to write Fare Thee Well a Stór. The song is about love and leaving, and, in Altan’s playing with Mairéad’ singing, it suggests the landscapes of Donegal as well as those where the music originated.

That evocation of landscape through voice and instrument is woven through each of the tracks in The Gap of Dreams. Indeed that is one of the gifts Altan always brings to their listeners, a gift that, some thirty years from when they first began, the band members continue to give in creative and thoughtful ways.

You may also wish to see
Ireland’s music:Altan: The Widening Gyre
Scotland’s music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum
Ireland’s music: Aine MinogueIn the Name of Stillness  
Music of Ireland: Pádraigín Ní Uallacháin Songs of the Scribe

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Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Folk with Edge: Sarah-Jane Summers Virr and Moira Smiley Unzip the Horizon

Music, through listening, through creating, through playing, encompasses the new as well as the familiar.

There’s always more to explore, whichever path in music you follow. Two artists who know this well are fiddle and viola player Sarah-Jane Summers and singer Moira Smiley. They are both grounded in folk tradition and both have classical music experience and have worked in other genres of music as well. For recent releases, each has chosen to bring innovation to the fore.

Sarah-Jane Summers has chosen to call her album Virr. That is a word in Scots which can mean energy, gusto, or force. It can mean the sound made by an object in swift motion, a whirr, and it may also described force itself. Any of those terms work as a description of the music Summers creates for the twelve tracks on the album, too.

If you know Summers’s other work, Virr is maybe not quite what you would expect -- and yet it is, too. She has always been fascinated by sound, language, and landscape, and looked for ways to express these on her instruments (she plays fiddle, viola, and Hardanger fiddle). A native of the Highlands of Scotland, she’s also long been interested in the connections between the musics of Scotland and those of the Nordic lands. As a Scot now living in Norway, “it makes sense that Scots words which are etymologically Norse should be of particular interest,” she says.

One day, her husband and fellow musician Juhani Silvola suggested “Shall we go into the studio and record something?” Summers took him up on the suggestion, found her viola sitting in the studio, picked it up and began to improvise.

That interest Scots and Norse words, the unexpected opportunity to sit in the studio and improvise now and then across several weeks’ time, and her own observations of weather, language, and sound and the possibilities of her instruments come together on the twelve tracks on Virr.

Each is named for a Scots weather-related word having its origins in old Norse. A few are gently melodic. Some are harsh, as weather sometimes is -- emotions too, Summers notes. Several take journeys among and through these variations and back again. Though it is only Summers and her fiddle in play, the sounds she evokes at times remind of the crash of an orchestra in full flight. At others they suggest the rough haunting presence evoked by singers of sean nos. Tirl, Aitran, Katrisper, Aftrak, Rissen, Unbrak -- you can begin to hear a suggestion of the music in the words Summers has chosen as titles.

Creative, intriguing, thought provoking -- an adventure in the listening, and it would seem, in the creating as well. Summers has a suggestion: “I would be delighted if you would sit with a coffee, a cup of tea, a glass of red or whatever your thing is and have a wee listen and also ponder the power of the weather,” she says.

Moira Smiley is one for taking her listeners on not-quite-what-is-expected adventures, too. Her most recent recording is called Unzip the Horizon. Smiley’s primary instrument is her voice. She’s helmed vocal ensembles, composed classical music, been featured with the top Irish American group Solas, and currently, among other projects, tours with Jayme Stone’s Folklife. An encounter in Ukraine and time spent in the refugee camps at Calais were two things that became catalysts for Unzip the Horizon. Those other musical experiences come along on this project, as well.

Smiley’s voice and her songwriting -- twelve of the fourteen tracks are originals, two are reinvented songs from American folk tradition-- provide a connection through songs that are always questioning, sometimes dissonant, sometimes tender. As is true with Sarah-Jane Summers’s album Virr, there’s a lot going on and a lot to think about in the range of ideas Smiley offers.

Among other things, in addition to singing she plays half a dozen or so instruments. Many fellow musicians come and go on the tracks, among them a number whose work you have met here along the music road before -- Krista Detor, David Weber, Seamus Egan, Chloe and Leah Smith of Rising Appalachia, Darrell Scott, and Jayme Stone.

In Ukraine, Smiley had the chance to speak with an elder musician. The woman spoke of the power of voices to connect past and present, and to change the future. Those ideas, and her experience volunteering in the camps at Calais where she found music touching lives of people who had exactly nothing else, helped set Smiley on a path to exploring her voice and her songwriting in new ways.

“The voice can be a scary, tender instrument, not just sweet and pretty,” Smiley reflects. “I’ve long embraced that when singing certain traditional folk songs, but I longed to pull it into my own songwriting.”

So she has. There’s the spooky and enigmatic Appalachian style song Dressed in Yellow, hints of jazz, classical, and rock influences in various songs, lyrics with questions more than answers, and sound which includes all sorts of harmonies along with sighs, crackles, claps, stamping feet... it is a journey in both sound and idea. Bellow includes African, African American, and gospel sounds while celebrating the voice -- the joining of voices -- and urging connection. Smiley includes part of the lyrics in her sleeve notes:

Please don’t give up. Please don’t lose that sound
So many people fought to gain that ground
Please don’t give up. Please don’t hide your voice
So many people did not have that choice
Sometime -- anytime -- you want to bellow, call on me
We’ll unzip the horizon with our voices

Though pain, confusion, anger, and searching are all present, so too are joy and hope, in Bellow and in other songs. Almost quietly Smiley sings the last words of Sing It Out: “Though we might fear and we might doubt/We must remember joy and sing it out.”

That, really, makes a throughline of what both Sarah-Jane Summers and Moira Smiley celebrate on these recordings: the joy of creativity, the joy of exploration, the joy of connection -- and in some cases, the joy of surprises. Not always what you’re used to hearing, maybe not always easy to hear at first, but well worth the patience and the effort to listen, to explore, and to come to share that exploration as you do.

Photograph of Sarah-Jane Summers by Kerry Dexter; photograph of Moira Smiley by Alexandra DeFurio

You may also wish to see
Sarah-Jane Summers has another recent recording, Solo, about which there will be more here on Music Road coming up shortly
Excellent duo album from Sarah-Jane Summers & Juhani Silvola Widdershins
Sarah-Jane Summers talks about the Highlands of Scotland, at Wandering Educators
Jayme Stone’s Folklife, on which Moira Smiley appears
Carrie Newcomer’s Live at the Buskirk-Chumley, on which Moira Smiley sings harmonies
Moira Smiley’s song Refugee is part of this story at Wandering Educators about music and the geography of hope
Another sort of experiment in music: Kathy Mattea: Calling Me Home

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Scotland's Music: Julie Fowlis: Alterum

Alterum: the music begins with a woman’s plea to her sister for help. In the stories handed down on the Hebridean island of Barra from which the song comes, it is said that the woman who composed the song was being held prisoner in a fairy mound.

Julie Fowlis sings this song, A Phiuthrag ‘s a Phiuthar, in Scottish Gaelic. She is known for that, both for her gifts in the arranging and singing of songs from past and present, and her intelligence and skill in seeking out and choosing such songs.

The album Alterum began for her as a project exploring Gaelic songs of the otherworld, Fowlis writes in her sleeve notes. There are stories of fairies and water horses, legends and myth, unexplained natural events, and places that may be real or not. As she explored and expanded this idea into choosing songs for recording, for the first time on an album of her own, Fowlis decided to include songs in English as well, and a song which includes both Gaelic and Galician lyrics, too.

She has sung in English and in other languages on different projects (for the Disney/Pixar film Brave, for instance). When preparing her own albums, though, Fowlis had never felt any particular pull to include songs in English -- until this time. Woven as they are into the theme of otherworld, Go Your Way by Annie Briggs and Windward Away by Archie Fisher offer, in different yet related ways, explorations of love, mystery, and time.

That could be said of each of the songs on the album, and indeed the sequence of all the songs played out as Fowlis has set them. There’s that call for help from a fairy hill to begin things. Gilllebride MacMillan joins in on Camariñas, a traditional Galician song which brings a ray of sunlight to the proceedings, as does the lively combination of two pieces of mouth music, Fear a’ bhrochain and Dòmhnall Bin.

There is an indeed otherworldly story and sound to Dh’èirich mi moch, b’fheàrr nach d’ dh’èirich (I arose early, would that I hadn’t). It is a story of legend entwined a story of grief and change.

There is that song of lost love, Go Your Way, a seal song, another rather mysterious love song in Gaelic called Dh’èirich mi moch madainn cheòthar ( I arose early on a misty morning). There are several other songs in Gaelic, and there is Windward Away, which holds enough mystery for several stories all on its own.

Cearcall mun Ghealaich(Circle about the Moon) with words by Scottish writer Catriona Montgomery which Fowlis has put to music closes things out. Speaking an introduction in English, Fowlis then sings in Gaelic. Both, as she remarks in her sleeve notes, play out the idea that “When you see a circle around the moon, it is often a warning of change – usually not for the better.”

Fowlis sings each of these songs with intelligence and grace. You needn’t know Scottish Gaelic to appreciate the power of emotion and story she brings to this well thought out and well sequenced collection. She is well supported too: Eamon Doorley on bouzouki and other instruments, Donald Shaw on piano and harmonium, Tony Byrne on guitar, Ewan Vernal on double bass, Duncan Chisholm on fiddle, and Su-a Lee on cello are among those who add their instrumental gifts. In addition to Gillebride MacMillan (if you are thinking his name sounds familiar, you might be recalling that he appeared as the bard in Outlander ), award winning singers Mary Chapin Carpenter from the US and Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh from Ireland add harmonies on several tracks.

Alterum: that title is a word which may mean difference, change, other. Scottish Gaelic is a language not many speak; legend and mystery of the Celtic world (any world, for that matter) are paths not many tread through music or in other arts. Along the way through the music she has chosen for Alterum, Julie Fowlis leads her listeners on a meditative, spirit infused, and spiritual journey which draws on story, language, voice, and music.

Photographs of Julie Fowlis in concert at City Halls during Celtic Connections 2018, made with permission of the artist, the venue, and the festival. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Julie Fowlis: Every Story/Gach Sguel
Scotland’s Music: Nicola Benedetti: Homecoming on which Julie Fowlis appears as a guest
Ireland;s Music: Cara Dillon: Wanderer
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and Julie Fowlis: Dual

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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Ireland's Music: Murieann Nic Amhlaoibh: Foxglove & Fuschia

As she was planning the project which would become her album Foxglove & Fuschia, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh decided she wanted the music to be a bit like what she might do if she were planning for a gig in a pub near her home in Corca Duibhne, the Dingle peninsula, in the west of Ireland. It’s a situation she knows well, as she grew up in Dingle, surrounded by music and going to sessions from a young age.

As ancient stones and worn paths through mountain and along coast attest, people have been calling the Dingle peninsula in the west of Ireland home for thousands upon thousands of years. Rain and mist and wind, mountain and sea meet in a landscapes that suggests and evokes history and story.

Those stories are often told, shared, and forged through music.

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh has studied in Dublin, taught in LImerick, and traveled the world with her music. For thirteen years she was lead singer and flute player with the top Irish band Danu. I came time, though, to return to to her native west Kerry, to live again in the Irish speaking region of the far west of Dingle where she herself had grown up and begun her life in music,

She also thought at the time that stepping away from Danu might be the end of her public career as a musician. It wasn’t.

A sure and steady vision of where she is and what she wishes to create as an artist is at the heart of Foxglove & Fuschia, which is Nic Amhlaoibh’s third solo album. There are songs in English and in Irish, and a few well chosen tune sets too.

Some of the music has its origin in west Kerry. Other songs and stories make their way in from father afield. They all, though, relate in some way to that life of water and mist, music and mountain and story found in Dingle.

There is the gentle joy of word and lyric in Muirisin Deas is Nora, a song from The Great Blasket Island, which lies just to the west of the tip of Dingle. It is about a couple who have been married a long time and are still very much in love. The words in Irish are from a traditional poem, set to a new melody by guitarist Gerry O’ Beirne. O’Beirne, who often plays with Nic Amhloaibh when she goes on the road with her music, supports her on the song for the recording.He also wrote the image filled song Where Foxglove, from which Nic Amhlaoibh drew the title for the recording.

For most pieces on Foxglove & Fuschia, there are just one two musicians joining Nic Amhlaoibh. That still leaves good scope for family and friends to sit in, though: there’s a set of reels with Nic Amhlaoibh’s husband Billy Mag Fhlionn on bouzouki and a friend from her days with Danu, Donnchadh Gough, on bodhran, and on a set of polkas with her father, Feargal MacAmhlaoibh, as the fiddler, and with longtime friends, Padraig O se on accordion and Donough Hennessey on guitars. Donal O’Connor, Seamus Begley, Pauline Sclanlon. Eilis Kennedy and John McSherry are among those who sit in on various tracks, too.

It is Nic Amhlaoibh’s voice and vision which define what’s happening on the album, though. Nowhere is that more evident than on The Final Trawl, a song of the sea by Scotland’s Archie Fisher. As part of her working co presenting the television programme Port for BBC Alba with Scottish singer Julie Fowlis, Nic Amhlaoibh had the chance to meet and sing with Fisher, who wrote the song with ideas and images drawn from his experience of seafaring.

Another song that weaves together the album’s ideas is Bean Dubh an Ghleanna. It is Nic Amhlaoibh says, one of the big songs which to her mind make up the classical tradition of Ireland’s folk music. Nic Amhlaoibh grew up in Dingle, in the Gaeltacht, where, she points out, you don’t actually study the traditional style of sean nos, you’re given the words and the melody and expected to find your own way into them.

Indeed, so she has, through each of the tracks on the recording. There are eleven of them, and each invites repeated listening. Tune, song, and story shared in ways which honor tradition and create it anew in one of Ireland’s most interesting and creative voices: this is what you will find on Foxglove & Fuschia.

Photographs of Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh and friends in concert at Celtic Connections in Glasgow, Scotland, by Kerry Dexter, made by permission of the artists, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright

You may also wish to see
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh & Julie Fowlis: Dual
Musireann Nic Amhlaoibh: The Small Hours
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh’s web site
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind & Rain

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