Friday, November 14, 2008

Dual: Julie Fowlis & Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

Julie Fowlis, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, Eamon Doorley, and Ross Martin


In English, the word dual means two sides of the same thing, be they alike or different. In Irish and in Scots Gaelic, dual means to twine, braid, interlace, or coil. It also means one’s own inheritance. So it is the right title for this collaboration among four musicians who explore the connections and divergences of Scots Gaelic and Irish music.

If you’re thinking but wait, I don’t know either of these languages, have no worries. You can hear the stories, the rhythms, the sea, the laughter, the history, and the conversation quite clearly through the music as the four play and sing. And if you’d like to, you may check out their comments and English translations of the lyrics in the liner notes. But listen a few times through first.

Fowlis is from North Uist in the Outer Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. Nic Amhlaoibh is from Dun Chaoin, in Kerry about as far west as you can go on coast of Ireland. The two singers met several years ago, and as a one off thing a at festival decided to try doing a couple of songs together. “Only we found we had no songs in common -- or so we thought then,” Fowlis recalled. Each taught the other a song, “and we just had a blast. It was so much fun,” Nic Amhlaoibh says.

As it turned out, they did have a good bit of music in common, or at least in similarity. They found they had quite a few personal parallels as well. Each was in a band and doing solo work too, each had grown up in the far western parts of their homelands, learning songs in the old languages from tradition bearers themselves, and speaking Irish and Scotttish Gaelic as naturally as English. “When I’m doing a song, I don’t think of what language the song is in, I just think of the story,” Nic Amhlaoibh says. “Scots Gaelic is a very ancient language,” Fowlis points out. “Some of these songs go back centuries. But they are about real places and real emotions, and it’s what I know and love.”

Fowlis is in the band Dochas, has two solo albums out, often guests on other musicians’ projects, and was recently named Scotland’s first ambassador for Scottish Gaelic in recognition of her work as a musician. Nic Amhlaoibh is the lead singer with the top Irish band Danu, hosts specials on TG4, the Irish language television network, and teaches in the traditional music course at the University of Limerick. Still, “One of us came up with the hare brained idea to do a tour, just in Gaelic speaking areas. So I booked a few gigs in Scotland she organized a few dates in Ireland, and off we went -- and the concerts were wonderful, really intimate concerts at small halls, but they went over well and we loved doing it,” Fowlis said. Each year Nic Amhlaoibh, who also plays flutes and tin whistles, Fowlis, who plays whistles and pipes in addition to her singing, Fowlis’ husband Eamon Doorley, who plays bouzouki in the band Danu with Nic Amhlaoibh, and Scottish guitarist Ross Martin made time for a short run of gigs. Their audiences kept asking for an album, even when they ventured into booking gigs outside the Gaeltacht. “After we’d booked those we wondered, is this going to work at all?” Fowlis recalled, laughing. It did, and provided the push to get them gathering up grant support, booking studio time, and creating what stands to be one of the best records of the year, in any language.

As the concerts were, it’s an intimate collection. Fowlis’ sister Michelle adds vocals on one cut, and Nic Amhlaoibh’s husband, Billy Mag Fhloinn, joins in on bodhran, but aside from their contributions it’s just the original four. They offer songs about work, about a boat race, about the sea, about singing and dancing, love songs and pipe tunes and songs about battles. The languages and musics of Ireland and Scotland diverged about four centuries ago, and the music the artists have chosen here highlights both divergence and connection in story and in melody. You might hear a melody line that reminds you of the song My Own Dear Galway Bay in the song An Eala Bhan, which is from North Uist, or one that calls to mind the Irish love song Mo Ghille Mear in A Riogain Uasall, which is thought to be a metaphor for the battle of Culloden.

What you will mainly hear, whether you understand the languages or not, is conversation on the love of the land, the people and their stories, their work their lives, and their histories. It is a conversation in words you may or may not know, played and sung with grace and emotion which make language not a barrier, but a connection.

Julie Fowlis

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh

You may also wisht to see
Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh: Daybreak/Fainne an Lae
a short film about julie fowlis
Danu: One Night Stand
Dochas: An Darna Umhail/ A Second Glance

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


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