Sunday, March 06, 2016

Ireland's Music: four albums to explore

The island of Ireland is a small place, really. For all that, it has landscape both dramatic -- think the Slieve League, Bloody Foreland, the Cliffs of Moher -- and quiet, such as the countryside near Saul where Saint Patrick walked, the green fields of Monaghan, and the backroads of County Louth. There are lively cities and quiet towns, winding roads and mountains wrapped in mist. Condensed into two countries and one small island, these are aspects of landscape that call forth dreaming, connecting, and creating. This is part of the reason Ireland is known as the land of saints of scholars -- and of musicians.

As you might be thinking about, dreaming of, or making your own way across the landscapes of Ireland, here is music you will want to include in your soundtrack for such a visit, whether you travel through geography, memory, or imagination:

The members of the band Danu take in quite a few places in Ireland in their own geography: musicians come from east and west and north and south of the country. So do the songs they have chosen for the album Buan. The word means lasting in Irish, an right enough title for a recording that among other things is meant to celebrate twenty years since Danu began. There are waltzes, marches, hornpipes, and reels, and songs aplenty too, with words in both English and Irish. There is music from the tradition and music newly composed, some of that from Danu’s own folk. Listen out especially for Donal Clancy singing the outlaw ballad Willie Crotty that tells a story of times past that resonates with today’s events, Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh with John Spillane’s powerful emigration song passage West, and the whole of the band on the slides and reels that make up the Kerry to Donegal set.

The musicians of Altan are well grounded in the music and landscape of their home place of Donegal in Ireland’s far northwest. They have delighted audiences from Asia to Austraila with it, and for their album The Widening Gyre they decided to explore the connections of their music with the the music of the mountain south in the United States. That’s an interesting journey, with song and tune that draw on both of those traditions and on what connects them. There’s a set beginning with Buffalo Girls from the bluegrass side of things and taking a fast paced path to the fiery fiddle style of Donegal, a set which the the musicians say evolved from them sitting around swapping tunes in the studio. Plenty of American folk musician guests on the album, which was recorded at Compass Records studio in Nashville, among them Mary Chapin Carpenter, Bruce Molsky and Alison Brown. It is Altan’s sound which anchors the vision, though. For a fine example of that check out Altan founder, fiddle player and singer Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s duet with bluegrass master time O’Brien on Gypsy Davey/The House Carpenter.

Speaking of vision, the one singer and flute player Nuala Kennedy had for her album Behave the Bravest was to include quite a bit of music sourced from areas near where she grew up, Dundalk in County Louth in the east of Ireland. The ten tracks on the recording offer that, with a fine balance of song and tune, and Kennedy also lets in hints of her travels with her music and longtime residence in Scotland along the way. Listen out especially for the Fair Hill of Killen, a love song in Irish with lyrics by Ulster poet Peadar O’Doirnin, the emigration song Lovely Armoy, and the set of reels which begins with The Glen Where the Deer Is.

Cathie Ryan sources the songs she writes and the songs she chooses from contemporary and traditional sources in light of her heritage as the first generation daughter of parents who came from Ireland to America, and in light of her own path as an adult which has seen her live for years in the United States and equally years in Ireland. That dual respect is evident in the music on her album Through Wind and Rain. The Wishing Well is a song with an Irish melody framing words Ryan wrote herself, while Fare Thee Well finds Ryan adding and changing verses to an Appalachian tune to reflect her own take on the story the song tells. The title comes from a thoughful song about friendship from Kate Rusby. Mo Nion O, written by Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh is a song about sharing hopes and wishes with a child, so it seems only right that Ryan kept some of the verses in Irish and with Ní Mhaonaigh’s blessing, translated some into English. Speaking of blessing. Ryan’s take on May the Road Rise to Meet You may give tou a whole new thought about the song, and the Irish blessing which inspired Roger and Camilla McGuinn to write it.

Photograph of Altan courtesy of the artists; all other photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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Several ways to explore Irish music further:
Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts
The Clancy Legacy
Matt and Shannon Heaton: Tell You In Earnest

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posted by Kerry Dexter at

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