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It’s a string thing with these ‘sisters’

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

Remember Reeltime? The Galway-based band featured some fine talent, including fiddler Mairin Fahy and accordionist Luke Daniels, but referring to their sound as “a new dimension” in Irish traditional music got old very quickly. Energy alone is not enough. Even inept Gaelic Storm has Titanic-size energy. And a stray clarinet hardly qualifies as novel. Twenty-two years ago, the Andy Statman Klezmer Orchestra, led by clarinetist Andy Statman, collaborated in concert with De Dannan in a far more imaginative venture than anything realized by Reeltime.
Another clever name is String Sisters, referring to a sextet of fiddlers. Unlike wobbly Reeltime and woeful Gaelic Storm, they create consistently compelling music. This fiddling sorority of Ireland’s Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, USA’s Liz Carroll and Liz Knowles, Shetland Islands’ Catriona Macdonald, Sweden’s Emma Hardelin, and Norway’s Annbjorn Lien brings plenty of zing to their strings on “Live.” Recorded in February 2005 at Drammen Theatre in Drammen, Norway, the album was first released in Europe by Grappa Musikkforlag in 2007 and is now available stateside on Compass Records.
The idea for the String Sisters came at Glasgow’s Celtic Connections in 2001. Prominent female fiddlers representing different Celtic musical traditions performed together on stage there, and the strong response was the spark leading to an overdue tour in 2005, which Annbjorn Lien helped to put together in her home country.
Better late than never, as this thoroughly enjoyable concert recording proves.
Accompanied by pianist David Milligan, percussionist James Mackintosh, guitarist Tore Bruvoll, and double bassist Conrad Ivitsky, the String Sisters kick off the CD with a galvanizing medley of two jigs, Ian Lowthian’s “Shetland Fiddle Diva” and Liz Knowles’s “Kinyon’s Jig,” and two reels, Knowles’s “Kinyon’s Reel” and the Irish session staple of “Lad O’Beirne’s.”
On the following track, two more jigs are paired: “The Champaign Jig Goes to Columbia / Pat & Al’s Jig,” both written by Liz Carroll. These tunes also pack equal portions of expertise and excitement.
Milligan’s delicate piano playing sets the mood for one of the best tracks on the album, “Ta Mo Chleamhnas a Dheanamh” (“My Match Is Being Made”), a song sung in alternating Irish and English verses by Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, who previously recorded it on “Altan,” the 1987 album she made with her husband Frankie Kennedy. This concert version by Mairead is both stirring and spellbinding.
The inspired arrangement of three consecutive tracks — “The Horsebell Tune,” played mainly by Lien; the pairing of a hymn in Swedish, “Varidens Fralsare” (“Savior of the World”), sung by Hardelin, and a religious song in Irish, “Gabhaim Molta Bride” (“I Praise Homage to Saint Brigid”), sung by Ni Mhaonaigh; and “Luseblus,” a tune composed by Lien — creates a triptych-like progression in atmosphere. Even if post-production editing accounts for this seamless effect, it is riveting.
A musical diptych forms in the apparent segue between the broodingly lovely Shetland traditional tune “Da Trowie Burn,” played by Macdonald, and Liz Carroll’s “The Fly and Dodger,” which offers a deft interplay of fiddles and Milligan’s piano.
Carroll is rightly recognized as a gifted composer of tunes in the Irish idiom, but the tunes written by Knowles are a delightful surprise here. Her own “Rumble Thy Bellyful” is inventive, dynamic, and wholly absorbing, layered here with flamenco-like guitar chords and intentional distortion in a display of real daring.
“Husaren” (“The Hussar”), another song sung in Swedish by Hardelin, reveals in its English translation on the CD insert that it ends with two lovers “bathed in blood.” Perhaps as a de-goring leavening, the track also offers another sprightly Knowles tune, “Toss the Fiddles.”
Written by Lien and Bjorn Ole Rasch, “Wackidoo” is rippling muscular music counterbalancing Lien’s moody “April Child” tune on the next track that includes Macdonald’s kinetic composition “The Joy of It!”
Only “G-strings,” the third melody written by Lien on the album, dips below the luster of the other 13 tracks. It is a clever title for slightly ponderous playing.
The CD finishes with a rousing medley of “Fremont Center / Ahint da daeks o’ Voe / Come awa’ in / Paddy’s Trip to Scotland / Dinky’s” that moves from a Carroll tune, through a traditional Shetland tune and a tune written by Shetland fiddle master Tom Anderson, to two traditional reels from Donegal. (Interestingly, Altan joined those last two reels with “The Shetland Fiddler” for the final track of their 1989 album, “Horse with a Heart.”)
It’s true that putting several fiddlers together in a group is not new. Fiddle Fever of newgrass and bluegrass fame during the early 1980s had a three-fiddle frontline of Matt Glaser, Evan Stover, and Jay Ungar (composer of “Ashokan Farewell”). Celtic Fiddle Festival is still going strong as a pan-Celtic trio. Even String Sister Catriona Macdonald is a member of another fiddle-centric outfit, Blazin’ Fiddles.
What makes the String Sisters different is not only their collective virtuosity, which rivals that of any other peak fiddle group, but also their adventurous, irrepressible spirit. Their transnational music doesn’t clash or crumble. Instead, it coheres because they have taken the time and made the effort to detect and erect suitable bridges between their traditions.
These six String Sisters make tunes and songs swing. Musical kinship like theirs is a cause for celebration. The key question now is: how do we get them to perform live over here?
To obtain “Live” (cat. no. 745202) by the String Sisters, contact Compass Records at 615-320-7672, [email protected], or www.compassrecords.com.

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