By Daniel Neely
Sometimes you have to search far and wide to find the best out there, but sometimes you only need to look in your own backyard. Hailing from Brooklyn (one of this country’s great homes of Irish music), Pat Mangan is one of the finest players around and has recently released “Departures,” an intense, expressive album of original instrumental tracks that isn’t simply the reflection of his accrued experience in music, but an album that tells a story of his experience as someone living in the world.
And what a story it is. Mangan picked up the fiddle when he was 5 and became a student of the great Brian Conway, a gifted teacher and the standard bearer of the New York–Sligo style of fiddle playing, when he was 8. Mangan’s music developed quickly under Conway’s tutelage, as did his understanding of the nuances of Irish traditional music not only through his lessons but through his exposure to legendary players like Paddy Reynolds and Andy McGann, who proved important formative influences.
There was a great deal of energy in Mangan’s talent early on. As he grew older, he not only competed in but found great success in competing in the All-Ireland. He earned his first first-place finish in 1996 in the under 12 competition and indeed, that year there was a delightful picture of a very young Mangan on the cover of Comhaltas’s “Treoir” magazine, holding his first place cup high above his head. A couple years later he took first in the 15-18 category. For the peer group, this must have seemed inevitable.
In the late 1990s/early 2000s, Mangan became a member of John Whelan’s band (incidentally, Whelan is now a member of the great new group “Gailfean”; www.gailfean.com) and later toured with the likes of Cathie Ryan and Moya Brennan (Clannad). He released his debut solo album “Farewell To Ireland” to critical favor in 2003.
However, Mangan’s proverbial big break came in 2001 when, at 16 years old, he made his debut with Riverdance on Broadway. He wasn’t just the youngest player in the show’s history, he was its first male fiddle lead and a continual part of the Broadway show for several years until fate intervened in 2006, when a slot in Riverdance’s touring show opened. He seized the opportunity and as its fiddle soloist and later, its musical director, he went on to become an integral part of the Riverdance family, traveling the world over, experiencing its dizzying array of cultural difference and absorbing its musical influences at every turn.
This constellation of cultural influences is precisely what gives “Departures” its distinctive sound. The album starts with “Road to Shatili,” a track named after a highland village in country of Georgia, which juxtaposes Mangan’s brilliant “traddy” lead work with a crack ensemble that includes Avirodh Sharma (tabla), Greg Anderson (guitar), Cillian Vallely (low whistle), Steve Holloway (drums), and Jason Sypher (bass). While the players are successful in imparting a strong sense of otherness, there’s nothing musically speaking that ties what they’re doing to a particular location or culture and in that sense the whole projects a cool sense of mystery and displacement. The same might be said for “Queen Tamar’s Court” (which features Cormac de Barra on harp) and “The Eastern Set,” two tracks that seem to have a similar sensibility.
Then there are the tracks that sound with a kind of familiar exoticism. “Gypsy Affair” and “Crossroads Tango” are both very expressive in approach and unfold with a sense of the dramatic. They are lovely, especially the latter of the two which features John Whelan, who adds some impressive accordion work.
Finally, there are the tracks that sound refreshingly familiar to an ear attuned to traditional Irish music. There is something very comforting in “St Marks Place Reels” and “The Sunday Session.” Both project a strong sense of New York-ness and the good nature and bondedness of its trad scene. Lovely tracks.
Mangan (who in addition to Riverdance also occasionally performs with the dance group Hammerstep; www.hammerstep.com) has put together an excellent, richly variegated album that looks beyond the parochial boundaries of traditional music. “Departures” will appeal to many fans of Irish music, but I expect it’s broader, very cosmopolitan outlook will also attract the interest of world music fans who perhaps more often delight in the exploration of cross cultural influence. There is a lot to hear in this album, and it is definitely worth a listen – pick it up! For more information about Mangan and this CD, visit www.patrickmangan.com.
Daniel Neely's traditional music column appears each week in the Irish Echo.