Diane Ní Chanainn.
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
One day a little while back the CD for Diane Ní Chanainn’s album “Idir Muir Agus Sliabh” (Between Mountain & Sea) appeared in my mailbox. It looked great, but the day I opened it up, I laid it down and it briefly disappeared into the abyss of my desktop’s work area. Only this week did it emerge in the flotsam, revealing itself as if by divine providence, and I took the opportunity to give it a good, hard listen. Fine job I did, too, as it is a delightful album and I’m happy to be sharing it here this week.
From Mín Lárach, in County Donegal’s Gaeltacht, Ní Chanainn (or “Cannon,” if you prefer, she goes by both) comes from a deeply musical family. Each of her grandparents either sang or a played an instrument and this love for music and song really rubbed off. Ní Chanainn grew up playing the fiddle but she is known best as a respected sean-nós singer in the more typical solo style. (Her artistry is award winning, even: she placed first in the Comortas Cuimhneacháin Shéain Óig Uí Thuama at Oireachtas na Gaeilge in 2015.)
Despite her fine traditional bona fides, however, on this album she has tacked in a decidedly modern direction, setting the songs she’s chosen in a contemporary musical frame. (Incidentally, the CD comes with a booklet that describes the unusual songs and settings included here in some detail.) It’s territory she first explored in 2017 with “Seán Ó Duibhir a’ Ghleanna,” a one-off recording for which she made a video. It appears that the feedback she received from this work emboldened a more thorough exploration of the style, with “Idir Muir Agus Sliabh” the logical result.
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The album includes 12 tracks, nine sung in Irish, three in English, and an outstanding cast of guest musicians. The album starts easily with “Malaidh Chró Luí,” a love song that glides along led by Liam Bradley’s gentle drumming. Ní Chanainn’s voice positively soars here, foreshadowing the quality of the tracks to come. “Úna Bheag Na hÁite / Na Seamróga Feoite,” features a song that comes from Tory Island and refers to a 1798 naval battle between the British and French navies. Here, Ní Chanainn singing lilts away with a relaxed focus and works very nicely with the pairing of Martin Crossin’s piping and Manus Lunny’s guitar. At the end of the track, Altan’s fiddler Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh comes in to play “Na Seamróga Feoite,” a superb tune that came from Ní Chanainn’s grandfather, and it’s positively brilliant.
Ní Chanainn’s daughter Kelly makes a guest appearance on “A Mhaithrín Dhílis,” a song containing a conversation between a mother and her daughter. The younger Ní Chanainn is a great singer and it’s lovely to hear their two voices together. Michael McGoldrick’s fine piping is well placed here and works well with Lunny’s upbeat accompaniment. The younger Ní Chanainn appears again on “Níl Sé ‘na Lá,” a track I feel is one of the album’s finest. A well known song, it has a playful rhythmic feel and a lovely arrangement, things that are both complemented by the lovely vocal interplay between mother and daughter. McGoldrick’s low whistling adds in particular to the track’s strong arrangement.
I’m also particular to “Lough Erne’s Shore,” a love song that is given a hauntingly atmospheric arrangement. Ní Chanainn sings here with great modern expression and comes as bit of a contrast to the rest of the album.
However, I think my favorite track here is “An Draighneán Donn” which includes the singing of Lillis Ó Laoire. A well-known love song in the sean-nós tradition, this version was collected from Tory Island and here, Ó Laoire make the perfect foil for Ní Chanainn’s performance. The tone he projects is textured and complex, while hers is more clarified and it makes for a very balanced presentation that is enhanced by a tastefully sparse instrumental arrangement. This track has a bit more of the traditional sean-nós style to it, but still very much feels in the modern direction this album’s taken.
“Idir Muir Agus Sliabh” is a very friendly, modern take on a select and quite compelling group of traditional songs. It works very well – Ní Chanainn is an absolutely lovely singer and her vision for what Irish language singing can be in the 21st century is realized with great insight and poise. She’s gone beyond the sound of traditional sean-nós and dug into territory that many might find more accessible. At the same time, though, Ní Chanainn has retained the familiar “old world” tone that one will certainly listen for in a singer of her ability and style. Lovely stuff! To learn more and to purchase, visit www.dianecannonmusic.com.