Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
Are digital-only releases the wave of the future? Recently, I received a pair of projects from artists in Ireland for which there isn’t a physical piece. The digital-only approach has its advantages and disadvantages: while it makes fair compensation for recorded work more of a challenge, it also gives artists the flexibility to explore new directions, which is what we have here. This week’s releases come from Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh (www.muireann.ie) with Billy Mac Fhloinn and Pádraig Rynne, Tara Breen, Conor Crimmins & Elaine Hogan, and I recommend that folks check them both out because there is some very interesting stuff happening with each.
Nic Amhlaoibh and Billy Mac Fhloinn are up first with a new recording of the song “Port na bPúcaí.” Raised in Inis Oírr, Cape Clear Island and in West Kerry’s Dingle Peninsula, Nic Amhlaoibh is one of today’s great singers. She has several solo albums to her credit, was with Danú for several years, and hosts a television series about traditional music on TG4. Mac Fhloinn is Nic Amhlaoibh’s husband and is not only a bouzouki player, but he lectures in Irish folklore in Ireland.
Nic Amhlaoibh’s upbringing and Mac Fhloinn’s research interests coupled with their approach here make “Port na bPúcaí” (or the “Fairy Lament”) an intriguing choice, as the song itself is rooted in folklore and West Kerry: its lyrics are about a woman captured by the fairies and the melody was collected by a fisherman who heard one night from the mists of Inis Mhic Uibhleáin in the Blasket Islands.
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What the duo has done with the music is also very interesting. Nic Amhlaoibh, who recently tweeted that she’s been playing the air with her dad all her life, “learned from the Ó Dálaigh family from the Blaskets,” has a powerful and expressive approach, and gives a memorable performance. Mac Fhloinn provides fascinating accompaniment on an instrument called the “Yaybahar.” Developed by a Turkish musician-inventor, the Yaybahar looks like a large stick with strings played with a bow attached to a Y-shaped frame tipped with bodhráns connected to the bowed stick with long, slack springs. It is capable of making a wide array of mysterious, ethereal sounds and in this context its sounds fit the mystical connotations with which the air is associated very well. (Not to worry, folks – you’re not likely to see one of these enormous contraptions wheeled into your local session!)
The overall effect is amazing and unique – take a minute to listen to this one. It’s lovely! Check it out at muireann1.bandcamp.com.
A short while back I received an email from Pádraig Rynne (who, is should be noted, mastered Nic Amhlaoibh & Mac Fhloinn’s track) about a new “trad-ish from myself and a few friends from Clare.” The album, he explained, is called “Avalla” and “explor[es] traditional, newly and self-composed melodies in the traditional form.” I took some time this week to have a listen and it’s a superb album that readers will want to hear as well.
The friends at hand here are Rynne (concertina, keyboards, bodhrán, percussion), Tara Breen (fiddle), Conor Crimmins (flute) and Elaine Hogan (harp), a quartet of top players, each with a strong resumé. Rynne, of course, plays with NOTIFY, Atlantic Arc Orchestra, and Triad with Dónal Lunny and Sylvain Barou; Breen tours with the Chieftains and the show Heartbeat of Home; Crimmins is a member of the group Arum and teaches at the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy; and Hogan tours frequently and in 2015 recorded the outstanding album “The Shores of Lough Breda” with Sheila Garry.
“Avalla” is a brilliant album. Its overall sound is decidedly traditional in nature, as there’s familiarity and comfort in an ensemble that consists of concertina, fiddle, flute and harp. The combined salutary effect is strengthened by the sympathy each musician has for the others’ music – everyone brings to the table a keenly steeped understanding of traditional music and each is clearly locked into what the others are doing. If you were to hear this group playing, say, in someone’s kitchen, it’d be easy to assume there wasn’t a modern thing about their music.
But a more in-depth look complicates the picture. Relatively few of the album’s tunes are “traditional,” with most of them having been composed by the group’s members. The arrangements move around a bit as well – some are straight, while others play around with how melodies are layered or how rhythms fit together. These explorations give the music a slightly different slant and it’s modern touch. This is where it gets interesting.
The album opens with the dazzling “The Herring on the Tongs / Death of the Landline.” Rynne, Crimmins, and Breen put on a super show up front, with Hogan’s harp adding incredible depth – a constant with this album. Instruments are constantly entering and dropping out of the arrangement, all the while maintaining a marvelous flow, which keeps it very interesting and sets the stage for what’s the come. And there are a lot of outstanding tracks to speak of. For example, “Crush’s Coaster / Dan-Tí Dan-Dan / Keeper of the Treasure” is an exhilarating trio of recently-composed polkas. “Advanced Knowledge / The Elms / Maspeth Summer,” three tunes that Rynne composed, explores the hop jig rhythm in a very appealing way. They’re lovely tunes and the group gives them a great outing. “Bret Hop / Limestone 54 / OSIA” is also a really interesting track, as it begins with a fabulous pair of tunes Crimmins composed (a hop jig, and then a tune inspired by a hop jig) and closes with a kind of set piece with some moments of offbeat harmony that the liner notes state was written for a TV show. I also really like “Ask My Father / Aggie Whyte’s Chattering Magpie / The Humors of Max,” which tends more toward the familiar/traditional side of things – the playing’s just exceptional.
“Avalla” is an adventurous album from four extremely fine musicians that is absolutely worth checking out. The music is interesting, intense, and enjoyable, and as great as the album is I would wager that the music is even better live – hope to see it someday. Highly recommended! A digital only release, “Avalla” is available for download through iTunes and Amazon and streaming through services like Spotify and Deezer.