Thursday, April 28, 2016

Scotland's Music: Karen Matheson, Gaelic, and story

Home, and story: those are two things you will hear woven through the songs Karen Matheson offers on her recording Urram.. You will hear those things whether you understand the Gaelic in which Matheson sings them or not.

It’s not the album Matheson thought she’d be making. She is known for her work with the band Capercaille, who have been bringing the sounds of Scotland to audiences in their native country and abroad for more than twenty years now. Every so often she releases a solo project too. She was working on one which would include contemporary songs in both English and Gaelic when she found changes in her life calling her in another direction.

Her father passed away, and not long after his death her mother became ill and soon died as well. “The recent loss of my parents sent me on a journey of discovery, which has been both eye opening and healing,” she writes in the notes which accompany the recording.

Matheson grew up in Argyll in the southwest of Scotland. Her mother was from Barra, in the southern tip of the Western Isles. Gaelic was her mother’s first language, but when she moved to Argyll for work as young woman she found that she was not allowed to speak the language at all, that it was looked down upon. Calling to Gaelic was bred in Matheson’s bones it seems though, as she sought out teachers who would help her explore the language. Her mother, Matheson told Tim Cumming for Songlines “would never have dreamed that I would go on to make it my life and passion, but she had a great pride in what we did. She did see the tide turn before she died.”

Matheson traveled back to Barra, where she heard songs and family stories, ideas that had made their way across time and generation. She also started looking through family photographs. Connecting faces to names, landscape, and story inspired Matheson to create an album of Gaelic songs, songs which in varied ways speak to the story and landscape of Scotland, and of those family photographs.

It is not that Matheson is a stranger to Gaelic song. Singing in Gaelic has been part of her work with Capercaille. The band offers songs in English and Gaelic as well as tunes in their recordings and concerts, have won awards for their work, and are credited with bringing the language to wider audiences with their work across the years.

One of those earlier songs:

Still, looking through the photographs, Matheson felt a deeper connection. “The hardships their people endured, the tales of poverty. the losses of war and emigration -- all the more poignant when able to connect a face to a name,” she writes.

The tracks on Urram sound a bit like the sort of narrative you’d find were you to sit in on a session at the kitchen table with a singer of Matheson’s gifts. It is not a spare album, though: her voice weaves in and out of arrangements which include guitar, bouzouki, fiddle, string quartet, harmonica, various sorts of percussion, flute, and African kora and Indian sarod. Most arrangements were made by Matheson and husband and musical partner Donald Shaw. They clearly know what they are about, telling the story of a song as much through instrument as through voice.

Wondering about the kora and the sarod? Both are melodic instruments which add color and texture to the project while fitting right in with what is going on with guitar, fiddle, bouzouki, keyborads, and flute. These African and Indian instruments are in the hands of masters too, Seckou Keita and Soumik Datta respectively. Those on the traditional instruments are top class as well. Among them are Donald Shaw, Matheu Watson, Innes White, Michael McGoldrick, and Signy Jacobsdottir.

The thirteen tracks of the album include waulking songs -- songs with the rhytms of work which may tells tales fantastical, amusing, or thoughtful -- a cradle song sung to Bonne Prince Charlie, a song about a dog, a call and response song of argument between two bardesses, a lullabye, a prayer, a song in praise of a boat, one celebrating the Hebridean island of Lewis, and a powerful and reflective love song. They come sourced from Matheson’s own memories, her research in the archives of the School of Scottish studies, and in one case, her work with Capercaille.

The sea is very present in these songs, honoring the seabound nature of the Western Isles and all of Scotland. There is a certain cultural crossroad inherent in water’s edge, too, and that comes to play especially on a song from Matheson’s work with Capercaillie which has lyrics by poet Catriona Montgomery set to music by Donald Shaw. It is framed as a prayer for all those who have been affected by famine, especially those in Africa. It resonates with the famine times in the past of other lands, as well, and stand in good Gaelic company with the other songs Matheson has chosen.

Choice on how the songs on an album are sequenced are part of the story an artist wishes to tell with a project. That plays out in both word and melody with Urram. Whether you know Scottish Gaelic or not, you will be well repaid by listening to the tracks as they are set out. If you’ve time for only one or two to begin with, though, A Bhirlinn Bharrach, a song in praise of a boat from Barra, and ‘Eilean Fraoich, about the isle of Lewis, are good gateways.

Karen Matheson - A Bhirlinn Bharrach; from Vertical Records on Vimeo.

Whether you listen to two songs or all thirteen, chances are you will be drawn back to listen again. Chances are you will also learn things about story, family, and home -- and Scotland. As Matheson writes in her notes “The title urram sums it up -- respect.”

Photographs from Karen Matheson’s concert at City Halls in Glasgow at Celtic Connections 2016, made with permission of the artist, the festival, and the venue. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Capercaillie: At the Heart of It All
History into song: Capercaillie: Glenfinnan
Scotland's music: Dunrobin Place from Matheu Watson

Another earlier song...

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Friday, March 25, 2016

Music and seasons of change

It is the turn of seasons just now, on the Northern hemisphere winter to spring, which might bring clear days and brisk night -- or rain, or blizzards, or snow or scudding clouds, or all of these. A time for contemplating change, for marking Easter, Passover, and other holidays heralding renewal.

Musicians think about these things too.

Speaking of change: Emily Smith, from Scotland, explores that idea with Americana writer Darrell Scott’s song The Open Door. She has recorded it on her album called Echoes.

Cathie Ryan looks at the story of Good Friday with a reworking of song often sung in Ireland on that day, Lament of the Three Marys. It is on her album The Music of What Happens.

Further on the contemplative side, the four women of RANT Fiddles offer the tune East Church, which was composed by Lauren MacColl who is a member of the quartet. It is on their album RANT, which was recorded in East Church, Cromarty.

Carrie Newcomer considers winter, spring, change, growth and faith in the space of a short song called Lean In Toward the Light. She has not put it on record at this writing, but she is working on a new album... meanwhile you may want to learn about her album called A Permeable Life..

Music can be the best of companions in times of change. Take a listen, and explore.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Folk with edge: Sarah McQuaid: Walking into White

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Other roads: stories from Perceptive Travel

Music, landscape. legend, connection, heritage, history: each of those things comes into the music I share with you here along the music road.

Landscape and journey are more often the focus of what I write over at Perceptive Travel, where I am one of six writers. As we mark the ninth anniversary of Perceptive Travel this week, I thought you who read here at Music Road might enjoy seeing some of the ways I have included perspectives from music and musicians in stories I have done for that publication.

In Rathlin Island: history, landscape, legend meet I invite you to a place off the coast of County Antrim in Northern Ireland. You have met Cathie Ryan and Mary Black here along the music road several times; they both have connections to Rathlin. Their comments and music are included in the story

There’s mention of some of the fine musicians who call Caithness, Sutherland, Wester Ross, Easter Ross and the Black Isle home in this journey through Scotland’s North.

Though she handled things with her usual understated grace in music and flashes of humor along with it at her concert it was still quite something to be there on The Falls Road as Cathie Ryan spent An Evening in Belfast a few years back.

Seasons are on the turn as I write this, which has me remembering this short piece -- and yes, it has links to music too-- with reflections on traveling in spring and in Donegal in Ireland’s far northwest stopping by Wildflowers and a Wall.

When you go over to Perceptive Travel to read these, I invite you to stay a while and look around. You will find stories from Singapore, India, Israel, Texas, Istanbul, Boston, Edinburgh, Louisville, Nova Scotia, North Uist, and many other places, and much more to explore.

You may also wish to see
Altan: The Widening Gyre
Canada's Music: Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy: One
Ireland's music: Matt and Shannon Heaton: Tell You In Earnest

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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Ireland and Irish America: twenty years of Solas and music

Twenty years ago. Think back a moment to where you were and what you were doing -- and how the past two decades have unfolded. Changes will be a constant, no doubt, whatever area of life draws your attention with these thoughts.

That has been true for the band Solas, too. When flute and banjo player Seamus Egan, guitarist John Doyle, fiddle player Winifred Horan and singer Karan Casey brought their varied backgrounds of in Irish music together in New York City in the mid 1990s, they were each working on other projects. They knew they liked the sound they were creating together, though, a sound which, both lyrically and melodically, drew on their experiences in both Ireland and North America. They knew they wanted to share what they were creating with wider audiences, too -- what they did not know is that they were at the start of becoming one of the most celebrated and influential groups in working in the music of Ireland and Irish America.

They decided to call themselves Solas, which means light in Irish. That’s been a true name, one that ties into the energy with which they present their music and the discoveries they make in it and share with their listeners. Miles and miles and decades of world tours, band members coming and going, gigs in world class venues, awards, recognitions, road songs and road stories by the thousands learned and told, and it turns out they have been at sharing this music for twenty years. How to mark that milestone with a recording?

Founding members Horan and Egan, longtime cohorts Eamon McElholm on guitar and piano and Mick McAuley on accordion, and most recent member singer Moira Smiley didn’t want to do a retrospective, exactly. They did want to honor and include past band members as well as give the nod to the continuing and evolving nature of the sound they create now.

All These Years is the result. It is a sixteen track journey that moves from high energy jigs and reels to graceful slower pieces, from songs that come from the tradition to newer songs from writers including Martha Scanlon and Patty Griffin, and music written by members of the band as well.

Song and tune alike, there’s connection and creation evident between the players and the singers, and stories told as thoughtfully through tune as through song. Past members of the band were able to join in, too, adding and recalling their own distinct contributions to sound and story. Doyle and Casey are part of the project, as are former band members Donal Clancy, Johnny B. Connolly, John Williams, Mairead Phelan, Deirdre Scanlon, Noriana Kennedy, and Niamh Varian-Berry. Long time collaborators Chico Huff, Trevor Hutchinson, and John Anthony sit in too.

If you have been walking the music road with me for a time, many of those names and the music they make will be well known to you. Whether or not that is the case, what they have gathered to create with All These Years is indeed music which looks both back and forward, honoring the band’s past while standing brightly in the present and looking toward the future.

Each of the tracks is well worth your time, and well worth more than one listening. It is also a project that will benefit from being heard in the order in which the artists have designed it for you. Especially take note of Wandering Aengus, with Noriana Kennedy as the singer and a really interesting musical framework for her singing, Winifred Horan’s quiet composition, a waltz called Lost in Quimper, Moira Smiley’s take on the traditional song As I Went out Walking, Niamh Varian-Berry and Karan casey leading things on two rather different songs from the tradition, Willie Moore and Sixteen Come Next Sunday respectively, and Horan on fiddle and Egan on piano on the closer, Egan’s title track All These Years. In fact, if you’ve only time for one track, listen to that last one -- and then you will want to hear all the others, too.

At Celtic Connections in Glasgow this winter, there was a CD release concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall. All the musicians on the recording got to be there, as well as several other unexpected guests. I was fortunate to be there, and that is where most of these photographs were made.

Band photograph courtesy of the artists. Performance photographs of Seamus Egan, Moira Smiley, Winifred Horan (with Moira Smiley in the background), and Karan Casey with Donal Clancy by Kerry Dexter, made at Celtic Connections with permission of the festival, the artists, and the venue involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Solas:Shamrock City
Exiles Return: Karan Casey and John Doyle
Ireland's music: Danu: Buan

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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.

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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Saturday, February 13, 2016

Love Songs, Love Stories

Love: it is a source of endless reflection, conversation, story, at all times of the year. In the depths of winter love stories are often spun in form of song, shared and told and sung around and passed along again, as the lives and loves of those who handed them on to us join in from the shadows and as we add our own new love songs to the mix. Romantic love (it is near Valentine’s Day as I write) is an endless subject for musicians. They turn their thoughts to other aspects of love as well.

Mairead Ni Mhaoniagh grew up in Donegal, in the far northwest of the island of Ireland. One of her earliest music teachers there was her father Francie Mooney, himself an accomplished fiddler as well as a playwright and man who loved the sea. When her father died, two of Mairead’s friends wrote a song they hoped would help her. Named for a place on the far western edge of Donegal’s coast, it is called Far Beyond Carrickfinn. Mairead recorded it with Altan on their album called The Widening Gyre.

Eddi Reader is a native Scot. For many years though she lived and followed her career in music south of Hadrian’s Wall down in England. Her friend John Douglas -- now her husband -- thought she really belonged back in Scotland. One of the things he did to help her see this idea was write a song called Wild Mountainside. A love song to country and to woman both, you could say. Reader put the song on her album Songs of Robert Burns to show, she says, that great poetry and song are still flourishing in Scotland. It stands just fine in the company.

One snowy winter night, Carrie Newcomer was driving back to her home in Indiana after being away on tour. As she traveled she was taken by seeing lights in the windows of homes set back from the road, lights sent out by people she would never know and yet which lighted her path in more ways than one. She wrote a song drawing on where those thoughts led her called, unsurprisingly, A Light in the Window. Newcomer has recorded the song on her album called A Permeable Life.

Roger and Camilla McGuinn wove a love story from the ideas of the Irish blessing which begins “May the raod rise to meet you...”. Cathie Ryan gives the song a graceful and understated yet warm and welcoming voice on her album Through Wind and Rain. A blessing between two and for many.

Love songs for many situations and seasons....

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Cara Dillon: A Thousand Hearts
Cathie Ryan: Through Wind and Rain
Music and Mystery: Conversation with Carrie Newcomer

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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Celtic Connections 2016: a taste of the festival

Celtic Connections, held in Glasgow in January each year, lights up Scotland’s winter with music from artists who connect to their heritage and carry that connection forward. This year artists from Africa, Mongolia, France, Canada, the United States, Ireland, and many other countries join musicians from all across Scotland for eighteen days of musical celebration, a celebration which includes concerts, master classes, talks, art exhibits, come and try workshops on a range of instruments, concerts for school children, late night sessions, the after hours festival club, live broadcasts and tapings of radio and television shows, concerts which feature rising stars...

Here is a bit of what things in Glasgow have looked like so far, The festival runs through 31 January.

At a concert by the Chieftains from Ireland, surprise guest Kris Kristofferson sang with Aylth McCormack. McCormack, who frequently collaborates with the Chieftains, is from Lewis in the Western Isles.

Brian Finnegan lent his talents on whistle to a concert with his musical friends Kathleen MacInnes, Dermot Byrne, and Mike Vass.

As part of the New Voices strand, with which Celtic Connections commissions new music, guitarist Ewan Robertson gave the world premier of his audio visual piece inspired by the Celtman triathalon and the landscapes and history the marathon’s route traverses in Scotland’s north.

Kyle Carey and Giilebride MacMillan offered sets of Gaelic Americana and Gaelic songs and then joined up to sing together at evening’s end.

Eddi Reader celebrated Burns night with a program in collaboration with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra, in arrangements Rabbie himself would have found intriguing.

Photographs by Kerry Dexter. made with permission of the artists, the festival and the venues involved. Thank you for respecting copyright.

You may also wish to see
Scotland, Americana, inspiration: Kyle Carey
Celtic Connections 2013: Images
Eddi Reader sings the songs of Robert Burns
Celtic Connections 2011: images

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