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Fiddle Me This

That's the lilt of Irish laughter--and traditional instruments--trilling up the charts. It echoes the '60s folkie revival, but it also delves deeply into one of the world's most romantic cultures.

June 09, 1996|Don Heckman | Don Heckman writes about jazz and world music for Calendar

Mention Irish music to most listeners and the names that come to mind are the Cranberries, Enya, U2, Sinead O'Connor and Van Morrison, to list only a few of the significant pop acts that have originated in the Emerald Isle.

But these are artists who have shaped their music mostly within the international dialect of pop. Only rarely--sometimes more than that with Enya, who once sang with the group Clannad--does their music suggest a connection with the deeper roots of Irish traditional music.

The '90s, however, has seen a surprisingly robust revival of those traditional sounds. A glance at Billboard's recent world music charts reveals an almost overwhelming preponderance of Irish music.

Late last month, for example, the Top 15 listings included two albums by the Chieftains, an album by Clannad, Bill Whelan's "Riverdance" show album, two collections ("Women of the World: Celtic" and "Celtic Treasure: The Legacy of Turlough O'Carolan"), a program of Irish tunes performed by flutist James Galway, a set of Irish-tinged music by Loreena McKennitt and the film score for "The Brothers McMullen."

Nine out of the Top 15 would be impressive under any circumstances. Add to that the fact that Altan, an Irish traditional band described in the New Yorker as a "supergroup that has set new standards for Irish music," releases its first album on Virgin Records this week. Expect it to enter the Top 15 as well; the band's 1993 hit, "Island Angel," was a fixture on the World Music chart for eight months.

On Saturday and next Sunday, the 22nd annual Great American Irish Fair and Music Festival brings 16 stages of Irish entertainment to Santa Anita Park Racetrack. And "Riverdance," the colorful theatrical presentation of Irish music and dance, opens a two-week run at the Pantages on Nov. 15.

So what's going on here?

"The word seems to be spreading like wildfire," says Ciaran Tourish, fiddle player with Altan. "And not just about ourselves, but about Irish music in general. In fact, there's been a lot of awakening to Irish music in Ireland lately, as well. Until recently, it wasn't regarded as anything spectacular, but now there's been a tremendous revival at home."

Why the rush of popularity?

For several reasons. First, and most obvious, because it is so familiar. The rhythmic jigs and reels of Irish dance long ago found their way into bluegrass and country music. The laments of the old-style songs known as sean nos have impacted everything from country to the blues, and Irish "set" dancing resonates in country line dancing.

Equally important, Irish traditional music--especially in its acoustic manifestations--affords the opportunity to get in touch with a rich, ancient heritage.

"It's music that has a powerful connection with the past," says Los Angeles-based Irish singer Mairead Sullivan, whose album "Dancer" (on Lyrebird) mixes originals with traditional material. "The old songs, in particular, magnify one's centeredness and one's stillness. It's almost a spiritual kind of experience."

The current wave of Irish music popularity traces back to the folk revival of the '60s, when composer Sean O Riada, from Cork, added traditional instruments to his ensemble, Ceoltoiri Chualann, and began to play roots music in a classical setting. Paddy Moloney, a piper with the group, expanded on the idea by assembling his own band--the Chieftains--founded on the revolutionary (at the time) notion of performing traditional music in an ensemble rather than via the customary solos and duos.

Other groups followed, assembling their own mix of instruments drawn from the familiar pipes, flutes, whistles, violins, harps, accordions and bodhrans (or frame drums) of Irish music. For repertoire, they adapted music from an array of jigs, reels and ballads, drinking songs and love refrains stretching back into the mists of Irish history.

Among the more successful were the Bothy Band, De Danann, Planxty and Moving Hearts. In the early '80s, the Pogues went further, mixing Irish music with a punk attitude.

Does the growing popularity of traditional music reflect, as some have intimated, the emergence of a large-scale Celtic movement in the music business?

Certainly not in the context of something similar to, say, the British rock invasion of the '60s. But there's no denying that the music has a universality that appeals to a wide audience.

Bill Straw's independent Blix Street Records has been releasing Irish product since the early '90s--notably by singer Mary Black. Straw, however, has reservations about the notion of a large-scale Celtic movement.

"There's a huge Irish population in this country," he says. "But a large percentage of the Irish music it is interested in is basic, traditional music--the kind of recordings that are sold through Irish stores, and mostly through imports.

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