Most folks know by now that “Celtic” and “Irish” are not synonymous. Still, it doesn’t hurt to get an occasional reminder that ancient Celt tribes settled all over Europe, establishing a culture that paved the way toward the Celtic music that has become so well known. This Rough Guide includes sounds from Canada, Spain, France, Scotland, the USA, Wales and, oh yes, Ireland. Quite a sharp selection it is, rife with artists who embrace tradition as well as those who nudge it just a bit and those who really take it and run with it.
Ireland’s Kila and Scotland’s Capercaillie, for example, have long specialized in spurring Celtic foundations along with added global textures and grooves, and both have solidly representative tracks here.
Likewise, Shooglenifty (also from Scotland), Galicia’s Mercedes Peón and sprightly Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster show how effectively varying degrees of modern electronic textures can judiciously be thrown in.
More along purist lines are pieces by Llan de Cubel, Bohola, Niamh Parsons (with an a capella song guaranteed to make the world around you stand still) and relative newcomers Flook, but everything here is really quite good.
With some strains of Celtic music having reached and seemingly passed something of a trend-fueled saturation point on the global scene, it’s still refreshing to revisit how uniquely satisfying the wider-ranging sound of it can be. Whether this disc comes across like a new revelation or an old friend, it’s consistently pleasing.
New York, NY – Several sources confirmed today that the great Scottish fiddler, Johnny Cunningham, passed away on the evening of December 15th 2003. He was 46 years old and died from a heart attack
Johnny leaves behind a great body of work and a huge legacy in Scottish and Celtic music of the late 20th century. He was a founding member of Silly Wizard, and later created other seminal Celtic groups, including Relativity, Nightnoise and The Celtic Fiddle Festival.
Johnny played a large role at Green Linnet, appearing on more than a dozen albums including his solo Fair Warning, as well as producing albums by Cherish the Ladies, Orealis and Brooks Williams. “Johnny was a huge life force, and a brilliant musical intelligence,” says Green Linnet Records owner Wendy Newton. “He was a friend for more than 20 years. A great light has gone from our lives.”
Another person that worked with Johnny for many years, Tom Frouge, Triloka Records’ General manager, and former Green Linnet employee, said today about Johnny: “…extraordinary fiddler, producer, comic wit and human being.” Johnny will be remembered for his musicianship, his compositions, and for his larger-than-life personality. He was beloved on both sides of the Atlantic for his exquisite musicianship as well as for his renowned wit and warmth. An outrageously funny man and a gifted storyteller, he held audiences either rapt in attention at his virtuosic playing, or falling over in laughter at his stories.’
Born in Portobello, Scotland on August 27, 1957, Johnny began playing fiddle at age seven. He was a founding member of legendary Scottish band Silly Wizard, along with his brother Phil on accordion and singer Andy M. Stewart. The band is credited with playing a strong role in Scotland’s traditional music revival. Johnny and Phil also founded Relativity, an acclaimed group with Irish brother-and-sister musicians Tríona and Míchaél Ó Domhnaill of The Bothy Band. He and the Ó Domhnaills later formed the new age group Nightnoise.
Johnny was a member of the renowned Celtic Fiddle Festival with Irish fiddler Kevin Burke and Breton musician Christian Lemaitre, who made three albums together. (The group was scheduled for an American tour in February 2004.) Most recently, Johnny had worked with Irish singer Susan McKeown on a seasonal album called A Winter Talisman. The two had just finished an American tour this week.
A widely-read man, Johnny’s skills and interests were far-ranging. He wrote the music and lyrics for a theatrical version of Peter Pan, “Peter and Wendy,” produced by New York City’s Mabou Mines Theater Company. The musical was a critical and popular success, winning two OBIE awards and touring America as well as Ireland. Alula Records released the soundtrack of Peter and Wendy in 1997.
He founded the rock group The Raindogs in the 1980s, releasing two albums on Atlantic/Atco, and toured with such artists as Bob Dylan, Don Henley, Warren Zevon, Hall & Oates, and Bonnie Raitt. He collaborated with best-selling author Thomas Moore on a CD and book set, “The Soul Of Christmas,” a spiritual exploration of Celtic culture and the Christmas tradition. He also produced such artists as award-winning Irish band Solas.
Johnny resided in New Bedford, Mass. He is survived by his his mother Mary, his sister Laura, his brother Phil, and his grandmother Martha Knowles, all of Scotland.
Two tunes on Cape Breton fiddler Natalie MacMaster’s latest recording, Blueprint succinctly describe the power behind the 30-year old musician’s feisty gift. They are “Touch of the Master’s Hand,” based on a poem by Myra Brooks Welch; and the love song, “My Love, Cape Breton and Me,” which ends the recording. The first tune cites, “From the room far back a fair-haired girl came forward and took the bow. Then she wiped dust from the old violin and tightened up the strings. She played a tune so pure and sweet you could hear the angels sing.” I would bet that Natalie could also transform a tired old instrument into the stuff of angels.
Natalie’s cousin Bob Quinn wrote the second tune for MacMaster’s marriage to fiddler Donnell Leahy that took place on October 5, 2002. Quinn’s 18-year old daughter handled vocal duties at the wedding and on the recording. The song which was recorded in Halifax and produced by Natalie and her husband, speaks of the simple things in life and also about returning to one’s roots.
Natalie’s roots go deep into the heart of Canada’s Cape Breton. She was born into a fiddling community and is related to fiddling royalty, yet she relocated to Ontario after her wedding, giving the song a lasting poignancy.
The remaining 12 tracks were recorded in Nashville, Tennessee with “new acoustic” producer Darol Anger at the helm and embellished by an array of stellar bluegrass talent. MacMaster teams up with Bela Fleck (banjo), Jerry Douglas (dobra), Victor Wooten (bass), Alison Brown (banjo), John Cowen (vocals), Sam Bush (mandolin), Bryan Sutton (guitar), Edgar Meyer (Arco & Pizz bass) and her regular band mates to create a masterful marriage between traditional Cape Breton repertoire and new grass. They even toss in a few bluesy chops and jazzy bits here and there. However, besides this rich line up of musicians, what strikes me the most is being able to hear joy welling up in Natalie’s heart when she performs.
Her musicianship boasts both technical brilliance and absolute soul fullness that shouts integrity. If only there were more Natalie MacMaster’s in the world, I believe we would live in peace.
The tracks on Blueprint range from the pastoral “Eternal Friendship” to the tricky “Devil and The Dirk” with its alternating fiddle textures (staccato and sweet lyrical) and everything in between. Natalie’s fiddle kicks into gear on Gravel Shore then the musicians take turns at solos while building off of each others’ creative impulses. I am surprised to find Swedish guitarist Roger Tallroth’s (Vasen) “Josefin’s Waltz” on this recording, yet a few similarities between Swedish traditional music and fiddle music of the Americas do exist. Bela Fleck chips in Bela’s Tune and Natalie pays homage to her parents with the romp, Minnie & Alex’s Reel.
The musicianship is extraordinary on this spirited disc. Natalie plays straight from the heart and expertly turns musical phrases. She has toured the world and shared stages with such luminaries as Carlos Santana, Luciano Pavarotti, Alison Krauss and The Chieftains. And now she stars in her own show, accompanied by some of the hottest bluegrass musicians. Certainly her latest recording is a blueprint for success, but it also a CD filled with longing for one’s home. Whether or not you make your home in Cape Breton or elsewhere, finding your way home will be less complicated after listening to this heart-felt recording.
It’s difficult to know what the music of the ancient Celts really sounded like. What we know as Celtic music today is really the traditional music developed recently in several western European Atlantic regions that used to be inhabited by Celtic tribes over 2,000 years ago. This common heritage, in addition to centuries of trade and interaction, has created strong cultural bonds.
The great Celtic music renewal took place in the 1970’s thanks to various influential artists. Breton musician Alan Stivell introduced the Celtic harp to large audiences. Gwendal, also from Brittany, toured Europe extensively for two decades with its blend of Celtic music, jazz and rock. Scottish seminal band Silly Wizard played some of the finest Scottish music and created a school of followers. Irish groups like Plantxy and The Bothy Band attracted worldwide attention with their concept of Irish folk music. In Galicia, singer and harp player Emilio Cao, the now legendary group Milladoiro and the influential Vigo School of Bagpipes initiated the amazing Galician Celtic renaissance.
Thanks to the proliferation of Inter-Celtic festivals since the 1970’s, musicians from Brittany, Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Galicia, Asturias, and other locations, have exchanged tunes, musical instruments and participated in mutual recordings. The Celtic reawakening has brought the recovery of the hurdy gurdy in Brittany and Galicia, the Celtic harp in most Celtic regions and a new found respect for the bagpipe.
The major European centers of Celtic music today are Ireland, Scotland, Brittany (France), Galicia (Spain), Asturias (Spain) and Wales (Great Britain). Other smaller regions with a strong Celtic music heritage are: Cornwall (Great Britain), Northumbria (Great Britain), Trás-os-Montes (Portugal) and the Isle of Man (Great Britain). Outside Europe, the music from the Irish, Scottish and Galician diaspora has found a comfortable home in eastern Canada, the United States of America, Argentina and Australia.
Celtic music today has crossed over into the pop mainstream thanks to artists like Afro Celt Sound System, Enya, Altan, Loreena McKennit, The Chieftains, Ashley McIsaac, Connie Dover, and to the new age market by way of numerous compilations and concept albums.