Happy St. Paddy's Day with Celtic Appalachia
Just a few nights shy of St. Patrick’s Day, Irish musician and folklorist Mick Moloney hosted an evening of all things Irish, those obvious and then some not-so obvious. A night of storytelling, history and above all dancing and music, this cultural journey presented by the Irish Arts Center in New York at the Symphony Space brought the elements of American musical history full circle back to its Irish and African roots. Moloney opened the show with his Irish trad group, The Green Fields of America, accompanied by American tap dancer, Parker Hall, and Irish dancer, Niall O’Leary. The two dancers shared the stage, entering from opposite wings with complimenting choreography. Mirroring each other in their own styles, the audience was immediately able to see the direct connection between the two dances, like a son mimicking his father, both undoubtedly made up of the same DNA. O’Leary’s infectious smile and child-like light-hearted steps carried forward Hall’s heavy foot-stomping and syncopated rhythms. The dancers traded bars of eight, then four, then two, then one, and then single beats, which kept them lively in a friendly back and forth of can-yous and can’t-yous.
Moloney’s natural gift of storytelling, which I’ve found is a common trait in most Irishmen, beautifully led the songs from their straight forward story found in their lyrics to their historical back-story, usually unknown to most. With legendary tales of songwriters who all longed for their homeland after leaving for Ameri-cay, some living to recount the sinking of the Titanic only to be killed in battle during WWI, running away from castles in Ireland to follow their true loves across the Atlantic, these songs came to life through the voices of Moloney and the musicians’ instruments. The songs of the Irish tell a story, and whether they are sad or funny or happy or that of love, each song has its own life and continues to live it.
When the musicians from Virginia's Crooked Road came on stage, there were huge similarities, starting with their introduction: all of them very humble and very witty, and of course each song starting with a story. A simple story, maybe true or maybe not, but there was something so familiar about how these musicians were performing. “I always wanted to sing like Dolly Parton,” said upright bassist and singer Linda Lay, “but everyone always says I’m a little flat.” A few seconds paused before the audience realized she was pulling their leg. "Ok. A LOT flat!" said the petit woman. Even that banter between themselves on the stage goes back to Irish roots. The vast difference from their musical predecessors was their harmony, and that is what I love about Appalachian music. The German choir singing that influenced the Irish immigrants in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and North Carolina in the 1800’s introduced the idea of three and four part harmonies – hence we were blessed with the famous singing families that shaped our American musical history (The Carter Family, etc.) On the other hand, Irish music is all about unison, every instrument playing the same notes together with not a lot of harmonies, but together this melody becomes a wall of sound held tightly by the bond of its players.
The variety of acts continued with an impressive showcase of the mother and father of the banjo, the nguni and the gourd banjo performed by West African griot (storyteller), Cheick Hamala Diabate. As a griot, Diabate holds the responsibility of cultivating the traditional musical culture that his ancestors passed down to him. The instrument is a voice, speaking the words of truth, telling its own story once again.
In the second half of the evening, a very moving opening performance by the O’Sulleabhain brothers, Eoin and Moley (also known at Size2Shoes) started with their identical voices soaring over the audience from the back of the auditorium. Their crystal clear voices sang an ancient Irish song, and the two brothers slowly made their way to the stage, continuously singing in what sounded like Gregorian Chant (open fifths and all) all the way to the back of the stage, then turning and making their way to the two stools waiting for them. What struck me was not just their voices, but also their outfits. Covered in studded t-shirts, ripped jeans, and metallic high-tops, the music being made by this duo just did not fit the picture I was seeing.
“Our maam taught us the old style of singing, and at night, after we would tuck her into bed, we’d go out and become pop stars.” Ahh, it all started to make sense. Eoin, the elder brother, began to strum his guitar while Moley started beatboxing on the mic. Irish “inspirational” pop music with a bit of comic relief and voices like angels is how I can describe this duo. Absolutely entertaining and definitely “inspiring”.
The evening continued on with performances by The Washington Square Harp and Shamrock Orchestra, a young, budding artist by the name of Leigh Beamer, cross-cultural jams on the banjo and the fiddle, some mountain clogging by Linda Lay, and a finale of everyone from the evening together in song. Thank you, Mick Moloney and friends, for a spectacular evening of Irish heritage from Ireland and abroad!
THE BARE FEET™ FIVE 1. More Irish heritage: Mick Moloney has begun to offer Irish Cultural Tours in May 2012 and July 2012. Take advantage of this rare opportunity to experience true, Irish culture in the mother country with a very talented expert! 2. The Irish Arts Center: Always wanted to learn the Irish language (Gaelic), or some Irish Step Dance? New York's Irish Arts Center offers a wide array of classes as well as other cultural events scheduled throughout the year. For more information, go to www.IrishArtsCenter.org 3. Music from the Crooked Road: The Crooked Road's musical history is still very strong, and annual music festivals are held to pass on the music tradition. Some festivals worth seeing are Floyd Fest in July and the Old Fiddler's Convention in August. 4. NYC St. Patrick's Day Parade: This year marks the 251st Annual Parade, and numerous music and dance groups are sure to be displaying their best today! The parade runs along 5th Avenue between 44th Street and 83rd Street, from 11am to 4:30pm. And don't worry, pubs will be open until the wee hours of the next morning to continue the celebrations! 5. The Symphony Space: The Peter Norton Symphony Space constantly offers stellar performances in dance and music - some upcoming events include the Irish Masters of Tradition on Tour and Gertrude's Paris Festival next month.