It's always a winning season for Celtic

Music: Many cultures find the lilt of traditional Irish tunes appealing all year long.

March 17, 2000|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Like green beer, paper shamrocks and cartoon leprechauns, Irish music has long been a part of St. Patrick's Day here in the United States. For many, St. Patrick's Day without music would be like cabbage without corned beef.

But the kind of music we associate with the wearin' of the green is changing. Where once Irish Americans hankered for sweet-voiced tenors crooning "Come Back to Erin," "Mother Machree" and "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling," today's revelers would as soon hear the uilleann pipes and fiddles laying into a set of jigs and reels.

This isn't your father's Irish music -- sentimental songs about the old sod written by New York tunesmiths. It's the music the Irish call "the oul' ones," traditional tunes that stretch back generations.

"The people can't be deceived here anymore," says Paddy Moloney, leader of the traditional Irish band the Chieftains and a longtime exponent of Irish music. "It's not `Did Your Mother Come from Ireland?' and `Mother Machree,' which are still grand old songs in their own sense. That's not what the younger people want."

What they want is the sound of flutes and tin whistles, fiddles and harps, uilleann pipes and bodhrans. They want the real thing -- and not just for St. Patrick's Day, either.

"It's not like Christmas music, where you only sell it for the month before Christmas, and then it doesn't sell at all after. There's always a spike at St. Patrick's Day, but [Celtic albums] sell year-round," says Michael Sullivan, an artists and repertory representative at Narada Records. Over the last decade, Narada has marketed dozens of albums of Irish music, from the early "Celtic Odyssey" compilation to "Another Sky," the latest release from the acclaimed Irish folk group Altan.

Celtic music -- traditional music from Ireland, Scotland and Breton -- may not boast stars on the scale of Limp Bizkit or the Backstreet Boys, but it's definitely making a mark on the pop charts. Not only was Irish folk music a dominant flavor in James Horner's score to "Titantic," it's also the backbone of "Riverdance," an Irish step-dancing spectacular that has spun off a million-selling album and several national tours.

Irish traditional music has also seeped into the pop mainstream, as artists ranging from Van Morrison and Mick Jagger to the Indigo Girls and the Dixie Chicks have spiked their albums with tin whistles and uilleann pipes. Clearly, traditional Irish music is a sound to which a lot of listeners relate.

"It's almost like a roots thing," says Sullivan. "There's a significant portion of the population in the United States that has roots in the Celtic countries."

The same could be said for a significant portion of American popular music.

Most of what we know as country and folk music can be traced back to the Irish and Scottish ballad tradition, brought to this country by immigrants and kept alive in rural areas of Appalachia and the South. As Sullivan puts it, Irish music is "the DNA of country music."


It isn't just the music's ties to the past, though; another reason Irish traditional sounds have such resonance is that they can easily be absorbed into a variety of contemporary styles. Sinead O'Connor and the rap group House of Pain have both matched Irish reels with hip-hop beats, while Canadian Ashley MacIsaac has augmented his Celtic sound with touches of punk and techno. Moloney and the Chieftains have even found common ground with musicians from China and Cuba.

One of the most celebrated such crossover efforts was an album called the "Afro Celt Sound System." The result of a chance jam session at rocker Peter Gabriel's Real World studios in England, its music was essentially the spontaneous reaction of traditional Irish and African musicians. "It was like a melting pot of sounds," says Nick Clift, director of associate labels at Caroline Records, which distributes Real World. "The Afro Celt album sold 50,000 in this country."

Perhaps because of its ability to cross musical borders, Irish music in America is no longer just an Irish-American interest. Davy Spillane, an Irish musician who plays uilleann pipes and other traditional instruments, was surprised at the diversity of the fans who came out to hear him play during a tour of American CD shops in 1998. "There were a lot of Asian people who would stop and listen," he says. "Buddhist-y people and all sort of stuff like that. It's very interesting for me to get the cultural feedback."

Moloney remembers that the first time the Chieftains played New York, in 1969, its audience was largely Irish. "Now, like in Albuquerque two or three weeks ago, we had to do two sellout shows to 6,000 people -- and you're talking about 10 Irish people in the audience. It's not a thing just for our own Irish.

"This is what I've been hoping for, for so many years."

When he began playing the tin whistle and uilleann pipes, back in the 1950s, traditional music wasn't even very popular in Ireland.

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