An unusual musical ritual took place last month in a darkened room on Toronto’s waterfront. Like alien invaders, two figures—visible only from the glow of flashing lights placed over their eyes—entered from opposite sides. As they moved through the audience, they filled the air with the chilling drone of Highland bagpipes. It was an introduction designed to startle the senses. But as the lights came up—and two other musicians added the sound of throbbing bass and pounding drums—it became clear that the group, known as Rare Air, was merely preparing listeners for its powerful fusion of modern rock rhythms and ancient Celtic melodies. And although the Toronto-based band delights in mixing musical styles— even calling one song a “psychedelic blues jig”—the bagpipes are central to its sound. Said percussionist Trevor Ferrier: “There is always mystery in Celtic music. When the pipes start up, it’s an invitation to another world.” Increasingly, rock fans are venturing into that centuries-old musical realm. The world’s top rock group, U2, has helped to put Ireland on the pop-music map. Its members—all still living in their native Dublin—have used their influence to open doors for artists such as the Gaelic-singing band Clannad. Meanwhile, the London-based group The Pogues has won a healthy rock following by blending a rowdy punk spirit with Irish folk music. The band’s
current album, If I Should Fall From Grace with God, is now approaching sales of 50,000 in Canada.
Even rock’s grand old man of Celtic soul, Van Morrison, has returned to his roots with Irish Heartbeat, an inspired collaboration with Ireland’s traditionalist Chieftains. And now a new band from Dublin is borrowing from Morrison’s soulful style, adding jazzflavored horns and Irish folk-music influences. Led by singer Liam O’Maonlai, a onetime champion of the bodhrdn (the Irish hand-held drum), Hothouse Flowers has dazzled British critics with its debut album, People.
In Canada—with its long history of Scottish and Irish immigration—there has always been a loyal audience for Celtic music. But increasingly, the music has shifted away from community centres and into downtown bars. In Vancouver, The Rogue Folk Club features such artists as England’s The Oyster Band and Newfoundland’s Figgy Duff. And Vancouver’s own Spirit of the West performs socially aware songs using mandolin, flute and bodhràn on its current album, Labour Day. Popular at folk festivals, in concert the group delivers a rousing number called The Old Sod, about the lengths to which Scottish emigrants will go to preserve their culture.
Fear of losing traditional Celtic music has led some devotees to complain about the seemingly irreverent approach of bands like The Pogues. Said
Jem Finer, The Pogues’ banjo player: “Various purists have
thought we were bastardizing a great tradition. But other, less conservative, people could see we were putting new life into it.” For its part, Rare Air is so respected for its musicianship that the four members —including bassist Richard Murai and pipers Patrick O’Gorman and Grier Coppins, who belongs to a family of internationally known bagpipe players—were invited to join the Pipes and Drums of the 48th Highlanders of Canada onstage last year in Toronto, for a performance of the venerable hymn Amazing Grace.
Celtic music is attracting new listeners from some surprising I quarters. Wendy Newton, whose « Connecticut-based Green Linnet “ label specializes in Celtic recordings, says that the market has exploded in the past 18 months to include yuppie and New Age listeners. “If I could bottle and sell the way Celtic music makes me feel, I’d be very rich,” said Newton, whose catalogue of 130 recordings includes Rare Air’s 1987 album, Hard to Beat. “If you could drink it, war would stop and people would fall in love on the street.” Like an elixir whose potency has increased with age, Celtic music has an intoxicating effect on listeners—and seems certain to survive well into the next millennium.
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