Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Moya Brennan on "Music of Ireland"

At the Philadelphia Flower Show, the crowd is snaking along the pathway through the Irish garden display, their eyes intently raking the underbrush as if engaged in an Easter egg hunt for adults.

In a corner of the exhibit's colonnaded courtyard, largely unnoticed, Moya Brennan is singing a haunting rendition of "Down by the Salley Gardens," accompanied by a harpist and a fiddler.

That she is drawing so little attention is remarkable. Imagine stumbling across Aretha Franklin singing "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman" in a spark-plug booth at the Detroit Auto Show.

Brennan, singer for the seminal Irish group Clannad, is widely known as the First Lady of Celtic Music.

She was the obvious choice to host Music of Ireland: Welcome Home, airing Tuesday night on WHYY TV12. Brennan interviews a who's who of Hibernian stars - from the Chieftains' Paddy Moloney to U2's Bono - in the documentary, which charts the course of contemporary Irish music.

"When I tell people that Celtic music is 40 years old, they can't believe it," says Brennan later that afternoon. "They think it's ancient."

The film begins with the genre's Big Bang moment: the Clancy Brothers performing in their matching Aran sweaters on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1961.

Ever since that breakthrough to a mass international audience, Irish music has been conquering other lands.

"Everybody loves Irish music. Everybody," says Brennan. "Anywhere I've travelled, from Indonesia to South America."

Tuesday's film follows the evolutionary trail into the 1980s, from the Clancys to Van Morrison, the Pogues and Thin Lizzy. A second installment, due at the end of 2010, will explore artists such as the Corrs and the Cranberries, right up through emerging Irish stars such as the Script and Damien Dempsey.

It's challenging to find a unifying factor in all those styles, beyond a country of origin.

"The common trait will be the Irish soul," says Larry Kirwan, leader of the New York band Black 47 and host of Sirius XM's weekly Celtic Crush show. "It's probably something to do with the history of the country.

"In the bad times when people weren't allowed to get an education, the one thing they could do was come up with music and song that would express their love of freedom and their love of their home country. That's the root for all the music."

Brennan's family group, Clannad (Irish for "the family from Dore"), was a trailblazer in defining and popularizing the Irish sound.

"Clannad is a particularly interesting and influential thread in the tapestry of Celtic musics," Christopher Smith, an ethnomusicologist at Texas Tech University, says via e-mail. "Singing family songs in Irish and English, they drew on Donegal's rich tradition of indigenous music as well as that imported by migrant workers returning from Scotland."

The eldest of nine, Brennan was born in the village of Gweedore in the Gaelic-speaking enclave of County Donegal.

"I learned English at school when I was 4. But up to then I would have been speaking Gaelic. When [my relatives] talk to each other, we still have the best arguments in Irish," she says, laughing.

Her father, Leo, was in a show band that toured widely on the parish-hall circuit, playing a combination of Big Band hits and native Céili dance music.

When the show-band era died in the 1960s, Leo bought a pub in Gweedore where he could perform whenever he liked.

Moya, who played the harp and sang, began jamming with her musical siblings and a pair of barely older uncles. They worked out a repertoire that mixed contemporary pop hits with reworkings of some of the regional songs passed down from their grandparents.

"When we were still in school, we'd get up and we'd perform before my dad would come on stage," she recalls. "We'd notice more people were coming in to hear us. It was just the tourist people, the ones holidaying.

"It wouldn't be the locals. They didn't recognize it as being special. They thought we were ruining the Irish language with what we were doing, bringing in the double bass and harmonies. You never did harmonies with Gaelic songs. They were sung unaccompanied."

Clannad struggled for recognition in their own country. They were considered culchies (country bumpkins) by the hipsters and iconoclasts by the traditionalists. But the band's exotic, moody sound found favor in Europe, especially after their theme song to the TV mini-series Harry's Game became an international hit in 1982. It made them the first performers ever to sing in Gaelic on Britain's influential Top of the Pops.

Moya's sister Enya left the band for a very successful solo career by putting her own spin on the Celtic style.

"Her sound is very processed and wonderful," Brennan says. "She does it very mechanically, layering her voice, but she does it so well. Somebody got hold of her music and put it in lots of movies and it's such great exposure."

Fame and fortune are grand, but they're not the driving forces for Brennan. Even at the bustling Flower Show, you can see that she connects with the songs in a profound, almost symbiotic fashion.

"I love the music. I love the words," she says. "Nine times out of 10, most Irish people have a soul feeling with what they're singing and playing. It's not just, 'Let's get up on stage.' There's something passionate about it."

The PBS special makes it clear that music is something of a national obsession in Ireland. Each generation gets a firm foundation in the ancestral instruments and formats before finding new modes of expression.

"Take my own daughter," Brennan says. "She would listen to hip-hop and be into rock music. Avril Lavigne, Paramore, bands like that. But she'd still play traditional music. There's an identification there.

"There is now Gaelic hip-hop. Would you believe? It's called Hip Nós. People rapping in Gaelic."

But the faster things change, the more important it is to remember the source. That's why Brennan made Music of Ireland.

"I'd like people to realize the roots of this music and where it's come from, the different expressions of Irish music," she says. "Just to open up their senses to the different flavors of that Irishness. To hear the heart of something. It's the heart, isn't it?"

Contact staff writer David Hiltbrand at 215-854-4552 or dhiltbrand@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/daveondemand.

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