Monday, August 20, 2007

Singers at the 2007 Catskills Irish Arts Week

I went to the 2007 Catskills Irish Arts Week (CIAW) in East Durham, NY, to expand my knowledge and skills in the area of traditional Irish singing (in English). I had some fantastic exposure to a great many singers, most of whom I had not heard before. If you're interested in Irish traditional singing, I highly recommend all the people mentioned in this post. If you can hear them in person, of course that's preferable. If not, I've tried to find links that would help you learn more about them and order their CDs.

Tommy Sands from Northern Ireland was at the 2007 CIAW for only two days following his appearance at the Smithsonian Folkways Festival in Washington D.C. He's a political folksinger much like Pete Seeger. As a matter of fact, they're friends. He's a very dynamic and compelling performer who sings lots of songs about the everyday effects of dividing Ireland into two countries. I wasn't familiar with his name, but I recognized what may be his most famous song, There Were Roses, which has been recorded by Joan Baez and Mick Moloney and probably others as well.

Julee Glaub and Mark Weems gave a master class on Appalachian singing and its commonalities with traditional Irish singing. They also participated in the many of the evening singing sessions and appeared during the week on the main stage. I was particularly excited to hear Julee sing again. I fell in love with her voice at 2004 CIAW. She performs traditional Irish, blues, and Appalachian styles equally well, and she is also a fantastic backup harmony singer. I have listened to her two solo CDs -- Fields Faraway and Blue Waltz -- many times over the last few years. I'm a little old to be star-struck, but that's as close as I can come to explaining how thrilled I was to meet and talk with her this year.

On the last day of the festival, many of the singers appeared together on stage. Roisin White, whom I discussed at length in my previous post, kicked off the event and introduced the other singers. Then they took turns presenting their songs. Check out this exceptional singing lineup: (double-click on the picture to see a larger version)

Left to right: Roisin White, Tim Dennehy, Catherine Crowe, Kathy Ludlow, Shannon and Matt Heaton (Matt is seated, holding the guitar). Standing between them is Daithi Sproule.

I have no pictures of Robbie O'Connell, Roxanne O'Connell (Robbie's wife), and Pat Egan, but they were all there and I enjoyed hearing each of them as well.

Listening closely to all the singers at the 2007 CIAW was rather like a crash course in the Irish singing tradition. By the end of the week I came away with a much better sense of the broad range of expression and styles that fall within tradition Irish singing. Now that the festival is over, the challenge is to incorporate various aspects of what I heard and try to develop my own authentic voice, to find the songs that move me and sing them in a way that will move others. Stay tuned... I'll let you know how it goes!

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Singing Class with Roisin White

Roisin White performing on the main stage
at the Catskills Irish Arts Week in East Durham, NY.

During the Catskills Irish Arts Week I took a 5-day singing class with Roisin White of Northern Ireland. Although I was not familiar with her before this summer, I came to realize very quickly that she is well known and highly respected in the world of traditional Irish singing. As a matter of fact, she had just come from two weeks at the 2007 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC, where the music of Northern Ireland was one of the cultures featured this year. She appears on a Smithsonian Folkways CD called Sound Neighbors: Contemporary Music in Northern Ireland. Her only solo CD - The First of My Rambles - was reviewed by Brian Peters for The Living Tradition newsletter. An excerpt from his review describes her niche in the world of traditional Irish singing:

… Roisin White falls in the grey area between tradition and revival; singing went on in her County Down family, but she has learned much of her repertoire from such impeccable sources as Paddy Tunney, Robert Cinnamond and Eddie Butcher, as well as living singers like Len Graham and Joe Holmes. Although not strictly a 'source singer' herself, White has absorbed the local tradition whilst establishing a style that is all her own...

Over the course of the week Roisin taught our class approximately 13 songs. In addition to making sure we knew the tune, she told us her source for each song as well as stories about the song itself or her experience with it. She impressed upon us the necessity to know and love the song's melody. She advised us to digest the words and understand the song on all of its levels. Finally, she encouraged us to make a personal connection to the song, one which would enable us to tell the story as though it were our own. Overall, she instructed us to remember that the song - not the singer or the performance - is of utmost importance. Everything the singer does should focus the listener’s attention on the song itself and the story it contains. Indeed, Roisin's singing embodies all of that.

Roisin’s voice is not what you'd call "pretty" by classical singing standards. It is a forceful, strong, and compelling voice. It is honest and unpretentious. Her pitch is very accurate, and her diction is flawless. Both in terms of style as well as timbre, nobody else sounds quite like Roisin White.

No one else delivers the songs in quite the same way either. Quoting Brian Peters again: "she sings with warm, earthy honesty, and bags of rhythm and swagger.” I think that’s his way of saying she personalizes each song she sings. She loves the stories and the history they hold, and the listener is interested because of the compelling way she delivers the song.

Throughout the week I heard many singers, teachers and students alike, and was impressed by the enormous range of difference in the voices. Interestingly, the voices with the sweetest or most appealing tone quality were not necessarily the most moving. The most stirring performances were always skillful, but the listener’s attention was not drawn to the skill of the singer but to the beauty or the humor or the tragedy of the song. It was amazing to hear some rather rough voices deliver such a wallop!

Roisin has helped me realize I can sing - indeed, that I want to sing. All that singing in the Catskills reminded me that singing can be a way to share experiences, to draw people together, to respond to the things that come our way in life. That’s what traditional music has always done for people, and still does in the pockets of society where it is preserved and cherished. I'm not sure where this present musical exploration will take me, but I hope the singing – whatever form it takes -- will never end.

Thanks for a fabulous class, Roisin. I hope our paths cross again!

© 2007, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement