Should Irish music be considered world music? I don’t think so, but then again I’ve always despised the term. The world’s a big place. It’s pretty ethnocentric of us, however good our intentions, to bung everything we’ve never heard the likes of before under an umbrella term that encompasses everything from Karelian kantele music to Tuvan throatsinging to Yanomamo war chants from the Amazon basin, possibly made more palatable to the novice ear with a pulsing undercurrent of studio-added bass and drums.
Traditional Irish music is as “world” as anything else out there, although we tend not to think of it in those terms for a number of reasons. One is that the blanket heading of “Celtic music” is a familiar and unthreatening one to most Americans, and in some parts of this country “traditional” music from the isles is as much a cottage industry as tejano and bluegrass are in others. Another factor is that Irish music is often sung in English (at least in its export version) by persons with whom many of us share ancestral and cultural ties, and that alone makes it readily accessible to millions of mostly deracinated Irish-Americans who still feel a primordial stirring when they hear the reedy tootle of uilleann pipes. A third factor is that a strong Celtic vein runs through a lot of American folk music, and a fourth is that we’re constantly being exposed to Celtic influences, albeit in weird and wonderful new ways: Cross-currents in other forms of popular music. Soap advertisements. The Titanic soundtrack.
Irish music is transparent in its myriad moods and given to mercurial changes. It can be mournful and brooding like a sea chanty or reckless and lively like a slip jig. It puts the listener in the mind of county fairs and pubs reeling with craic, cozy cottages with peat-fired ovens and mountains sweeping down to the sea. There’s a little bit of the Auld Sod in every Irish music fan, and a little bit of the ancestral longing for a place where you’re known by the county you come from, not the state.
This is the Ireland that members of Altan call home: the pubs and kitchens of Donegal where founding members Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy first began playing music together. Some 20 years later, the band has grown to a quintet and at times a sextet featuring two fiddles, flute, accordion, Irish bouzouki, (related to but different from the Greek instrument of the same name). Altan boasts one of the most powerful front lines in the business, but its real crowning jewel is Ní Mhaonaigh’s haunting voice, always right up front, placid on the surface and as deep with mystery as the lake from which the band borrows its name. On the band’s most recent CD , Another Sky, the clear calm of Ní Mhaoraigh’s vocals lends a sense of restraint to even the feistiest reels. On the slower traditionals, it’s goose-bump central.
World music, then? Tough to say. Maybe people need categories. But if beauty by any name appeals to you, you’ll find it in Altan.
Altan will appear in concert this Friday at the University Theatre, 8 PM. Advance tickets are $19 general, $17 for students and members of the Missoula Folklore and Gaelic Societies, available from all TIC-IT-E-Z outlets.