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Irish musicians gather to play in a local pub

World's playing along with frenzied fiddlers of Celtic music

Web posted on: Thursday, August 20, 1998 5:24:27 PM EDT

From Correspondent Steve Wright

LONDON (CNN) -- Take a handful of frenzied fiddlers and whistle wizards jamming to the beat of a goatskin drum, add French or French-Canadian culture connnections or African drum rhythms or ethereal New Age synthesizers, and you'll realize that Celtic music is sweeping the world.

The Celts hailed from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, western parts of England, Brittany in northern France, and Galicia in Spain. The culture and the music was carried across the Atlantic with the waves of emmigrants to the United States and Canada.

In the last few years, wildly popular movies, internationally televised dance performances and the natural fusions of talented musicians have led even some African musicians to find their Celtic roots.

Some of the pioneers of popular Celtic music are at the forefront of the reeling revolution.

"At heart, we are basically soulful Irish musicians," said Paddy Maloney of the quintessential reelers, The Chieftains, who have a new album out next month. "But what we have done with the band, we can associate that and blend it in with other traditions and other music, different styles of music. That's always been something that I've wanted to explore."

Loreena McKennitt's "Mummers' Dance"

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Mixing with other cultures

But Celtic music certainly doesn't belongs exclusively to Ireland.

  • The Afro-Celt Sound System merges music from two continents in a heady brew of Celtic chords and African rhythms.

  • Alan Stivell is the French connection, with a sound that spans the generations and the oceans. Some of his arrangements sound like rap laid over fiddles and harps.

  • Loreena McKennitt is Irish-Canadian, but it is her song about the English tradition of costumed storytellers -- "The Mummers' Dance" -- which plucked the Celtic harpist from the folk-o-philes and exposed her to a much larger radio and television audience. "There can be misconceptions within the industry of what this music is and who plays it," McKennitt said. "But in fact, it cuts in many different directions."

  • The Canadian ensemble Leahy has built up a large following with their fusion of Celtic and French-Canadian music and dance. Their sound seems to have musical cousins among the Cajuns of Louisiana.

  • Celtic bands such as Shooglenifty can be found as far afield as Singapore, taking to the stage of the WOMAD festival. The tunes and rythmns familiar to Scotland's Robert the Bruce are set to another time and another tempo halfway across the globe.

    Michael Flatley

    Dance pushes Celtic craze

    Dance, television and the big screen have been crests for the Celtic music wave.

    The Celtic cultural revival began as a spectacular diversion at the Eurovision Song Contest in Dublin. First there as "Riverdance," then "Lord of the Dance" -- it soon seemed that hardly a day went by without seeing the panting and perspiring frame of Michael Flatley on the small screen.

    The big screen contributed soundtracks such as "Rob Roy" and the multiple Oscar winner "Braveheart."

    Historical themes have been featured strongly in the output of Capercaillie, who played on the "Rob Roy" soundtrack. With the haunting voice of Karen Matheson leading a Celtic-jazz fusion, they've drawn inevitable comparisons with Maire Brennan and Clannad.

    Starting as a family band at talent shows in Ireland, Clannad had half a dozen albums to their name when they burst onto the popular music scene in 1983 with "The Theme from Harry's Game."

    Through collaborations with U2's Bono on the single "In A Lifetime" and a series of further album successes they became one of the best-selling exponents of the Celtic music phenomenon the world has seen.

    The group spawned successful solo careers for Maire Brennan and the hugely popular Enya, who tapped into the Clannad faithful with the song "Orinoco Flow." Her career never turned back.

    A decrease in quality?

    At the other end of the food chain from the Celtic giants, up-and-coming artists are being snapped up by new and thriving record companies. But for some, the increasing quantity of Celtic music available has meant a decrease in quality.

    "There are a lot of new-age people who have suddenly decided that they're Celtic," said Celtic Radio host John Falstaff.

    "In their press releases a few years ago they didn't mention the word Celtic, but suddenly now they have a 20-year history of playing Celtic music. You get a harp, get a New Age label, give your albums three titles -- 'Celtic Warrior,' 'The Enchanted Journey,' 'From Before the Beginning of Time' -- and off you go."

    From rock 'n' reel to ethereal ballads, the Celtic connection is thriving in many different forms. And it's all music to the ears of the bonnie, bonnie banks -- of the record companies.

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