Announcing Live at WOMAD 1982: a double album of unheard recordings from the historic first WOMAD festival
Wed, 08 June 22
Released 21 September 1997
In a language of antiquity, ‘Gaeilge’ or Irish, this solitary voice calls to its ancestral spirits. Standing and preparing to sing, a transformation takes place as the face of Iarla Ó Lionáird sets in a mask of private homage to his song. From out of this thin frame comes a voice that climbs a mountain of Gaelic experience —a voice that soars with power and tenderness.
In the Irish singing tradition, the singer takes the nearest person’s hand, whether friend or stranger, lifting and turning it as the song rises and falls, calling its message over time to its last long note. In this recording, Canadian producer Michael Brook takes Iarla O Lionáird’s hand in a weaving, modal spell of drones which carry the songs to a secret space where flames light up the walls of imagination.
This is new and unique work. It demonstrates understanding and respect for the tradition out of which it came —majestic, defiant, heart-breakingly beautiful.
Today Iarla Ó Lionáird is the most exciting and innovative performer of Irish traditional unaccompanied song, as well as the haunting and evocative voice of the Afro Celt Sound System. Yet at one point it seemed that his unique gift would be lost. A child prodigy who made his first recording at the age of seven, by the early 1990s Iarla had abandoned singing and despaired of finding anyone who shared his musical vision.
After a two year silence he was thankfully coaxed back, and those who have heard Iarla Ó Lionáird will know what a tragedy it would have been if his voice had been stilled. Those discovering him for the first time through his debut solo album The Seven Steps To Mercy (Seacht gCoiscéim na Trocaire) will be equally grateful that such a compelling interpreter of an ancient style of heart-rending beauty and complexity was persuaded to share his talent with the world. For Iarla Ó Lionáird was destined to be a singer.
Born in Cúil Aodha in Gaelic-speaking Co Cork in 1964, his mother, grandmother and grandfather all sung sean nós (literally ‘old style’), the unaccompanied music of Celtic ancestors, shrouded in the mists of time and handed down across the western seaboards of Ireland over generations. His grand aunt Elizabeth Cronin was also a noted singer, recorded by among others the great collector Alan Lomax during his travels in Ireland in the 1940s.
Yet the family was less part of a musical dynasty and more a reflection of their cultural environment. The whole locality of Cúil Aodha is famous as a cradle for poets, musicians and story-tellers and early on Iarla came under the influence of one of it’s most famous sons, the composer and arranger Seán Ó Riada, who inspired The Chieftains and who more than anyone else was responsible for the revival of traditional Irish music at a time when it was under considerable threat. “Where we lived was very remote and the nearest house was four miles away,” Iarla recalls. “Sean and his son Peadar were neighbours and people were always walking into our house at all hours of the day and night. There was always music and tale-telling.”
Iarla gave his first performance at the age of five and his first recordings for radio followed two years later. “People said even at that age that I sounded like my grand aunt, using all the ancient ornamentations and structures of sean nós, but I don’t like the child prodigy label —I prefer simply to say that I did my best at a time when I was still very small and I got some acknowledgement for it.”
In fact the young Iarla won every competition he entered across Ireland, becoming a celebrity in traditional circles. His early prowess can be judged on his debut solo album for alongside the new material it includes a remarkable recording of his voice from 1978 when he was just 14 years old, made under the guidance of the composer Peadar Ó Riada. “It was strange hearing it again and it seems like a different person,” says Iarla. “But if all the critics say I sang better 20 years ago I don’t really care,” he adds with a twinkle.
The mid 1980s found Iarla at college in Dublin and with a growing reputation in the city’s musical circles. He was in demand both as a singer and a teacher and by 1989 he was presenting the traditional music series The Pure Drop on RTÉ Television. Yet he never felt fully at ease.
“I was very aloof because I took my singing so seriously and I couldn’t share it easily. A fiddler or a piper can go and join in a session but as an unaccompanied singer I couldn’t do that. In Cork, sean nós singing is a kingly pursuit —part of the social structure. In Dublin I felt a bit removed because what I did was so different.”
Wider success appeared to beckon when Iarla was invited to be the soloist on a huge project called The Pilgrim by Sean Davey. Fronting 500 musicians, including a 35 piece pipe band, full orchestra and three choirs, Iarla performed the work at the Lorient festival in Brittany and at Dublin’s National Concert Hall and recorded it for Tara Records in Dublin. “But it didn’t really go anywhere and I grew despondent. I was singing at weddings, wakes and funerals and I was known as the modern face of sean nós. But in fact I was in despair and that is why I stopped. No one else seemed to share the vision I had for the music.”
Iarla turned down offers to record because he felt no one knew how to do justice to his style. “They wanted to treat it as folk music but sean nós is darker, more passionate and ancient than that. It has an inner dialogue and profound emotions about love and loss and death, and is often very allegorical. Sean nós has never been about strutting your stuff. You stand there and hold it and it is all about empathy. A lot of people seemed to have a problem with that.”
Fortunately, after a two year sabbatical, Iarla was persuaded to start singing again by the brilliant box (accordion) player Tony MacMahon. “He took me to play at a festival in a Catholic enclave in South Armagh and I rediscovered my passion.” From that collaboration there followed in 1993 the live album Aislingí Ceoil on Gael Linn Records. But the real breakthrough was still to come and it happened in unlikely fashion.
“I wrote to Real World and it was the only begging letter I have ever written in my life. It was six pages long and written by hand and it must have been almost illegible,” says Iarla. But he included a tape (“I sent them the wrong one actually, a poor copy instead of the original”) and he was invited to participate in one of Real World’s famous ‘Recording Weeks’ at the studio built by Peter Gabriel at Box, Wiltshire.
It was at this event that Simon Emmerson, who was at the time putting together his Afro Celt Sound System record for Real World, called upon Iarla to sing. “That was brilliant. We’ve been so busy and it hasn’t stopped. It allowed me to sing sean nós in the setting of contemporary club culture. It was such an intriguing blend, using primary colours to create a picture of sophistication,” he says.
The success of the first Afro Celt’s album Volume 1: Sound Magic meant that Iarla’s solo project had to be put on hold for over a year, but eventually earlier this year he entered the studio with the noted Canadian producer Michael Brook. “He’s one of the first producers I’ve met who shared my vision, which was not to soften or sentimentalise the music but draw deeper from the heart —to take what is within and bring it to the surface. Everyone else seems to want to tart up the raw, ancient stuff to mrake it palatable. Michael who comes from an experimental rock’n’roll background didn’t want to do that and observing this ultra-modern musician getting to grips with a deep, ancient approach was amazing.”
The end result is a sound which is deeper, darker and full of more mystery than anything ever dreamed of by Enya and her copyists. Organic and timeless, Iarla’s soaring voice brings thrillingly to life the ancient culture of his ancestral spirits, a homage to tradition yet always fresh and innovative. “I was looking for a balance of groove and emotion,” he says simply when asked for his own description.
Yet wherever his endlessly inquiring musical spirit takes him, Iarla Ó Lionáird will never lose touch with his ancestral roots on the west coast of Ireland. “It’s not an ordinary place,” he says. “I honestly believe that I grew up in paradise.” On The Seven Steps To Mercy that is the direction in which Iarla Ó Lionáird takes us.
Released 25 September 2011
Released 17 January 2014
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