Minstrelsy of good cheer: Niamh Ni Charra's feel-good Irish folk tunes

Niamh Ní Charra’s Irish folk band will have you tapping your toes and dancing in wild abandon — like no DJ can
Niamh Ní Charra
Niamh Ní Charra

Having a bit of ‘craic’, in Irish, roughly translates to having a ball of a time. In the folk tunes of Niamh Ní Charra, you’re likely to get a sense of that deliriously jovial and high-spirited feeling, which will either have you conjuring breezy afternoons in green fields or in a breathless frenzy, melding barn dance moves with the foxtrot, jitterbug and whatever else you can muster. A long-term player with the Riverdance theatrical show, Niamh is set to play in the city this St Patricks Day along with her band, featuring Kevin Corbett, Dominic Keogh and Damien Doherty, as a part of an India tour, supported by Culture Ireland. In an email exchange, fuelled by many hours of streaming music on her Soundcloud page, Niamh spoke of the origins of Irish music, and the troubled times they tend to belie. Either way, if you get to meet her this weekend, you’d do well to raise her the Irish cheer, “How’s the craic?”

What is the story behind your 2013 album, Cuz?

In the 1920’s Terry “Cuz” Teahan, a musician and composer from my area emigrated to Chicago, U.S.A. He became well known in the Irish community there and played for dances for years. Before he died he made one last visit back home to Ireland and while there, saw me playing in a concert. I was really young at the time.

When he returned to Chicago, he made a tape of tunes, and talked into that tape, and sent it to me. I still have it, and cherish it. He composed over 80 tunes, many of which had been forgotten, or not credited to him. So I decided that when I would have a few albums released I would do one that was a tribute to him. That was the Cuz album. It features some clips from that tape, and lots of invited guests who knew him. It was a real labour of love.

Cuz is Terry’s nickname which he got early after moving to Chicago. Ireland has a long history of emigration, and when people landed in the new country they would always try and help the next people to come. Neighbours of Terry’s would be given his number to ring when they landed first in Chicago. He would have organised an interview with them for a job somewhere, and he would tell them to say he was a cousin of theirs. Cuz was short for cousin.

After a while he started using the word regularly when talking, as a verbal mannerism, even calling everyone he talked to “Cuz”.

Niamh Ní Charra
Niamh Ní Charra

How did you choose the fiddle and concertina as your instruments of choice? Were you ever tempted to pick up a guitar?

Apparently, I asked Santa Claus for a set of Uileann Pipes (Irish pipes) and Santa thought it would be better for me to get a concertina! I think he was right! After that I saw a fiddle in a shop and fell in love with it! It is probably one of the most versatile instruments across all the genres.

Firstly fiddle and violin are actually the same instrument. The term fiddle tends to be used more for traditional/folk music or for jazz, bluegrass, Appalachian, etc. And violin tends to be the term used for more formal genres like classical. So it has to do with the style of playing rather than the instrument itself.

A guitar, in Ireland, is usually just used to accompany singing or a melody instrument. It would rarely be use as a melody instrument itself. And it was always the melodies I was interested in.

We're drawing all kinds of parallels to your music – from the 1970s folk band Fairport Convention to bluegrass and country music in the US, and even Scottish bagpipe music. Could you tell us a little about your personal favourites, and influences, please?

Scotland and Ireland are very closely related culturally, the Gaelic language spoken in Scotland is very similar to Irish Gaelic. And the music of both countries has for centuries been swapped back and forth between the two countries. Groups like Fairport Convention or American folk groups would draw heavily on influences from Ireland and Scotland as would American Bluegrass, etc. This is because Irish and Scots emigrating to America would have brought their music with them.

When I was growing up I was very influenced by the local musicians in my area. The area I’m from is a well-known area musically and has a distinct style. Later I started listening to Irish groups from outside my region such as The Bothy Band, Dé Danann, Altan etc. I also started listening a lot to music from other Celtic regions such as Scotland and Brittany in the north west of France, along with Nova Scotia in Canada where a lot if Scottish and Irish had emigrated to over the years.

How would you consider traditional folk music to be different from classical music? While the origins are equally, if not more, rooted in history, and the compositions and structure can be just as complex, the perceptions and reception to folk forms are very different for folk music, when compare to classical music.

Firstly, the clue is in the name. Folk music is the music of the common folk, the people. It belonged, and belongs, to everyone. In Ireland, it was passed on aurally so you didn’t have to be musically literate to learn it or understand it. As a result, it goes back much farther than classical music and is intrinsically linked not just to our dance and our songs, but our story, the Irish story.

Folk music generally would be played much more informally than classical music, and would be played in the home or for dances. It is only in the last century that Irish folk music (what we term ‘Trad’ or traditional) would be played on a stage in a formal setting.

For me, one of the biggest differences between classical and trad is how you approach the music on the page. With classical music, every note, bow direction, pause and expression of feeling is carefully marked, and your job is to deliver that as precisely as possible. With traditional music the notes on the page are the skeleton of the melody, the guideline. It is expected that you would take this and add your own interpretation to it, complete with ornaments, and variations. And that you would make sure it was never played exactly the same way twice.

Different players from different regions would have different styles with bowing and the ornamentation they would add. Tone isn’t as important as the swing you inject into the tune – at the end of the day Irish melodies (apart from the songs) are for dancing, and you need to instil in the listener a wish to get up and dance.

Are you familiar with Indian classical music, Carnatic or Hindustani? Are there any Indian string instruments you are interested in – such as the santoor, sarangi, sitar and veena?

Aware of? Yes. Knowledgeable about? No! There is so much to learn about so many types of music. For me this visit to India is such a tease because we are only here for a few days - 3 cities in 4 days!

What I would love to do is spend months travelling around listening to the folk players of each region and seeing the instruments that sound so strange to my ear, in action in front of my eyes. Mind you, Youtube is helping a lot now – we don’t have to travel to see and hear - but nothing really beats being in the middle of it.

I think one of the first clips I came across was of Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka playing together, which was amazing. There is something about family playing together that is very special. I guess the only solution is to come back and stay longer next time!

Have you ever considered remixes and electronic collaborations, which are the norm for the new age? Would you be open to DJs sampling and working on your music?

This is a funny – and hard – one to answer. On one side, I feel that I would be very protectionist of my music and would be very slow to share it for this purpose unless I knew the DJ had complete understanding of it.

But I also feel that this is a good way to expose Trad music to a wider audience, and once my music, as a part of the finished product, was credited I don’t think there’s a problem.

Was it difficult for you, when you started out as a musician, to stick to traditional folk music, rather than do something more pop, or even join a rock outfit? Tell us a little about how you decided to pursue traditional folk music, and any hardships you faced along the way.

For me, the traditional music came so naturally to me, it was part of my upbringing, being surrounded by musicians and dancing. Later, it became obvious that while it gave me lots of joy it would never give me the financial stability or the popularity of the more commercial genres. But, at the moment, I also realised that those aspects were not as important to me as the happiness the music gave me, and the happiness I was able to share by passing it on.

I think what was hard was that traditional music in Ireland is not fully given the respect it deserves, and for a lot of Irish people they only appreciate it when they emigrate and come across Irish musicians abroad. Ironically, even though what I play is the indigenous music of Ireland, 99% of my work is outside of Ireland. I think this is a problem everywhere though. People see folk music as the poor man’s music, and therefore somehow inferior yet it requires just as much skill and dedication.

There are many ongoing efforts in India to preserve indigenous, traditional folk music and art forms. Please tell us a little about the manner of efforts in Ireland, of the same kind. How much of these efforts are directed inwards, to support up-and-coming artistes, when compared to promotions of established bands?

There is an association called Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (Irish Music Association), which has been promoting Irish music since the 1950s. There are now branches all over the country, in almost every town and village, which provide music classes. This has done an amazing thing for Irish music.

However, it has its flaws: it can be almost too protectionist and purist at times, and too much focus is based around competitions, but without it I think the situation would be a lot worse. Then the government through the Arts Council provide grants for instruments, for recording albums and to help with tours for the up and coming traditional bands, that are working hard. Competition for these grants is fierce though and there is not enough money to go around.

In our case, our trip here has been supported by Culture Ireland, an organisation that helps fund the travel of international artists to help spread our culture abroad. I am very grateful to them for their support over the years, especially as most of my work is abroad, as mentioned earlier.

But at the end of the day, when a recession hits, our industry is seen as a luxury industry, and not vital to everyday life. The arts is one of the first to experience cuts in times of austerity. Part of the problem here is that it is very hard to quantify how much the arts contribute to the economy. A very recent study conducted by TicketMaster found that for every €1 spent on tickets for gigs, over €6 went back in to the economy. It was one of the first studies of its kind and we need more of them to show how important what we do is to the health of the economy.

Ireland, for example, depends heavily on the Tourism industry. Yet, people don’t come to Ireland for the weather! They come for the culture, for the music, the craic, the atmosphere.

All of us know of U2 as an Irish rock band, but really, they're an international band now. Are there many others in Ireland looking to become as big, and successful?

I think that the music industry, in terms of the pop industry, is controlled too much by a very small number of record labels, and when you listen to the radio it is the same artists on the same labels getting all the airplay. There is a problem with that because our country is full of fantastic talent and they are struggling to get the opportunity to be heard.

Kevin Corbett
Kevin Corbett

Please give us a sense of the other elements that go along with your music – the dancing, the food, the community gatherings, and bonfires perhaps? We're trying to get a larger feel for the settings of these songs, and the manner of celebrations that go along with it.

Irish traditional music is very social. It centres around house parties where the furniture would have been taken out of the way to allow room for dancing, or more recently the pub sessions or céilí dances in the big halls. But our music is much more than that.

The dance music is not just about getting up and dancing and having fun, it is about seizing the day, because there is always some tragedy around the corner. The Irish love to be miserable – it’s why Freud would never psychoanalyse the Irish! We have a very long and troubled history and our songs hark back to that. What I love the most about traditional music is that it connects us with the people and events of the past, and we in turn will be connected to those that will come in the future.

We're big fans of music of the Afro Celt Sound System as well. Do you listen to global fusion music? While there are many takers for Celtic music, how do you view global fusion and world music trends? Do you find many new-age bands merely playing out a fad for popularity? Are there serious attempts at global fusion that you are interested in?

I think with AFRO Celts they did it very well bringing in musicians from the different places and collaborating together. With some of the fusion stuff going on it is one person’s idea of another person’s music that is at play. It is very interesting for example, to hear groups from other countries playing Irish music, they often bring a novel sound to it, particularly if they are using instruments from their own countries that we do not have in Ireland.

But it sometimes happens that, even though they are playing the notes, they don’t always have a proper understanding of the music. This could be because they are playing Irish dance music without ever seeing Irish dancing. Or it could be because they are playing music that is based on Ireland’s battle against oppression and persecution. I often hear Irish songs that are about some really dark tragedy being sung by people in a really happy jovial manner with no thought to what is behind the song.

Tell us a little about your vocal practice routines. We find your style to be similar to that of the artiste Enya. We can't help but say, your songs make us feel like running out and dancing over wide open green fields. What is it about that quality of Irish music?

Well, firstly, I don’t really consider myself as a technically gifted singer. I’m not a singers’ singer – rather a musician who sings. I came at it having learnt all about the songs behind the airs I was playing. I don’t have a loud voice but it is clear.

Therefore, I think it is more about me understanding what I’m good at and what I’m not so strong at and then choosing my songs wisely. For example, I would never do a loud raucous comic song – I wouldn’t be able to deliver it properly.

But I understand the darker songs and the sadness behind them. I am an Irish speaker which is a language far more expressive than English, and therefore almost all of my songs are in Irish. Ironically Enya is from an Irish speaking region. Her voice is also not very strong. Her trick is to layer voices which gives it that very atmospheric sound. And we both ornament in the same way, with a very light and natural touch. So I am very flattered by the comparison!

As for the dancing, we have a term known as the American Wake. I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘wake’ before – a normal wake is the celebration of someone’s life after they have passed away, where people drink, dance, tell stories and share jokes, while the body is stretched out in a coffin waiting to be buried. With so many people emigrating to America around the time of the famine, families would hold the wake for their loved ones, while they were still alive, before they would get the boat to America, mainly because for most families they never saw their loved ones again. So there was this urgency about having fun before the heartache. I think that runs through all our music.

Niamh Ní Charra and band, including Kevin Corbett, Dom Keogh and Damien Doherty, perform at The Moon & Sixpence, Hablis Hotel Guindy, on March 18 at 9 pm.

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