Storytelling lies at the heart of Celtic music; breathtaking voices sing tales of lost love, tragedies both old and new, as well as exile, prison, war, and separation. Featuring bodhrán, flute, guitar and harp, this Rough Guide includes old folk lullabies, work songs and contemporary compositions from leading Celtic artists.
Compiled by Dan Rosenberg
The term ‘Celtic music’ encompasses the sweet songs and wistful melodies of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany (France), Asturias and Galicia (Spain). The modern Celtic music revival was shaped, in large part, by the folk movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Yann-Fanch Kemener played a role in revitalizing the kan ha diskan vocal tradition from Britanny during this era and is heard on this compilation with fellow Breton and cellist Aldo Ripoche.
In Wales, many of the Celtic traditions were lost during the Nonconformist movement in the eighteenth century, and musicians such as the group Ffynnon, represented here on ‘Llanw Chwant’, were left to reconstruct traditional works. The revival has reached new heights in recent decades, epitomized by the Scottish group, Capercaillie, a band that has sold over a million albums. At the root of Capercaillie’s music are folk melodies such as puirt-a-beuls (Celtic mouth music) and waulking songs.
Certainly, one of the trademarks of Celtic music is a breathtaking lead vocal, exemplified by Cara Dillon and Karen Matheson. Another distinctive feature of Celtic music is using instruments to mimic human expressions: Alasdair Fraser’s doleful violin playing on ‘Highlander’s Farewell to Ireland’ sings out above Natalie Hass’ vocalizing rich cello tone.
Another hallmark that has been synonymous with Celtic music is captivating storytelling. Tales of lost love, tragedies both old and new, as well as exile, prison, war, and separation can be found here, woven through old folk lullabies and work songs, as well as contemporary compositions. ‘Caitlin Triall’ by Altan tells the story of a man who falls in love with a woman only to be left dejected and forlorn when he spies her out with another man. ‘The Butcher Boy’ by Grada is a retelling of an American folk song rooted in historic English broadside ballads. The sorry tale recounts the fate of a young lover, who after finding out she has been betrayed by the butcher’s apprentice she loves hangs herself and is found by her father. She leaves a suicide note that asks him to show the world that she ‘died for love’. Dublin-born John Doyle sings of convicts departing for Botany Bay, a settlement in Australia designed for deported prisoners to be incarcerated in instead of in Britain, which at that time included Ireland.
As a result of large waves of Scottish, Irish, and French immigration to North America, Celtic music has also taken root in Atlantic Canada and parts of the American northeast, and has in turn heavily influenced both bluegrass and country music. Vishtèn are a high-flying Acadian folk band whose driving music features tight harmonies, foot percussion and virtuoso electric and acoustic instrumentation.
Today, Celtic music is expanding in virtually every direction as groups such as Chantan, Solas and the Old Blind Dogs fuse elements of rock, jazz, electronica, R&B, and African folk music with traditional Celtic melodies.
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