Trad/roots: How French harpist Floriane Blancke fell for an Ulster love song

She's a classically trained musician who turned to jazz and world music but French harpist Floriane Blancke moved to Ireland in pursuit of trad after falling for an Ulster love song

French harpist Floriane Blancke moved to Ireland to pursue a career in traditional music
Robert McMillen

'THINK global, act local,' they say and that is particularly apt in the case of the Parisian harpist Floriane Blancke.

Many Irish people just don't get traditional music. That's not a criticism – it's just not their thing. However, it is easy to take exception at the people who talk of diddly-dee or scorn songs about pretty fair maids without knowing anything about it.

There is a range and a depth to Irish traditional music and song that is the match of any folk music anywhere in the world and which can compete with today's chart-toppers for its ability to get people up on to a dance floor or to have them sobbing into their pillows.

That is something that Floriane Blancke, a harpist, fiddler, pianist and singer, gets. She must have come from a very musical background.

“Well, yes and no,” she tells me. “My parents never played but there was always music on in the house. I grew up listening to The Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and even The Bee Gees – my dad was a big fan – and there was lots of jazz and classical music too.

“My grandparents on both sides were musicians; my mum's father was a multi-instrumentalist who played the accordion, the bandoneon as well as the piano and the double bass. He had a nine-piece band who toured all over France. He even released a vinyl disc back in the 1960s and I was fortunate to recently receive a copy of it. It's amazing to be able to listen to it!

“My dad's mother was a classical violinist. She was and still is a great inspiration to me. But all my family encouraged me to pursue music.”

Floriane now has a world of music at her fingertips, having spent 10 years studying classical music at the Conservatoire in Bordeaux before turning her attention to jazz and world music which she studied at the Centre d'Information et d'Activités Musicales, also in Bordeaux.

Was it a big culture shock to go from the classical world, which some people might see as very exact and inflexible, to the jazz school at CIAM to study world music and jazz which is freer and more improvisational?

"Yes it was. You have to be very mature musically and my brain definitely wasn't prepared for it. I really struggled. I think I was too young to appreciate. If I had a chance I would go back to it now that I'm older and more experienced in my music. It's another world altogether but I love it,” she says.

However, hearing a song in Irish changed Floriane's musical life once again – Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin, a traditional Irish love song from Ulster about a man who is abandoned by his lover.

“I first heard it from the singing of Eithne Ní Uallacháin, when I was living in Bordeaux and it was my first introduction to Irish music. Eithne became one of the big influences, and a great source of inspiration to me. She composed the air and Tommy Byrne kindly taught me the words of this song.”

Now, after moving to Ireland from France to pursue a full-time career in traditional music in 2006, Floriane has been embraced into Irish traditional music circles where she is recognised as a skilled harper who has performed with luminaries such as Sharon Shannon, Brid Harper, Frankie Gavin, Steve Cooney, Paddy Keenan, Seamus Begley and Tim Edey.

I ask Floriane about her highlights and she gives me a big long list with all the above included. But she lists “playing alongside Dermot Byrne and Brendan O'Regan for Dermot's Gradam Ceol Award on TG4, playing with the legendary John Prine and actor Brendan Gleeson – who is also a wonderful fiddle player – in a local session, meeting Patti Smith in the Cobblestone in Dublin and opening her gig in Vicar Street, doing a three-week Christmas tour around Ireland with Sharon Shannon, her band and Shane McGowan. Oh, and it was magical also to do a special gig in the Peacock Theatre with Declan O'Rourke…”

But what is it about the indigenous music of Ireland? What did she like about it? Why does she love it so much?

“The sound, the melodies, they were moving me deeply, like as if they were attached to something I lived through in a past life...

"I could find myself bawling my eyes out listening to a tune. It was very strange.

"I think I love it because, first, the tunes are beautiful, and second it is very sociable... you can connect with everyone that plays in the session even if you don't know anyone nor speak the same language. It's wonderful.”

Molly na gCuach Ní Chuilleanáin can be heard on Floriane's new solo album, Kaleidoscope, as well as a beautiful mixture of traditional Irish tunes, her own compositions and a piece by the French composer Claude Debussy.

There is also a song which has an interesting background to it going back to pre-war Germany.

“Don't Stand At My Grave And Weep was written by a woman called Mary Elizabeth Frye back in 1932,” Floriane explains.

She wrote it for a Jewish woman called Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was concerned about her mother, who was ill in Germany. Margaret had been warned not to return home because of increasing unrest.

“When her mother died, the heartbroken young woman told Frye that she never had the chance to 'stand by my mother's grave and shed a tear'. Frye found herself composing a piece of verse on a brown paper shopping bag. Later she said that the words 'just came' to her and expressed what she felt about life and death.”

Hopefully, we'll see Floriane playing tunes and singing songs in the near future but in the meantime she is working on another duet album with Dermot Byrne and her second solo album which will be given a huge bienvenue from her growing number of admirers.

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