Trad/roots: Steph Geremia and Diane Cannon two artists seeing me through lockdown

Music is helping many of us navigate the strange waters of the pandemic and traditional Irish has enough elements in it to go with, or get you out of, pretty much whatever state of mind lockdown might find you in. Here are two albums I heartily recommend

Mín Lárach woman Diane Cannon’s Idir Mhuir agus Sliabh, good for building of a patio to or spring-cleaning for the umpteemth time. Photo by Liam Scott
Robert McMillen

HOW’S it going? Have you hit the drink or the exercise bike? Are you scatter-brained or is your lockdown proceeding with military precision?

Have you forgotten what a weekend is and are the days turning into one?

Well, one way this writer has been differentiating between the days is by the music he plays, and most of that is traditional Irish music. It has enough elements in it to go with the mood whether it’s the lockdown blues or the giddyness you feel after going for a walk, preferably among trees or by the seashore.

There is an album to go with each of these mental states and everything in between too.

One particular album that is a favourite of mine is Steph Geremia’s second solo album Up She Flew. Featuring a firm mixture of traditional and contemporary arrangements and production, the album features music from Sligo, Leitrim and north Connaught, an area famous for its flute-playing styles.

For Steph everything is in the small details.

“This album has not only been inspired by the rich north Connaught repertoire and particular tune settings from the players from this region, but also from a time when these great musicians breathed life into the tunes with their slight variations and subtle rephrasing of every bar; when variations mimicked the landscape and you could get lost in the modal indiscrepancies, shifting from C naturals to C-sharps at will… Up she flew and the cock flattened her!”

Steph is joined on Up She Flew by a star-studded cast, featuring: Aaron Jones (bouzouki & guitar), Seamie O’Dowd (guitar), Jim Murray (guitar), Alan Kelly (piano accordion), Dónal O’Connor (keyboard), Ben Gunnery (fiddle), Jim Higgins (percussion), Martin Brunsden (double bass) and Michael Rooney (harp) but she herself is highly regarded as one of the finest musicians of her generation.

Known for her vibrant and versatile style, she has been highly influenced by the great north Connaught flute players. As a regular member of the Alan Kelly Gang, she has performed and toured extensively around the globe and worked with many critically acclaimed artists including The Chieftains, Eddi Reader, Sea Road Sessions, Kris Drever and Johnny ‘Ringo’ McDonagh.

The time when traditional musicians got on their bikes (literally) and cycled a couple of townlands away to take part in a house céilí or and learn a few new tunes are long with O’Leary in the grave, and Steph’s journey to Irish traditional music is a 20th/21st century odyssey.

Though being a long-time Irish resident, she hails originally from New York where she first began playing traditional music. She left the States in her late teens and began travelling the world, over engrossing herself in different traditions of music learning first hand from local experts.

She studied World Music in America and worked with the legendary experimental jazz hero Anthony Braxton. She traveled to India and lived there for several months to study the Bansuri (north Indian flute) under PT Ginde.

She then moved to Co Sligo and immersed herself in the Sligo/Roscommon style of flute playing. She spent many years surrounded by great traditional stalwarts such as Peter Horan and she holds a master’s degree in Traditional Irish Music Performance, which she completed at the University of Limerick.

Now based in Galway where she teaches and performs on a regular basis – Coronvirus permitting – Steph will no doubt be touring internationally when the current crisis comes to an end.

WHEN it’s a song that is needed to accompany the building of a patio or spring-cleaning the whole house for the umpteemth time, then I reach for Diane Cannon’s album, Idir Mhuir agus Sliabh.

From Mín Lárach in the Donegal Gaeltacht, a townland which nestles between spectacular Mount Errigal and the islands of Toraigh and Inis Bó Finne, Diane manages to fuse the richness of the past with the promise of the future.

“I wanted to record an album that reflects all that is important and special to me. Songs and tunes from home, staying true to my local traditional style while adding some magic with new arrangements; breathing new life into the songs,” she says.

As a youngster Diane frequently won competitions and she competes successfully to this day, most recently winning first place in the prestigious Comortas Cuimhneacháin Shéain Óig Uí Thuama at Oireachtas na Gaeilge. Her long-anticipated debut album Idir Mhuir agus Sliabh follows hard on the heels of her single Séan Ó Duibhir a’ Ghleanna, which was released last year to great critical acclaim.

Some of the leading lights in Irish and Scottish music perform on the album; Donald Shaw, Michael McGoldrick, Neil Martin and Charlie McKerron among many others. There are a few beautiful duets with friend, mentor and renowned sean-nós singer and winner of this year’s Singer of the Year award at Gradam Ceoil TG4, Lillis Ó Laoire.

“For a number of years, I have been working on and researching, with Lillis, forgotten songs of my native area, great songs, although they have never been recorded,” she says.

“I’m delighted to breathe new life into these old songs, rejuvenate them with modern arrangements while still remaining true to the core tradition.”

Diane is extremely proud that Mairead Ní Mhaonaigh of Altan features on the album, playing a tune she learned from Diane’s grandfather Manus Cannon who was a good friend of the Mooney family.

The record includes songs that are specific and personal to Diane’s homeplace – An Droighnean Donn and Toraigh Álainn from Tory Island and Cnoc na Naomh & Bainín Mhín a Leagh have been revived and given new life by the emotion, love and understanding of Diane’s richly expressive voice.

There are a few songs in English which have been favourites of the family for years which she interprets equally as well as the sean nós songs; Broom of the Cowdenowes and Lough Erne’s Shore – these are songs which she learned from the singing of Oriel singers Garrett Doran and Eithne Ní Uallacháín.

Maintaining the tradition of family unison singing, Diane is joined on on Níl sé na Lá and Mhaithrín Dhilís by her daughter Kelly Ní Chanainn, who she raised and mentored, steeping her in traditional Irish music and the Irish language.

The album also succeeds in taking some of the old songs in the tradition and breathing a fresh new life into them with great understanding and empathy by producer Manus Lunny.

So, even though we might be in lockdown, there are albums out there that will take us, mentally at least, into the Wild Atlantic Way and beyond.

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