Trad/roots: Caroline Keane's LP Shine exemplifies the brightness music can bring

Caroline Keane's new album Shine is a high-energy burst of loveliness that will loosen your limbs, get your feet tapping and your shoulders rolling, and boost the natural feel-good chemicals in your brain – just the ticket for the times we're in

Concertina player Caroline Keane
Robert McMillen

THE CONCERTINA has made quite a journey from its origins as an instrument popular in Victorian drawing rooms of England to the céilí houses of Co Clare.

In Finola Finlay and Robert Harris’s blog, Roaring Water Journal, they suggest the volume that the concertina can achieve is part of its popularity.

“The instrument has a very bright tone which carries above most others and is therefore ideal for accompanying dances in noisy rooms. Imagine a flag-stoned floor in a parlour or outhouse with a lively Irish set in full swing: the sound must have been fairly overwhelming, and it needed a loud instrument to be heard above the melee.”

I though of that quote while listening to Limerick’s Caroline Keane ripping up the dance-floor with her new solo concertina album, Shine. It is a 14-track high-energy burst of loveliness that will do the thing that traditional music sets out to go – loosen your limbs, get your feet tapping and your shoulders rolling, and boost the natural feel-good chemicals in your brain.

God knows, it’s just the kind of thing we need as we very, very tentatively come out of lockdown.

Shine in fact was due to be released as the coronavirus hit Ireland in March and things were put on the long finger but Caroline decided she wasn’t going to hang around forever.

“I was really excited and genuinely delighted that it was all ready to go that I just had to go ahead with the launch,” she explains. “I also thought it would give people something to enjoy, people like me who were sitting at home, really missing their music and missing the social aspect of it and missing the brightness that music can bring. Who knows when this madness will pass,” she laughs, more in exasperation than anything else.

Shine is the new album by Caroline Keane

Caroline is originally from the suburbs of Limerick city but her musical family stretches to the Irish midlands.

“My mam bought a concertina after she heard Noel Hill’s recording of Johnny Cope; she just decided she wanted to play the concertina,” recalls Caroline. "Then, when I was about seven years old, she passed it to me and said you might as well learn it, so I went to music classes under Siobhán Ni Chonnaráin – who immediately sent me away and told me to come back to the following week with a tin whistle.” (The road to trad superstardom has often started with learning An Ghaoth Aneas on the tin whistle...)

Thankfully, Caroline kept practising on her Mam’s concertina.

“I wouldn’t have been listening to an awful lot of music in my immediate vicinity but my dad passed away when I was very small so I grew up with my mum and my uncle and my granny who were from Longford and they were into all things musical.

“My granny would have grown up in the 'Rambling House' era so there would always be music in our house,” Caroline recalls.

When she got back to her Comhaltas music classes – with her accordion this time – Siobhán Ni Chonnaráin guided her through the rhythmic, energetic music of Sliabh Luachra, the mountainy area on the Cork/Kerry border, while she had the midlands stuff at home.

By 15, Caroline was performing both nationally and internationally before going to the University of Limerick’s Irish World Academy of Music and Dance where she recently recently graduated with first-class honours from the university's Master of Arts in Traditional Irish Music Performance course.

Performance, for most traditional musicians, is a critical aspect of what they do.

“The people that I play with and the music that I enjoy playing, it’s all about communication, it’s all about connecting,” says Caroline. “Because it is traditional music, music that has been passed to us, I think we feel it very, deeply. It is very connected to the emotions, whether it’s happiness or sadness; if the person playing the music is really experiencing something as they are playing it, I believe that has a profound connection with whoever is listening to it. You can feel genuine emotion through the music.”

Caroline herself is doing a lot of passing on herself with the classes she takes, something she really loves, as witnessed by her eyes lighting up when I asked her if she enjoyed tutoring people.

“There is a sense that you should pay something back to the community because you’ve got something from their ancestors and it’s a duty to pass it on,” she says.

“But as well as that, I think there is this thing in me where I love to see any small step in any direction but preferably forward. Whether I’m teaching a four-year-old to play the tin whistle or teaching an 80-year old the concertina, someone who has had maybe 60 years of wanting to play the concertina without having the opportunity, seeing the tiny little step that they have made by having their rhythm in place or a tune learned off by heart, to see that small step is absolutely gorgeous. It is so fulfilling” she says.

But now with the album out but little opportunity to promote it around the country, what has Caroline planned for the next 12 months?

“Well, I WAS working on a lovely duet album with a good friend of mine, piano accordionist Fiona Black from the band The Outside Track and we nearly have another album put together. I’m really excited about that because it’ll give us the chance to explore a little more because there will be no other accompaniment on the album, it’ll just be melodies from the two of us.”

That upcoming album will join Shine and Never Say Goodbye, Say Good Luck, the duet Caroline made with piper Tom Delaney and the eponymous Four Winds album on which Caroline plays.

Finally, Caroline has just launched her website at which has lots of info about future gigs, collaborations, teaching – online and workshops – and some of her compositions uploaded too. You can of course buy any of her albums but be careful, you’ll be spoilt for choice.

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