Sunday, March 11, 2007

Róisín Elsafty's solo début CD

Coming full circle: Róisín Elsafty links Ireland back to its most ancient origins

Róisín Elsafty
Má Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom
Vertical Records (

Egypt and Barna: what do they have in common? We classify under 'origin myth' the tale in the Book of Invasions that traces Scotia's voyage as her people fled in the wake of the Exodus from the wicked pharoah through what is now Morocco and along the Iberian coast up to Kerry. Yet Bob Quinn, in his revision of his Atlantean thesis in book and documentary, proposes a North African origin for sean-nós, or 'old-style' unaccompanied singing. A controversial theory, but I wonder how Róisín Elsafty regards her fellow Connemara resident's research. After all, she lives minutes from a structure long called the Spanish Arch on Galway's bay. Imaginations have long been fired by the 'Orientalist' possibilities [see note below]. Along the route that for Quinn's Atlanteans connected the Moors to Inishmore, Elsafty continues this ancient exchange through words and music. Tinged with robust influences from the Islamic lands transported into the rockier Gaeltacht coves that have long sheltered traditional Irish-language song, she presents us with an album reminding us that even the most purportedly traditional of Irish musics carries within its core the pulse of a distant desert realm.

A decade ago, Róisín Elsafty appeared with her mother, Treasa Ní Cheannabáin, on Irlande: L’Art du Sean-Nós (Buda, France). Róisín has appeared too rarely on records since then; this marks her first full-length solo album. Sustaining the tradition of family support, her brother plays tabla and her sisters sing backup. Easily among the best sean-nós recordings in recent Irish music, Má Bhíonn features her 'old style' singing rooted in the Connemara custom. This style, argues Bob Quinn in his book and documentary on the Atlantean Irish, may be traced to the Moors and North Africa. The ancient origins of this melismatic, traditionally unaccompanied singing style return in Róisín’s debut. Daughter of an Egyptian doctor who moved to the Cois Fharraige Gaeltacht at Barna, immediately west of Galway city, Elsafty is backed by accordion, harmonium, guitar, bodhrán, whistle and harp. Yet she enriches her style with backing by Ronan Browne on Indian bansuri, Shytte flute, and Bull flute. These varied accompaniments do not overwhelm her voice. It recalls the delicacy of Máire Ní Bhraonáin on Clannad’s earliest, pre-synthesized, recordings. Pastoral settings dominate the arrangements. A capella songs intersperse with instrumental support. The album successfully updates traditional Irish singing with diverse musical playing.

All but one of these fourteen tracks are sung in Irish. Brief notes in English convey the gist of each tune, but only the lyrics and Róisín’s own acknowledgments (both in Irish) capture the essence of her spirited, yet controlled verbal delivery. Sean-nós defies translation. Connemara performers combine vocal embellishment with emotional restraint. Elsafty favors less ornament. She prefers direct expression and austere presentation. That Dónal Lunny produces this album shows both the esteem with which Elsafty is regarded by her peers and the welcome absence of a misty, effects-laded, lush overproduction which has marred many of Lunny’s productions after his pioneering years with Planxty. From his bandmate Christy Moore’s repertoire, the sprightly 'Cúnla' turns less insistent but more seductive.

Elsafty's choices remind me of what Bob Quinn in his own article [see note below] classified alongside his own thesis as the other suggested explanation-- both under 'Sean-Nós, speculative origins'! The UCC scholar Seán Ó Tuama contends that sean-nós originated in the French amour courtois period typified by troubadours and 'romantic love' around 1200-1400. He estimates that this style-- also showing Provençal strains-- entered Ireland in the wake of the Normans, but no later than 1400. Quinn and Ó Tuama both judge that, wherever sean-nós was engendered, it sprang from not only Northern European but Mediterranean progenitors. Elsafty, then, brings this traditional style back to its more temperate nursery. She eschews, as I hear it, the harsher keening quality of many singers (which has been used contrarily to link Arab with native Irish vocal phrasing) for a more rounded, lower pitched evenness of tone. 'Cúnla' or a lullabye 'Hó-bha-in' from the version of noted Connemara mid-20c singer Sorcha Ní Ghuairm explore this approach well. They lessen the angst and desolation found in many singers' stock of songs, while accentuating the tenderness and play. This typifies her softer reading of these predominantly traditional songs. Róisín respects the self-imposed limits of the Connemara style, yet she invigorates old songs with fresh arrangements and nuanced manners. Her interpretations under Lunny’s direction reveal the appeal of a measured, understated ambiance. She will not totally surrender the hushed, reticent confidence within her voice. This stance strengthens her album.

One new 'anti-war song encouraging the people of Iraq to have the strength of endurance' tells of a boy left a double amputee and an 'orphaned victim of the U.S. invasion'. Here, Róisín sings in both Arabic and Gaelic. She describes the 'vast destructive' army of Saddam, and of the B-52 whose bombs caused Ali's suffering. Presenting Ali’s predicament as another rebel song, Elsafty represents with such choices her contemporary awareness of how themes of Irish rebellion and demands for peace can incorporate her complex influences of Middle Eastern and native Irish-speaking heritage. A few years back, I recall how her single in support of Palestine took pride of place at the counter of Mulligan's record shop in old Galway, the pre-eminent seller on the West coast of indigenous Irish music. She chooses songs beyond the typical 'old style'. Reading her notes, whether the deft summaries in English or her own warm acknowledgments in effusive Irish, you glimpse a woman truly representative of this new century's wealth of opportunity for all in Ireland. Róisín brings hybridity out of its academic niche and sets it center stage. She does not shine a spotlight upon her own blend, but prefers to have her audience wait, listen, and discover the radiance of the song first-hand, but quietly. Róisín's Arabic and Irish and English words fill the album's booklet. Indian, Egyptian, medieval Irish, Spanish- and Balkan-derived instruments present her album's music. Elsafty mingles tranquil legend and harsh truth. She includes amidst venerable tales of unrequited love and lost innocence relevant narratives for our decade.

An exception to these sparer songs proves equally innovative. On the expansive final selection, 'Coinleach Glas an Fhómhair', Róisín widens her vocal range. The music gains depth. It appears in two parts, the song renewing itself as it quickens in pace and grows in instrumental intensity. She gives an epic rendition of this song that Clannad popularized on their classic 1974 second LP. Backed by noted Belfast whistle player John Mc Sherry and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra, it ebbs and surges like the Atlantic waves near Elsafty’s family home.

{Quinn, Bob. 'Sean-Nós, speculative origins'. In Fintan Vallely, ed. The Companion to Irish Traditional Music [Cork UP, 1999. 339-345]. His book was revised as The Atlantean Irish: Ireland's Oriental and Maritime Heritage [Dublin: Lilliput, 2005]. Seán Ó Tuama's thesis originally appeared as An Grá in Amhráin na nDaoine {Love in Irish folk song} in 1960. Reprinted in his essay collection Repossessions [Cork UP: 1995]. For more on speculations regarding Ireland and the East, see Joseph Lennon. Irish Orientalism: A Literary and Intellectual History. [Syracuse UP, 2004].}

P.S. This was written for, the "online magazine of the world's music" who kindly asked me last year based on my Amazon review of the first CD by "The Sixteenth Day of May" (a promising English electric folk band in the spirit of Fairport, and on Hannibal Records!) to critique Irish music releases. I read about the Elsafty CD on at their daily news digest of Irish language coverage, and Vertical Records in Scotland graciously sent me a copy for review, which was duly covered first to post for my friends at the Blanket

P.P.S. I might refer you enamored of the Atlantean connection to scroll down earlier this same March 2007 month to my entry "A United Kingdom After All?" for much more on this topic.

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