The DÁN of a new day in Celtic traditional music

Performers from Ireland, the British Isles, and Brittany have formed a ‘supergroup’ for four gigs only, says Nicki ffrench Davis

THE latest folk ‘supergroup’ seems set to create something special. DÁN, the brainchild of one of Ireland’s leading trad groups, Guidewires, brings together 14 musicians from the Celtic traditions in the British Isles and Brittany.

With support from the Arts Council’s Traditional Arts touring award, the four performances of DÁN will take place this week. The tour opens at Glór, in Ennis, today, and travels to Dublin’s National Concert Hall, and Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Cavan, finishing at Kilkenny Arts Festival on Sunday.

Recent years have seen ambitious collaborations between leading Irish folk musicians and their peers in other countries.

One of the biggest challenges can be finding space in one gig to justify having so many top artists, and giving each the air-time they deserve. Another, related challenge is to realise the group’s potential, preparing a show that offers something truly new in terms of material and artistry.

DÁN have been tackling these challenges for months. Although they only came together, for the first time, this week, they have been preparing much longer, thanks to the sharing opportunities afforded by the internet.

From the outset, it was planned that all the music would be unrecorded by the artists and would be largely new.

Guidewires’s fiddle player, Tóla Custy, says. “So, we have these 14 people coming together and they’re each contributing some piece of creativity, a set of tunes or a song. We asked everyone to bring something to it, something they hadn’t recorded, anything they might have on a burner or something they’d thought they mightn’t do anything else with. We shared them online and started listening and disseminating.” The project is the realisation of an ambition of Guidewires, after four years of success as one of traditional music’s liveliest bands. They had two top-selling albums and were, Custy says, “sitting around one day, wondering what to do next. We wanted a project that took us all out of our comfort zones, with others who wanted the same thing.”

The idea was launched when flautist Brian Finnegan, formerly of Flook and now with Kan, deputised for Guidewires’s flautist at a gig in Finland. Finnegan brought Kan, a ground-breaking and influential quartet from Scotland, Ireland and England, to the table.

“Then, seeing as we have a Breton flute player, we thought we’d like to add some more Breton music,” Custy says. “We got Sylvain to research some Breton musicians of that ilk, musicians that could step outside their comfort zones.”

Barou came back with four extraordinary musicians. Presented as The Breton Quartet, Custy says: “You should see how they devour material. Jazz knocks every corner out of you, you’ve got to see what they can do, it’s amazing to see them in action.”

Completing the line-up is singer Alyth McCormack, who sings with the Chieftains. She has penned her first song, for the occasion, to a tune by Guidewires’s bouksouki player, Karol Lynch.

Poet Theo Dorgan had contributed poems in traditional music contexts before. He was on board. Custy and he had phone conversations. “I told Theo that we were bringing the Breton, Scottish, English and Irish cultures together and we started talking about how, and why, they can come together. He said it’s nothing to do with language, it’s nothing to do with genetics, it’s because we’re maritime nations that for centuries looked out.

“It’s true,” Custy says. “We knock ourselves for having been insular in this country, but it wasn’t always like that. For many centuries, we were like a massive sponge.”

Custy says the exchange is part of a wider natural truth, that music develops best in the same places as anything organic and alive. “It’s well-known in permaculture. The best soil fertility is on the borders, between forest and meadow, or between bog and dry land.

“It goes beyond music to how we interact with the people around us. If you think about modern life, you realise that we’ve become very insular and bitter.”

For DÁN, Dorgan has turned a poet’s eye on the sea-faring workers and their families, in four poems, for Brittany, Ireland, Wales and Scotland.

As of last week, all 14 of the musicians hadn’t yet been in a room together. They had two and a half days scheduled to rehearse, before the first night of the tour.

“We’ve been working in our separate corners, listening to each others’ tunes and working with them. We’ll be working on the embroidery and the linking and just the running of it. But this kind of thing, it’s like a small child. You never really know them until you see them in public,” Custy says.


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