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Private Label CCONWAYCD01 

Ceara Conway is both a musical and visual artist from Connemara, Ireland’s largest Gaeltacht, herein indulging her musical side, her love of her native language, and its associated sean nós (Irish “old style”) song tradition. Helping out on this recording are Seán Mac Erlaine – clarinet, electronics, piano; Kevin Murphy – cello; Francesco Turrisi – piano; and Ultan O’Brien – violin, viola.

Conway has a strong, pitch-perfect and distinctive mezzo-soprano voice that deals well with the vocal ornamentation typical of sean nós without losing sight of the central melodies (as many overly-melismatic modern singers unfortunately tend to do). Vibrato too is underplayed, letting the purity of her delivery shine through.

Some numbers are performed, as is traditional, a cappella, and where there is instrumental backing, it features primarily as an atmospheric backdrop to the songs, making its contribution through droned chords, tasteful dynamic punctuation, and very occasional short forays into counter-melody. Fine players, but this is definitely Ceara Conway’s album rather than an ensemble piece.

Caoin (“Cry”) has evolved into the modern English “keen” meaning to wail or lament, and the bulk of the songs here are, in fact, laments. Four of these deal with accidents or death at sea. The early 19th century Amhrán Na Leabhar (“Song of the Books”) expresses the author’s grief when his extensive library of books in Irish is lost at sea. Loss of life is the more frequent cause: Amhrán An Bhá (“Song of the Drowning”), Caoineadh Liam Ó Raghallaigh (“Lament for Liam O’Reilly”) and Anach Cuain.

Away from the sea, An Caoineadh (“The Lament”) is described as a “pre-Christian” lament for a dead child, and Pé In Éirinn Í (“Whoever She Is In Ireland”) shows the writer infatuated and tormented by visions of a beautiful woman. Perhaps a strange theme to modern Western society, which generally prefers to focus on life and ignore its outcome, is Amhrán Mhuighinse (“The Song of Muighnis”) a 19th century ‘instructional lament’ in which the singer specifies how and where she wishes to be laid out and buried.

Leavening the laments are two more comforting tracks: An tSailchuach - a traditional song lauding shipwright Paidin mór and his boat Sailchuach (“Violet”), and a lullaby, Seoithín Seothó (nonsense syllables, approx. pron. “ShoHEEN shoHO”) praying for the safety of the child and warning of the dangers of the fairies who steal children.

Caoin is impeccably delivered and respectful of its traditions while, at the same time, showcasing Ceara Conway’s impressive vocal and interpretative skills. I’d highly recommend this for anyone looking for an introduction to sean nós, and to existing aficionados of the style.

Bob Leslie


This review appeared in Issue 145 of The Living Tradition magazine