Friday, March 23, 2007

Ó Sé and Ó Riada Release the Record of the Year

An fear taobh thiar an reabhlóid ar fad - Seán Ó RiadaAnyone who feels like a treat, now that St Patrick’s Day is past and we’re moving quickly towards the summer, could do an awful lot worse than investing twenty sheets in ‘Dir Cúm Thóla & Cúil Aodha, the new CD from Seán Ó Sé and Peadar Ó Riada. An Spailpín invested at the start of this month, and is listening constantly still, discovering new wonders. A shining light in these dull and vacuous times.

The story of the record is this: Peadar Ó Riada and Seán Ó Sé first performed together at the Requiem Mass for Seán Ó Riada, Peadar’s father and the father of Irish traditional music as we know it. In the ten or so years between his composition/arrangement of the Mise Éire soundtrack and his sudden and untimely death in 1970 Seán Ó Riada’s revolutionised Irish traditional music and Ireland’s attitude to her musical heritage. All we have now in music we owe in no small part to Seán Ó Riada and this new record by Seán Ó Sé and Peadar Ó Riada is a kind of acknowledgement and retrospective of those forty years that have gone by since, and the thousands of years gone by going back to the Tuatha De Danann, of course.

What a retrospective it is. In this age of prolonged record parturition, Ó Sé and Ó Riada did it old school – they performed a concert in Cúil Aodha in December 2005, Ó Riada at the piano and Ó Sé standing beside him, belting out the songs, and stuck it on tape, deciding they would stand or fall by that, and never mind the fairy dust and the reverb.

Ó Riada and Ó Sé have been planning this record, on and off, in the forty odd years since they first performed together at the Requiem for Seán Ó Riada and by God it’s been worth the wait. Seán Ó Sé replaced Darrach Ó Catháin as the singer with Ceoltóirí Chulainn, the band of traditional musicians that Ó Riada formed in the 1960s, and from whom sprang the original members of the Chieftains. Ó Sé is a long time at it now, past three score and ten years of age, and in ‘Dir Cúm Thóla & Cúil Aodha he brings the experience of those seventy years to bear in his reading of the songs on the record.

Ó Sé’s voice is loud, in the same sense that Luke Kelly’s voice was loud. It demands to be heard. In an interview on Áine Hensey’s marvellous and essential traditional music program, The Late Session, on RTÉ Radio 1 last Sunday night, Ó Sé talked about the Irish tradition of abhar amhrán, saying a song, rather than singing it. Ó Riada’s subtle and humble accompaniment gives the songs all the space they need to tell their stories, as Ó Riada steps back and Ó Sé steps forward to sing of Outlaws of the Hill, Carraigdhoun where the heath is brown, and the tragic consequences of Aughrim’s Great Disaster and Seán Ó Duibhir a’ Ghleanna being worsted in the game. The performances of Ó Sé with Ó Riada’s piano accompaniment remind An Spailpín of nothing so much as Paul Robeson with Alan Booth on piano live at Carnegie Hall, and no higher praise am I able to bestow, even though Ó Sé is not, of course, the basso profundo that Robeson was.

In the Hensey interview, both Ó Riada and Ó Sé talk about the importance of place and tradition in the CD, and that’s clear from the title – Ó Riada is from Cúil Aodha and Ó Sé from Cúm Thóla. To his shame, your faithful narrator would not be able to find either on a map, but he cannot but feel envious of anywhere that enjoys so rich a tradition as this. It behoves everybody with a heart beneath an Irish breast to buy this record, but to An Spailpín’s mind, this duty weighs especially heavily on that thirteenth tribe of Israel, the men and women from the rebel county of Cork. For no other reason if not this: Cork enjoys one of the great county songs in The Banks of My Own Lovely Lee, and here Seán Ó Sé gives a definitive reading of that truly beautiful song. “The maid with her lover the wild daises pressed / By the banks of my own lovely Lee.” If you don’t think that a simply gorgeous image as we prepare to put the clocks forward for summertime, An Spailpín suggests you send for the vet immediately, and tell him to bring every damned bottle he has, as the case is very, very serious.

‘Dir Cúm Thóla & Cúil Aodha is a fine and worthy addition to a body of work that goes back to those Ó Riada records of the sixties, now being reissued and re-mastered thank God, and the irony is that very few people would recognise Seán Ó Sé if they met him in the street. If you do, stop him and thank him – the nation owes him a debt which will never be repaid. Go n-éirí leis níos fearr arís ins an trí scór is deich ag teacht chuige, ár laoch is ár Caesar, ár nGile Mear, rí na h-amhránaí, Seán Ó Sé.

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