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Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha - "Rogha Amhrán" - Cló Iar-Chonnachta CICD 140
Nioclás tóibín -
"Rinn na nGael" - Cló Iar-Chonnachta CICD 104

The seemingly inexhaustible treasury of music and song that is the Cló Iar-Chonnachta catalogue has surpassed itself here with two of the most important recordings of sean-nós singing to be released in recent years: recordings which, nonetheless, are about as different from each other within the idiom as it is possible to get.

Given the pre-eminence of the Mac Donnachadhas in Connemara singing, it is appropriate that one of their number should be arguably the greatest exponent of it ever to be put on record; Joe Heaney once remarked of Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha (a remark based on close familiarity - the two men were neighbors in Carna) 'This man is better than myself'. Now, I was never keen to disagree with Joe, and, remarkably, I have to say that he was probably right in this case as well. Having only ever heard snippets of recordings of Dara Bán in the past, I now find myself, on hearing this CD (put together from two previously-issued cassettes on the same label) mute before the task of finding adequate words to express his excellence. 'Staggeringly wonderful' is about the nearest I've managed to get so far.

Never, for instance, have I heard a singer with so many voices. It's not merely a question of embouchure; he effectively has a different persona for each type of song, whilst remaining unmistakably himself. Every attitude from fiendish glee to utmost gravitas is brought to bear, all the renditions (but especially the slower songs) being marked by Dara Bán's supreme use of decoration, the variation in which is startling; some of the turns he uses are so surprising that any other singer attempting them would fall flat on his face.

Even the greatest of singers is nothing without his songs, and the content of the selection presented here is every bit as remarkable as the virtuosity with which they are sung. Though unquestionably no whit less traditional than their older brethren, the majority on this record are 20th-century compositions, and are a tribute to the breadth and creativity of the Conamara songmaking tradition in this century. Amhrán na Spéile (The Song of the Scythe) will serve as an example: the singer begins by praising his scythe, which, by hyperbole, becomes ever more amazing until its feats would rival even those of Fionn Mac Cumhaill's scythe. And then, by the sort of conceptual twist not uncommon in songs such as this, it turns into a song of solidarity with the Spanish in their war of 1898 against the U.S.! There are many more such surprises to be found here, not least in an example of that legendary genre of folk surrealism, the Amhrán Bréagach or Lying Song, containing such imagery as 'a cricket with a pistol behind its bag' and 'a woman putting a hood over a river on the far side of the Sun'. Hieronymus Bosch, how-d'ye-do!

There is much else besides - narrative ballads, songs chronicling local events, and crack songs such as Cailleach an Airgid, of which Dara Bán does a sprightly rendition. Nor are the big songs of love and disappointment lacking, one of the best (and bleakest) being Máire Ní Mhongáin, the lament of a woman deserted by her eldest son who, having received an education, has left his community to make his own way in the world, abandoning his mother in poverty and solitude. Perhaps the greatest tour de force on the technical front is the wellknown song of lost love Coinleach Ghlas an Fhómhair - if you've only ever heard the Clannad rendition, fasten your seatbelt tightly before listening to this one!

The foregoing might give the impression that any other record arriving at the same time as Rogha Amhrán would come as an anticlimax, but that could never be true of the great Nioclás Tóibín. Almost certainly better known to the listening public at large, Tóibín (1928-1994) was the foremost singer to emerge from the Co. Waterford Gaeltacht, and the new release, culled from the archives of RTÉ and Raidió na Gaeltachta, contains many songs associated with him, and with which readers will be familiar, such as Na Connerys and Ar Éirinn Ní Neosfainn Cé Hí, both of which (and four others to be found here) featured on his great 1977 album on Gael-Linn (CEF 062). It should be stressed, however, that these are quite different recordings from the 1977 release, those from R. na G. being characterized by a slightly remoter-sounding acoustic and even, in one place, a spot of fossilized static interference!

That, though, is a very minor matter; for the release (re-release, to be precise, for it was first issued on cassette in 1994 shortly after the singer's death) of 19 recordings of Nioclás Tóibín can only be cause for celebration. In contrast with Dara Bán, he makes relatively little use of decoration; but it was not for decoration that he was known and admired, but rather for the purity of his tone, the depth of feeling which he conveyed, his solid timekeeping, and his ability to find his way around the biggest of the Munster airs, negotiating upward and downward leaps of over an octave with consummate ease.

In many ways, indeed, of the two singers here represented, Tóibín it is who would be likely to appeal more readily to the non-specialist in the sean-nós. He has great sweetness of tone, uses rather more vibrato than is customary in traditional singing, and the paucity of decoration makes the beauty of the airs easy to appreciate. (It's hard, for instance, to imagine a treatment of Róisín Dubh as different from Seosamh Ó hÉanaí's as the one which is presented here.) But this record is also a must for the connoisseur, containing as it does a dozen songs not previously widely available, such as Idir Aird Mhór is Eochaill (a very Waterford song of young love), and Amhrán na nIontas which demonstrates that, as a genre, the lying song is not the exclusive property of Conamara.

Release of these two albums is a major landmark in recordings of traditional song, so don't waste your time and brain cells trying to decide which one to buy - go out and get them both!

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 37 of The Living Tradition magazine.