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BUMBLEBEES "Bumblebees" Hummingbird HBCD0012

A cheerful record, this, by three young women with their roots in three of the finest parts of the west of Ireland - Mayo, Clare, and Sliabh Luachra on the borders of Cork and Kerry. Their eclecticism is as much to the fore as their enthusiasm and positivity, and we have here tunes in the French, French Canadian, Cajun, Portuguese and Swedish idioms, as well as lots of Irish and Scots tunes.

The Bumblebees in question are Colette O'Leary (Dublin but born in Sliabh Luachra) on accordion, Laoise Kelly (Mayo) on harp, and Mary Shannon (Clare), the heartbeat of the group, on mandolin, mandola, banjo and occasional percussion and fiddle. To her credit, Mary makes no mention of any famous familial connexions. Indeed, she has no need to, for this record suffices to establish her as a fine musician in her own right.

The group exemplifies several tendencies that have come to the fore in Irish music over the last couple of decades - not merely the increased eclecticism and the much higher profile of women as instrumentalists, but also the advance of plucked as opposed to sostenuto instruments. Like the bodhr n craze, the bouzouki mania (and the mandolas and blarges which followed in its train) has proved to be somewhat of a mixed blessing, with many's the good session being ruined by stridently bad contributions which do as much for the music as piano accompaniments did for Michael Coleman. No worry about that here, though! Mary shows by her playing that she is in the front rank of plucked-string musicians, along with the likes of D¢nal Lunny and Alec Finn. She is equally impressive whether playing melody, or a contrapuntal accompaniment   la Lunny.

Another latter-day tendency, by no means restricted to Ireland, has been the rapid expansion in the number of harpers around, and the urge to incorporate the harp in ensemble playing. Such harping as survived in Ireland (and the classical tradition, analogous to the p¡obaireachd in Scotland, notoriously failed to do so) has, until recently, been regarded as rather contaminated by the European classical or Victorian parlour traditions, and generally kept at a safe distance from Irish music per se. Attempts to use the harp in a group context have usually been embarrassing at best.

Laoise, obviously conscious of this, has developed a style of playing in which the harp, while making its presence felt, is marvellously unobtrusive and sits well in the ensemble. When the harp has to be to the fore, as in the solo performance of Carolan's "Eleanor Plunkett" or on the couple of other occasions where it's the featured instrument, it's played in excellent taste. And Colette's accordion-playing throughout provides that continuity of sound which is essential to Irish music, again without drawing too much attention to itself or drowning out the plucked instruments.

All the foregoing, especially the seamless incorporation of the harp, would not be possible without intricate and well-thought-out arrangements which are a joint venture by the three group members. But, just in case that might set you thinking that they'd be no good in a session, they regale us, by way of a tailpiece, with a snippet of the three of them playing just for the crack, and in which Mary and Laoise set aside their other instruments and take up fiddles. It's mighty stuff, and I'd have liked to hear more. As it is, it makes for a pleasant, light afters to a rich and varied main course.

If I've a criticism of the fare that's served up for us here, it'd be that, by spreading itself so widely across such a variety of traditions, it tends to lack the intensity that you get from virtuoso renditions of music in a single, well-assimilated regional style; but "Les Girlettes" (to cite one of the many whimsical titles that they give to their sets of tunes) certainly deserve credit for the ingenuity of their arrangements, their excellent musicianship, and the prettiness of the results. An impressive d,but.

Christy MacHale

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This album was reviewed in Issue 23 of The Living Tradition magazine.