The Basque Irish Connection: Niamh Ní Charra/Ibon Koteron/Gavin Ralston

What does it take to connect with the music of another culture? At the tail end of a decade that has enthralled us with the ease with which we can now connect with the world, it would be natural to presume that connecting with another music culture has become rather straightforward. A click or two, a website or three, and suddenly we are engaging with musics and sounds that were secluded from all but the most curious just a few years ago.

However, for a musician, finding common ground with another world of melody, harmony, rhythm and nuance requires a great deal more, and there is no direct route. A willingness to take risks, a resolve to avoid remaining on the surface, an enthusiasm and openness that will carry the musical journey over thin ice, all are critical to a successful collaboration. But equally so is the creative space that you are coming from – understanding one’s one music is key to understanding others. The musical destination, when musicians arrive, can take many forms – a new musical experience, sound, or even a ‘feel’ that probably would have been impossible for the musicians to describe at the beginning of their search. This is what this Music Network tour, Ó Euskadi go hÉirinn – The Basque Irish Connection, is all about.

It is delightfully ironic, given the comment above regarding the easy accessibility of musics via the internet, that both Kerry fiddle- and concertina-player Niamh Ní Charra and Basque alboka-player Ibon Koteron, in developing the ideas and repertoire for this tour, made profound use of email. Weeks of exchanging MP3 files containing tunes from their own musical heritage, suggestions for combinations, discovery of parallels, learning of tunes – followed by rehearsal, along with guitarist Gavin Ralston, in San Sebastián – have all combined to form a basis for this rather tantalising combination. The result is a true bringing together of cultures, the musics of three musicians melded together.

Where did it all begin? The connections between the Basque country, or Euskadi as it is known in the Basque language, and Ireland are ancient (a result of our dual connection to the sea), celebrated, and most recently confirmed by DNA – the Basque and Irish are the two groups in Western Europe to have the highest frequency of the Y-chromosome haplogroup R1b. Musically, this connection has been explored by Chieftains and also pianist Antonio Breschi, but compared to the explorations by Irish traditional musicians of other musical cultures in recent years – Breton, Eastern European, Scandinavian, South American – the Basque–Irish musical connection is still, in relative terms, unexplored territory.

Niamh Ní Charra’s musical background lies in Killarney, where she was a pupil of fiddle-player Nicky McAuliffe who has taught generations of musicians in the area. In fact, Niamh still regards Nicky as her teacher for he is regularly giving her new tunes when she returns home. Her introduction to Basque music, however, came through her work with the Galician piper Carlos Núñez. Touring extensively with Núñez’ band since 2007, his concerts regularly involve an intriguing injection of collaboration with local musicians (this his reflected in his recorded output: his most recent album, Alborada Do Brasil, on which Niamh features, focuses on the folk music of Brazil). It was in one of the two concerts that Núñez’ band does annually in the Basque country that the introduction to Ibon Koteron’s music came.

A master of the alboka, a double horn-pipe, as well an exponent of many other reed and woodwind instruments including the dulztaina, a Spanish double-reed instrument, Ibon Koteron is a particularly adventurous musician, as displayed in his most recent recording, Airea, which combines not only traditional Basque instruments, but also medieval clarinets from other parts of Europe as well as electronic beats and effects. He has also recorded an acclaimed album with renowned Basque accordionist Kepa Junkera. A fluent Basque speaker, he is not only a musician but has published articles on the alboka and is developing a multimedia method to learn to play this unique instrument. The word alboka, incidentally, comes from the Arabic ‘al- bûq’, which literally means ‘the trumpet’ or ‘the horn’.

As with the reel, hornpipe, jig, slide and polka in Irish music, there are several different types of tunes in Basque music, but what makes them different is that many of them carry words, and also that, as on double-horn instruments such as the alboka, Basque tunes can often be played in intervals, i.e. two notes at the same time instead of one. ‘Lurraren Nigarra’ on Airea demonstrates this to great effect, where the combination of alboka and vocals create a superbly textured sound. Basque has a very strong singing tradition and Ibon Koteron will be singing as well as playing on this tour.

If Niamh Ní Charra’s regular performing with Carlos Núñez worldwide and her enthusiasm for the musics of other cultures seems impressive, this is only the latest chapter in a wide-ranging career. Having studied electrical engineering in the University of Limerick, worked in a software company in Boston, and studied music management back in Ireland, she was subsequently heard playing the fiddle in a session by bodhrán player Ringo McDonagh, who at the time was playing with Riverdance. Word of this young, talented musician found its way through to the producers and Niamh was subsequently invited to join the show, spending eight successful years touring the US with the troupe as the member of the band of traditional music soloists that were so key to the show’s music.

Ní Charra’s speaks of the impact this professional experience had on her music. Opening up a world of professional musical production, stage-craft, theatre and the entertainment industry as a whole, it expanded her musical references and experiences which then fed into her solo playing style. After eight years, however, she decided that she wanted to develop her own playing more, and returned to Ireland to independently release in 2007 her debut album, Ón Dá Thaobh/From Both Sides, which drew notable regard as it announced both a new voice and an adventurous musical spirit.

Displaying her skills on fiddle and concertina, as well as her tune-writing ability, Ón Dá Thaobh/From Both Sides actually had a long gestation – Ní Charra had been planning the album even before she joined Riverdance. While the show may have stalled her solo recording ambitions temporarily, she regards those eight years as a huge benefit in maturing her approach to her debut. Taking in a cross-section of her musical interests, with repertoire from Hungary, Ireland, Cape Breton and Kentucky, the album’s highlights must be her concertina solos, where she slips in a beguiling performance of a composition by Giulio Regondi, an Italian composer and concertina pioneer from the mid-1800s, before also picking out two terrific American hornpipes, ‘Wade Hampton’s’ and ‘The Nightingale’, which showcase a wonderfully subtle command of the instrument. Her fiddle-playing provides a different dimension, often dynamic and virtuosic, it seems to relate directly back the formidable connection that Kerry music has with dance.

The third member of this tour is Gavin Ralston. Guitarist, producer and engineer, there is hardly a genre that he has not explored. Widely respected as an accompanist in traditional music, he studied traditional guitar with Steve Cooney and has performed with, among others, Sharon Shannon, Clannad, Lúnasa and Michael Flatley’s Celtic Tiger show. His driving style, but also his exceptional understanding of melody and harmony in traditional music, will provide a further exciting dimension to the Irish-Basque exploration.

The title of Ní Charra’s debut album seems to suggest another answer to the question poised at the beginning of these notes: in order to connect with another musical culture, you need to look ‘from both sides’. It is a philosophy, as these musicians demonstrate, that can unlock any musical challenge.

Ó Euskadi go hÉirinn – The Basque Irish Connection
Music Network Traditional Irish Music Tour
16-23 September 2009

Niamh Ní Charra, fiddle, concertina
Ibon Koteron, alboka, dultzaina
Gavin Ralston, guitar

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s