CD Reviews: Nuala Kennedy

The New ShoesCompass Records 744522Nuala Kennedy is a Co. Louth born flute, whistle player and singer who has spent all of her mature and professional musical life in Scotland. This album is her first solo effort following her first band Fine Friday and the...

The New Shoes
Compass Records 744522

Nuala Kennedy is a Co. Louth born flute, whistle player and singer who has spent all of her mature and professional musical life in Scotland. This album is her first solo effort following her first band Fine Friday and the delightfully quirky Harem Scarum, who my nine-year old daughter declared ‘must be the best band in the world’ after she heard them work ‘Ding-Dong, the Witch is Dead’ into a set of reels.

This album belongs under the much maligned title ‘folk’. Kennedy is rooted in the community of young professional musicians that revolve around the central belt in Scotland with connections to the Gaelic Scottish revival but removed from the Irish flute traditions that provided her initial impetus. The flute and the whistle are arguably not instruments with an important place in the Scottish tradition. A very few flute players, most notably Iain MacDonald, are attempting to create a ‘Scottish’ style of playing the instrument. Kennedy is not trying to do that, nor is she espousing an older, Irish style of flute playing. This is contemporary folk music with its emphasis on ensemble rather than individual musician; new and exotic, rather than old repertoires.

The album shines in much of its ensemble work. The band are excellent, particularly the Anglo-Irish accordions of Julian Sutton who is perhaps the most exciting young instrumentalist in Northumbria at the moment – he seems incapable of not adding musically and originally to any context he finds himself in. The songs also stand out and Kennedy’s own use of the flute in these contexts is most poignant. However, my favourite track is the sparsely arranged ‘A Bhean Úd Thíos’ where Kennedy’s debt to the late, great Eithne Ní Uallacháin is most apparent.

The flute-playing is again rooted in a very contemporary tradition of performance promoted by bands like Flook and Michael McGoldrick, but without the extreme virtuosic sensibilities. I personally find the phrasing structures repetitive and some of the intermittent flute harmonies and counterpoints a little clichéd but, being a fluter myself, I am bound to focus on technical issues. The repertoire is an eclectic mix of traditional Irish, Scottish, Canadian, Breton and contemporary tunes, many of which written by Kennedy and Sutton. There are occasional sparks of flamboyance and humour – it takes style to quote the theme from The Wombles in Scott Skinner’s ‘Thane’s Hornpipe’! I love the last ‘hidden track’ which I think encapsulates Nuala Kennedy’s sense of humour and quirky brilliance although am not fond of the growing convention of an unlisted track that starts with a minute’s silence. The point of the performances is not testerone driven virtuosity but the very musical presentation of a catchy repertoire in a contemporary ensemble context.

If you are looking for traditional music in a Scottish or Irish style you will be disappointed with this recording, as you will be if you are looking for one of virtuosic flute stylings. If you’re into a modern folk ensemble built around flute and voice and can put up with the odd cliché, you will enjoy the musicality, humour and energetic dynamic of this recording.

Published on 1 September 2007

Niall Keegan is a traditional flute player and Associate Director at the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance, University of Limerick.

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