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Rógaire Dubh
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Rógaire Dubh

The Folk Diary 1.2010

Here is an album that is as unexpected as it is delightful. Sean-nós singing in the Irish language is probably the oldest and certainly the most complex and difficult of all the singing traditions in these islands and enthusiasts will be used to hearing the recordings that were released in the early days of the revival of the few surviving veterans from the various Gaeltacht areas of the west of Ireland.

This means that this album comes as a surprise in a number of ways. Firstly, we are hearing a younger man at the height of his powers showing all the required skills in handling all the difficult cadences, decorations, twists and turns of this repertoire and then we are hearing much of the singing accompanied after what was always a solo unaccompanied tradition.

The accompanists come from both traditional and classical disciplines but they are innovating successfully in finding a way to augment the singer in a way that is compatible with this type of singing.

Not an easy album to listen to, it will reward the careful listener. VIC SMITH, The Folk Diary

"This is a beautifully packaged showcase for an astonishing new voice."
10th Anniversary issue.

Lorcan Mac Mathuna
Rogaire Dubh
Copperplate COPP007

Deep, dark and beautiful
Mac Mathuna's father Seamus, himself a revered exponent of sean nos ('old style') singing, has described the form as 'the least understood, most complex part of Irish traditional music. It takes a keen ear and a sharply honed sensibility to appreciate where style and substance meet in a repertoire that is raw, astringent, technically complex and regionally diverse.

Purists may well insist that only two of the ten tracks on Rogaire Dubh are strictly sean nos style, the others being variously accompanied by Hardanger fiddle, whistle, bodhrán, harp, cello and pipes. But strict adherence to an a capella delivery aside, Lorcan Mac Mathuna's self-produced debut is a compelling collection of lowering laments that positions him in the vanguard of a new generation of sean nos singers.

The rough-hewn fissures and cross-cut grain of Mac Mathuna's peat-dark voice are employed with admirably understated intelligence in performances, steeped in the Munster idiom. Brooding beauty is the order of the day, although album opener 'Na Tailliuri" delights with its comic playfulness, and the robust title-track is borne along with a strikingly fast-paced energy by fiddler Caoimhin O’ Raghallaigh and Mick O'Brien on uilleann pipes. Standout tracks include the savagely sardonic, drone-accompanied Irish Famine song 'Johnny Seoighe' and a wistfully truncated 'Bean Dubh an Ghleanna' (featuring Helen Lyons' light-as-morning-dew harp).

The two a capella songs are also striking: 'An Buachaillin Ban' is a bleak, dangerously sensuous tirade against John Bull; while the 18th century elegy 'Tuireamh Mhic Finin Dhuibh' sees Mac Mathiina illuminatingly mining some dislocating, bass-heavy depths.

This is a beautifully packaged showcase for an astonishing new voice. MICHAEL QUINN, Songlines

"This is one of the most beautiful albums I have ever heard. I replayed it over and over. It's on the radio station and it will stay on there for some time." ALEX GALLACHER, folkradio.uk

"Speaking of getting right to the heart of the matter, for those of you interested in great singing, we can thoroughly recommend Lorcan MacMathuna’s ‘Rogaire Dubh’. Lorcan sings in Irish Gaelic, but the feel of this CD transcends language barriers." NICK O'SULLIVAN, Dulcimer.org

Cork-born Lorcán is a passionate young sean-nós singer with a confident and commanding, though sensible, measured style which emphasises the musical quality of the song in an often innovative way while demonstrating both a respect for and understanding of the texts. Sean-nós singing can be a bit of an acquired taste, I’ll admit, but Lorcán’s strongly individual presentation is both intense and involving without being austere or intimidating: deliberate: yes but involved rather than soporific. There’s both intimacy and an understated sensuousness in his response (a combination which I’ve noted in the singing of Dónal Maguire), and on some of the songs there’s also an approach to decoration that rather resembled that of Robin Williamson.

Unusually for a singer perhaps, Lorcán admits that he has often fallen for the music of a song and the sound of its phrases before he understood anything else about it. The drone of a hardangeror fiddle( Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh), cello (Jane Hughes), or pipes (Mick O’Brien), at once pictorial and timeless, gives a pictorial aspect to the musical expression almost before the meaning of the words at times. Other musicians play harp, whistle and bodhrán but each individual song is sparse in texture and two of the key songs are performed “undressed with accompaniment” as Lorcán aptly describes it. There’s a weird sensation caused by Lorcán’s double-tracking some passages from the text of the eerie 18th century elegy Tuireamh Mhic Finín Dhuibh, only accentuatin the sheer other-worldly nature of its melody line, which is at once epic and highly disorientating. A bit like the parallel-chanting of Tibetan monks, perhaps, but it sounds truly extraordinary.

Finally, the whole CD ends most delightfully when the subtly mellow song Bean Dubh an Ghleanna glides almost effortlessly into an uplifting and gently sparkling Merry-Band-Like plathrough of the reel Kiss The Maid Behind The Barrel. Sure enough, there’s sometimes stridency in Lorcán’s delivery, and it probably won’t help that a significant majority of the disc’s tracks are performed at a similar (slowish) pace, but personally I’ve found this one of the most captivating discs of sean-nós singing I’ve encountered in recent years. DAVID KIDMAN, The Living Tradition

SINGER Lorcan Mac Mathúna takes the style of Irish sean nós with all the reverence it deserves, presenting it in a form that opens doors to an ancient and rich tradition. One key is provided by an accompanying booklet of detailed and often passionate notes about the style and content of the songs.

The addition of accompaniment makes the singing more accessible, with the meanings being enhanced by sensitive interpretations on fiddle, cello, harp, pipes and whistle. The single cello line underpinning the voice throughout An Clar Bog Deil adds to its beauty and poignancy.

In the tradition of sean nós, there are two unaccompanied songs. In one of them, Mac Mathuna's double tracking of his voice creates an eerie and atmospheric other-worldliness. Amhrán na Leabhar struck me, with its desolate story of a school teacher losing all his books in a boat that sunk.

Although not easy going, this album rewards concentrated listening
. - Delyth Jenkins, Taplas, (Welsh folk magazine)

LACKING EVEN a basic working knowledge of Irish, it was with some trepidation that this reviewer approached Lorcán Mac Mathúna's collection of sean-nós songs.

As it turns out, I needn't have worried as one of the main objectives of the Rógaire Dubh project has been to make traditional Irish-language songs more accessible to those without a good knowledge of Irish.

MacMathúna has gone about this in a number of ways.

On all but two songs in this collection from Connemara and the three Gaeltachts of Munster he has deliberately eschewed the traditional approach of unaccompanied singing.

Opting instead to work with a mixture of traditional and classical musicians - Mick O'Brien (pipes and whistle), Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh (fiddle, hardanger and whistle), Helen Lyons (harp), Jane Hughes (cello) and Conor Lyons (bodhrán), MacMathúna has succeeded in delivering a contemporary twist to the haunting melodies of his traditional sean-nós repertoire.

An accompanying booklet includes translations and notes on the social, cultural or historical context of the songs. It also features a collection of images, reflecting the decay and regeneration of modern urban life and the artist's own city-dwelling background.

Mac Mathúna intention has not been to ignore or subvert 'tradition'. Rather it is an attempt to create musical interpretations which reflect his own influences while pointing to the undeniable fact that the very conditions that were responsible for forming that tradition no longer prevail.

Rooted in the traditions of the past, these songs undeniably breath with the life of the present. As Mac Mathúna explains: "The thing about tradition... is that it is a living thing. It must have renewed relevance to each generation that partakes in it..."

No matter what language you speak, the result is both engaging and beautiful. DAVID GRANVILLE, The Irish Democratic

Spectacular sleeve notes herald the arrival of a young sean nós singer with attitude and a sense of time and place in equal measure. Lorcán MacMathúna may not possess the most exceptional voice, and at times he maintains a tenuous connection with conventional notions of tunefulness, but this is a singer with his ear on the prize. He delves so deeply beneath Saileog Rua that he scarcely remembers to come up for air, his voice creaking and groaning with the weight of one long-immersed in the spirit of the song. Gorgeous cello and fiddle (from Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh and Jane Hughes) lend depth and breadth to a vista still in the making. An early snapshot of a vocalist in pursuit of songs that "sing the singer". SIOBHÁN LONG, Irish Times

A jolly opener. Sounds like a wee 'fun song' but as it's in Irish Gaelic it could be about a hanging for all we know! But we think the voice gives it away and it is a 'fun song'. This is another album that challenges the traditional norm in that the sean-nos style is 'accompanied' but even you diehards should be a touch tolerant 'cause the voice is excellent and the accompaniment is well used and to good effect. Have a listen to a master at work. Allcelticmusic.com

A Japanese review (I think) English translation preprinted below

."..album seems to me one of the most interesting albums released in 2007."

This album, as I hear it, is clearly based on the sean-nós singing tradition of Munster, but with a very tasteful and innovative accompaniment with most unusual arrangements that no one has ever tried with this type of singing.

When your ears are caught by the musical virtuosity of Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, playing the hardanger fiddle (hardingfele), Mick O'Brien, playing the pipes, or Jane Hughes, playing the cello, you are prone to get lost in the flow of the music itself, wondering whether what you are hearing right now is Nordic music or classical music; however, the singing is without a doubt sean-nós.

It seems I have encountered for the first time an album with a feel of sean-nós that is so full of love of songs and that is at the same time so originally and deftly arranged. At any rate, there are a good many of songs that will keep you fascinated so that you might find yourself listening to them over and over again.

I happened to get hold of this album at a record store called Custy's in Ennis, Co. Clare, by a suggestion of a shop clerk there. After I explained to him that I was looking for a good sean-nós record, he encouraged me to have a listen to it, which turned out to be an unforgettable experience. (Before this experience I seem to recall listening to it on a Clare FM program, though.)" MÍCHEÁL, Tigh Mhichil

Cé nár labhair mé leat go fóil, go raibh míle a Mhíchíl.

In the short time I have had Lorcán Mac Mathúna’s CD in my possession, my feelings towards it have already gone through a number of phases. As they may shift again. What follows may be more an update on a process than a summing-up. The jam is still bubbling in the pot and is not yet ready to set.

Two things leapt out at me on first hearing –that the emphasis is on the songs themselves and that the singer is taken with some of the big songs, of Munster and Connemara. That those songs included some of my personal favourites – ‘An Clár Bog Déil’, ‘Cath Chéim an Fhia’, ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ and the ever-strange ‘Tuireamh Mhic Finín Duibh’ – was an added attraction. That the first song was a catchily rhythmic one, ‘Na Táilliúirí’, showed that Mac Mathúna was not confined to the tragic note, which can become monotonous in even the best singer.

Following this ‘Johhny Seoighe’ creats a startling contrast. This song of the Famine period is addressed in bitter supplication to a Mister Joyce, reputedly a Relieving Officer. The language of vision and enchantment –‘Más tú an réalt eolais…’ (‘If you are the guiding star…’) – that might ordinarily be addressed to a beloved or a spear-bhean is drenched in acid and applied to an authority figure from whome nothing can be expected. Mac Mathúna rises fully to the challenge, delivering a gripping, full-voiced rendition. I am not sure that any other song quite reaches the same height and this may account for the mixed feelings with which I have found myself greeting some of the other songs on the CD.

Not having being present at the recording, I can only speculate as to the reason. It must be said that this is not one of those recordings in which all character is removed from the song by a production (or commercial imperative) that values only sweetnes or that reduces the elasticity of sean-nós to a bland regularity that suits the accompanying band

Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh’s fiddle of Jane Hughes’ cello do not impose themselves on the songs, instead, they pick up on the feeling of the song and work – often with sensitivity and imagination, sometimes eerily, occasionally with a little too much artiness – around the singing. Studio recordings of sean-nós sometimes lack the dimension of connectedness to an understanding audience that powers the singer in a more domestic setting. (And some singers manage better than others to convey the large-scale concert setting.) I can’t help feeling that, though the whole experience of making this CD was a happy and creative one, at some level Mac Mathúna was singing slightly below room temperature, as it were, or else adjusting a little too much – perhaps not even consciously – to his accompanists. There is fine singing throughout, but, somehow, ‘Amhrán na Leabhar’ deosn’t quite hit the pitch of anguish required, or some of the energy seems to leak from the song in the lower, quieter notes at the end of the verse.

I will be listening to this CD again, and perhaps changing my mind about this song or that, and I am certainly looking forward to hearing Lorcán Mac Mathúna again, singing with all the unwavering commitment of his best work. BARRA Ó SÉAGHDHA, The JMI

Iarla O’Lionaird fans will enjoy these soulful, emotional, intense, Irish ballads, sensitively accompanied by cello, harp, fiddle, hardanger, pipes and whistle. The combination of the low bass melodies of sean-nós songs with the rich resonance of the cello is spine-tingling.
FROM 3Roots magazines album review roundup who gave the album their thumbs up vote.

Many thanks to all the reviewers above for taking the time to listen to, and write about Rógaire Dubh

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