Interview with Danú at the Winnipeg Folk Festival

I spoke with Ciarán Ó Gealbháin (vocalist) and Donnchadh Gough (bodhrán and uilleann pipes) about the influences on Danú’s music, and the blending of new sounds with the old traditions. Their main stage set on Friday evening was one of the high points of the evening for me, they were enthusiastic, with both great instrumentals, and a vocalist with an actual great voice. Danú hail from Co. Waterford, although several musicians have come from other parts of Ireland, and the fiddle player, Jesse, is a U.S. expatriate. Their new album, Think Before you Think was recently released on the Shanachie label.

I saw your show last night, and (to Donnchadh), and you are really a wild man on the bodhrán… So who are your influences? 

D: I suppose… [laughs] King Kong. But that got me so far. And then I came across Johnny Bourke. But I haven’t had any influences really for the past 10 years.

So you’ve been developing your own style then.

D: Yeah, Trying to anyway. [laughs]

I really noticed bodhrán on the first tune, and then I couldn’t decide if they had just turned it up in the mix, but then by the next set of tunes I decided you really were pounding away. I guess if you’re going to take this music and play it loud and fast you really do need more percussion.

C: Its a very big part of our sound.

D: I just really enjoy playing it [the bodhrán]. And I enjoy… walking around here today, and I just finished a pipe workshop earlier on and chilling, and listening to the music here.

I was going to ask you how you were enjoying the festival. 

D: Its some crack! [laughs] Its a laugh anyway.

{To Ciarán] You’re also a great singer. Who would you consider your influences?

C: Liam Clancy — he’s a neighbor of ours.

Didn’t you have his son in your lineup early on? 

C: Yea, Donal was in the original lineup. Brilliant guitar player, and, we were playing a lot together when we were younger and getting going. But now he’s living in New York. He’s a fantastic player.

D: Playing with Eileen Ivers. (See our review of her latest album.)

C: I suppose Liam would be one of the people. Other people, would include great singer from home. Séamus Mac Craith, a great singer, very highly regarded. And then different people, Paul Brady , and a great Scots singer, Archie Fisher. Basically, I suppose I just enjoy listening to anyone that sings a song well and gets you going.

Where do you see Danú going, given that there’s a lot of young bands coming out of Ireland right now? How do you want to be seen musically, in, say five years?

D: Musically it’s getting more interesting for us every day. Well, were a new band, you know what I mean, and were getting to know each other better right now, each others’ music better, what’s going on. When we recorded the last album we went through a bit of a hard time doing it, you know? We made some ups, you know?

This is your new album, Think Before you Think, for Shanachie? 

D: Yeah. It’s a whole journey, We learned so much with that album. Its a whole learning process. Even doing this festival this weekend here, it’s a learning process. Were learning what goes, what doesn’t go. How to develop our music, how to develop everything, the songs, everything. I don’t know where it’s going to end up, you know what I mean?

C: I think one of the big differences between our band and a lot of others is that the tunes we pick… we try not to… how can I say it? We try to have as much respect as possible for the actual old tunes. That’s one of the things that stands out for me.

One thing that struck me during your show was that you’re doing a great job of balancing between the different players. You’ve got a really big line-up, lots of people.

C: Tom and Jesse are great flute and fiddle players. They work a lot in harmony, as well as just playing the melody. And then we have a good button accordion, and a good guitar player. I think her really adds to what we do. I suppose we might have a big lineup, but we try not to have. We try to work different thing into the mix, by having Tom and Jesse doing some harmonies with each other instead of playing the melody, and then filling in with a strong lower end with Donnchadh and Noel (the guitar player). The idea is to mesh rather than to clash.

What do you think of groups like Kila? How would you compare yourselves to them?

C: They’re an amazing band!

D: They’re doing something entirely, entirely different from what were trying to do. We’re actually good friends with the lads in Kila.

They’re very gracious and friendly. They played here and in Toronto. I get into this discussion with one of the fiddle players at my local pub, about the whole “Celtic muzak” thing ? you know people who are bringing other influences into the traditional music. I tend to like it, and he really doesn’t. What do you think? 

C: In a sense we are bringing in other influences. I’m very staunch about some of the songs I’ve been singing, because they are from the old tradition at home. And we didn’t do any last night on the big stage. But I would often sing unaccompanied, you know, and Donnchadh would often play the pipes unaccompanied.

So you do some of the séan nos style.

C: I’m from an area with a strong séan nos tradition. So singing with a band is very new for me, because I’ve always been singing unaccompanied. But, you know, I suppose in a sense we are purists, but in another sense we aren’t — how would you say this now? [looks at Donnchadh] It’s like we know how far to bring our own music, just by ourselves. And we haven’t gotten there, all the way, yet. But were playing the music that we really love ourselves, and it’s a lot of the old style.

I’ve recently reviewed an album in the old style that I thought it a brilliant album, it’s by three guys called Cran. 

D: Yeah, Yeah, Which one?

Lover’s Ghost, the most recent one, and I was so impressed by it. 

D: Yeah, I have it at home.

It took me a long time to appreciate that style of singing, but this is one that really would have won me over early on, I had heard it. I think this is the part of Irish singing that North Americans don’t quite get ? I mean they can get the ballads and the instrumentals, but the séan nos singing is a little harder. 

C: We did a song from the séan nos tradition ourselves on the album. And we did some unaccompanied songs. We always try to include at least one unaccompanied song every night ourselves, so that people can see what we really are coming from. What we’re doing at the moment is something we really enjoy, and we have nothing but great respect for the old traditions. But we try to do as much of that — Donnchadh would often play songs from the old traditions on the uilleann. Just to show the audience where it’s all stemming from.

Tell me more about your album.

C: Tom and Jesse composed some of their own tunes. Noel, on the guitar has actually written a tune for the album as well. So it’s a mixture of some older tunes, and some of the newer tunes written by the band in the older style.

There’s five songs. We did two from our old locality at home, in the Irish language. There’s a great tradition of singing in the Irish language, down in Waterford in the Irish speaking area. So we did two songs from there, and then a song we learned from Liam Clancy, that we performed last night on the big stage, “Fair and Tender Lady,” which is a big North American song I think. Then we did a song that I learned from the singing of Nic Jones, a great English balladeer. And we did one other song, that I learned from a great singer in Galway, called “Green Blooms.” That’s our five songs.

So you’ve got a good balance.

D: Then the two uilleann pipes tunes. And then there’s… [looks at Ciarán]

C: Yeah it’s like what we did last night, each of us takes over the stage for awhile.

D: So you’re not really taking things from just one area, you’re working in stuff from all over.

C: Different things, yeah.

So how do you see the North American market? Irish music has been really big right now in the US in the last few years, and it just seems like it keeps going. How does that affect what you’re doing? 

D: We like playing over here. It’s pretty important for us.

Is there a difference from your hometown audience? 

D: In our home town we’re useless. They’re sick of it! [laughs] No, we still get a good audience.

C: I love playing over here, there’s a particularly great appreciation for the songs. They really like the songs.

I think before, maybe the seventies, for Irish Americans, Irish music was mostly the songs.

C: We’re getting a good even balance. We’re getting really good appreciation for the tunes as well. Which is probably something that is coming to the fore over here more so than the ballads, but we like our own blend, and it’s going over well over here, because it is such an even balance between songs and tunes.

How have you found the Winnipeg Fest?

D: There’s an amazing some of the musicians that are here.

At this point Danú’s next appointment arrived, and we had to end our conversation. The buzz around the festival is that Danú are a great bunch of lads, friendly and enthusiastic. If you have a chance to see them, you can expect a young, enthusiastic group plays the old songs with a pace that ranges from faster-harder-louder to slow and sweet.

Look for our review of their album, Think before you Think, coming soon.

(10 July 2000)

About Kim Bates

Kim Bates, former Music Review Editor, grew up in and around St. Paul/Minneapolis and developed a taste for folk music through housemates who played their music and took her to lots of shows, as well as KFAI community radio, Boiled in Lead shows in the 1980s, and the incredible folks at the Winnipeg Folk Festival, which she’s been lucky to experience for the past 10 years. Now she lives in Toronto, another city with a great and very accessible music and arts scene, where she teaches at the University of Toronto. She likes to travel to beautiful nature to do wilderness camping, but she lives in a city and rides the subway to work. Some people might say that she gets distracted by navel gazing under the guise of spirituality, but she keeps telling herself it’s Her Path. She’s deeply moved by environmental issues, and somehow thinks we have to reinterpret our past in order to move forward and survive as cultures, maybe even as a species.

Her passion for British Isles-derived folk music, from both sides of the Atlantic, seems to come from this sense about carrying the past forward. She tends to like music that mixes traditional musical themes with contemporary sensibilities — like Shooglenifty or Kila — or that energizes traditional tunes with today’s political or personal issues — like the Oysterband, Solas, or even Great Big Sea. She can’t tolerate heat and humidity, but somehow she finds herself a big fan of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys (Louisana), Regis Gisavo (Madagascar), and various African and Caribbean artists — always hoping that tour schedules include the Great White North.