Lúnasa explores Celtic tradition beyond Irish music
After centuries of emigration, the Celtic diaspora has fetched up on distant lands, but many still look back to their ancestral countries. It’s common for people of Irish, Scottish and other Celtic cultures to reassert their roots through traditional music. But when the members of an Irish band disperse, its members coming from different nations and living apart, that’s a bit unusual. Such is the case with Lúnasa, a musical quintet that expands the concept of the traditional Irish band.
Lúnasa performs at 7 p.m. Saturday at the Mariner Theatre. Sponsored by the Homer Council on the Arts, several members also offer workshops from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday (see below).
“We’re very much spread out,” said Kevin Crawford, 46, in a phone interview from his home in Clare, Ireland. Crawford plays flute and low and tin whistles for Lúnasa. “We came together because we know each other’s music from recordings and by reputation.”
Crawford, for example, was born to Irish parents and raised in Birmingham, England, and now lives in Clare, Ireland. Cillian Vallely, on uilleann pipes, comes from Armagh in Northern Ireland, but now lives in New York City. Founding member Trevor Hutchinson, on bass, is from Cookstown, County Tyrone, Ireland, and founding member Seán Smyth, on fiddle and low whistles, is from Straide, County Mayo. Newest member Ed Boyd, on guitar, is from Bath, England.
That diversity reflects the band’s flavor. While strongly rooted in the Irish musical tradition, Lúnasa has come to be known as much for its Celtic music, playing tunes from other Celtic regions such as Scotland, Brittany in northern France, and Galicia and Asturias in north central Spain.
“We were all coming from a slightly different place in that we wanted to mix the Irish music with other Celtic countries,” Crawford said. “We were interested in pushing the boundaries with the melodies.”
An all-instrumental band with no singers, Lúnasa uses pipes, fiddle and flute to create the melodies. Its sound is a combination of power-chord traditional tunes, new compositions and other Celtic genres.
In 1996, Hutchinson and Smyth started the group that would become Lúnasa as a trio with former member John Hennessy. Hutchinson had previously played with The Waterboys, known for the classic “Fisherman’s Blues.” Smyth is an All-Ireland champion on fiddle and whistle and performed solo.
“There really wasn’t any great plan to become a full-time band,” Crawford said, but then they got invited to tour in Australia.
Crawford, who had played with Clare-based band Moving Cloud, got invited along to the still-nameless band. They chose “Lúnasa,” the Gaelic name for the month of August, and one of the traditional Celtic festivals. Pronounced loo-NA-sa, it’s the harbor festival honoring the sun god, Lugh, also the patron of the arts. In 1997, Lúnasa released its first CD, “Lúnasa,” earning rave reviews. The New York Times called it “the hottest Irish acoustic group on the planet.”
Crawford’s musical background speaks to the band’s cross-cultural tradition. Though his parents were from Clare, he was born and raised in Birmingham, England. There he listened to all kinds of music, from reggae to Irish music.
“I’ve always mixed it up, even though my first love and what I love best is the Irish stuff,” he said. “I just fell in love with the music and listened and figured stuff out for myself, and just became completely obsessed, which I suppose you have to do.”
Self-taught, Crawford learned new Irish tunes on summer visits back home with his mother to Clare.
“That’s when I’d do my soaking up,” he said. “I’d have my little tape recorder, record the old tunes, and spend the rest of the year figuring stuff out.”
For him, an ex-patriate living in England, music was how he found his Irish identity. At age 20 he went back to Clare for what he thought would be a one-year stay. He’s lived there ever since.
“I felt inferior not being in Ireland. I worked that much harder at it,” Crawford said. “When I moved over here I realized that was all in my head.”
Irish musicians raised abroad and non-Irish and English-born musicians have contributed to the modern Irish music scene, Crawford said.
“There are so many U.S.-born, second-generation Irish musicians who have really shaken things up here,” he said. “I think it’s a good thing. It keeps the Irish lads on their toes.”
So how does a band whose members live oceans away practice together? Lúnasa tours six months of the year, and will schedule sessions at the beginning or end of tour dates, but it also uses technology to keep in touch. Crawford and Vallely are the main composers. When they write something, they send off music to other band members. Individually, they practice, recording tracks and exchanging them with each other to work out the kinks.
“When we get together, there’s not that much learning to be done,” Crawford said. “It’s about arranging.”
Lúnasa started its 2014 touring season with Celtic Connections, a concert in Glasgow, Scotland. In Alaska they will play in Petersburg and Anchorage before Homer and then continue on to Valdez and Fairbanks. Lúnasa visited Alaska about 8 years ago, doing a 10-day tour that included outreach in schools and workshops. This is its first visit to Homer.
“They were great. You get to meet the people who are nuts and bolts, keeping the music going,” Crawford said of the previous Alaska workshops. “Kids are just so passionate about everything at a young age. They might fall in love with the music. You don’t know where it will take them.”
“Lúnasa with the Rté Concert Orchestra” is its most recent album, performed with the Ireland national orchestra. The collaboration came about when Rté asked composer Niall Vallely, Lúnasa member Cillian Vallely’s brother, to create arrangements for a traditional band and suggested collaborating with Lúnasa. That venture caused Lúnasa to dip into its repetoire and look at some of its older stuff.
“There was a lot of material we hadn’t played for 10 or 15 years,” Crawford said.
For the Homer performance, Lúnasa will play some of that back catalogue, but also new compositions by Cillian Vallely and Crawford as well as some new pieces they worked up at the end of their last tour in Japan. Most of the musicians also have solo careers or play with other groups, and might bring in some solo pieces.
“You never know,” Crawford said. “There’s always something to keep it new and interesting for us.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Mariner Theatre
Tickets: $10 youth, $20 Homer Council on the Arts members and seniors, $30 general
On sale at the Homer Bookstore or homerart.org.
Who: Seán Smyth (fiddle and low whistles), Kevin Crawford (flute, low whistles and tin whistles), Cillian Vallely (uilleann pipes and low whistles), Trevor Hutchinson (double bass) and Ed Boyd (guitar)
2-3:30 p.m. Sunday
$15 adults, $10 (18 and under)
Register at homerart.org or at the Homer Council on the Arts
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