Jennifer Licko
& Alan Chapman,
Language of the Gaels
(Sabas, 2002)

Here's a fascinating album: Jennifer Licko from North Carolina collaborating with Donegal-born music partner Alan Chapman on an album of Gaelic song and traditional Irish tunes. The album is named after one of Gaeldom's greatest songs, "Canan Nan Gael" (also known as "Canan Nan Gaidheal"), with its pro-Gaelic language lyric -- and it's stirring stuff!

"Gidheadh, anns ha h-Eileanan Siar
'S i fhathast ann, ciad chainnt an t-sloigh --

She's even under threat in the Isles
Though still the first language of the people."

I soon learned where this strong Celtic connection came from -- it no longer surprises me when I hear Celtic music springing up from unexpected corners of the world, and it's well-documented that the Gaels settled in the Carolinas all those years ago. I asked Jennifer where her love of the music came from, and quickly learned that she has Scots ancestry. Her real interest in Celtic music began when her aunt taught her Highland dancing at age 10. She focused on the Scottish Gaelic music of the Western Isles at university, achieving some fluency in the language. A musical partnership with Alan Chapman cemented this connection, and here we have a great album of Scottish/Irish songs and tunes.

The instrumentals are lovely -- there's Chapman's evocative pennywhistle on "The Derry Air" and also on a short set of jigs. He creates a jaunty feel on a great set of hornpipes, including "The Sweeps Hornpipe." The acoustic instrumentation is sparse and allows the clarity of the tunes to come through.

Besides performing an evocative version of the album's title track, Licko proves herself a fine singer of puirt a beul (Gaelic mouth music), with such lovely songs such as "Chi mi na mor-dheanna," "Seallaidh Curaigh Eoghainn" and others. The accompaniment to these songs is restrained -- acoustic guitar, bhodran -- and she sings one set a cappella. She also covers "Claire in Heaven" by Capercaillie's Manus Lunny -- there's some elegant percussion and guitar playing here. The song works well in an acoustic format, nicely lifted by Jack Stamates' fiddle playing.

Chapman leads the vocals on two traditional (and fine) Irish songs, "The Belfast Mill" and "The Ferryman." These are delivered in country style, with some lively harmonica playing on "Belfast Mill."

The album's a little short at just under 40 minutes, but there's an extremely good (and interesting) balance of Celtic music here. And with Licko now living on Ireland's West Coast, I reckon we'll be hearing more of those Celtic roots in future!

- Rambles
written by Debbie Koritsas
published 5 June 2004

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