Friday, July 08, 2005

Recordings: "SuR" by Kells


SuR album cover Title: SuR
Artist: Kells
Label: Celtaqs en Coche Records, Buenos Aires
How acquired: Gift from the band
How to buy a copy: This site sells it (search for "Kells"). Or you could try emailing the band. You can also find it for sale on eBay.


A great collection of Irish tunes and songs played at an easygoing pace form the core of the record, with the occasional interesting non-Irish-traditional influence as seasoning.


I recently received email from Sergio González, a guy I know from my other life. He had noticed that I've taken up the tin whistle and told me that he played flute and bouzouki in Kells, an Irish band in Argentina (not to be confused with The Kells). Later, he offered to send me a copy of their second CD.

Of course I was only two happy to accept, but in the week or so it took to arrive I wondered what it would sound like. Would they blend the music of South America and Ireland? When the CD arrived the question was soon answered.


"Sur" is Spanish for "south," and of the title the liner notes say:

The South. The North. Argentina, Ireland. Northern music made in the south. The extremes touch, the same spirit, similar landscapes, shared landscapes, music of the forests, roads, of the people who gather around the fire... Together in the mountains of our south we learned to love the music of other mountains. And years later, walking the old paths of Finn, we recognized the same wind, the same voice of the southern cold magician that always embraces us. All landscapes brim with music. The trees dictate their melodies to us... we obey

Acá, en el SuR.

[The last line means, "Here, in the south." But because of the funky capitalization it doesn't really translate directly, so I elected to leave it as written. Note that I've translated the quotes from the liner notes and interviews cited in this review; all of them were originally written in Spanish.]

Now my knowledge of Argentine music begins and ends with Astor Piazzolla, but I don't hear Argentine melodies on the recording. Most of the tunes and instruments are traditional, and the songs are sung in English. In short, this is Irish music. The liner notes are in Spanish, but anyone who didn't see them would be hard pressed to guess the origin of the disc. (I later learned this is not completely accurate; see below.)

Speaking of origins, folks who read Spanish will probably enjoy this article on the history of the band. I'll translate a little of it:

Every trip, even a vacation, implies the search of something, whether it's a new home, hope, different spaces, spiritual tranquility. In the end it can be affirmed that are innumerable motives for which man has left toward the unknown and the novel thing, and always an experience results that changes the traveler who chose the journey. Thus it happened to Sergio González and Guillermo Gómez 15 years ago, when taking some holidays decided to backpacker through Patagonia, the cold and imposing south of Argentina.

In the tranquility that only a majestic landscape can give, they began a friendship with a mysterious stranger — also a backpacker — who studied anthropology and was also named Guillermo. At one moment he approached them with a Walkman and told them, "Listen, this is Celtic music".

"We both liked it a lot", remembers Sergio. "15 years ago Guillermo played the guitar, and I knew some chords. Always, since we have known each other, we played and listened to music, but we hadn't heard Celtic and Irish music. We were listening to Peter Gabriel-era Genesis, a lot of symphonic rock. Later we learned that all that music was influenced by the English and Irish folk tradition. In the end, it was a music which by its characteristic sound brings images of forests, lush green fields, cliffs, a Tolkien-esque aesthetic, which we like. Coincidentally that music introduced us to a group that, in my opinion, is the best exponent of Celtic music of our time, Planxty. For me they are gods; I am absolutely devout."

The article also has several audio files from the band, though they're unfortunately in Real format.

The album alternates songs and sets of tunes, with vocals — all, again, in English — on seven of the fourteen tracks. Nearly all are Irish traditional music, with the exception of a single psychedelic folk song ("Guinevere," by Donovan Lynch) and "The Braes of Balquhidder," a Scottish song by Robert Tannahill. Only one tune, "The Slaughtering of John Flats," was written by the band, and of that the liner notes say, " honor of a great 'friend.'" Make what you will of the title!

Flutes, Whistles, and... Quena!

The wind instrument performances are without question my favorite part of this disc. Of course, I'm biased, but they really are well-used on this record.

One example is "The Galtee Hunt/Cronin's Hornpipe." Kells's rendition starts with an easygoing solo flute passage which reminds us that the Irish flute has a beautiful sound which is interesting in its own right, with or without fancy finger tricks. Other instruments join in gradually, and the second tune in the set is led by the Uillean pipes. It's probably my favorite track on the album.

About half of the tracks feature tin whistle or low whistle, and again it's a nicely reserved performance which fits well into the overall Kells sound. There isn't a track on the album which is completely dominated by a single instrument, although they sometimes step to the forefront in individual tunes within a set. The tin whistle is most prominent in two adjacent tracks on the CD: "Blackwaterside / The Humors of Clough" and "Interminable Set (Flogging Reel / Shepherd's Daughter)." The latter is the only track on the CD which uses piano chords as a rhythm / bass accompaniment. The piano sounds a little out of place, but I wouldn't call it distracting.

Andi Grimsditch, a university professor of Argentine folk music, also plays an instrument which, while I've never heard it used in Irish music before, fits the genre extremely well. The quena is an Andean flute with a sound somewhere in between an Irish flute and a tin whistle. He uses it most dramatically in the instrumental bridge of the ballad "Month of January," sung by Al Atkinson, an English friend of the band. Because its sound is fairly close to a high-pitched flute or a very windy whistle I don't expect the quena to explode in the Irish music community in the way the bouzouki did, but this track really demonstrates how effective it can be as a way to expand the tonal options of a talented wind player. Any whistler looking for a change of pace might want to consider it.

Other Non-Irish-Traditional Influences

With one exception, the non-traditional instruments on this album are used with careful subtlety. The exception is the electric bass, which, though well-played and a good complement to the overall sound, is really too loud in the mix in my opinion, making it overwhelm rather than reinforce the other instruments in the few tracks where it is used. This is my only significant criticism of the record.

The other non-traditional instruments are all used with considerable success, however. Most of the percussion on the album is played on the bodhrán, but Kells also use the bombo, an Andean drum, and the cajón peruano, a wooden box drum, on a couple of tracks. One tune, "Tom Busby's," is described in the liner notes as a "'SuR' jig (chacarera-jig)." I wasn't sure what that meant — the tune itself is just a double jig — so I asked Sergio, and he replied:

Chacarera is a typical rhytm of Argentine folklore. It's in 6/8 so it blends very well with the jig. In that track the tune is, as you say, a regular double jig, but the background (Spanish guitar and bombo) is a regular chacarera!!

The instrumental air "Mr. O'Connor," described by the liner notes as "A tune by the celebrated 18th century Irish harpist recorded in the '80s by the Irish group De Dannan" weaves a melody played on bouzouki and melodica over a background drone played on an instrument referred to as the "bámbolo." I haven't heard of this before, but the liner notes describe it as a "pastiche of organ and keyed oboe sound." The overall sound of the three instruments together is lovely and really works with the tune. Andi Grimsditch also plays drones on the harmonium on a couple of tracks.

Celtic Music al SuR

This is the second and last album from Kells. Sergio and his family will be moving to Patagonia, and the music will continue its southern migration.

Sergio, a computer programmer by day, has been active in bringing Celtic music to Argentina; he recently helped Andy Irvine organize a South American tour, with a very successful stop in Buenos Aires.

There are of course other Celtic bands in South America; has a comprehensive list (most of the site is in Spanish).


mandragora said...

Sounds like a neat CD; I'll have to hunt down a copy. If you're looking for whistle-led bands incidentally, you should have a quick listen to Flook. They've got two CDs out of which I'm aware; my favourite is 'Flatfish'. Be warned: will make you feel very limited in ability (even with sixteen years of playing under my belt!) Worth it though, as it gives you something to aim for. I hate the attitude that you sometimes come across; that only kids play the whistle, or that it isn't a "proper" instrument. The assumption is made that you intend to grauduate to the flute. Flook challenges that inanity quite effectively.

En los siete bosques said...

Hi Craig! I hope you don't mund if I tell the people who arrives here, that the CD is available for free download:

By the way, that blog is full of "out of print & rarities" jewels of folk music!