My first time in Ireland was over ten years ago, when I was still a young girl starting my long journey into the Irish music world. On this trip I learned a lot about this rich culture, and one of the instruments that most impressed me on this trip was the harp. Firstly, I was delighted to learn that the national coin has a harp stamped on it, even though I already knew that was the country's symbol. Also because it was the first time I saw many harps being played together at the same time in front of me. Since then, when I saw a harp being played, I was always mesmerized by the sound, the technique and the infinite possibilities that the harp brings.
A few months ago I was at the Russell Memorial Week Festival in Doolin, about to see Altan perform. As a consequence, I got to know the incredible work of the harpist Aisling Lyons, who performed the opening show. That performance stuck in my head for weeks, and when we decided to do our "tasting menu series", the idea of tasting Aisling's latest album immediately came to my head!
"Aistear" in Irish means "journey", and that's exactly the feeling that the tracks bring to us when we listen carefully to them. The album doesn't get repetitive for a minute, with subtle arrangements of traditional tunes, modern tunes, Aisling's originals or even melodies from other parts of the world, such as the Paraguayan polka “Danza Guairena”.
Personally, my favorite track is Buster's Dream/ Pigtown/ The West Clare Reel/ The Boxing Reel. If I remember correctly, Aisling mentioned on the concert that Buster is her dog and that the idea for the melody came while she was studying in the living room and seeing her dog having some crazy dreams. Also, I love the way she thinks the harmony and manages to play with very interesting rhythmic variations.
It is really worth getting to know the work of this musician who helps to keep the tradition in the most refreshing and interesting ways.
I find it super interesting how the harp can make any musical style so light. Some of the tunes on this album I've already followed with the guitar, and I understood these tunes as something rough, a moment to “go for it” and "fight the battle". But listening to the same tunes on the harp, I felt like it's a research for what is internal, it may not be beautiful, or maybe it even is, but it's something that needs courage to dive inside of me and find out. It's still a possible battle, but it's different from the ones I saw when I followed the same tune with the guitar. I'm talking about the seventh set of the album here ( sounds mystical lol).
Furthermore, it is an interesting album for having a very wide variety of styles and rhythms. The last set features a Paraguayan polka and I was amazed by how the sound took me from Ireland to Paraguay. At a certain point the album even gets romantic, almost pink (lol).
Anyway, I don't want to give spoilers, but the album is a light journey through the touch of the harp. Diverse and deep!
I confess that if I were asked to recommend a more contemporary Irish harp album, I would have had a hard time thinking of anything. Of course, we always have the indelible work of Derek Bell, harpist and pianist of the Chieftains, but I feel this fits a little more into the “hard drugs” category, for those who already have some familiarity with the genre and want to find out more, go deeper. Deep in the origins, anyway. The other side of the coin, which I also try to avoid as an indication, are the famous “Celtic Chillout” – those albums with a dubious photograph on the cover, semi-covered by “word art”-style letters informing us of a generic name for a compilation album of robotic iterations of “Scarborough Fair” and “El Condor Pasa” accompanied by synths and drum machines. In the fury of the modern revival and development of Irish music, the first indication examples that come to my mind are always of the order of Lúnasa, Flook, Altan, etc. What would my suggestion menu be if it weren't for my Daily Pint partners and their vast and deep knowledge of contemporary Irish production? We bring you, today, Aisling Lyons' Aistear – and it's proven that the harp doesn't need to be relegated to New Age music (nor nature sound effects, which are also used with extreme good taste).
The use of the harp as the main melodic instrument stands out, both playing tunes, decorating them with complex and very defined ornamentations, and as an accompaniment to other instruments – always bringing honest and refreshing points of view to the trad scene. And that's not all: the furtive deviation caused by influences quite out of the trad world caught my attention, as is the case of the last tune of the last track, Dnaza Guairena. Therefore, I strongly recommend that the tempestuous recordings by Flook, Lúnasa, Altan and limited company be combined with this beautiful work as a beautiful (and safe) starting point – or even a reflective rest – for your explorations of traditional Irish music.
If there is one thing that impressed me, and that in a way still does, when I first heard it, it was the harp. It especially impressed me when I heard a jig being played on this instrument, which seemed unnatural to me at first, as the reference I had in my ear was the harp doing smooth accompaniments or effects, glissandos and arpeggios. On this album, Aisling Lyons impresses me again. Tunes played with mastery, very well ornamented, with not so obvious and very inventive accompaniments and very interesting rhythmic propositions, both in the accents of the tunes and in the accompaniments.
In addition to the harp as a solo instrument, Aisling also uses the harp only as an accompaniment instrument, in this case accompanying herself playing the concertina, and very well!
Clearly Aisling's references go beyond traditional Irish music, Itchy Fingers, Room 2.40, Être Fleur bleue and Dnaza Guairena are some of the tunes that bring this spice from other parts of the world.
I couldn't help but notice the bodhrán in some of the tracks, here played by the great Dermot Sheedy (Ciorras and Hermitage Green). The combination is unusual, but it is done very carefully and the end result is fantastic.