Culture > Music

Music: Celtic or cultic?

Music | Authentic Irish music will have Christian roots

Issue: "The Jonesboro puzzle," April 11, 1998

Celtic music today transcends ethnic origins. America's love for Irish, Welsh, Scottish, and Gaelic music intensifies daily. The trademark Celtic uillean pipes, accordions, bagpipes, fiddles, bodhran, whistles, harps, tin whistles, and drums are now augmented with synthesizers, electric guitars, and symphony orchestras. At the movies, the soundtrack of Titanic-now a bestselling album-proves there is a popularity in Celtic music that transcends time, culture, and space. At its best, Celtic music mirrors the Irish-Scottish-Welsh charm of yesteryear. But the British Isles were markedly pagan before missionaries like St. Patrick introduced Christ to a culture known for its druidic village ritual, occult magic, and human sacrifice. Today, feminist goddess worshippers, New Agers, "wicca" witches, and other neo-pagans affect an allegiance to Celtic music. But, as Thomas Cahill shows in How the Irish Saved Civilization, the converted Celts wove Christianity into their culture more than most Europeans did at the time. Most of the Celtic music popular today has its origins in Christian Ireland, with its peculiarly puritanical brand of Catholicism. No wonder this style of music-with its ancient flavor, its evocations of mystery, and its authentic grounding in a folk culture (as opposed to our pop culture)-is also popular among contemporary Christians. Typical of the better offerings in the Celtic "revival" are Celtic Heartbeat's The Roots of Riverdance and Narada's Flirting with the Edge. A balance between ethnic and commercial, traditional and experimental, both exhibit authentic Celtic instruments and tunes. The Roots of Riverdance is a bi-level folk and contemporary effort showcasing Bill Whelan and friends. On the traditional side are "The Deserted Village" and "Cill Liadain''-both originally composed for a television broadcast celebrating ancient ruins discovered in Mayo, Ireland. On the other is a virtuoso bouzouki piece (an instrument like a mandolin), "The Seabird," in contemporary style. There are no overt references to anything cult-like. Mr. Whelan composed the music for the immensely popular Irish road show, Riverdance, from which two tracks are included on Roots. Its music has an almost hypnotic effect, accounting in large part for the show's appeal, and many Christians have noted the pagan nature-religion subtext. But beware the thought that Riverdance is purely Irish music. Mr. Whelan's influences range from flamenco to Western chant, from Spain to Bulgaria. Still, the hard-shoe dances, with their breathtaking crescendi and acceleration through a whole range of pulse changes, are hard to snatch from the inventive Irish. The original Riverdance is also to be distinguished from the spin-off production, Lord of the Dance. The latter relies heavily on Riverdance hard-shoe dances with full orchestra, but it is not the original cast or production. "Beyond Celtic" accurately describes Flirting with the Edge, featuring accordionist John Whelan (Narada). Unlike his Celtic Crossroads and Celtic Reflections, Flirting with the Edge makes little pretense at ethnic authenticity. There are memorable songs like "Dublin Lady" with Bernadette Peters, and "Red Is the Rose," fusing a traditional Irish text with the Scottish melody "Loch Lomond," sung endearingly by Connie Dover. But the rock-style electric guitar backup in several numbers drives home the question, "Is this really Celtic?" Notable artists like The Chieftains, Loreena McKennitt, and relative newcomers Clannad have added to a growing body of Celtic popular music. While Christians should be on the lookout for New Age and neo-pagan influences, they are not obvious in the more authentic recordings. It would indeed be a shame if the infinitely charming Scottish, Welsh, and popular Irish originals were lost through careless synthesis with other styles-or co-opted by spirits St. Patrick thought he had driven out.

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