Navan Sings Celtic Culture, A Cappella A Wisconsin-based a cappella group breathes new life into the traditional songs of the Celts. In its latest album, Lowena, Navan explores the traditional music of Ireland, Scotland and beyond in the original languages.
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Navan Sings Celtic Culture, A Cappella

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Navan Sings Celtic Culture, A Cappella

Navan Sings Celtic Culture, A Cappella

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Expect to see a lot of people wearing green this coming Saturday. It's St. Patrick's Day, and you should also expect to hear a lot of Celtic music. The Irish are fiercely proud of their traditional songs and tunes, and when the Irish arrived in America, their music came with them and took root in some unexpected places. Madison, Wisconsin, for example, is home to a group of singers whose selections go way beyond Danny Boy.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: That's music from a new CD called "Lowena" by an a cappella group called Navan, the trio made up of Sheila Shigley, Elizabeth Fine and Paul Gorman. Two of the members join us from the studios of member station WHA in Madison, Wisconsin. First, I want to welcome you. Sheila, welcome to the program.

Ms. SHEILA SHIGLEY (Navan): Thank you.

HANSEN: And Elizabeth, welcome to the program as well.

Ms. ELIZABETH FINE (Navan): Thank you very much.

HANSEN: Sheila, let me start with you. How in the world did a group of American Midwesterners get so heavily involved in Celtic music?

Ms. SHIGLEY: Well, when Irish music started sort of having a comeback, so to speak, in the '80s, we had all sort of individually been getting caught up in it and eventually found our way to one another.

HANSEN: Elizabeth, is it true you lived for a year in Dublin?

Ms. FINE: That's true. I was a year at Trinity College in Dublin and started learning Irish while I was there.

HANSEN: You also lived in Germany and sang with German Irish groups?

Ms. FINE: That's true. They're rabid.

HANSEN: What do you mean, rabid?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FINE: Absolutely brilliant musicians over there. They're really just taken into the culture. That was where I got sucked into the whole session culture, definitely.

HANSEN: Paul Gorman couldn't join us, unfortunately, but tell us a little bit about him.

Ms. SHIGLEY: What should we say about Paul? Paul is great. Paul is our only male singer, and as such he often gets tasked with taking the drone parts. He'll often sing a part that's sort of reminiscent of a bagpipe drone. Every now and then he'll sort of quietly complain that he'd like to do something else besides the drone, but he's just so good at it we can't let him quit.

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. SHIGLEY, Ms. FINE and Mr. GORMAN: (Singing) (Speaking foreign language).

HANSEN: This CD and the music you perform as a group, we want to say it's not just Irish. I mean, it goes beyond Ireland. There's music from Scotland, Wales, Brittany, the Iberian Peninsula. And now you sing in the traditional language. In fact, there are six different Celtic-related languages on this CD. How did you manage to learn some of the language and pronounce them?

Ms. FINE: That would be because Sheila is linguist-extraordinaire, pretty talented linguistic skills as far as figuring out, you know, how things are supposed to be pronounced and how they all fit together.

Ms. SHIGLEY: Otherwise known as an obsession.

HANSEN: Really, and is Madison, Wisconsin a place where you can exercise your obsession with Celtic scholarships?

Ms. SHIGLEY: It is.

HANSEN: Really?

Ms. SHIGLEY: It is. It's strangely odd and interesting that Madison is just sort of this magnet for - it helps having the university here. We have a huge number of documents, old, old Celtic-language documents, but we also tend to have a lot of native speakers of Irish, Gaelic in particular, come through town. And so on any given day I can be walking down the street here in Madison or in a bookstore and somebody will come up to me and tap me on the shoulder and say, oh, hi - (speaking foreign language) - you know, hi, how are you today in Irish. There's a lot of avid speakers in town, so it's kind of an interesting resurgence here in town for a city that used to have at least a quarter of the population that was Irish.

HANSEN: Really? I didn't realize.

Ms. SHIGLEY: Long ago there was the Irish Quarter. It was a rowdy quarter. In fact, Paul Gorman's people come from that Irish Quarter of Madison, and he's so - he's such a mild-mannered guy that it's kind of funny.

HANSEN: The tunes, where did you look for, where did you find these?

Ms. SHIGLEY: What happens is the tunes themselves have come off paper or from old archival recordings of very old singers. Often the recording quality is really low, and you have to really listen to it for a while to sort of tease out what the melody used to be. Often the singer is very old.

HANSEN: Is there a tune that worked that way for you, where you actually were listening to an old recording?

Ms. SHIGLEY: Oh yeah.

Ms. FINE: Yeah, "Thig an t-Eathar" on this CD is like that, and we have this fabulous recording of an old gentleman singing it, and he's just got this, what feels today like a really bizarre rhythm in it.

(Soundbite of song, "Thig an t-Eathar")

Ms. SHIGLEY: The song is a lullaby, but it's a very dark story. There was a handmaiden who went down to help this lady with her children, and the children and the mother got caught by the high tide. The handmaiden, being very jealous of the woman and the woman's husband, allowed the mother to remain stuck, but she rescued the children and she took them home to the father, who then married her in gratitude, not realizing that she had basically allowed his wife to die, and then a year later he heard her singing this to the baby, and the words of this lullaby are the words of the dying mother as she was being left to drown. It's just horribly haunting, but it's very typical of Celtic lyrics.

(Soundbite of song, "Thig an t-Eathar")

HANSEN: There's lullabies. Songs for all occasions, I think, occur on this CD - laments, love songs and songs about, like, daily life and working, and there's one about walking, and it's spelled W-A-U-L-K-I-N-G, and this is not putting the one foot in front of another, is it?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHIGLEY: No, afraid not. It's the preparing of cloth, sometimes known as milling or fulling, and a new bolt of cloth would be very loosely woven, and it wouldn't be able to stand up to the temperatures and the rough winds of a coastal culture, so you would - shall we tell them what it's soaked in?

Ms. FINE: Sheep's urine.

Ms. SHIGLEY: Sheep's urine. You soak the new cloth in that and then you pound on it for hours and hours, and the effect of this is to shrink the cloth up and make it thicker and more durable. As you might imagine, it takes a lot of work and a lot of time, and so the ladies in Scotland, when they were pounding away on this cloth, would sing verse after verse after verse, hundreds of verses of various waulking songs to sort of lighten the load and keep themselves happy while they were doing this very, very heavy labor.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: So what does the future look like for these ancient languages and these songs?

Ms. SHIGLEY: It's different for each of the six language. Cornish and Manx, although I'll probably get some phone calls for saying this, were technically dead, Manx in the '70s, Cornish as far back as maybe the 1700s, but they're in a state of very vigorous revival.

HANSEN: What is Manx?

Ms. FINE: Manx from the Isle of Man, like most people would be associated - would associate it with the Manx cat, the little tailless...

Ms. SHIGLEY: Irish still has very strong pockets of speakers, Scotland still has strong pockets of speakers. Briton and Welsh are doing pretty well, judging by the number of speakers, not so well judging by the amount of government support in Brittany, for example. So it's very hard to tell whether they're in a state of decline or revival sometimes. Certainly they are not looked down on in this day and age like they used to be. That's what almost killed them, was the politics of the time very much looking down on them in favor of English.

HANSEN: And now you think there's a certain revival going on a younger generation is rediscovering?

Ms. SHIGLEY: There's definitely a revival. There's an interesting documentary out done by a young Irishman who tried to go around Ireland for eight weeks speaking only Irish, and you don't know whether to laugh or cry when you see the various things that happen, but by about the sixth or seventh episode, he's just run into nothing but people just kind of making fun of him or not understanding him. He's getting bad haircuts.

But he runs across a little country school, and after six weeks of being met, you know, with sort of blank stares, suddenly he's surrounded by all these eight and nine-year-olds just babbling happily away at him in Irish. They're just so excited he's there. They're just speaking fluent Irish, and it's just - it's this really triumphant moment in the documentary. And so I think that gives a little glimpse about - as to what might be in store.

HANSEN: And you are probably single-handedly determined to keep these languages alive, may I venture a guess there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SHIGLEY: We've been accused of such.

HANSEN: Sheila Shigley and Elizabeth Fine from the group Navan. Their new CD is called "Lowena." They joined us from the studios of WHA in Madison, Wisconsin. Thanks a lot for your time, and good luck with the music.

Ms. SHIGLEY: (Speaking foreign language).

Ms. FINE: Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can hear full audio selections from Navan's new CD on our Web site, This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

(Soundbite of music)

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