Brían Ó hAirt (Brian Hart) the wonderful singer, sean-nós singer, concertina player, and sean-nós dancer, honored me with an interview early Friday afternoon in the Catskill Irish Arts Week 2010, just after a sean-nós teaching session at the gazebo just outside the Irish American Heritage Museum in East Durham, New York.
Brian is from Saint Louis, Missouri. He came into Irish music through the language. He actually was exposed to Irish when he was in Junior High, 12 or 13 years old, probably through Clannad or Enya, who were both mainstream Celtic groups. The language caught his interest because he never had heard of the Irish language. He didn't even know there was a language other than English that was spoken in Ireland, so once he knew of it, he started studying it on his own. Because he was already a singer, he decided to listen to some Irish language singing. During his intial exposure, he heard Darach Ó Catháin, a singer from Connemara and Rath Cairn Gaelteachs. When Brian heard him sing, it touched his heart and affected him in a way which directed his engagement with the Irish language.
In college he developed in the language and lived in Ireland immersed in an area where the language is spoken. Then he started performing and singing with other sean nós singers living up in Chicago, in the Midwest, and on the east coast.
He came to Irish on his own, without parental influence. His parents are from southern Indiana, so his family is not Irish in the cultural sense. His family has Irish ancestors, but they would not consider themselves Irish Americans. His parents knew about their Irish relatives, but this had no particular meaning to them, no cultural significance.
His parents were neutral but supportive about his delving into the Irish culture. His mom is interested in the music, but his other siblings and his dad aren't really interested. They love him for who he is, but since it's different from where they come from, they don't participate themselves. However, they still support Brian in his explorations and experiences.
Brian is a member of the musical group Bua. He joined the group about four years ago but was not a founding member. The founding member were Jackie Moran and Chris Bain. They were both in the Chicago area. Jackie was from Ireland, but he's been living in Chicago for approximately 20 years. Brian was living in Ireland when he was invited to join. Brian Miller, Brian Ó hAirt knew very well and Seán Gavin, he knew of. Brian Ó hAirt had been so much into Irish language and music, he thought that returning to the US, the band would be a good segue. He could start doing things with the music scene here in the United States.
He had gone into Irish language immersion in Ireland as an undergrad at the University of Wisconsin to study the language and to do field school. But he also did it to engage in the music more and to engage in the language community there, particularly the community in Connemara. A lot of his language and his repertoire songs come from there because of his interaction with sean nós singers in the States.
Brian finds this type of singing very personal among the participants. The passing along of the tradition is really important in sean nós and Irish singing. There are a lot of selfless teachers out there who will support you in any form – learning the language, the songs, the dance, or the music.
To get the group started, they organized sets and performed that material. When it came down to it, they had only performed twice when they recorded their first album. It's titled “Live at Martyrs'” for a pub on the north side of Chicago on Lincoln Avenue. They wanted to record their CD as early as possible so they could get their CD passed around. They wanted to gain and keep momentum. The others had done a lot of touring before, as well. They wanted to re-enliven the group, get the CD done, and start touring. They started getting more gigs.
They did a studio album early last year (2009) called, “An Spealadóir” which is on the Mad River Records label. They signed Bua on for their first studio album project.
Chicago has a big Irish community, and it shows in competitive Irish dance for young people, for instance. The Chicago community has been receptive to Bua, but there has been a little of the “a prophet is never welcomed in their home town” aspect. Bua hasn't gotten a lot of opportunities to perform there. They've played a few times in Chicago, but there are so many musicians in Chicago, their group is just commonplace. Outside of Chicago the interest can be stronger. Chicagoans are supportive of the band being from Chicago, but when there, it's hard to stand out from the crowd of options.
During the summer tour (2010), they are piecing together material for another studio album. They are focusing on the quartet. Jackie, the drummer, has a lot of familial obligations. Both Chris and Jackie have two young baby girls. Jackie Moran also does other stuff with a band called Comas. So he'll be making music with Bua less. He'll be a part of Bua but on a less significant level. They plan to make a studio album in the fall or winter months.
They had planned appearances in Poughkeepsie, in Maine, and at the Lowell Folk Festival. Their schedule and other news of the group can be found at Buamusic.com .
Brian had planned a tour with Len Graham in late August starting in the Pacific northwest (Seatle, Portland, Eugene), after a kickoff at the Irish Fest in Milwaukee. Len Graham is a traditional singer from Antrim. He's a well known older generation singer.
The northwest and Canada are receptive to Irish music. Canada is receptive to folk music in general. Irish Americana is unique to certain parts of the United States. Brian says the further west or the further south you go in America, the less Irish Americana you find. It seems to be a northeast and Great Lakes region mentality and culture. So out in the northwest, it isn't so much an interest in Irish American as it is an interest in folk music in general. They have lots of old time music, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and world music.
Brian won the All Ireland competition in Men's Singing in 2002. The singing was ballads in English. He was doing his summer immersion program in Galway and he had mis-figured his length of stay. He discovered he had a whole extra week after he had finished his program and before he was supposed to go back to the United States. The fleadh (pronounced approximately as “flah” in English, and a fleadh is a festival, usually involving music, and potentially involving instruction and competition) was on and he qualified for it by competing in the mid-west of the United States. At the All Ireland, he won!
Brian used to visit Ireland three or four times a year. Now that he's with Bua, he has less time because they are touring in the summer months. In the winter months, he's teaching. He might make it in November.
He teaches Irish Gaelic at Washington University. His classes are part of the liberal arts education there. Irish study courses of other types are taught, such as literature and folklore.
Bua hasn't yet played as a band in Ireland. They've all performed there separately. Seán Gavin's parents are from Ireland. Jackie Moran is from Ireland. Chris Bain's wife's father is from Ireland. Brian Miller and his wife are in bands in Ireland, as well. Brian Ó hAirt, himself, has lived in Ireland. They are all connected to Ireland. They all go there and back, but they haven't toured there as a band. There is certainly interest, but it takes out of pocket expenditures to get there, and once there, they would have to line up gigs. The problem, then, is that traditional Irish music is as common there as old time country music is here. Also, many Irish are into US country music or rock, as in U2, and such. There is plenty of traditional Irish music in Ireland though - you just have to know where to look for it.
Brian first came to the Catskill Irish Arts Festival when he was living in Chicago. Paul Keating travels lots of places doing PR work for the Catskill Irish Arts Festival, so he came to Chicago. When Paul visits places he's also looking at musicians in the area. At the time he came to Chicago, John Daly, who is a fiddler from Cork, was the artistic director at the Irish American Heritage Center in Chicago. Brian was housing with John then because Brian had just moved up to Chicago and was looking for his own place. Bua was part of the scene and Brian thinks Paul heard about the members of Bua. Paul invited both John (Jackie) Moran and Brian to be part of the teaching program at the Catskill Irish Arts Week.
Brian enjoyed this week. He ended up coming a day late, but he had a great time once in the Catskills. Last year he was driving around Len Graham and a lot of the singers from Armagh, which had many benefits, but this year he had more freedom to do what he wanted to do, to come and go.
He's not sure if he'll be back to the Catskill Irish Arts Week because it is by invitation. But there are many great gatherings across the summer, so he knows next summer he'll be busy.
Brian looks forward to the Saturday concert (Andy McGann Traditional Music and Dance Festival). There is a full day of collaboration between artists and the cream of the crop of Irish music from both sides of the Atlantic appear. They play all day and it's fantastic to witness that. Albany is just forty something minutes away. If that were in his back yard, he'd definitely be there!
More about Brian Hart, and Bua, is here: Brían Ó hAirt .
Or you can read interviews with:
- Bernadette Nic Gabhann
- Aoife Clancy