Irish Folk Music Legend to Finally Play in City
- By Diarmaid Fleming
- Nov. 27 2009 00:00
Seán Ó Sé is the biggest name in Irish traditional singing — a tenor who has been at the top of his game for close to five decades.
His pedigree goes back to the 1960s, when he performed with legendary composer Seán Ó Riada, a man who led a revolution in Irish music, whose reverberations are still felt today.
Ó Riada, who died at just 40 in 1971, had a seismic impact on Irish music in his short life. Classically trained, his creative genius fused drama, art, history, music and film, unleashing the centuries-old power and resonance of Irish music in new forms to its people, and to world acclaim.
His group, Ceoltóirí Chualann, had tradition at its core, but Ó Riada’s formal arrangements gave the music a fiber and context never heard before, producing recordings of infinite and timeless value, and a legacy that gave birth to groups like The Chieftains.
Brought to the fore was Seán Ó Sé, whose singing is a signature of Ó Riada’s recordings. Such was his popularity that after coming home from performances on the remotest of country roads in Ireland in the 1960s, Ó Sé remembers being startled to hear their music on the radio — from Moscow.
“You could get Radio Moscow late at night in Ireland. Tuning in, I was astonished to hear the group and myself singing! I remember being really moved and surprised at how far Ó Riada’s music had reached out, and how it was seemingly popular in the Soviet Union, or at least on Radio Moscow,” Ó Sé said.
Ó Riada’s music had a radical edge. His score for the film, “Mise Éire,” told the story of uprising against British rule. His music came to air in Moscow via Irish communist Michael O’Riordan, whose wife was also a noted singer.
“I knew Red Mick, as we called him. He was from near me in Cork. He sent Ó Riada’s music to Moscow, and they put it on the airwaves. They played it many times, as I heard it often broadcasting from the U.S.S.R,” Ó Sé said.
“It was planned to bring Ó Riada and Ceoltóirí Chualann to Moscow, but the trouble in Czechoslovakia in 1968 put paid to the plans,” he said, referring to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia following the introduction of reforms by the government in Prague.
Years later, 73-year-old Ó Sé is making his first trip to the Russian capital. “I’ll be thinking of Seán Ó Riada when I sing for the first time there,” he said.
Unusually for a singer in the traditional idiom, Ó Sé had formal voice training before he began performing. Singers in the Irish “sean-nós,” or traditional style, generally learn from tradition alone. “Some might even have been critical of such training, but it taught me how to take care of my voice and perform into my 70s,” Ó Sé said.
His distinctive tenor voice will perform only traditional songs in Moscow, with all but one in the Irish language.
The group with him boast some of Ireland’s finest traditional musicians, including current all-Ireland accordion champion, Pádraig King.
Ó Sé’s visit was organized by local musician and Irish-speaker Yury Andreichuk, whose first visit to Ireland last August helped build new cultural bridges between the countries, including a storming concert by Irish accordion legend Joe Burke and his wife Ann in Moscow earlier this month.
The latest performers come to Moscow under the banner of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, Ireland’s leading umbrella organization for Irish music, with branches across Ireland and worldwide.
Its “Fleadh Cheoil” festival, which was the reason for Andreichuk’s visit to Ireland, hosts up to 250,000 people at probably the largest yearly folk music festival in the world.
The reach of Irish music will be seen Friday with Martino Vacca, Ireland’s reigning piping champion, who’s from Italy. Other distinguished talents are all-Ireland champion dancer and multi-instrumentalist Tara Breen, concertina-player and dancer Gearóid Keane, and flutist Siobhán Ní Chonaráin.
“We are on new ground, but we’ll be playing what we would play in Ireland — so our Moscow friends will be hearing the real tradition,” Ó Sé added.
Sean Ó Sé plays Nov. 27 at the Central House of Artists, 10 Krymsky Val. Metro Oktyabrskaya. Tel. (499) 238-0217.