RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Celtic Waves are fiddler Kevin Craven, left, Clark Ratliffe on Irish flute, Katie McClellen, harpist and mandolin player, and Dodi Rose on flute and whistle.
Nitty-gritty Celtic tunes
Ah, lads and lassies, the rains of ought-six -- d'ye remember back, a few months ago? A wee drop, indeed. The skies opened up, and for 40 days and 40 nights, plus, events such as Hawaii's annual Highland Games were washed out to sea. The weekend of the festival, Kapiolani Park was knee-deep. And yes, it was scheduled for April Fools' Day.
Hawaii Highland Games
Featuring: Piping, music, song, dance, swordplay, weaving, Highland vendors and food and a showing of "Local Hero" at Kuhio Beach Saturday night.
» Place: Kapiolani Park Bandstand
» Time: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
» Call: 626-3559 or visit email@example.com
But those of Celtic descent, and those who are Celtic at heart, and even those whose closest Celtic connection is a DVD of "Braveheart," well, never say die. Faugh-an-Ballagh! The Games have a second coming this weekend at Kapiolani Park, and if it rains, so be it.
Expect the usual caber-tossing, kilt-swirling, clog-dancing, double-fried foods and, as a bonus, the demonic skirl of the pipes, the only musical instrument classified as a weapon of war. Napoleon called kilted Highland soldiers "those ladies from Hell!" and for good reason; at Quatre Bras, near Waterloo, the cream of French cavalry dashed itself to pieces against the mighty Black Watch, 191 years ago last week.
Dusty history? Not to practitioners of Celtic music, a genre undergoing growth spurt. In past Games, the bands were largely imported, but when the date was shifted and the scheduled bands were lost, festival organizers discovered, that the slack could be taken up locally.
Yes, there are that many Hawaii-based Celtic bands these days, as well as musical descendants such as bluegrass and folk, with names like Doolin' Rakes, Celtic Waves, Whiskey Starship, The Squirrel Hunters, Kaimana Ceili and even an all-lassie posse called CeltOphelia.
Wilson Pang, a relative newcomer to Celtic music, is one of those who can apparently play anything -- he has guitars, mandolins, banjos and pianos in his musical quiver -- and for years he sat in with jazz bands. But jazz, by its very nature, demands that the musicians be at top form every second, and Pang found that less than fun. Celtic music, on the other hand, although the instrumentation is every bit as complex as jazz, has an emphasis on melody and bonhomie that Pang finds "comfortable."
Pang credits Celtic-music artist and enthusiast Maggie Brown of Kaimana Ceili with inspiring his presence in the band. ("Ceili," also spelled "ceilidh" and pronounced kaylee, is the Scots word for a kind of down-home dance party.)
"Celtic music has universal appeal, and that's shown by an upsurgence in interest internationally," said Pang, citing "turnaway crowds" in Brazil, of all places.
"It's an appeal to the folk tradition. That's something we've lost in our pursuit of mass media, of easy-listening pop music that's overproduced. Stuff you hear on the radio doesn't have the nitty-gritty, and Irish music has that -- that kind of verve and panache missing from our pop culture."
Like Brown, veteran fiddler Lisa Gomes helped plant the seeds of local Celtic. Her band Irish Hearts ruled the pub scene here a decade ago. Although the Hearts eventually dissolved, the jig wasn't up -- it had been transplanted into Hawaii culture.
Gomes, by day a psychologist, grew up playing the fiddle but caught the Celtic bug while backpacking in Europe and Ireland. "It's really inspiring to hear it in the country of origin," she reminisced.
Gomes, food writer Jo McGarry and others formed Irish Hearts, lasting just long enough for key members to move away. (Keep your ears tuned for a reunion in August!) Kevin O'Kennedy, one of the owners of Maui Irish bar Mulligan's on the Blue-- and an Irish Hearts alumnus -- has a kickin' band called the Celtic Tigers on Maui.
"Since that time, several other groups have taken it on and are performing pretty regularly in town," Gomes said. "I'm doing freelance (fiddle) work myself, and I'm also putting together my own band -- an all-girl band playing Irish-Scottish kinds of things. Right now it's called CeltOphelia, but we'll likely change the name."
Gomes credits entrepreneurs of Celtic venues such as Bill Comerford, co-owner of O'Toole's and Kelly O'Neil's. The Internet has helped as well. The islands aren't exactly chockablock with bodhran-and-cittern shops, so online shopping is the way to go, with shops such as Lark in the Morning in Mendecino providing the goods. Celtheads also network by e-mail and newsgroups -- rec.music.Celtic is a good start.
"There's huge enthusiasm for it," said McGarry, the other Irish Hearts founder. "Folks love to hear it, and musicians like to play it.
"That said, there's a lot of fake Irish music going on, alas. Dabblers! Celtic music is very sexy, you know. If done proper. It's not just the music, it's the whole romance and passion behind it, the entire history."
"It certainly has a history of coloring American music for the last 200 to 300 years," said Gomes. "A lot of our American folk music, the tunes were derived from Irish and Scottish jigs and reels.
"But the resurgence of interest in the last 10 years? Why does everyone suddenly want to be Irish? Gaelic Storm in the 'Titanic' movie? -- and, oh, yes, there was the whole 'Riverdance' thing in the mid-'90s. Must be it, hey?
"I think that most cultures are getting back into their roots, not just Irish. It's almost like you have to do that in this age of technology. That's why blues has come back as well."
Pang also compared the revival of Celtic music to authentic blues.
"There's no push to wow the audience with technical expertise. You wind up featuring the musician instead of the music. You play to the best of your ability, and if your interpretive powers are good, it works.
"Like good blues guitar: You might not have the best technique, but your instrument has to have a voice that comes from the heart. Everyone has their own voice -- you just have to find it, and enjoy it, and it doesn't bear being overly analyzed."