The NPR Curious Listener’s Guide to Celtic Music

“Ritchie's writing is clear and her love for her subject is infectious”

This vigorously researched portrait of the Celtic music family explores the full spectrum of its passionate performers, their beloved instruments, and this timeless music. Learn about where it all comes from and how it has travelled, uncover the stories behind the most popular songs, and be guided through a list of recommendations to help you build your core music collection and direct your own journey deeper into the music. This paperback also includes a fascinating foreword by internationally renowned fiddler Eileen Ivers.

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The following are excerpts from The NPR Listener's Guide to Celtic Music by Fiona Ritchie

From the Introduction:

Late in 2003, performers with the Irish theatrical extravaganza Riverdance packed their instruments and well-worn step dancing shoes and traveled to China. In a land where Western entertainment of any sort was, until recently, seen as subversive, this cast of musicians and dancers mounted the biggest foreign production to date in Beijing’s Great Hall of the people, where Mao Zedong once presided. The show followed other recent international acts, including opera's three Tenors and Icelandic pop singer Björk, but neither had scored a major success with the Chinese. In contrast, Riverdance sold more than 50,000 tickets, and two performances were added to meet the huge demand. Zhang Yu, president of China Performing Art Agents, the commercial division of China’s Culture Ministry, declared the show “one of our best box office records ever.”

How, then, has Celtic-rooted music from the small, wind-and sea-swept nations on the far western fringes of Europe managed to build its own global village of curious listeners? These pages offer a welcome opportunity to look at the phenomenon of today’s “Celtic Music,” to consider its origins, to reel in the more fanciful notions surrounding things “Celtic,” and to offer one candid view of a dazzling and contemporary art form.

Music from Celtic roots played on fiddles, harps, flutes, and bagpipes and developed on keyboards, with Latin percussion, or in chamber orchestras, has never before realized the potential it does today. An unaccompanied Irish sean nós (old style) singer may now been seen in large venues in the Unites States where even the stages are bigger than the rooms in which her ballads have been shared through the centuries. Meanwhile, thousands in China can enjoy a performance of Riverdance, while Russians celebrate the birthday of Robert Burns to the accompaniment of Scottish fiddle and clarsach. From the pub to the performing arts center, kitchen to recording studio, this music has travelled many a mile, crossed its own seven seas, and onward it sails.

From Chapter 1: What is Celtic Music?

The traditional reels, jigs, airs and ballads mentioned in this book were lifted on the fiddles, pipes, flutes, and voices of generations of musicians before they were ever referred to as “Celtic.” Fast forward through the centuries and suddenly we are surrounded by music identified as “Celtic,” a term that conjures up a baffling miscellany of images and sounds. It appears in movie soundtracks such as Last of the Mohicans and The Piano, set thousands of miles from the traditional Celtic homelands. It infuses rhythmic heart and soul into the internationally successful theatrical dance shows Riverdance and Lord of the Dance. Through the music of Enya, it has inspired a luscious contemporary pop form that sells millions of albums worldwide. “Celtic” as its own category can be found in most of the major outlets for recorded music. Celtic music is in vogue. It is used to sell cars in television commercials. It has fed the fashion for another type of pseudo-New Age mysticism. Its treasures have been plundered by all manner of musicians searching for “new” music in the public domain around which to build their own arrangements (sometimes without acknowledgement to the source!). It is, we could easily claim, a cynical marketing strategy employed by some corners of the recording industry who find that sales increase when “Celtic” appears on the label, though the music may lack the merest shred of authenticity. In fact, retailers in all sectors are lining their pockets on the back of the “Celtic” label. Ethereal and romanticized “Celtic” images and sounds are regularly packaged around highly marketable commodities. The frenzied feeding of the Celtic brand shows little sign of abating.

But surely Celtic music is much more than any of this. Can we cut through the hype of conflicting messages to reach the pure essence of the music? How do we capture its true spirit? What about its authentic roots, the genuine and unique continuity of traditions from which it grew, and its amazing longevity? Where does all this merge with the contemporary cross-cultural environment that sustains it today and the ascent of the term “Celtic Music” over the past three decades or so?

In this book we will try to answer some of these questions. If you can close this cover again, lay aside its histories and luminaries, and meet the music on an intimate, personal level, then you’ll have grasped its timeless essence, universal appeal, and beauty.