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Irish-American Hybrid Solas Is Wowing Audiences On Both Sides Of The Atlantic

By Dave Irwin

MARCH 15, 1999:  THE BATTLEFIELDS VARY, but the many forms of world music have a fundamental dilemma: to preserve traditions unchanged, or modernize and risk straying from their roots. Though the folky, "good old ways" hazard ossification by appealing to a limited audience, purists often revile the newly evolving styles as cultural dilution, even as they gain wider popularity. It's a musical controversy ranging from Eastern European-influenced klezmer bands to the gamelan orchestras of Java.

In Celtic circles, there was a time not long ago when traditional Irish music meant some geezers in a pub sawing away with fiddle and accordion, or puffing on a tin whistle. It's startling to remember that the introduction of the guitar was a fairly recent innovation to the genre, dismissed only slightly less acrimoniously than Bob Dylan's adding electric instruments that fateful day in 1965 at Newport. Nonetheless, starting in the '70s, numerous bands like Clannad, Altan and the Tannahill Weavers began updating the Gaelic sound. They revamped old songs, using new instrumentation, different harmonies and a higher level of ensemble and technical ability than traditional folk musicians ever dreamed possible.

Four-year-old band Solas is the second generation of this changing face of music. Here is a neo-traditional Irish band that's nearly half Yanks. Multi-instrumentalist Seamus Egan was born outside Philadelphia and raised in Ireland. He's won national championships in Ireland on four instruments: flute, tin whistle, mandolin and banjo. Also born in the USA, fiddler Winifred Horan's parents emigrated from Ireland. She grew up in New York and studied classical music at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. She's also lived and played on the Emerald Isle, earning an all-Ireland championship title for her fiddling.

Add to this mix vocalist Karan Casey, born and raised in Ballyduff Lower, County Waterford, who studied classical music in Dublin and jazz at Long Island University. Only guitarist John Doyle and multi-instrumentalist Mick McAuley, a recent addition, have unadulterated Irish credentials (Doyle, however, admits to stints in rock and punk bands).

"Most of our material is based on the traditions," Horan explains, "but with the flexibility and willingness to step outside of that, with all due respect to the roots we all grew up with. We got (this band) together because we were heading in the same direction: (to remember) the music we grew up with, but to keep it so the younger generation had access to it." And, she admits, "(to) sort of tick off the older generation that taught it to us."

An insight into Solas comes from the CDs they listen to as they travel. In addition to traditional influences like Planxty and the Bothy Band, the web site alt.music states the band members currently favor Bjork and Portishead. There's also "some old Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and loads of world music," according to Horan. "You have to listen to what's going on around you, to either breathe new life into it or carry on what people have been doing for the last 20 to 30 years."

"Seamus has dabbled in everything," she says. "He's been turned on by lots of different styles that, as a musician, you can't ignore. He plays the banjo and I think it would be like a complete sin if he didn't listen to people like Béla Fleck (who guests on Solas' most recent album, The Words That Remain), or great mandolin players, and admire their musical and technical ability. Since Solas is based out of America, it's ridiculous to think that wouldn't influence a musician. Everything kind of seeps in."

The Celtic explosion of the last eight years has given Solas a fertile ground for their hybrid approach. Through movies like Titanic and The Brothers McMullen (which Egan scored), and shows like Riverdance and Lord of the Dance, Irish music, once a backwater of quaint tradition mostly devoted to reviling British domination and praising the pleasures of drinking, has become more cosmopolitan.

Paying homage to their New World roots, The Words That Remain opens with a rousing Celtic arrangement of Woody Guthrie's "Pastures of Plenty." The album meshes classical, jazz, American acoustic and world influences with their own Erin origins. On St. Patrick's Day this year, Solas will be playing outside of Los Angeles with Iris DeMent, who also guested on the album. Later this spring, they'll tour as the opening act for Mary Chapin Carpenter and Shawn Colvin.

One measure of Solas' success is the response they've received in Ireland, where they've toured several times.

"It's been completely positive," Horan notes. "We were apprehensive in the beginning. We didn't get to Ireland for the first two years, and when we did finally get there, it was such a pleasant experience. The albums arrived before we did, and we were lucky enough to have a base from individual work outside of the band. Seamus was already pretty well known. John had played, and I'd been in a few bands in Ireland, so the audience was aware of our individual efforts."

Whatever the public thinks in the trad vs. modern debate, it's the players, defining their own musical journeys, who will both preserve the old and create the new.

"As a musician and an artist you shouldn't ever let yourself be boxed into a formula," Horan believes. "But you still need to have respect for what's come before, and hopefully not pollute it so much that it's unrecognizable."

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