If I had to guess, I’d say there are about as many Irishmen living in Dublin, OH as there are native Scotsmen living in Granville, 36 miles to the East, which is, approximately, six. But none of this matters on the first weekend in August, when the city’s Irish population increases at least tenfold, augmented by tens of thousands more people who think they’re Irish. (I admit that, once upon a time, even I, now vehemently proud of my Scottish heritage, found myself wishing I could be cool like my Irish friends during the weekend of the Dublin Irish Festival. I really ought to write our Chief and beg his forgiveness.) They come for the music. They stay for the scones. (Ok, so maybe the scones thing only applies to me. Most of them probably stay for the music as well. And the beer.) And there is a lot of music, and pricewise, it is probably, when you think about it, one of the best values out there for such a comprehensive festival covering a (sometimes startling) range of styles.
“…And that’s all Irish music,” Brían Ó hAirt (singer and concertina player for the band Bua) assures me, but “we really are a traditional band. We do some progressive stuff, but most of the things that we do are traditional, [even though] we compose our own tunes sometimes or play newly composed tunes from other people”. Only fifteen minutes ago, the band were on stage, wrapping up their final set of the festival. Fifteen minutes from now, they will be on their way to Ontario for their next festival appearance. Our interview will be short, but Bua are the only band I have bothered to see twice this weekend and I have to talk to this man. I need to find out what makes this band who they are.
But what drew me to Bua (MySpace) in the first place? We don’t necessarily tend toward the traditional here at The Indie Handbook (well, at least not publicly*). Aside from the superb musicianship of, and obvious chemistry between, all of the band members (Brían, Brian Miller, Jackie Moran, Chris Bain, and Seán Gavin) there is the fact that this Brían also speaks fluent Irish (not a skill one necessarily expects from most people living in the St. Louis metro area). As one who has a weakness for, and is prone to, eccentricity in any form, I am intrigued by anyone who would bother to learn such an impractical (at least by contemporary American standards) language as Irish. Brían’s reason:
“I’d heard Irish for the first time when I was in junior high, and I was kind of a bookish kid at the time, so I looked stuff up and started learning things on my own. And when I started junior college, there were courses offered, and by that time I had a pretty good understanding of it. And when I moved to Ireland I progressed even further, because I was in Irish speaking areas and I was using it all the time.”
And what about the road to traditional music? Let’s face it, Brían would not look out of place fronting a Belle & Sebastian cover band (for the sake of argument, we’ll call them Judy and the Dream of Horses).
“I had been doing music my entire life, and when I reached the end of high school, there were three roads really: you could go and get your degree in classical music, or enter a jazz program; but I didn’t really feel like my voice suited that or that it felt like it was really a way to express myself. But, when I heard Irish singing for the first time when I was fourteen or fifteen, it hit home, really, and kind of pulled me in.”
I think I speak for Kristin as well when I say that we appreciate, admire, and endorse such an earnest pursuit of any art form. Add to that the fact that Brían’s delivery and vocal quality is perfectly suited to the music that he is performing (his voice is pure, uninhibited by that affected nasality that so many artists seem to view as a prerequisite for success and the delivery unadorned, allowing the songs to speak for themselves) and the result is bound to impress. But what thrusts Bua beyond the range of “good bands” to the level of the “truly excellent” are the four other stellar musicians standing (and sitting) on that stage.
“There was a band before called Gan Bua (Jackie and Chris were kind of the instigators for that), but a few of the band members moved on with their jobs and careers, so Chris approached each of us about joining the band… And we play well together. That’s kind of the secret. It just clicked. We all seem to work well together.” He continues, “and [there are] connections within the band, too. We’re not all connected together in the same way. Brian Miller and I may be connected in a way that maybe Brian and Chris are not, but maybe Chris and Seán are connected in a way that Brian and I aren’t. There are all these smaller pairings with their ideas of music and the kind of tunes they play. So, overall, there’s more cohesiveness in the group because of those smaller groupings.”
So, this is Bua, folks. Get to know them. You’ll be a better person for it. Their album An Spealadóir is out now on Mad River Records. There is, I believe another one currently available as a download only. And you owe it to yourself to catch a live performance. After all, that’s where many of these songs grew up, long before anyone you or I know ever heard them.
*Personal confession time: For some time now, longer than most of you have known me, I have toyed around with the idea of a serious pursuit of Scottish folk music. Five days after I met Brían Ó hAirt, I bought a beginner’s guide to Scots Gaelic and a Gaelic dictionary. It is happening, kids. And if any of you have an in at the Elphinstone Institute, University of Aberdeen and would like to put in a good word for me, I would be eternally grateful.