The Broanáin family of Donegal, Ireland were something of a Celtic music industry in the early 1990s.
Youngest sister Eithne stormed the new age market with a meticulously-crafted sound based on Irish melodies and classical arrangements. The rest of the family — two brothers, a sister and a pair of twin uncles — broke in the US when a carmaker featured the group’s Irish-language music in a commercial.
Eithne, of course, is better known as Enya, and her siblings are better known as Clannad.
Their success may or may not have spiked interest in traditional Celtic music during the early- and mid-1990s, but it sure didn’t hurt either. (Riverdance, anyone?)
In that mini-craze for ethereal, mystical music, Talitha Mackenzie released Solas.
Drawn to the Gaelic language at an early age, New York-born Mackenzie earned a Ph.D. in traditional Scottish music and became the first in a line of singers for the world-pop hybrid group Mouth Music.
Her solo debut, Solas, found her setting the ancient music of Scotland in a contemporary setting.
But it wasn’t just folk songs Mackenzie covered — she focused on the work songs which women sang while spinning thread and the shantys men sang while sailing the seas.
Waulking songs and mouth music required agility and speed. Mackenzie could have recorded an impressive album a capella.
But Solas went further, exploring the intersections where the music of the past met its descendants in the future.
Backed by a slapped bass and a funk beat, “Sheatadh Cailleach” sounds like the not-so-distant cousin to the Jamaican dancehall chants that evolved into hip-hop.
Toward the end of “‘s Muladach Mi ‘s Mi Air M’aineoi”, Mackenzie sings in a wordless chant more characteristic of Bulgarian women’s choirs than Scottish folk music.
Some of Mackenzie’s settings went for the obvious but nonetheless worked. The techno beat that drives “Seinn O!” suits the spitfire nature of the song. And a quotation of “O Seallaibh Curaigh Eoghainn” shores up a newly written song (“Owen’s Boat”) which wraps it.
The sampling of a speech by President John F. Kennedy doesn’t detract from the introspective “Chi Mi Na Mórbheanna”, but it doesn’t necessarily add anything either.
Although the Celtic craze of the early ’90s valued mysticism over scholarship, Mackenzie was bold enough to push traditional music much further into the present than her peers.
In a magazine interview, she stated performing traditional music with modern instruments kept it alive, preserving it without being shackled to some standard of authenticity.
And in pursuit of such preservation, she created an album that both entertains and instructs.