Blame it on the popularity of the Broadway hit "Riverdance" or the renewed popularity of myriad folk-music traditions on the concert circuit, but Celtic music is positively thriving in America.
At the forefront of this wave are women performers, particularly vocalists, and many of the most talented, like Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh and Niamh Parsons, can be heard on an engrossing two-disc compilation, "Her Infinite Variety: Celtic Women in Music & Song" (Green Linnet).
But the most strikingly original contemporary woman singer working this Celtic vein is Susan McKeown (pronounced mick-YONE). Her new CD on the Alula label, "Bushes & Briars," is a triumph.
Why has McKeown pulled ahead of the crowded field of her talented Celtic sisters on record? The answer is simple. She continually expands the perimeters of traditional Celtic song by smartly incorporating colors from other world-music styles.
The 11 tunes McKeown covers are traditional fare, with songs about lassies pining for laddies, a lullaby, and a protest song about British suppression of Irish freedom, sung in both Irish and English. But she radically breaks with tradition in creating original musical arrangements using musicians like Indian percussionist Samir Chatterjee.
And when was the last time you heard a traditional Celtic recording with songs accompanied by tuba, bassoon, French horn, and hurdy-gurdy? She marshals the extraordinary talents of 19 backing musicians - many as comfortable with jazz, rock, Asian, or African music as with Celtic - yet she also possesses a voice of such forthright purity and power that she occasionally performs a cappella.
"Bushes and Briars," the title tune opening the disc, is a perfect example of how McKeown blends her vocal genius with an original instrumental concept. The lyrics, sung with great restraint and stateliness, cover the familiar theme of infidelity. Most unfamiliar is the song's strong percussive undertow: drummers creating an Afro-Celtic sound, making the ancient lament seem strikingly modern because of cross-cultural blending.
Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, McKeown has made New York City's East Village her home since 1990.
While maintaining close touch with her Irish roots, the influence of New York on her music is unmistakable. "Banks of Claudy," a blending of two traditional love songs, French and Irish, marries a Manhattan-like rock style with some traditional Asian rhythms and Celtic harmonies. The result is a dramatic and sophisticated expansion of Celtic music.
McKeown will be touring the US this year in support of this album, and if you have the opportunity, you'll hear a remarkable artist who makes a Celtic music of global dimensions.