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A wonderful European pairing - Floraine Blancke and Dermot Byrne

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Floriane Blancke and Dermot Byrne.
Back in the 1980s the topical cartoonist Gary Larsen of “The Far Side” fame penned a line that matched the stereotypes of two instruments associated with traditional Irish music, one for centuries and the other for far less though but growing in prominence in the last 60 years as the standard of musicianship improved. 

Larsen’s comical caption joked in an illustration “Welcome to heaven, here is your harp, and welcome to hell, here is your accordion.”

The harp, Ireland’s national symbol and ancient instrument is usually though of as ethereal, while the bold brash box is a noisy instrument meant to overcome boisterous audiences or halls where subtlety in secondary to loud toe tapping and percussive steps. 

The thought of matching them together would not be a feat oft attempted, so when the new self-titled recording of box-player Dermot Byrne and harpist Floriane Blancke was released a couple of months ago it would be sure to catch attention far and wide.

Since the 1950s when traditional Irish music was breaking out of its bog music ghetto and asserting itself as part of Ireland’s natural heritage, the accordion and its practitioners were also being recognized as musicians of equal standing.

First because the accordion was a key instrument in playing large halls for ceili dancing (or even showbands for waltzing and quick steps) and eventually for displaying the same musicality and sensitivity accorded musicians on other instruments like the flute and fiddle.

Fast forward a couple of decades or so up on the Inishowen peninsula, a young accordion player named Dermot Byrne was being encouraged in the music in his Buncrana home by his musician father Tom (originally from Teelin in the southwest part of the county) and being steeped in the rich musical culture of Donegal.

From his earliest days he was exposed to legendary Donegal fiddlers like Johnny Doherty, Con Cassidy, James Byrne, Danny Meehan and Tommy Peoples which wasn’t wasted on this youth who developed his own reputation as one of the accordion players to watch in the future.  

His march towards virtuosity caught the notice of Altan’s founders Mairead ni Mhaonaigh and Frankie Kennedy in the early 1990s, and he appeared on two of their CDs on Green Linnet before becoming a full-time member in 1994 of the outfit which celebrated 25 years as touring outfit promoting the music of Donegal a couple of years ago. 

The reality of touring groups today make for more strategic strikes on the performance circuit abroad and more time off. So it allows for members to collaborate and play with other musicians where the opportunities present themselves, and we have seen greater levels of innovation and stylistic appreciation as a result.  And such is the case with the partnering of Byrne with the French harpist Blancke.

Blancke was born in Paris and has her own rich musical pedigree and training. Her grandparents were Stanilas Suranyi, a jazz musician who added a little Hungarian Gypsy to her soul, and Marthe Blancke, a classical French violinist.

Along with her own classical studies at the conservatoire of Bordeaux, she dabbled in jazz and world music which eventually led her to Ireland in 2006 for more intensive involvement. A multi-instrumentalist on the harp, piano and fiddle along with a fine singing voice gave her many avenues in which to explore her new homeplace. 

Based around the Kinvara area of Galway with Byrne, she has played with many great musicians like Sharon and Mary Shannon, Mary Staunton and Johnny Og Connolly as she immersed herself in Irish music while adding her own cultural heritage to the mix.

Involvement in the European community didn’t only bring subsidized highways to Ireland’s byways, but it also opened up the continent to wider musical conversations like those that characterize this recording where the accordion and harp come together so naturally and tastefully. 

Working with the well-traveled Altan ensemble, Byrne gained greater exposure to the great accordion traditions in Europe and his mastery of the French idiom is most apparent here on a few tracks.

It has complimented his own repertoire of tasty and varied Irish music from all over the island and its Celtic cousinry and that is very much in evidence here in the 12 track new offering. 

The overall feel from the new CD is a comfortable and serene parlor session displaying the many skills that the pair bring to the contemporary world music scene and a disk or sound that could be listened to by any discrete music aficionado who happens upon it.  Also appearing on the CD are Brendan O’Regan, Mary Shannon, Frank Kilkelly, Tim Edey, Eimer O’Grady and Tommy Hayes.

Byrne and Blancke are coming to America at the invitation of the Catskills Irish Arts Week (where I serve as the artistic director and the invitee) because this is such a refreshing new recording that deserves wider recognition. 

For Byrne, it is also an opportunity to hear his music outside of the Altan prism to get a greater understanding of the depth of the well he draws from, and for Blancke simply a chance to see a very talented young artist who compliments her musical partner as well as her own talents.

Since the Catskills week is a fertile crossroads for artists who teach and perform because many organizers or presenters turn up there, it often leads to work elsewhere around North America if you are seen or heard there any given year.

In the case of Dermot and Flo they managed to put together a pretty extensive whistle-stop tour to support their new CD, and will do a series of concerts up and down the Northeast U.S. this trip.
They hit the ground running on Saturday, July 7 at the Worcester Hibernian Cultural Center (mymusicvision.com) and then a house concert in Brattleboro, Vermont on Sunday, July 8. 

On Tuesday, July 10 they will be at the Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan at 7 p.m. (note early start) as part of a new music and dance series there at the intimate performance space in Chelsea where Niall O’Leary School of Dance will also appear.

A detour down to Baltimore (July 11) before heading up to Pearl River where box player Patty Furlong, a fellow Catskills week instructor, hosts a lawn concert for the traveling musicians on Thursday, July 12 at 7 p.m. (reservations are required so call 845-735-3282 or email pattyfurlong@aol.com for details and bring a lawn chair or blanket weather permitting).

Then it’s down to Coatesville for a July 12 engagement and on Saturday evening, July 14 they are hosted by the Shamrock Irish Traditional Music Society in a house concert in Fairfield, Connecticut before sampling the rigors and the craic of the Catskills Irish Arts Week where they will perform all week and launch their CD officially in the U.S.

The final week of their barnstorming trip brings them to Boston for the Burren Backroom Series where Donegal fiddler Brid Harper joins them on Wednesday, July 25 and down in Philadelphia at the Commodore Barry Irish Center on Friday, July 27 before finishing up in Middletown, Connecticut on Saturday, the 28th at a house concert (860-983-7963).  

No excuses not to catch this dazzling duo now. For more details visit www.dermotandflo.ie or www.catskillsirishartsweek.org.

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