Most people will likely think of Riverdance when they think of Anuna, the vocal group that added an ancient choral feel to some of the production numbers. In reality, the group, founded by brothers John and Michael McGlynn, have been around before the Irish phenomenon and have thrived long after the Riverdance show peaked in popularity.
"I was in Radio City and the buzz was unbelievable, not just because of the ex-pats celebrating St. Patrick's Day," says John McGlynn when asked to recall the heady days of fame during Riverdance's rein.
"We had every major celebrity and politician and they were so proud of the show, saying how it embodied us and defines us as a people. The show definitely portrayed us as a forward thinking people.
"That was great to be a part of, but that Celtic resurgence is long gone. I think audiences are waiting for something to take it to the next level, which is what we are hoping to do with this show."
The show he is referring to is Celtic Origins, which marks the triumphant return of Anuna to American public television. The Celtic Origins TV special includes music written and composed by Michael McGlynn as well as special arrangements of traditional songs.
While PBS must be commended mightily for their airing of Celtic culture during key fundraising times, I am often horrified by what they portray as "real Irish music" in an attempt to pander to Irish American viewers.
The Celtic Woman show was produced in a cotton candy machine with sparkly fairy dust thrown in for good measure, and don't even get me started on the network's bizarre love affair with Donegal crooner Daniel O'Donnell. Neither one of these can be described as an accurate cut of Celtic culture, but in Anuna's Celtic Origins, the channel has finally landed on programming that does our race proud.
At the risk of sounding trite, Anuna's Celtic Origins is full of soothing music to feed the soul without careening into elevator music territory. Rich bass voices blend seamlessly with alto and tenors, their mouths creating a spine chilling wall of sound that relies on little in the way of instrumentation to generate its power.
"I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls" was a huge hit for Enya, and Anuna's vocal treatment is just as pretty. "Scarborough Fair" is a pitch perfect layering of gorgeous male voices, allowing this dusty traditional ditty to sparkle like a fine gem. "Fionnghuala" is a tongue-tying, rapid fire Gaelic ditty delivered with razor precision, guaranteeing a goose bump with each listen.
The do miss a note occasionally. In a feeble attempt to keep contemporary, Anuna covers John Denver's chart-topping hit "Annie's Song" in tribute to the late American folk singer/songwriter. Personally, I am allergic to John Denver songs, so perhaps I am biased. The cloying flute layered atop this saccharine drivel is almost too much to bear.
Anuna has been busy since they departed Riverdance. They have enjoyed a rich career since then, performing and recorded with an illustrious list of international musical performers including Sting, Barry Manilow, Elvis Costello, Michael Crawford, the Chieftains, Ashley MacIsaac and Sinead O'Connor.
If you forgot about Anuna before, there is virtually no forgetting them now. Apart from the PBS special, the group has released a CD of the Celtic Origins show, will make a number of appearances at the Borders bookstore chain in the coming weeks, and will embark on an extensive U.S. tour in the Fall.
I had a lovely chat with co-founder John McGlynn about the state of Celtic music and the band's history. Here's how it went.
How would you describe the Anuna sound to someone who has never heard of you?
You are listening to untrained singers trying to sing choral music working with the trained choral singers who are trying not to sing choral. Not trying to meet in the middle, trying to blend. We have two rock singers and we have a method soprano and they are blended together. That was the magic of the sound.
The Celtic brand is attached to a lot of different types of music. What does it mean to you?
I really don't like the choice of the word "brand." Celtic music is an interesting thing and its open to a lot of interpretation. The reality is that Celts left no written records of the music they made. If you want to describe Celtic it is the passing of traditions on word of mouth. They were not written down but they survived by word of mouth.
People eventually wrote them down and then written in stone. So, Celtic has this ancient perception and the choral music we sing is ancient, so I think that is where people's perception comes from about us being in a Celtic genre.
I think its funny how people define as ancient Celtic music is not so ancient. It only dates back 30 years, when Clannad made this Celtic New Age genre.
Absolutely. We are great friends of Clannad. I would cite the Chieftans and Clannad as our chief influences. Singing in five parts, adding jazz and rock riffs, and all the other stuff Clannad did is a precursor to what we do, no doubt. They had a number one song in the U.K. written in the Irish language with "Harry's Game" in the middle of the Troubles, which was remarkable. We were influenced by them but then went off in a different direction.
Much of the new movement of Celtic interpretation comes from a perception of what ancient music could be.
PBS seems very supportive of Celtic culture, which is likely driven by the more affluent Irish American demographic of some of their donors. How have they been to work with?
PBS has lapped it up, which is fantastic. I think the Irish American audience is nostalgic a bit, and we can draw on that and reposition the culture in the "here and now" to show what an elegant, sophisticated, modern culture that it is. I think it is a great opportunity that PBS afforded us to do that.
Riverdance was such a successful show. Why did you break away from it?
If we stayed with Riverdance we would have risen and fall with them. I mean, they are still doing their thing, but it is now a traveling show and not the innovative cultural phenomenon it was back in the mid 1990s. We were intact and had an album under our belt. We were not created for the show.
It sounds like you have mixed emotions about the show.
We had an amazing experience with the show and are extremely grateful to the producers for the exposure, but in the end, we felt as though we would have been consumed by it if we stayed with it longer than we did. Making the decision to stay or go with Riverdance was a critical time for us. Some people went with us and some didn't. We lost 10 singers, which almost crippled our group.
Why do you think your music is so unique and popular?
I think Anuna represents a spirituality which is ferociously lacking and deeply needed. It has nothing to do with faith necessarily, though people may link it to their faith. This is the kind of music that fills whatever you perceive the soul to be. In listening to the album, I thought how old the choral art form was and at the same time, how groundbreaking it is to have a choral pop group in this day and age.
We are not riding on the backs of anyone. We are not in the middle of a choral revolution. We are in an enviable position. It is what it is. Nobody does what we do. Nothing is forced or awkward.
What is the reaction to your music when you do an in-store at a Borders or when you perform a concert? Some people can get crazy with that spirituality thing. Do you get any nuts out there?
Not really. There are countless live gigs in which people think this is soundtrack for their lives. I think that speaks to the struggle for spirituality and the lack of it sometimes. We have had people come up to us with the first album that we did, and they have been intense fans ever since and we never knew we were out there.
That's the best reaction, when you get long time fans hanging in there with you. Then you get the occasional person who claims to have seen angels during your gig, which I think is a bit way out.
(For more information on tour dates and Borders appearances, log onto anuna.ie.)