Anuna Gets Back to Roots

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.

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