Born in a musical family, Saileog Ní Cheannabháin is a native Irish speaker, sean-nós singer, composer and multi-instrumentalist who was mainly influenced by the musicians and singers from the Iorras Aithneach area of West Connemara during her musical upbringing. Released in 2012, her début record I bhFior​-​Dheiriú Oidhche featured songs from Iorras Aithneach local singers and collected by Seamus Ennis in the mid-1940s. The singer also toured for a while with contemporary Irish Traditional band Ensemble Ériu and recorded the concluding song on their début album.

Released in October 2016 last, Roithleán is the musician’s second solo album for Raelach Records, an excellent platform for new and contemporary Irish music set up by Ensemble Ériu founding member and concertina player Jack Talty.

Saileog Ní Cheannabháin - Roithleán (2016)
Saileog Ní Cheannabháin – Roithleán (2016)

As a solo album, Roithleán is a remarkable recording on many different levels. In addition to five sean-nós songs, the album also features a wonderful mix of new compositions and lesser-known tunes gathered from countless gatherings and sessions across the country. But what makes the recording unique is the wide range of instruments mastered and played by Saileog Ní Cheannabháin, namely piano, viola and violin.

Both piano and viola rarely feature as solo instruments in traditional Irish music, but playing a familiar repertoire on these instruments instantly sheds a totally different light on the music. The music of Paddy Fahy (b. 1926) for instance, a traditional musician whose intricate and distinctive compositions are growing in stature as years go by, is usually associated with fiddle players. Playing two of his reels on the piano adds a superb contemporary touch to his music.

Saileog Ní Cheannabháin opens the album with a piano version of three reels “The Old Dúidín/Tighe’s Rare Reel/ Joe Mháire Mhicilín”, packing an instant punch too.

Tuned one-fifth lower than the violin and playing in the alto clef, the viola is rarely heard in sessions either – unless it can be paired with a Bb flute, uilleann pipes or concertina. But in recent years, musicians like Martin Hayes or Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh for instance have experimented and recorded with the viola.

With its mellower sound, common reels like “Red Tom of the Hills/The Galtee/Martin Rochford’s” sound magnificent on the viola while Kerry jigs “Tom Billy Murphy’s/Con Cronin’s/Paddy Cronin’s” explore the sonic range afforded by the pairing of the viola and concertina.

Several guest musicians complete the line-up, namely her sister Muireann (voice), her brother Eoghan (flute & concertina) as well as Marie McHugh (fiddle), Tim McHugh (flute), Jack Talty and Eoin Ó Beaglaoich (concertinas).

Most of the tunes and songs performed on the album are played “straight”, ie exactly the way they would be played in a live situation. Only “The Connacht Drifters/Spraoi an Spidéil” was double-tracked and “arranged” for two violas. As well as that, while sean-nós singing is traditionally unaccompanied, “Uileacán Dubh Ó” was arranged for two voices and “Bean a’ Leanna” includes piano accompaniment.

As is often the case with traditional musicians, the extensive liner notes record with near-scientific precision the exact origin of all the tunes played on the album, when and where they were first heard, who was playing them or who was also present at the time. And highlighting the subtleties and intricacies of the sean-nós style, the singer also quotes four other influential versions of the classic song “Róisín Dubh” before submitting her own.

The title of the album Roithleán refers to

the spindle-whorl of a spinning-wheel but the word has several other meanings. It can refer to a whirling or a recurring motion. Music and songs can be like that, I feel, as they are sent from person to person. In a sense, we spin and weave music from one moment into another, from the things that affect and influence us.

This constant “spinning and weaving of the music from one moment to another” and the perpetual “learning by osmosis” naturally leads to the composition of new tunes (seven in total on the album), all seamlessly blending with the musician’s own repertoire. This is precisely where the magic happens on Roithleán – a modern testimony of a living and breathing tradition by a very accomplished and adventurous young soloist.