Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Róisín Elsafty – Ma bhíonn tú liom

All text copyright Ita Kelly (c) 2007

‘Ma Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ is the new album, from sean nós singer Róisín Elsafty. It’s her first solo album and is an enchanting collection of traditional songs. Produced by Donal Lunny, this recording breathes new and vigorous life into many old songs as well as introducing us to some new ones. Róisín is a very versatile singer, for whom the joy of singing and indeed the ‘honour’ of being able to sing sean nós is most important.

Although now living in Dublin, Róisín comes from Barna in Co. Galway. Her mother Treasa Ní Cheannabháin, an accomplished sean nós singer, is a Connemara native and Róisín was born listening to her mother’s voice and grew up immersed in sean nós.

“She was the sean nós songbird in the house all the time” says Róisín, “and I was always trying to copy her. She seemed to go right up into the rafters her voice was so high and I was always trying to see if I could get up as high and hold the note as long as she did.”

Those early years were spent in Castlebar in Co. Mayo and when Róisín entered her first singing competition at the age of seven, a local Féile, she won it hands down. “I sang ‘An Sagairtín’, I think about five verses” she recalls, “I think they were gob smacked, this was a much older song than the others sang.”

Immersed in the sean nós tradition at home with her mother, listening to Radio na Gaeltachta, and going back to Connemara for sessions, Róisín was unaware that outside of the tradition others did not see sean nós as the natural thing she did. Teaching at a Summer School in Roscommon one year she was dismayed to find sean nós referred to as the ‘nyah, nyah’, it was the first time she had heard the expression. “That might have been the way it was then” she says, “seen as an old person’s thing, but it has now come full circle. There are people teaching sean nós in places like Castlebar and people going into competition from Roscommon, Castlebar and all over the country.” In fact the interest and enthusiasm for sean nós is now so great the number of competitions at the annual Oireachtas have been extended in recent years to cater for the higher numbers entering.

Róisín won the women’s competition at the Oireachtas herself on one occasion having won the competition at under 15 and under 18 levels previously. She came third in the prestigious Corn Uí Riada. “I’ve been going to the Oireachtas since I was fifteen” she explains. “The competition was good for me when I was younger because Mamaí would always insist on having a new song for the competition, so it was a good way to keep learning songs.”

However it is also quite a nerve wracking experience taking part in competition. “You can get away with a lot on stage” explains Róisín about the concert scene. “You can chat to your audience, you can introduce songs, and if something goes wrong you can apologise and do something else. But when it’s Corn Uí Riada, you are introduced by someone like Máirtín Tom Sheánín. You walk out on stage and it’s all live on Radio na Gaeltachta. There’s nobody standing to your left, no bouzouki to give you the right key, it’s just ‘away you go’ kind of from the dry. Its nerve wracking because everyone out there whether they’re at home or in the audience, they are some kind of aficionado.”

This year Róisín’s younger sister Naisrín, who is only eighteen, just eligible to enter the senior competition for the first time, got through the qualifying round and went on to win the women’s competition. Both Naisrín and her youngest sister Zahrah sing backing vocals on Róisín’s album. Their brother Hassan provides the striking Egyptian tabla.

If you hear a middle eastern flavour while listening to Róisín’s album don’t be surprised, because Róisín’s Dad comes from Egypt and so there’s a strong influence from that part of the world. Treasa, her mum has also started composing songs and on ‘Má Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ penned an anti war song encouraging the people of Iraq to have strength, ‘Ali: Dilleachtín gan bhrí.’ (Ali; orphaned for no reason) Ali was an orphaned victim of the war who appeared on television in the early days of the invasion, having lost both his arms and his family in one of the first bombings. Treasa previously composed the song ‘An Phailistín’ which Róisín recorded with Sharon Shannon on her ‘Libertango’ album. She also set the lovely Irish prayer ‘A Mhuire na nGrást’ to music, a beautiful plaintive and simple melody which Róisín sings on the album.

Like so many of the songs on this recording, the accompaniment is considered and matched perfectly to the spirit of each song. This is where the expertise and sensitivity of producer Donal Lunny comes in. Róisín first worked with Donal in 2000 when he asked her to sing ‘Coinleach Glas an Fhomhair’ one of the big sean nós songs, to accompaniment for his Expo 2000 project.

“I would never have done that only that it was Donal Lunny asking” says Róisín. “He sent me a demo of what he had in mind, it was very sensitive. He allowed me sing my song and rather than me being led by the orchestra, the orchestra were kind of following me. It allowed that particular sean nós song to live its own life, breathe as it were, but then have these really lovely sensitive strings, nothing too brash or overloaded. I think it really works.”

Since then Róisín has performed with Donal at concerts all over the world. Some of the songs on her new album are songs she performs with Donal and other musicians like Máirtín O’Connor and Graham Henderson at these concerts. Máirtín’s accordion peppers the recording with great responsiveness to the songs themselves. Ronan Browne is another musician who features playing whistles, flute and pipe. The harpist Siobhán Armstrong with whom Róisín performs regularly in her group ‘The Irish Consort’ is also there. Siobhán plays a wire strung harp, a replica of the medieval Trinity College Harp and specialises in music from the seventeenth century.

While her mother has been her strongest influence and mentor, Róisín also admires many other sean nós singers. She particularly reveres Dara Bán Mac Donnchadha, whom she describes as ‘one of the living masters’. “Dara Bán has hundreds of songs” she says in awe. “I have learnt the ones I like myself and they tend to be the love songs because Mamaí loves the love songs too.” Enthusiastically she adds “Isn’t it great that there are hundreds more to be learnt?”

All the songs on the album are Irish language songs except for a new composition from songwriter John Spillane ‘Poor Weary Wanderer’. “The album is more accompanied than unaccompanied” explains Róisín.

Just two songs are unaccompanied, the wonderful love song ‘Eleanór a Rún’, and ‘Casadh an tSugáin’ a song Róisín feels doesn’t lend itself to being accompanied at all. ‘Cúnnla’ has only the barest of music, bodhrán and the sean nós steps of dancer Seosamh Ó Neachtain. There are two soothing lullabies and apart from the newly composed songs they are all Connemara songs.

“All the songs on the album I suppose would be my favourites” says Róisín. “If asked to sing at a moment’s notice, I could sing any one of them with or without accompaniment.” Does she have a preference for slower or faster songs? “It totally depends on the mood” she replies. “It depends on what fits at the time.”

Visually complimenting the music and song on Róisín’s album is the artwork on the sleeve and booklet photographed and designed by her cousin Eoin O’Connor. It features photographs of Róisín, close up nature scenes, running water, luscious red roses and origami boats that provide a rich backdrop to the song notes and words.

As I spoke to Róisín, her husband Simon cradled their new born baby Sadhb, only two weeks old. You can imagine the beautiful lullabies her little ears will hear. Family life is naturally a priority now but Róisín is also keen to take up any opportunities that follow from the release of this album. Performance is what keep an artist alive, it’s what keeps the songs alive and its something she loves doing and she does well. ‘Ma Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ is testament to that. An exceptional and exquisite accomplishment, it is a work of great beauty..

‘Ma Bhíonn Tú Liom Bí Liom’ is released on Vertical Records and Róisín’s website is at

Click here to buy Róisín Elsafty's album - Ma bhíonn tú liom from the .tradnet store on Amazon.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great album, great review. Thanks Ita. Good luck with the new site!