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As Ireland changes, its music adds spices

Irish writers and musicians have made rich contributions over the past 100 years. James Joyce and W.B. Yeats, two of the greatest writers of the 20th century, sprang from the Emerald Isle. And Irish music and dance has experienced a veritable renaissance, influencing American and world popular music for decades.

But as the global economy changes, so do cultures. On Saturday host Brian O'Donovan of "A Celtic Sojourn," a weekly Boston radio show, presents "A St. Patrick's Day Special" on his show (WGBH public radio) and to a wider audience through Public Radio International (check local listings).

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It demonstrates how traditional Irish music is feeling the winds of a shrinking world.

From the didgeridoo of Australia's outback to the Balkan bazooki, new instruments make new sounds that blend beautifully with the Irish pipe, drum, and fiddle.

"There's so much happening in Irish music, it's extraordinarily vital at the moment," Mr. O'Donovan says in a recent phone interview.

"One of the things that inspired me to create this program happened just last year when I revisited my hometown - a village in West Cork called Clonakilty," he says. "A group of little kids were playing soccer - most of whom were black. And I said, 'This is an amazing thing. How can this be in this previously homogeneous town?' I found out very quickly that Nigerian refugees were being housed there ... and were slowly integrating themselves into the community."

O'Donovan grew up in Clonakilty in the 1960s and '70s, and says there wasn't a lot of economic opportunity then. That has changed dramatically, he says, noting that Ireland now has a prosperous, fast-growing economy.

For centuries the Irish had been refugees in search of better economic times and greater freedom. Now others from Africa, Europe, Eastern Europe, and even South America are immigrating to Ireland with hopes of a better future.

"I began to ask, 'Is this the face of a new Ireland?' " O'Donovan says. "What influences is it going to have on the culture, on the music, on the sports, on the society?"

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O'Donovan wants to help educate Americans about the dynamics of the changing Ireland - which, he says, are reflected in a tangible way in music. For example, Jamaican reggae blends beautifully with Irish melody and rhythms, as do the rhythms of Africa, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

"[During] the Irish Diaspora, the Irish carried with them musically an approach to singing, dancing, and storytelling that has had a huge effect on popular music. In more recent years, I think rock musicians and classical musicians have looked to Celtic music for inspiration and also for spice."

It's hip to record with The Chieftains, he laughs, the world-class traditional Irish band whose recordings have searched out the richest traditions of Celtic music. Ireland's own pop singers love to record with The Chieftains, too. Rocker Sinead O'Connor considers herself as much a folk singer as a rock artist, he says. Enya's first language is Gaelic, and she often sings in that tongue. Much of modern Irish pop is rooted in the past, he points out.

"What Irish music has done over the last 20 years is to find its way in allowing itself to be blended in with these other forms of folk, rock, and jazz music. There is an opening and an accepting of the influences that are coming to bear because of increased communication and travel and migration."

The world music scene is give and take, and the blending of ethnic instruments, rhythms, and melodies is fascinating, O'Donovan says.

"But a large part of the excitement for me in the music is that [Irish music] can indulge in those experiments because it is so secure in its core. Young musicians who are experimenting have a deep respect and love for this core."

At its heart, traditional Irish music has a universal appeal, he says. "I believe all art is about human experience. The Celtic scene captures both the unbridled joy of life, and the tremendous challenge and sadness of life, in the story of a people."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor