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 Vocalist Melanie O'Reilly has performed her jazz-inflected Irish roots music (and Celtic-inflected jazz) on stages from Dublin's National Concert Hall to New York's Lincoln Center Out of Doors. This Friday noon, she and her partner, Sean O Nualláin, perform at I-House with a collection of musician friends. (Cathy Cockrell photo)

From traditional airs to Gaelic jazz
Visiting artist Melanie O'Reilly works to preserve Irish roots music and craft new expressions of its spirit

| 16 March 2006

It's a long way from Berkeley to Tipperary - and Dublin, Belfast, and Cobh - but for Melanie O'Reilly that's nothing that a bit of Celtic jazz can't cure. The Dublin-born singer-songwriter, a visiting scholar in Celtic Studies, was introduced at age 11 to recordings of classic jazz vocalists, and has spent much of her career melding Irish traditional music with the sounds of a quintessential American art form.

Concerts and recordings

Friday, March 17, noon
(St. Patrick's Day)
Melanie O'Reilly with Sean O Nualláin (guitar), Bobbi Nikles (fiddle), Myra Chaney (cello), and then with John Burr (piano), Mike Olivola (bass), Lisa Pollard (sax). The concert is sponsored by Chevron.
Chevron Auditorium International House
2299 Piedmont Ave., Berkeley

Saturday, March 18, 3 p.m.
Melanie O'Reilly and Sean O Nualláin on "Folk Music and Beyond"
KALW Radio, 91.7 FM

Saturday, March 18, 8 p.m.
Melanie O'Reilly with Aisling Ghear/Bitter Vision
Freight & Salvage
1111 Addison St., Berkeley

Saturday, April 15, 2-4 p.m.
Melanie O'Reilly with Tír na Mara Chapel of the Chimes
Piedmont Ave. at 51st St., Oakland

Melanie O'Reilly has four CDs on the Mistletoe Music label, some of whose songs can be heard online (at www. mistletoemusic.com). The CDs are Oilieán Draíochta (Enchanted Island), House of the Dolphins, Aisling Ghear/ Bitter Vision, and Women Who Left.

Audiences in Ireland, Scotland, England, and France know her best; these days she can be heard as well - along with her partner Sean O Nualláin, a traditional Irish guitarist and visiting scholar in molecular and cell biology - at Bay Area venues. O'Reilly's two backup groups are Aisling Ghear (Bitter Vision) and Tír na Mara - the former an acoustic band with jazz influences, the latter a jazz combo that draws on Irish traditional music, says O Nualláin, "in a way that does justice to the harmonic structures and improvisational ethos" of both traditions. This Friday at International House, musicians from both groups will accompany O'Reilly in a free noon-hour St. Patrick's Day concert.

The musician-in-residence comes from a long line of stage and theater people - among them a classical Irish harp performer (her great aunt); the co-founder of the Dublin Theater Festival (her godfather), and a stage actress and radio-show host (her mother). She brings her interest in Irish culture and Irish-American connections not only to singing and composing but to teaching, research, and theater projects at Berkeley.

In response to student requests, she and O Nualláin are currently teaching a new course, "Irish Song and Music: From Sean-Nos to Jazz," at UC Berkeley Extension. In it they trace the roots of Irish music from the 12th century, its suppression following the Tudor invasion, and its preservation underground through oral tradition. They then explore its renaissance in the 20th century, through artists such as Seán O Ríada and Donal Lunny, and its worldwide popularity in the 1970s and '80s, when Irish performers as diverse as U2, the Cranberries, the Corrs, Van Morrison, Sinead O'Connor, Enya, and Mary Black enjoyed international followings. The course ends with new fusion genres - such as the Celtic folk-punk played by the Pogues, Irish-Jamaican hip hop á la Marxman, and O'Reilly's own Gaelic jazz interpretations.

Women who left

According to U.S. census figures, 34 million U.S. residents, or nine times the population of Ireland itself, claim Irish ancestry. That fact is of keen interest to O'Reilly, who first came to Berkeley in 2003 to research 19th-century Irish women immigrants to North America. Her spadework unearthed information on the life of Annie Moore, who in late 1891 left her home in the town of Cobh, in County Cork, and on Jan. 1, 1892 became the first official immigrant at Ellis Island. From Moore's story, and that of two other women, O'Reilly composed an original songcycle, Women Who Left, commissioned by the Sirius Art Center in Cobh. The story it tells is not only an Irish one, she notes, but "the story of many Americans in the last two centuries; it has extraordinary resonance" for U.S. audiences.

Early in her time at Berkeley, O'Reilly met a faculty member of the Department of Theatre, Dance & Performance Studies with expertise in creating musical theater and deep personal connections to traditional music, in the person of Peter Glazer (best known on the American stage for Woody Guthrie's American Song, a theater piece showcasing Guthrie's music). The two have been working for more than a year to develop a musical-theater piece, The Golden Door, based on O'Reilly's material.

"Melanie had all of this fabulous research on topics of great interest," Glazer says. After identifying the songs from the cycle most likely to "thrive" in a musical theater context, the two have been working to "expand the material around those songs" - creating scenes, speeches, and dreams for the characters, and making new discoveries along the way. For example, one of the "women who left," Nellie Cashman - who eventually became a gold miner in the U.S. - spent time in Washington, D.C. during the Civil War. "We found out about an Irish brigade that fought a battle not far from D.C.," Glazer reports, "and found traditional songs about that brigade and the battles in which they fought."

Recently, O'Reilly and Glazer were invited by Palo Alto's TheatreWorks to showcase selections from The Golden Door in a workshop setting - with professional actors singing the lines. "The Irish songs, they took to it so well," O'Reilly marvels. "Gaelic is such an old language, such a musical language. It's not easy to learn by reading, but songs are a very good vehicle to learn it."

Protecting traditional music in the 'new Ireland'

O'Reilly and O Nualláin, a one-time senior member of the Green Party of Ireland, are far less sanguine about Ireland's recent economic boom and its repercussions for traditional Irish music and contemporary working musicians. According to O Nualláin, housing prices are so high in Ireland today that artists can no longer make a living. Meanwhile, he says, many musicians have unknowingly signed away all rights to their material - past, present, and future - to the Irish Music Rights Organization, a Rupert Murdoch-affiliated private organization "that has attempted to claim the rights to traditional Irish music."

These have been "extremely negative developments" for Irish music, O Nualláin believes. "No band has come out of Ireland for 10 years; the only two people to make a partial breakthrough are Damien Rice and the Thrills." To protect artists' basic rights, and to raise awareness of the current plight of many Irish musicians, O Nualláin and O'Reilly founded the Musicians Union of Ireland in 2003, along with other Irish musicians. They have also transferred their own company, Mistletoe Music, to the U.S. as one step toward protecting their intellectual property.

In their view, Ireland can serve as a role model for others who have experienced colonization. "It has succeeded in preserving its rich cultural heritage - most notably its roots music - despite having been colonized for more than 700 years," O'Reilly says. "We work hard to continue protecting and developing this powerful artistic expression of the Irish spirit."