Although Nicole Ní Dhubhshláine would speak of her musicianship as her passport, an invitation to hold not just her instruments but the world, she cherishes a vital homecoming. Speaking of her home on the Dingle Peninsula in County Kerry, Ní Dhubhshláine shared that “You really see the beauty of the place when immersed in the environment, whether it’s walking or driving along the roads, doing Slea Head drive, sitting at Cuas pier. I get such a feeling of freedom and grounding when I go for a walk, drive or swim around the peninsula.”
Ní Dhubhshláine is a multi-instrumentalist and radio presenter for RTÉ Raidió na Gaeltachta. She began learning music early on, before pursuing degrees at University College Cork in Music and Irish. She has performed internationally, and released her first album High Tide/Barra Taoide with Kyle Macaulay in 2019. Although the mindset of performance relishes every second as if it’s the last, Ní Dhubhshláine was keen to note that, with regard to her work, it certainly will not be.
“Ní Dhubhshláine feels there’s a strong connection between Irish music and the Irish landscape, finding the link to be especially strong in slow airs and the Sean-nós tradition.”
Ní Dhubhshláine feels there’s a strong connection between Irish music and the Irish landscape, finding the link to be especially strong in slow airs and the Sean-nós tradition. Speaking on the slow air Port na bPúcaí, she explained that there are various stories behind the origins of the air, “but what they all have in common is that the sounds were heard at night and resembled the wind and waves that crash against the island and weave through the houses.” She went on to say that other stories involve the sounds of whales or the calls of fairies. The environment with its mystery and influence is embodied in this music, where science meets storytelling; a whale in conversation could have been the words of a fairy.
Speaking on her own music making, Ní Dhubhshláine shared that “when playing a slow air I really try to imagine the story behind the air and try to bring that out through the music with phrasing and ornamentation.” The creative process and territory are expanded with this way of thinking. What does it mean for phrasing to resemble the ocean’s breathing? How do you ornament organically, but tastefully? How do the flowers do it?
Julie Fowlis, a Scottish singer and multi-instrumentalist from the Outer Hebrides, speaks to this as well: “I see people and place names, poetry and song, all embedded in the landscape.” Fowlis sang the songs on Disney Pixar’s Brave, and collaborated with Norwegian composer Einar Selvik for the video game Assassin’s Creed Valhalla. She has presented on BBC and Ireland’s TG4, and is the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Project representative for Scottish Gaelic.
“We’re all out of balance with our landscapes, making it all the more crucial that we engage our immediate communities and ones that are further afield.”
The Scottish musician believes deeply in the impact her surroundings have on her. She remarked on the concept of change, explaining that we’re all out of balance with our landscapes, making it all the more crucial that we engage our immediate communities and ones that are further afield: “I think the first thing to say would be that that relationship to landscape in folk music is always there. For me, it’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve become more acutely aware of that relationship and what it means and how it shows itself in traditional music and within my own composed music.”
At Glasgow’s Celtic Connections this year, Fowlis performed with students and musicians connected to the Scottish Gaelic college, Sabhal Mòr Ostaig. The cross generational celebration was presented live on BBC Alba, with the audience joining in on a selection of songs that were mountainous in sloping melody and emotion. On the Irish side of things, Ní Dhubhshláine emphasised the support her community as a whole has for musical initiatives, describing The West Kerry music style as “full of character and very lively which brings an amazing electric atmosphere anywhere it is being played or heard.”
One of Fowlis’ recent projects has been Spell Songs, an ensemble featuring Senegal’s Seckou Keita. With instruments from the kora to the Indian harmonium, the ensemble reimagines and accompanies Cambridge University’s Robert Macfarlane’s publication, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. Macfarlane has published other books including The Old Ways and Underland, with a professional dedication to the exploration of environmental humanities. Illustrated by Wales’ Jackie Morris, the book has not only been integrated into curriculums across primary schools, but has ignited the profound relationships between literary, musical and linguistic traditions. Fowlis shared that through a project such as this, she is able to perceive her own music differently. Her global, artistic engagement has helped her reflect on her own work as an individual creator as well.
As we grapple with experiences of displacement in today’s increasingly interconnected world — and the concept of home becomes a rambling, unfixed and often multilateral feeling — eternity is a challenged faith. The oceans are present but their level is rising, and wildfires have nations, who aren’t always neighbouring, ablaze. Ní Dhubhshláine believes music of the oral tradition is up for change too, saying “No two musicians would play a tune the same way. People add different ornamentation and variations. Even if I were to play a tune twice, I wouldn’t play it the same way both times and I probably wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly how I played it the first time!”
“The spontaneity Ní Dhubhshláine speaks of bubbles from a strong, lasting backbone of melody that inspires electrifying experimentation.”
The spontaneity Ní Dhubhshláine speaks of bubbles from a strong, lasting backbone of melody that inspires electrifying experimentation. Fowlis spoke of musical traditions adapting to survive, but Ní Dhubhshláine assures us that music is safe back West. The oral tradition has always been about listening and sharing, and those fields of human goodness, settled on a while back, are still content. If we abandoned them now, we’d be losing so much of ourselves.