Shantalla is a band that is based in Belgium, but all the musicians are hailing from Ireland and Scotland. They have released their debut album last year, and the reactions where quite impressive. Often their music is compered with the Bothy band. We want to have a look what this is all about.
Shantalla think that they have some advantages of being Belgium based, outside of the scene in Ireland/Scotland: "We've been able to develop as a band without any spotlight on us. We were able to take our time, pick our material carefully and arrange it, and then test it out on the road for a year before recording the album. As a result, the people on the Irish/Scottish scene who are now beginning to 'discover' us are seeing and hearing a very solid and confident band."
Another advantage of being based in Belgium is that they can travel by road to lots of places rather than having to fly over from Ireland or Scotland, which reduces costs either for them and their for promoters.
They are describing their music as "Pretty straightforward, acoustic traditional Irish and Scottish music, played and sung with a lot of pride and as much passion, energy and drive as we can muster. We have a mix of strings and reed instruments - uilleann pipes, fiddle, accordion, flute, guitar, bouzouki, etc."
Quite a few people have said that they are reminded by them of bands from the 1970s "that's probably a fair comment and one that we're quite happy with!"
Shantalla came about from a band where Kieran Fahy and Michael Horgan played in called Sean Talamh. They have released one album in 1993 but two members returned to Ireland in 1995 and Joe Hennon and Gerry Murray came in to help fulfil outstanding gig commitments in Germany and Belgium through 1996. "At this point we decided to regroup and form a new band with a new name." Sean Talamh is Gaelic for 'old ground' or 'old country', meaning Ireland (or Scotland - the language is the same). There are several places in Ireland called Shantalla - in Galway, Derry and Dublin for example. The words Sean Talamh are transferred into Shantalla by the English, because they couldn't pronounce it. "We liked the sound of it and we thought it was appropriate for a band made up of emigrants. - And it's certainly easier for non Gaelic speakers to pronounce!"
The newest member of Shantalla, the Scottish singer Helen Flaherty joined them in late 1997. They signed with the Belgian Wild Boar Music label in 1998 and their debut album was released towards the end of that year.
The musical background of the musicians is quite divers. Gerry and Michael had a very solid traditional music education from an early age on, while Kieran came to it via classical music. Joe was a rock musician, but had always been interested in traditional music and Helen had been playing guitar and singing in a variety of styles from rock/pop to folk songs that she had learned as a child. Both Gerry and Kieran have won national titles in competitions and Gerry is a qualified Irish music teacher. Kieran has recorded two solo albums and he, Michael and Helen have also appeared as guest musicians on a number of albums by other artists, while Gerry and Michael also played on Kieran's last album, 'The Woman from Tuam'.
The Irish scene in Belgium is not that strong at the moment. There are occasional sessions and the members of Shantalla are joining in if they have the time. But they are not held regularly, and there are only one or two ceilidhs each year. The concert scene nevertheless has been improving recently. Up to a few years ago very few bands came to Belgium to play anything other than the festivals, but the likes of Lunasa, Dervish, Nomos, Altan, De Dannan, Anam, Patrick Street, Kevin Burke, Liam O'Flynn, Donal Lunny and others have all been here to play concerts over the last few years "which is quite a revolution".
The success of Riverdance, Lord of the Dance, The Corrs, and even the film Titanic, has helped to create a greater mainstream awareness of Irish music. There was a series of concerts in Belgium recently involving diverse artists such as Paco De Lucia, Buena Vista Social Club, Shirley Bassey etc., and the promoters included an Irish Night with Shantalla and Dervish which attracted nearly 800 people. That indicates a new awareness of Irish music both among promoters and audiences.
"The Cultural Centres here are also getting involved in folk music now which is a positive development. Up to recently, Irish music was confined mostly to folk clubs and festivals where only the already converted attend, but the Cultural Centres attract a totally different audience. One Cultural Centre in particular has held a successful Celtic Night for the past few years with some big names like Donal Lunny and Liam O'Flynn, and now some of the others seem to be thinking about following suit. We'll be doing a tour of five Cultural Centres here with Altan later this year, and we like to think we'll be bringing the music to people who may not have heard it before."
For developing an typical Belgian Irish style there are not enough Irish emigrants living in Belgium. "Substantial Irish emigration to mainland Europe is a very recent phenomenon - since Ireland joined the EU really - compared with the millions of people who went to the UK and USA over the past 200 years. There are only 7000 Irish people in Belgium and a lot of those would only intend to be here on a short-term basis. There are just not enough traditional musicians here for a separate style to have developed."
But of course Irish emigration has gone to continental Europe over many centuries and has included saints and scholars, some of whom founded centres of learning (in Salamanca, for example, and Leuven near where, by coincidence, a couple of members of Shantalla now live). The old Gaelic aristocracy also fled to the Continent after their defeat by the British at the end of the 17th Century and made an impression, particularly in France (General MacMahon, Hennessy Cognac, Chateau O'Brien wine). "Irish writers have also settled on the Continent and made important contributions to European literature (Joyce and Beckett), so maybe our generation can make a contribution to European music!"
Shantalla has recently made there first experiences in front of Irish audiences. "We have just recently played our first ever dates in Ireland. The reaction at those Irish gigs and from the press and radio was very positive. We certainly hope that we can help draw attention not just to ourselves but to what's going on in mainland Europe generally at the moment, and maybe not just the Celtic scene. In Belgium alone there are plenty of bands worthy of international attention."
For the future, Shantalla plan to play more extensively around Europe next year (2000) as the album is released in more and more countries, and they would also like to take their music to the USA and Asia if time permits. They are planning to record album #2 in the Spring and are currently working on new material for this. "We could remain with Wild Boar Music but we've also had strong interest from several international record labels and we'll be making up our minds in that regard over the coming months."
Latest published CD: 'Shantalla', Wild Boar Music (WBM 21004).
Up-to-date information on Shantalla - news, articles, concert dates etc. can be found on their website at: http://www.shantalla.com.
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