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‘Danú: A Christmas Gathering – Féile Na Nollag’ at GMU’s Center for The Arts

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“How do you dance a jig in a concert hall?” I wondered going in to the Danú Concert at George Mason’s Center for the Performing Arts on December 6th. Danú is a top-notch Irish traditional music band, so I knew there would be jigs aplenty, together with reels and other forms of dance including, apparently, the polka, which – I discovered to my delight – is well-known in Ireland.

Danú. Photo courtesy of their website.

Danú. Photo courtesy of their website.

The answer, as it turns out, is that you clap. You can also tap your foot, of course, and if the music really strikes your fancy, or you want to encourage the musicians and amp up the energy in the room, you can bark like a dog. That’s how they do it in the more rustic parts of Ireland, the band members explained, though there are tamer ways of shouting encouragement as well.

Clapping’s well and good, but a really good folk dance wants a dancer, and they were certainly to be had Sunday night in the form of a couple of Irish steppers, a male and female pair (uncredited by name in the program) who put in a fun, skilled performance.  As good as the music was, the dancing was just as stellar and a real highlight of the evening.

Although the concert was mostly up-tempo and instrumental, there were a few slower numbers, some of them sung. One of the best of the slower instrumental pieces was the band’s new composition for accompanied fiddle meant to evoke the “homecoming” aspect of the holiday season in Ireland. Ireland has for the last few centuries seen lots of emigration, but today during the Christmas festivities many of those emigrants return home to the warmth and the cheer of the family hearth, as everyone gathers back together for a time.

No “Christmas gathering” would be complete without a carol; Sunday night’s performance featured the lovely Irish version of “Silent Night” – “Oiche Chiuin” – sung beautifully by Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, who also plays flute and tin whistle.

Nic Amhlaoibh also sang the other vocal highlight of the evening, “The Boys of Barr na Sráide,” with words by Irish poet Sigerson Clifford. The song mentions “hunting for the wren,” which according to ancient Irish tradition takes place on December 26, the second day of Christmas.  This is St. Stephen’s Day, which celebrates the martyrdom of a saint who according to hoary legend hid from his persecutors in a bush, but when a wren disclosed his location was taken out and put to death. In retaliation, the Irish would traditionally hunt a wren on St. Stephen’s Day and carry it around from house to house, dead in a cage, singing carols and passing out food and drink.  They still do this today, though as the band explained, the wren in the cage is no longer real, but a stuffed animal.

Nic Amlaoibh’s voice on this song was particularly good, reminiscent – here only – of the late Sandy Denny’s.

Besides tin whistle, flute, and fiddle, the band members played bazouki, guitar, drums, piano, and accordion.  They are all wonderful musicians.  Folk enthusiasts will note that guitar player Donal Clancy is the son of Liam Clancy, of the Clancy brothers.

Danú’s stage manner is subdued and laid back, self-deprecating but friendly.  Their playing is high-energy, lyrical, and fun. Anyone fond of folk music, or of Celtic culture, should be sure to catch one of their shows next time they pass through.

Danú played for one performance only on Sunday, December 6, 2015 at GMU Center for the Performing Arts Center – 4373 Mason Pond Drive, in Fairfax, VA. Check their upcoming performances on their event calendar.

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