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Celtic Mandolin—So, What Makes it Celtic?

     Chances are, if you play the mandolin, you’ve played some Celtic tunes. There’s too much repertoire overlap among the Irish, Scottish, Old Time, New England, Canadian, and bluegrass musical worlds to avoid Celtic tunes for long. So in this column and the ones to follow, I plan to encourage you Celtic enthusiasts with hot tunes and technique tips. And I hope to pique the interest of the rest of you by showing how to twist a tune just a little to make it suddenly sound very Celtic indeed.

     Let’s start with a definition. The term "Celtic" is a loose catch-all that includes traditions from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany, Cornwall, and one or two exotic corners of northern Spain. Most of us use the term to mean "Irish and Scottish," and that’s what I’ll do here, too. Mostly. But what makes a tune Celtic? That’s a fuzzier subject altogether.

     There are about a bazillion Irish and Scottish dance tunes and airs. Thousands can be found in printed collections like the popular "O’Neill’s Music of Ireland." You could learn a new tune a day for the rest of your life and never cover even the good ones. But just reading an Irish tune out of a book won’t guarantee it coming out sounding "Irish." In addition to following the Celtic "shape" of the tune, a musician must play the tune with the proper rhythmic nuance and ornamentation to capture the full cultural flavor of the piece.

     This is particularly difficult for mandolins. Why? Mandolins are relative newcomers in the trad scene in Ireland and Scotland. Their role in ensemble playing and versatility as both melodic and chordal instruments in the Celtic context have only flowered in the last few decades. And new instruments always start out trying to sound like old instruments.

     So the upstart mandolins try to play ornamental turns and scratchy, diggy triplets the way the fiddles do. The fiddles, in turn, are still trying within their structural limitations to sound like bagpipes sounded centuries before. And the bagpipes and the flutes and so on go back through the centuries, eventually trying to imitate the sounds of the naked human voice singing in an ancient language none of us speak anymore.

     But don’t panic. This is just the long historical context to get things started. The music right here and now is the fun part.

     You’ll find mandolins in sessions (or seisiúns) both in North America and the British Isles, usually playing melodies in unison with everybody else except the bodhrán, or Irish drum, and the guitar. But some of the most interesting developments in Celtic ensemble playing in recent years has been dished up by players of larger mando cousins—double-course instruments called citterns or octave mandolins or Irish bouzoukis, with varying tunings and numbers of strings. And these new developments are just as appropriate and enjoyable for mandolins.

     I first had my mind blown by the possibilities of an octave mandolin during a visit to Dublin in the late ‘70s. I heard a player cooking along behind the melody instruments, providing both open harmonic implications and a completely "un-guitar" percolating rhythmic engine that got right into my bones. I bought an octave mandolin the next day.

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