A Celtic twist on Christmas music


Two acclaimed artists will visit Hancher tonight to share holiday music rooted in their Celtic heritage.

By Joshua Balicki

Natalie MacMaster and Donnell Leahy meld contemporary folk with traditional Celtic music — forming a style that pushes the boundaries of genre. Their internationally renowned fiddling should put families in the holiday spirit.

MacMaster and Leahy will make their Iowa City début at 7:30 p.m. today at Hancher.

When his father emigrated from Cork, he “brought all of the Irish culture and music with him,” Leahy said. His mother was a native of Cape Breton, an island in Nova Scotia. Folk music was passed down from generation to generation — the marquee instrument being the fiddle.

MacMaster was raised on folk fiddling and step dancing in Cape Breton. The style was known to be one of the purest forms of Scottish music. Leahy grew up in hockey country where there was no definitive fiddling style. He enjoyed listening to whatever the radio offered him.   

MacMaster and Leahy both play by ear — working off each other’s nuances and improvisations impeccably. Their chemistry was developed by learning to be comfortable with “being ourselves on stage without stepping on each other in the process,” Leahy said.

MacMaster and Leahy were both leads in their own ensembles before they became a couple. Leahy fronted a Juno-Award-winning band with his 10 siblings. Their short film titled “Leahy: Music Most of All,” won an Academy Award.

Leahy and his family toured internationally with Shania Twain, and the tour provided a wealth of memories for him — not the least of which was “sitting down to have a beer with Bruce Springsteen,” Leahy said.

Another highlight of his career was when Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains — a traditional Dublin-based band known for collaborating with acclaimed musicians such as Luciano Pavarotti, Van Morrison, the Rolling Stones, and Madonna, invited Leahy to perform with them in Ireland.   

At the age of 16, MacMaster had early success with her début album, Four on the Floor.  Her sophomore album, Road to the Isle, was released two years later, in 1991. Her fiddling has earned her two Juno Awards and numerous “Artist of the Year” awards from East Coast Music Association.   

MacMaster and Leahy discovered that writing new music together worked better than trying to adapt their individual performances. Leahy said French-Canadian fiddler Jan Carignan inspired him at a young age.    

Canadian rock icon Bob Ezrin produced their highly anticipated début album, One. Known for his influence on bands such as Pink Floyd, Lou Reed, and Kiss, Ezrin had an unprecedented level of confidence when listening to their unique Celtic style.

“There is a sense of command and respect he brings to the studio,” Leahy said. “A positive intensity exists when he is in the studio that makes everyone keen and sharp.”

A Celtic Family Christmas  features unique renditions of beloved holiday classics such as “Twelve Days of Christmas,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Leahy said  he and MacMaster “grew up on Christmas music,” which made the album come naturally. 

MacMaster and Leahy bring their sixz young children on tour where they are surrounded by world-class musicians, participate in live performances, and learn from the cross-country sites and sounds.

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