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An Interview with Seán Keane, Irish Singer
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Seán Keane knows "the U2 lads," is friends with the President of Ireland, and is honestly one of the most charming people I've ever met. Never mind that I could listen to him talk all day with his Irish accent, but he is also a phenomenal singer.
In the traditional Irish singing known as Sean-nós (Irish for "old style"), Seán tells stories both old and original. It's thanks to his family, full of singers, that he was introduced to this complex Gaelic singing.
The singing tradition is important to the Irish, as it's been around since the first settlers of Ireland. Music was as natural and important to the Irish as working in the fields. Farmers would sing in the fields and in the evenings. Between harvests, the farmers ("Spailpín" in Irish) would travel to other cities and sing for audiences. Then when it came time to harvest again, they would return home and back to their hard work.
Born in a small village called Caherlistrane near Tuam in County Galway, Seán grew up in a family of singers and musicians. Seán learned the sean-nós style of singing from his mother and his aunts.
Keane's grandmother was known as a song collector, gathering songs from travelers. She had a giant leather case stuffed with sheets of music and lyrics with songs from days of old. When Seán was six years old, he witnessed an argument between his grandmother and a visitor. They debated the words of a song, a story of a young man who falls in love with the landlord's daughter. When they tried to elope, the man was captured, tried, and sent to Australia for seven years of indentured servitude. When his grandmother and visitor disagreed on the words, she threw the paper into an open fire. It was these words that grabbed Seán's attention, sending him on a course that would change his life.
A few months after that day, Seán sang and won a competition. He was brought to Dublin, where he realized this new passion that could take him to new cities.
"As a small boy from a small town, visiting Dublin was a grand thing," says Keane. "If singing could get me that far, I thought surely it was something I wanted to do!"
By the time Seán reached his teens, he had collected thirteen All-Ireland medals in Fleadh Ceoil competitions. He was by then an accomplished whistle and flute player as well and had taken up the uilleann pipes and bodhraun. In 1979, Keane was 17 when he moved to London to play professionally. (His band at that time, Shegui, means "fairy wind.")
He went on his first tour to the US in 1982, at just 20 years old. He played with his father and family, singing at dances, parties, weddings and other events. After he met his wife (love at first sight by Keane's description), and had their first daughter, his wife became his manager. They made several albums together; she's since passed away, but you almost wouldn't know it by the loving way he speaks of her.
One of the best things about traveling these days, Keane says, is that the world has gotten much smaller. Flights are cheaper and while the security is tighter, it's much easier to get around the world than it used to be. Keane enjoys playing festivals, especially some of the major US ones. His biggest audience was about 20,000 people. Seán says his most unusual show took place in Babylon, just outside of Iraq.
"When I was married with two young children, I stayed close to Europe. I've spent a lot of time in Spain. Now I like to play and work in the US."
While he enjoys the bright lights of big US cities (Boston and NY have so many Irish families it's like being back home in Ireland!), Keane says he prefers the countryside. Mountain views are highly desired, so festivals like FloydFest combine the best of both worlds. As far as hobbies, Seán is still involved with things that help his creative flow. He enjoys fishing and being in his workshop.
"I like doing things with my hands," he says. "Creatively, it helps with the flow of singing. I get caught up in work and find myself humming and singing, creating new songs."
Readers, you'll see at the top of this post that we have a special video of Seán singing an old favorite. Have a listen; I almost guarantee you'll be carried away to Ireland with his voice and lyrics.
Seán Keane performs at The Harvester in Rocky Mount, VA on Wednesday, September 24th.
For more information and to keep up with the tour, visit Seán's website here.