FolkWorld #46 11/2011
© Seán Laffey

Return Journey

Have you heard Shantalla are back? Seán Laffey talks to Gerry Murray and Helen Flaherty about the return of the best Irish band in Belgium.

Shantalla @ FolkWorld:
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Imagine my excitement in 2009 when I heard that Shantalla were re-forming, the final gig of their short tour would be in Brussels in January 2010. So that was the Christmas presents sorted: tickets booked for plane, hotel and concert.

January came and myself and herself went off to the Grande Place, it snowed, our hotel’s dining room served breakfast overlooking what must have been one of the most romantic scenes in Europe that winter, the only thing we had to do was wait until nightfall and make it across town to Le Théâtre Molière at the Naammesport and a surprise gig from Shantalla (she thought I’d brought her over for the chocolate).

The last time I saw Shantalla on home turf, it was at the Ancienne Belgique, a very fine venue in the fashionable centre of town, the 2000 seater has been graced by the likes of Iggy Pop, the Cure and Jaques Brel, so you can figure the drawing power of Shanatalla in the early noughties.

The reunion gig was in a much less auspicious venue, in the African quarter, on the edge of the city, a little more dangerous we were led to believe as the taxi driver wouldn’t take us all the way in to the Porte de Namur, but we had some fast food at Mr Chic and finally made it to the theatre, which was in a 1980’s shopping centre. The beer was good and cheap, the crowd friendly, OK the stage was a little threadbare but the band were on top form, the gig was amazing.

That was the end of the tour but a year and a half on and Shantalla are still running, they are back doing festivals and they have an own label album out: Turas. The key question, why the return journey?

Accordion player, Monaghan man, Gerry Murray tells me that by 2005 the band were ten years old and exhausted, they weren’t full time, they all had day jobs but they were in demand, every second weekend was taken up with tours and festivals, family life suffered, marriages and relationships suffered. Two albums had been made, they had enough material for a third, but they needed a break. Needed to step back, so they did.

Tuam native, fiddler Kieran Fahy left went to play with Valerio, and for the final year of the band Gerry (fiddle) O’Connor stepped in. Joe Hennon joined the medieval rockers Omnia, Helen Flaherty developed her own career with guitarist Philip Masure and also took on duties as the singer in the Dave Munnelly Band. Gerry Murray and piper Michael Horgan began playing the session scene again, worked the ceílí circuit and were joined as an occasional trio by guitarist and bouzouki player Simon Donnelly.

Then around 2007 a friend of theirs was diagnosed with cancer, he was a folk fan and determined that his last hurrah would be a concert with his favourite bands, all the proceeds would go to cancer research and he’d like Shantalla to perform at the gig please. They obliged, found they really liked playing together again, the pressure was off, the tunes were mighty, it was like the old days, but better. Fans started asking for more gigs and it just happened that Danú were not able to fulfil a concert tour so promoters started to call on the band too. Shantalla weren’t able to slot into the vacant gigs, but an idea was forming and that takes us up to the 2009/2010 short winter re-union tour.

The new look Shantalla has brought in Simon Donnelly so they are now a six piece. “We knew that Joe Hennon was committed to doing gigs with Omnia and if we were to get back as a touring band we needed a guitarist, so we auditioned Simon and he came on board. As things worked out we ended up with two guitarists, which has added so much more to what we do. Joe gives us loads of punch and drive and Simon has this delicate thing going on which has helped us develop the song side of our work.”

As for those songs they are the domain of Antwerp based Helen Flaherty, she told me “The songs that we have chosen for Turas have different meanings for me as a singer. We have two relatively modern songs, both of which have a strong message and are definitely written by songwriters with a social conscience, Whaur Dae ye Lie is a heartfelt song of loss and injustice, beautifully written by Karine Polwart and one which reaches out and touches you. It makes me think of all the men lost to war, of the women that have searched for them, perhaps in vain and of the injustice in our world.”

“On a personal level, I like to be able to sing from my heart, empathising with the words of the song, and I felt this was the case in these songs. Roving Highlander is a much more light hearted song, a tale of a likeable rogue who eventually had to pay for his crime of poaching with a passage to Van Diemen’s Land. This song was brought by Simon to the band. His style of playing also gives the band a different swing, and he and Joe complement each other very nicely.”

Gerry tells me the recording was done in Philip Masure’s small studio in Herentals. With Masure adding some percussion tracks, “he’s one of the continents finest guitarists but began life as drummer in a bagpipe band, so he has an amazing feeling for rhythm.” Asked why they didn’t call on Philip to slot into the vacant guitarist’s slot, Gerry says the idea behind Shantalla is that it is always going to be made up of exiles, an Irish band that is based in Belgium, having that strong link to the old country is essential for the band. “When we play gigs here folks come up to us afterwards and say that was great, when are you going home to Ireland!”

Family have become involved with the project too, with Gerry’s daughters adding backing vocals and Kieran’s son Lorcan playing mandolin on the recording. Helen tells me “I like the extra dimension that the different voices give. I love the way the sweet voices of Megan and Hannah Murray complement the lead on Whaur dae ye lie, the deep resounding bass of Luka Aubri-Kraeger playing the slideridoo on What you do with what you’ve got adds body...”

There are a number of new compositions on the album, such as Donkey Ride in the Sky, Gerry says he wrote virtually nothing during the break, his composing is with the band in mind, rather than just writing individual melodies for the sake of it.

Turas is self-financed with a special license deal to the not for profit Appel Rekords in Brussels, leaving the lads to license the album outside Belgium. They have a new manager in Patrick De Loecker who got things working for them, the album was recorded in April and launched in July at the Gooikorts festival. The phones are ringing, the media is interested again, things are looking up for the band.

Tell everyone, Shantalla are back and the return journey is just the ticket.

Photo Credits: (1)-(3) Shantalla (by Seán Laffey), (4) CD Cover 'Turas' (from website).

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