Thursday, November 8, 2012


Kitty Gallagher
12" x 12"
oil on masonite, 2012
A banshee is a fairy figure of Irish lore. Her appearance is an omen and she wails when someone is about to die. That wail, according to legend, is a high pitched ululating voice that would scare anyone to death. Keening, as wailing is called in Ireland, is closely related to the banshee. Keening is the practice of lamentation in song at Irish funerals. The keener is often a close relative of the deceased but sometimes she is a well known keener. The best keeners were in high demand. Keening comes from the Irish word “caoin” meaning “to weep” or “to wail” at a funeral. The practice is officially extinct.

It must have been 1995, when I heard in a museum exhibit a sound recording of a banshee. But a banshee is a fairy which makes it very improbable that the recording I heard was actually that of a banshee. Yet it was the most beautiful and haunting recording of a female voice I had ever heard. I still have, to this day, not found out what it was precisely that I heard that one day in 1995. My memory tells me it was at the Columbus Museum of Art. I contacted the Museum but they could not tell me what it was. They didn’t know what I was talking about. If it wasn’t there I would not know where else it was I heard it, or where to inquire. But I did hear it—I’m not crazy—it was not something my mind had made up by dreaming or otherwise. It became a quest to find it, the holy grail of my music collection, a song so beautiful it would render all other music meaningless or at least pale in comparison. Irish friends well versed in Irish lore could not lead me to it, scientific research through the music cognition program at the Ohio State University, lead me to many wonderful places but not to the banshee. Many things I’ve found on my quest for that elusive recording. Keyword searches in many search engines yielded a lot wonderful music. I searched for keywords like keening, wailing, laments, mourning, and of course banshee, and I’ve gathered many examples of weep-singing, a tradition linked to the wake of a deceased one, often a child. A wake for a dead child is a festive ritual observed in many parts of the globe. The rituals are disappearing, keening is officially extinct, and sound recordings of such rites are sparse. It is thanks to those tireless ethnomusicologists in the early and middle of the 20th Century, that made it their life’s work to capture the traditions in music that were dying out, that there are any at all. Since 1995 I have been collecting the sounds of the wakes, the mourning songs, and other examples of weep-singing. And even with the vast amount of ethnographical music found on the web, my collection of weeping songs is growing only very slowly, and the recording of the banshee may remain forever elusive. But as they say: it is not the destination that matters, it is the journey.

This is my introduction to a compilation of weeping songs from my collection. It will be released on CD in a limited edition of only 25, intended as Christmas presents to close friends. The CD leads the listener through the Cossacks of the Caucasus, to the rainforests of Papua New Guinea, the Mediterranean, Eastern Europe, Latin America, Ireland of course, and many other locations. I wanted to compile such a CD for a long time but it was lacking a good keening song. That, my dear friends, I have now found:

Keening Song sung by Kitty Gallagher is only a recent addition to my collection of wailing songs. I could not have completed this compilation without a keening song from Ireland, the land that started my interest in the genre but from where I had not yet found a sound recording. True, it may not be precisely that elusive recording I once heard at the Columbus Museum of Art but it comes closer than any of the other tracks featured in this collection. Keening Song is featured on the album Traditional Songs of Ireland with recordings made between 1952 and 1961.

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