Music: The Power of Connection

by Kerry Dexter /
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Sep 18, 2017 / 0 comments

Fires and floods, wars and famines, political uncertainty all across the globe: it is a time of change. Within those shifting circumstances, it can be helpful to remember the power of connection, and the power of music to help make and renew connection. Connection can renew hope, too. Here are music ideas to explore with those thoughts in mind.

Music: The Power of Connection

The title track of Waves, from Jennifer Cutting's Ocean Orchestra, explores the idea of connection with a musical and metaphysical approach to the thought that we are all waves, individual and yet part of the same sea. In case that sounds a touch too metaphysical to you, you'll want to know several things. The Ocean Orchestra comprises several of the Washington DC area's top folk musicians, among them singers and players of bouzouki, guitars, Highland bagpipes, fiddles, electric bass, and drums, along with Cutting's own work on keyboards and accordion, and a few special guests joining in for this project. Their music is based in that adventurous territory of Brit folk pop pioneered by Fairport Convention and others, and by The New Saint George, an earlier band of which singer Lisa Moscatiello, bassist Rico Petruccelli, and Cutting, an award-winning composer and arranger who has her own Maryland based production company, were part. In the dozen tracks on Waves, there are reworkings of traditional Celtic music and original compositions by Cutting. The subject matter is by turns serious and funny, lively and reflective. The instrumental Everything Glows (The Curried Haggis) is a meeting of bagpipes, Indian Bhangra, and catchy rhythm, a study in connection itself. Steady as You Go is a graceful song composed, Cutting says, for saying goodbye to a departed loved one, but it holds elements that could work for celebrating connection and change in any friendship that embraces distance and separation. Waves is a fine album with which to explore change and connection in many ways. 


A swirling, mystical, magical invitation to connection, to trust, to change, is what you will hear from the first notes of What's Closest to the Heart, from Cathie Ryan. Ryan is well recognized for her singing. What's at times less recognized is the fine and varied quality of her songwriting. What's Closest to the Heart was a surprise and a challenge for Ryan to write: she most often begins with lyrics, finding melody within words after she's completed writing the them. For this song though, she had only a snippet of lyric, the glimmer of an idea. She said the snippet to her friends guitarists John Doyle and Kris Drever and fiddler John McCusker while they were working on production of other songs for what would become her album The Farthest Wave. "They came up with this really intense, just mesmeric groove, just from the meter of the few words. I fell in love with it, and said, let's record it now! -- I'll just sing la la la la -- and that's what we did," Ryan recalls. "I went home with the track, and then I thought, what have I gotten myself into? I'm never gonna be able to find words for this melody." She did, though. The result is a swirling, shape shifting groove of melody and of lyric in both English and Irish, an enigmatic song that, while it fits well with Ryan's other songwriting, is a bit different from most of it. One of the things it can suggest is the possibility of connection even when circumstance seems against that. What's Closest to the Heart was recorded on Ryan's album The Farthest Wave, which offers other original songs and songs from the tradition which speak to resilience, connection, and change, framed in Ryan's Irish and American heritage and in images from the natural world.


Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh comes from Donegal, in Ireland's far northwest. She is a founder, and fiddle player and singer, with the top traditional band Altan. In more than thirty years together, they have explored many parameters of Ireland's music. For their recording The Widening Gyre, they looked to examining the cross connections between the music of Ireland and the music of Appalachia. One song on the album had its beginnings closer to home, though.

Many members of Mairéad's family are involved in music. Her father Francie was a fiddle player, sailor, and playwright. When he passed on, Mairéad's friends Ian Smith and Enda Cullen wrote a song to help her through that time. Carrickfinn is a beach in the west of Donegal, along what is now known as the Wild Atlantic Way. The songwriters chose the images of the waters and of stars (there was a shooting star in the sky the night of Francie's death) to speak to connections which exist beyond time and place, back into memory and forward into dreams. The song is called Far Beyond Carrickfinn. The men of Altan sing in Irish behind Mairéad's lead voice singing in English, and Scotland's Eddi Reader offers harmony. 


Carrie Newcomer was at her home in Indiana, working on preparing her next album, when a request came from a family friend: Would she come to India to take part in a weekend on peace and justice? Shortly after that, the cultural section of the US Embassy in India wanted to know if she'd be willing to spend several weeks in the country, working with cultural organizations and schools. Newcomer is a singer and songwriter whose work could be called Americana, and whose subjects often include ideas of peace and social justice, and finding the sacred in the everyday. She is Quaker, and "my faith is a big part of my life, so it comes out in my work," she says, "though a Christian label wouldn't touch me with a ten foot pole!" she adds, laughing.

Newcomer tours regularly across the US and Europe, but India had not been on her radar. She decided to go, though, and spent about a month there. One of the results of that time is her album called Everything is Everywhere, a collection of music which both interrogates and celebrates ideas of connection across cultures. When her schedule during the trip allowed, she made a point to seek out and spend time with Indian musicians. One such connection was with the Khan family, celebrated sarod players. When the Khans came on tour to the US, they continued the connection: Newcomer asked them to be part of the album, of which Everything is Everywhere is the title track. You may also find songs from that album, and others, on the recording Kindred Spirits. That album is, Newcomer points out, not so much a greatest hits album as one of favorites. Both recordings, however, offer much to think about when considering connection, change, and hope.


Read other stories in this series:

Songs of Courage

Asking Questions, Telling Stories: Music for Times of Change

Music for Unsettling Times: Conversations and Questions

Music of Resilience

Songs of Hope

Songs of Hope, Gracias a La Vida

Songs of Friendship

Music in Times of Change

Music for Reflection

Three Feet or So: Music and Creating Positive Change in the World


Kerry Dexter is Music Editor at Wandering Educators. You may reach Kerry at music at wanderingeducators dot com.

You may find more of Kerry's work in National Geographic Traveler, Strings, Perceptive Travel, Journey to Scotland, Irish Fireside, and other places, as well as at her own site, Music Road.