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North Atlantic Music Ensemble both upholds and breaks tradition in concert

The North Atlantic Music Ensemble delivered some memorable performances at their fall concert at Eaton Chapel on Thursday, Nov. 29.

The Beloit College ensemble practices traditional folk music from Atlantic Europe, particularly Ireland and Britain, North America and the Nordic countries. For this performance, director of the ensemble, Tes Slominski, wrote that the group hopes to induce feelings of “joy,
pensive melancholy, uproarious laughter, and most of all, solidarity.”  

The concert opened with “Calling On Song,” written in 1970 by Ashley Hutchings, one of the founding members of the English folk-rock band Steeleye Span. The 12 members of the ensemble, dressed in plaid, played and sang along with Slominski, an ethnomusicologist, fiddle player, and assistant professor at Beloit since 2012.

Later on, the group performed “Bread & Roses,” a labor song adapted by the 1911 poem by James Oppenheim. The song is associated with a 1912 strike at a textile mill in Lawrence, MA, where women coined the phrase “Bread and Roses,” taken from a speech by labor activist Rose Schneiderman, who asserted that workers shouldn’t have to settle for subsistence, but should be able to afford pleasures in life as well. The ensemble learned the song from folk-punk singer Shannon Murray, who visited the college in October to speak about music and gender in the early 20th-century labor movement.

Five members of the ensemble then performed a mashup of two jigs, “Kesh/Morrison’s,” which was followed by “Santianna,” a sea shanty, whose lyrics are almost all factually incorrect, written by British sailors about a general in the Mexican-American War, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna.

“Santianna” was a turning point for the night. Sung in acapella, the group’s loud chants and foot-stomping echoed throughout the chapel, making it one of their most engaging performances.

Afterwards, six members replaced the five that were on stage to perform the traditional Irish slip jig called “Butterfly,” which was followed by the most entertaining performance of the night.

The song “Sunk’n Norwegian” was popularized by the Scottish heavy metal band Alestorm, who are known for their distinct “pirate metal” sound. The song is about a Wisconsin pub that closed down recently called The Sunk’n Norwegian.

With Pieter Bonin on the drum kit and Ian Normoyle and EJ Lowney on vocals, “Sunk’n Norwegian” was one of the few songs that stood out considerably from the mostly tame folk music played that night. Dressed in a pirate coat and holding a plastic sword, Normoyle committed to his character and kept the audience engaged. With the headbanging, costumes, and other theatrics, particularly when Normoyle stabbed Lowney with his pretend sword toward the end, the performance was easily the most memorable of that night.

For the next song, the ensemble tested their Gaelic with “Bean Phaidín (Paddy’s Wife),” a classic children’s song written from the perspective of a woman who goes to great lengths to stalk the wife of a man she hoped to marry. Slominski, who again joined the ensemble to perform this song, proudly added that this was the first time the entire group learned the entire song in Gaelic.

The concert ended with a dramatic performance of the song “Ain’t We Brothers” by Virginia songwriter Sam Gleaves. The song is based on a true story of a West Virginia coal miner Sam Williams, who suffered discrimination from his fellow workers for being gay.

With “Bread & Roses” and “Ain’t We Brothers,” the ensemble succeeds in inducing the solidarity and pensive melancholy that Slominski hoped to achieve. This, along with the notable performances of “Santianna” and “Sunk’n Norwegian,” made the concert worth going to.

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