A Tale of Two Musical Cities

On Nov. 8, 2014, the New York – based Black 47 headlined the Irish Network- New Orleans (IN-NOLA) Famine Commemoration Gala  held at the Gallier Hall, 545 St. Charles Ave.

The following week, Black 47 disbanded, bringing exactly 25 years as one of Americas most politically vocal Irish bands to a close.

“There are two great cities in America,” said Larry Kirwan, founder and front-man of legendary progressive Celtic rock band, Black 47. “One is New York City; the other is New Orleans.”

While Kirwan hails from County Wexford, Black 47 doesn’t come from the “jigs and reels” tradition of Irish music.

“In Wexford, there is a tradition of what we call ‘long-form’ singing,” said Kirwan. “It tells the history of a people or a place. Well, we still have famine today – it is an ongoing thing. I first heard the term ‘Black 47’ from my grandfather. It was used to describe 1847, the worst year of the Irish Famine. The Irish famine was political, and so Black 47 was political for that reason.”

As a band, Black 47 is known for incorporating not just rock, but hip hop, reggae and even punk into its music.

“Using different rhythms is liberating,” said Kirwan. “When Black 47 formed back in 1989, we wanted to tell the story of how the Irish got to America, but we also wanted to tell the modern story of Irish immigration. We were using history to explain what was happening at the time, and what is still happening now. Why not use jazz timing, or hip hop? Why limit yourself to just jigs and reels?”

Celtic chanteuse torch singer, Tara O’Grady, also performed at the gala. A first generation Irish American, O’Grady was born less than a mile from Louis Armstrong’s home in New York City. Living in an Irish neighborhood in Queens, she grew up “surrounded by traditional Irish music.”

“While I loved the Irish songs,” remembered O’Grady. “I also loved swing and jazz. So I started taking Irish songs, and adding swing to them.”

According to O’Grady, singing used to be her “passion on the side,” but since 2011, she has been pursuing her music career full-time.

Next year will see the release of her fourth album, “Irish Bayou,” which was inspired by a trip to New Orleans during March 2014. One track on the new album, titled ‘A Heaping Helping of Your Love,’ is a love song dedicated to the sheer deliciousness of Camellia Grill’s chocolate pecan pie.

“It was so good I just couldn’t forget it, and I wrote that song on the way home,” laughed O’Grady.

“But New Orleans also has a taste of Ireland,” she said. “It’s relaxed. You can have a proper chat with people, sit down over a meal and not feel rushed. Musically, I pick up on the influences of other places, especially if I already love the aesthetic. And I find New Orleans very inspiring. It is an extraordinary city; a combustion of creativity.”

Kirwan also has memories of New Orleans that keep him coming back for more. He described the first time the band played at Tipitina’s as “one of the greatest memories I have of Black 47.”

“In New Orleans, all the different ethnicities mix, and so does their music,” said Kirwan.

“I met African Americans after the Tipitina’s show called things like Murphy, and Byrne; they told me that they had Irish ancestry. They also could hear we had been influenced by Bob Marley, Dr. John and Louis Armstrong. That mix of cultures, both in New Orleans and in New York, is far more interesting to me than some strict orthodoxy of ‘Irishness.’”

“For me, Black 47’s music has always represented modern Irish immigrants,” said Adrian D’Arcy, president of IN-NOLA, and Dublin native.

“And Tara O’Grady just adds such New Orleans flair to Irish music. IN-NOLA’s mission is to promote New Orleans, and the New Orleans culture to the Irish American Community and Ireland, and to also promote Ireland, and Irish culture in the city of New Orleans. What better way to do that than through music?”

Further information about Tara O’Grady is available at Tara O’Grady

Further information about Black 47 is available at Black 47

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