New features heavily in any description of the trio Iontach. They are embarking on a new musical direction, they have a new line-up and their new album is a new journey, writes Seán Laffey.
The photos for the album were taken in the Deutsches Auswanderhaus in Bremerhaven, near to the hometown of Iontach's guitarist Jens Kommnick. The museum is a tactile memory of German emigration, and the three members of Iontach, which also include flute player Siobhán Kennedy and box player Nick Wiseman-Ellis, were captured by photographer Dagmar Steele against a back drop of suitcases and steamer trunks. "It fitted so well with the idea of a new journey, which this new album is all about," Jens told me.
You could say that Iontach itself began with a journey, sometime around 1997 when Jens and his guitar came to Ireland on holiday. He takes up the story: "It was my first trip there on my own and I was going over to meet up with the fiddle player Gerry O'Connor in County Louth. I had played with him when he toured in Germany. One night he took me to a session, up in the hills somewhere, it was there I met Siobhán Kennedy." Jens clicked both musically and personally with the Dundalk flute player, so much so that sixteen years ago the couple tied the knot and set up home in Germany.
Iontach began on very strong foundations and their music, CD production and concert appearances cemented them as one of the best Irish bands in Germany. Iontach were formed in 2003 when the duo teamed up with Angelika Berns (vocals, bodhrán, low & tin whistle). Jens is a multi-instrumentalist, known principally for his guitar, but he is accomplished on the uilleann pipes, cello, piano, bouzouki and probably much more besides. Siobhán sings, plays flute, fiddle, whistles and concertina. Siobhán tells me that Angelika had decided in mid-2015 that it was time to retire from her band duties. That is where Nick Wiseman-Ellis stepped in, he was based in Norwich, England, at the time and they'd meet up occasionally. "One day in November 2015 Nick and Siobhán sat down in our kitchen", says Jens, adding "they began playing tunes as I left for work and by the time I came home after a day's teaching, they were still playing, it was obvious that Nick would fit in with what we were doing with Iontach."
Nick tells me they like to bring out the melodic qualities in the Irish tunes the trio play, "we take the pace down just a notch, it brings out more of the flavour of the tunes." With a penchant for the work of Galway's Paddy Fahey they certainly know how to work a memorable melody. Siobhán adds that the box gives the trio more space in which to play, "it has a different kind of resonance to the guitar and now all three core instruments really fill out the sound." Jens says the introduction of accordion has created a different dimension to their chordal work overall and the band are now in an exciting place musically. At Easter they decided that the recording of the new album would be a live take, no multi-tracking, no layering, "the sound of the album is what you will hear at a concert" says Siobhán.
The band has kept a commitment to vocal music too, influenced early on by the song traditions of Oriel, notably that of Eithne Ní Uallacháin. Nick laughs about his singing audition. "We were sitting around the kitchen table and I had to sing, getting the notes was pretty easy but I was daunted by the words, I was used to playing along with singers, but I'd never really had to learn the lyrics." Jens reckons Nick did a wonderful job.
Check out the three part harmony on Amhrán Na Cuiginne and Humble Hymn. Wonderful job ... well Iontach does mean wonderful, and the album doesn't fail to delight both vocally and instrumentally.
You might have to wait a while to see Iontach in Ireland, Siobhán and Jens do visit Louth every summer where they play a few concerts as part of their visit to friends and family. Which takes me back to the pictures of them against those suitcases, who knows what treasures those emigrants packed into those boxes, and what was released as they reached their destinations? German or Irish, emigration and hope and the distillation of a portmanteau culture on a foreign shore are things to be proud of.
First published @ Irish Music Magazine #255, October 2016 (www.irishmusicmagazine.com).
Photo Credits: Iontach: (1)-(2) 2016 (by Dagmar Steele), (3)-(4) 2006/2007 (by Walkin' Tom), (5) 2015 (by Folkfrühling Venne).