Spellbound this morning watching Sean de hOra, a famous old Irish singer, performing his version of the Irish air Bean Dubh an Ghleanna (The Dark Woman of the Glen). He is a gorgeous interpreter of the “sean nos” or old style of Irish singing, which is deeply emotional and moving evoking in the performer something of the duende that Lorca wrote about in flamenco. In both flamenco and sean nos, there is a sense that supernatural creatures are near by, and there is tradition that links the singing of these songs to the kidnapping of the singer by fairies, so powerful is the song.
For these reasons – the weight of emotion being communicated and the fear of being lost – a tradition in sean nos singing is to have someone engage in “hand winding” with the singer and you can see this in this video. It is a gesture of amazing empathy, and it brings the singer into the fullness of the expression of the song without him fearing being lost or taken away.
Here is Ciaran Carson:
In the ‘hand-winding’ system of the Irish sean-nós, a sympathetic listener grasps the singer’s hand; or, indeed, the singer may initiate first contact and reach out for a listener. The singer then might close his eyes, if they are open (sometimes he might grope for someone, like a blind man) and appear to go into a trance; or his eyes, if open, might focus on some remote corner of the room, as if his gaze could penetrate the fabric, and take him to some antique, far-off happening among the stars. The two clasped hands remind one another of each other, following each other; loops and spirals accompany the melody, singer and listener are rooted static to the spot, and yet the winding unwinds like a line of music with its ups and downs, its glens and plateaux and its little melismatic avalanches.
What do you notice here?