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Celtic Rock With A Difference

By Alexa Thompson - Celtic Heritage Magazine

Slažnte Mhath, Celtic music's young rock/pop group has just released their latest blend of traditional music with their unique style in VA. "Va" of course is French for "Go." Sounds appropriate for an energetic band. Right? Nope.

According to Ryan MacNeil, "Va" is how to produce "Mhath". So why Slažnte Mhath, for that matter. A salute, Good Health, seems an odd choice, even for a Celtic band. Well, as Lisa explains it, they used to be introduced by their names, which proved cumbersome. Then one day a presenter gave up and announced, "Here's Slažnte Mhath!" It stuck.

They are Ryan and Boyd MacNeil, younger brothers of the Barra MacNeils, Lisa Gallant, John MacPhee and Brian Talbot. Lisa and John met at the Gaelic College. Odd man out Brian has no Celtic background but his style of playing fits nicely with the band's music.

This is a touring band. Their music is loud and infectious, filled with sound and dance. It's high energy, says Boyd, and that's what appeals to its largely younger audience.

And they have toured all of North America and most of Europe (most recently appearing June 30 at a Canada Day event in New York City). Ian Green of Greentrax Recordings took young Ryan under his wing when the fiddler was playing in Scotland with Hamish Moore around 1993-94. In a business in which artists can be ripped off by record labels, he says of Ian: "He is the most honest man you'll find in the music industry." The band's recent decision to give Greentrax a European licence for VA means that their European tours will run smoothly. CDs will be at venues.

VA, says Lisa, is their coming of age album. It is, she feels, about who they are and what they are. Producer Joao Carvallio put a lot of effort into every track but, says Boyd, "It's our album. It's what we came up with." Traditional tunes stamped with Slažnte Mhath style.

Ryan MacNeil (26) began playing at aged seven and now plays keyboards and percussion. He still recalls how he got started on piano. He'd been sick and was feeling bored, so he decided to play about with a piano. He was shown three chords. And, as he says, tongue in cheek, "A day missing school changed the world."

Boyd MacNeil (21), just three years out of school, started even early. He began to play at four and started lessons at seven. He plays octave mandolin, fiddle, guitars and percussion

Lisa Gallant (22) got her start in step-dancing at the age of six. Just into her teens, she took up the fiddle and the bodhrŗn. She also took classical violin lessons and spent seven years under the instruction of fiddler Aly Bennett.

John MacPhee (22) is the piper (Highland bagpipes, Scottish reel pipes and Irish flute). He's been playing since age 8. "I was a rambunctious kids and it's the loudest instrument I could find," he says. He's from Summerside, Prince Edward Island, and credits the Island's College of Piping with getting him to where he is today. But he also has fond childhood memories of two-week camps at St. Ann's Gaelic College. "It (the Gaelic College) is very important, he says, "because it gets young people wrapped up in tradition."

Drummer Brian Talbot (22) was a session drummer in and around Sydney, getting plenty of work with different groups and touring a fair bit. He came up through the public school system, learning to play percussion with the school band. By the time he was 15 he was playing not with the students but the teachers. When Slažnte Mhath first approached him to play drums, he had to do quite a juggling act. All week he played with a jazz group. Then on Saturday, just three days after Bruce McPhee gave him a tape of 10 Slažnte Mhath songs, he was on stage with the band.


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