YOU DO not have to be a native of a particular country to enjoy its traditional music. Many who have never set foot in Cuba love the island’s sounds, numerous white indie bands are in thrall to Afro-beat, and Irish trad wins converts wherever it is heard.
A good example of the latter phenomenon is The Sumbrellas, a Galway based folk/trad group centred around an American and an Italian, whose personal and musical journeys led them to fall in love with Irish music and devote the time to playing it with passion.
The Sumbrellas are Federico Betti, from Milan, and Chris ‘Kentucky’ White, from the Southern States of the US. The band formed in summer 2009 and also consisted of a third member Emmet O’Malley, who has since departed to concentrate on various solo projects.
The Sumbrellas’ line up is to be expanded to a quartet. The new line up is Federico (violin ), Chris (vocals/guitar/mandolin/stomp box ), and two Belfast musicians - Ciara Delaney (vocals/guitar ) and Finbar Campbell (B String Fender guitar, an instrument somewhat similar to a pedal steel guitar ). So how did Federico and Chris get into Irish music?
The city of Milan was originally founded by the Celtic Insubres tribe in c500-400 BC, and as Federico points out northern Italy is not shy to acknowledge its Celtic heritage.
“There are many Celtic festivals in northern Italy and many people feel a connection to that, particularly those who live in the mountainous Alpine regions,” Federico tells me during our Monday afternoon interview. “An Italian friend of mine played the tin whistle and said I should listen to Irish music and gave me a CD of The Dubliners and The Pogues. I loved it and eventually discovered reels and jigs and learned to play them on the fiddle.
“At the festivals in Italy I saw Dervish. It was the first time I saw an Irish trad band and I was blown away. Then afterwards they played a session in a bar. There is nothing like that in Italy. Eventually I came to Galway and joined in the sessions, and played music. That was 12 years ago.”
When the Irish and the Scots emigrated in large numbers to the US in the 18th and 19th century they brought their music with them. The traditional music of these two nations would produce America’s traditional musics of country, bluegrass, and hillbilly. Much of this was located in the Southern States, yet, surprisingly it was not Chris’s entry point to Irish trad.
“I grew up with heavy metal,” he says. “It wasn’t until I moved to Ireland that I got into folk and trad and then I dived in. My friends in The Rye asked me to support them at gigs they were doing in Árus na nGael and so I’d bring my guitar and sing some songs. They were my foot in the door and then through my neighbour I was introduced to Federico and it took off from there.”
Chris acknowledges the close links between American and Irish trad, and The Sumbrellas sound encompasses both musics as well as touch of Italian, blues, and pop. “We call our music ‘Irish-American-Italiano’,” he says. “It’s the easiest way to describe it.”
“We all come from different backgrounds,” says Federico, “and everyone brings their own style, a bit of rock, pop, blues, trad, Cajun, and Finbar brings a lot of ‘western swing’ to the band. I think people when they first see us, think it’s unusual that we play so much Irish music but people like something that is a bit different and I think we are exotic.”
The band also play self-penned material as well as covers of The Waterboys and Rory Gallagher, not to mention Bing Crosby’s ‘Galway Bay’, with an American blues twist. Indeed The Sumbrellas and their version of this song were recently featured on TV.
“We were in the Jack Taylor pilot episode,” says Chris. “We were just busking and the film crew saw us and said ‘That’s what we need’. In the scene Nora Jane Noone is singing ‘Galway Bay’ and we’re backing her, playing the blues version of that song we do live.”
The Sumbrellas have also cultivated a particular image. During the interview Chris is wearing an outrageous shirt full of colourful designs and patterns, not unlike those on the suits worn by The Flying Burrito Brothers on the cover of The Guilded Palace Of Sin.
“Gram Parsons died just after midnight on the day I was born and I was born just after midnight,” says Chris, with a laugh, “so I am the reincarnation of Gram Parsons. You can call me Half-Gram!”
The Sumbrellas have recorded an EP, Fast Music, which is available at their live shows and through their Myspace site. The band will be touring Italy in April.
In the meantime you can see them this Saturday in Monroe’s Tavern at 9.30pm (and every second Saturday thereafter ) and on Sunday 27 from 2pm to 4pm (and every second Sunday thereafter ) in The Co-Op in Moycullen. Admission is free to both residencies.