October 24, 2017
La Nef is one of those ensembles, like the Baltimore Consort, that straddles early music and folk. Like the Baltimore Consort, its early recordings were on the Dorian label, and were nothing if not eclectic. Its first release, Music for Joan the Mad, featured Spanish music from around the year 1500, and since then the members have gone to many different times and places. The last La Nef disc I reviewed here (Fanfare 35:5), in which they were joined by American tenor Michael Slattery, presented songs by John Dowland in the style of Irish folk songs.
Now the French-Canadian ensemble returns with a program of English-language songs associated with sailors and the sea. This repertoire is not easy to do well; many ensembles clean it up and put a nice suit on it, which seems wrong-headed to me. For example, much as I respect Robert Shaw and his eponymous Chorale, their early stereo disc of sea shanties is great choral singing but hardly evocative of life on the seas and in the ports. On the other hand, these songs deserve the attention and scholarship that traditional songs in other genres have received; they should not be treated casually. Given La Nef’s background, I think its personnel were well positioned to deliver the goods on this CD, and deliver them they do.
The arrangements are by Dagher and La Nef colleagues Nelson Carter and David Gossage. Dagher sings on several of the tracks, and different La Nef members sing on others. Both solo and group singing are presented, and accompaniments vary from none at all to combinations including cittern, harmonium, shruti box, flutes, strings, and percussion. The songs themselves should leave you with no doubt that a sailor’s life is neither easy nor romantic, and the characterful performances, while expert in every way, reflect the sometimes harsh realities that these men faced. Many of them still do! On Go To Sea No More, Nelson Carter sings about signing on to a boat simply to recoup the loss of both his money and his watch, after a drunken night with a woman of the port. H.M.S. Pinafore this is not! Some of these songs are funny and wry, some are work songs, but many of them are wistful, if not more deeply sad.
La Nef brings a welcome degree of authenticity to these songs, and I recommend this CD to all readers, unless they are looking for a strictly “classical” experience—but if that is the case, then why are they reading this review?
Raymond Tuttle - Fanfare
August 29, 2017
This current project is under the direction of eclectic singer Seán Dagher, himself as at home in an Irish pub as in many musical traditions from Medieval and Baroque through contemporary folk. Dagher tells us: “These songs did not start out as music to be heard. These were songs to sing, songs to help with the work, songs to pass the time. Their original functions influenced the way they are built […] as call and response songs: a whole crew can learn a song from one man in the first instants he’s singing it. They are sung rhythmically, so the hauling is most efficient. Or they are sung freely, as if to fill the long days and evenings spent together. These songs are spread by oral trading, creating many variants and variations.”
This tradition was brought home to me earlier this summer when I came upon a version of the song I had grown up believing was called Sloop John B. As I found out from Tom Lewis’ rendition of the original Nassau Bound, the Beach Boys “left out the [most interesting] parts.” That, in combination with re-visiting a disc I wrote about last year, by Chaim Tannenbaum, which includes a duet with Loudon Wainwright on the traditional tune Paddy Doyle, primed the pump for my appreciation of this Irish-tinged maritime journey with La Nef.
The disc opens gently with Leave Her, Johnny, with sparse cittern accompaniment that gradually adds more voices, bass and flute and grows to a full finish replete with bosun’s whistle, wave sounds and seagull cries. As the disc progresses through drinking songs and laments, cautionary tales of press gangs and ship wrecks, welcoming tunes like Over the Hills and Far Away and Haul on the Bowline, we are drawn into the myriad moods of the seafarer. It’s at times randy and rugged, so strap yourself to the mast and prepare for adventure. But be forewarned, like shades of the John B: “I hate to sail on this rotten tub; No grog allowed and rotten grub,” so pack a lunch!
David Olds - The WholeNote
May 18, 2017
Avec l’album Sea Songs and Shanties, Seán Dagher et l’ensemble La Nef nous font découvrir la singulière et émouvante beauté des chants de marins. De tradition orale, originaires des îles britanniques et d’Amérique, ces chansons ont voyagé sur toutes les mers du monde. Prêt pour l’aventure? Allez, on prend le large!
Il y a assurément quelque chose de prenant et d’entraînant dans ces chants de compagnons errants maritimes. Et il y a quelque chose de profondément authentique dans l’interprétation que nous en offrent les sept gaillards de l’ensemble La Nef sur ce nouvel enregistrement de la maison québécoise Atma classique.
De la cale des navires au studio d’enregistrement — ici, l’église Saint-Augustin de Mirabel, au Québec — le directeur musical Seán Dagher et ses camarades, Nils Brown, Michiel Schrey, Clayton Kennedy, David Gossage, Nelson Carter et Andrew Horton, sont parvenus à s’approprier ce riche répertoire tout en lui préservant son caractère et sa saveur uniques. La magie opère : on écoute cet album comme si l’on était attablé au beau milieu d’une bande de loups de mer, sirotant un whisky, le bruit des flots dans les oreilles et l’horizon à perte de vue. C’est tout l’univers musical de ces hommes qui est dépeint ici : chants de labeur, chansons à boire et à danser, ainsi que tristes complaintes évoquant les amours impossibles ou les malheurs de l’errance.
Si vous êtes un amateur de jeux vidéo, les pièces présentées dans cet album vous sont sans doute déjà familières, puisqu’on en retrouve quelques-unes, interprétées par Seán Dagher, dans la très populaire série Assassin’s Creed, d’Ubisoft. Le succès des épisodes 3 et 4 de cette série n’est d’ailleurs sûrement pas étranger à la présence de ces chants de marins et de la voix captivante du directeur musical de La Nef.
Enfin, sachez que le spectacle Sea songs : chansons marines sera en tournée à Montréal et dans ses environs au cours de la prochaine année :
• 30 juillet, 11 h — Chambly
• 30 juillet, 16 h – Apéro-Classique à la Zone Musique, Place d'Armes, Montréal
• 17 septembre — Montréal Ouest
• 13 octobre — Pointe-Claire
• 5 décembre — Maison de la culture Côte-des-Neiges
• 23 février — Dorval
• 5 avril — Maison de la culture Ahuntsic
• 6 avril — Pierrefonds
• 27 avril — Maison de la culture Rivière-des-Prairies
Frédéric Trudel - ICI Musique
CBC First Play
April 27, 2017
"When a song can quiet two dozen drunks, you can be confident that there is something there that's worth listening to," says Seán Dagher, music director of Sea Songs & Shanties, the latest album from La Nef, due out May 5 on ATMA Classique. "I have sung some of these in pubs for years and I was confident that they would suit a listening audience just fine."
Most of the album's 16 tracks come from Stan Hugill's collection of sea shanties. "Stan was of the last generation of sailors to work the sailboats, before it was all steam engines, and he collected hundreds of songs from his colleagues," explains Dagher. "It's impossible to tell the exact provenance of most of these. They travelled with the sailors wherever they went. But some are clearly American and some probably Irish."
For over 25 years, Montreal's La Nef has been creating concerts and recordings at the intersection of world, traditional, contemporary and early music, with consistently astonishing results. On Sea Songs & Shanties, Dagher shares arranging credits with Dave Gossage and Nelson Carter, but points out that it was an organic process: "The skills that [Gossage and Carter] have that really make this work is their improvisational arranging. I wrote out a few parts for them but mainly I would tell them what I was looking for in a given section and they would make up something as we went. It was never the same twice and it never will be the same again."
"It's not the first time I have taken oral tradition music and tarted it up for the [concert] hall," notes Dagher. "If you choose the right songs it can work quite well. The difference this time was that I was careful not to make it too 'nice.' I left lots of room for the boys to be piratey."
The boys in question are classical singers Nils Bown, Michiel Schrey and Clayton Kennedy — "I asked them to use a whole range of styles, from pirate to crooner to choriste to opera star" — plus Gossage (flutes, voice, percussion, harmonium), Carter (violin, voice, percussion), Andrew Horton (double bass, voice) and Dagher (voice, cittern, harmonium, shruti box). This is music conceived by sailors, to be performed by (all-male) crew-members. "No women on a ship," Dagher tells us. "It's bad luck."
If you're a gamer, you may already be familiar with these shanties from Assassin's Creed, the popular video game set during the American Revolution. Gossage has been producing the music for Assasin's Creed games since 2012, and he hired Dagher and company to sing shanties on the soundtracks for several games in that franchise.
"We were American soldiers, British soldiers, tavern singers and sailors," Dagher says. "Apparently, in the game, you can go into pubs and there is a band playing. That was us."
"The sailor portion of the music was so popular with Assassin's Creedfans that they decided to base the next edition solely around that," he continues. "We recorded 53 shanties for Assasin's Creed 4 ('Black Flag') in 2013. I think players can collect songs as they sail around. People have told me that you can skip directly to your next destination but they don't because they enjoy listening to the songs."
The "Black Flag" instalment was such a hit that Assassin's Creedreleased another shanties-based game called "Rogue," for which they recorded 30 more songs.
"I'm glad that the Assassin's Creed phenomenon has brought this music to popular attention," Dagher confides. "I get a kick out of seeing teenagers flip out when they hear the start of one of these songs and then sing along to the whole thing."
Sea Songs & Shanties will be released on May 5. You can pre-order it here.
Watch the promotional video below, and scroll down for tour dates in support of the album coming up in 2017-18.
Catch La Nef and Seán Dagher's Sea Songs & Shanties in concert in the Greater Montreal area over the coming year:
May 11, 2017, 8 p.m.: Concert Aramusique, Église de la Purification, Repentigny
July 30, 2017, 11 a.m.: Les Matinées Classiques, Place de la Seigneurie, Chambly
July 30, 2017, 4 p.m.: Zone Musique, Montréal
Sept. 17, 2017, 4 p.m.: Parc Davies, Montréal West
Oct. 13, 2017, 7:30 p.m.: Église St-Joachim, Pointe Claire
Dec. 5, 2017, 8:30 p.m.: Maison de la culture de Côte-des-Neiges, Montreal
Feb. 23, 2018, 7:30 p.m.: Centre culturel Peter B. Yeomans, Dorval
April 5, 2018, 7:30 p.m. Maison de la culture d’Ahuntsic, Montreal
April 6, 2018, 7:30 p.m.: Centre culturel de Pierrefonds, Pierrefonds
April 27, 2018, 7:30 p.m.: Maison de la culture de Rivière-des-Prairies, Montreal
Robert Rowat -CBC Radio 2
April 24, 2017
L’ESPRIT DE LA MER
Depuis 25 ans, la compagnie musicale La Nef poursuit un travail infatigable, au-delà des modes, pour faire découvrir un répertoire riche et varié de différentes époques dans des productions de qualité, luttant ainsi contre l’uniformisation culturelle. Ce nouvel album consacré aux chants de marins s’inscrit dans cette veine. Le directeur musical du projet, Sean Dagher, a puisé 16 belles chansons dans ce vaste répertoire traditionnel, interprétées ici par quatre chanteurs dont la diversité des voix donne une couleur unique à chaque pièce, tandis que les arrangements avec violon, flûtes, percussions et harmonium apportent une cohésion esthétique à l’ensemble. Un projet artistique pertinent qui met en valeur ces chansons simples grâce à une interprétation fort touchante qui demeure respectueuse de l’héritage et de la dignité qu’elles portent.
Caroline Rodgers - La Presse