On a winter day, Shannon Lambert-Ryan and her family stood listening to musicians playing a low melody on six-holed cane flutes. The tune rose and fell gently, like the hills on the horizon.
She is a vocalist and Irish step-dancer, and she had come with her band, Runa, to southeastern Oklahoma. Before their concert at Dewy Hall in Sheffield, Runa spent two weeks meeting people in the Choctaw Nation.
Runa is a Celtic roots band, founded Irish and Scots music, with influences in jazz, bluegrass, flamenco and blues.
Maggie McRae is bringing them to the Berkshires, to Dewey Hall, with Beth Carlson, a co-producer of the Oldtone Music Festival. McRae is manager of the Hall, and she and Carlson are independently curating a series of concerts there, she said, walking through the high-ceilinged main room and letting the acoustics hum with her voice. The series opened last year, and it is growing. She is excited to welcome Runa and to expand this series in fall, winter and spring.
Runa will come to perform fresh from the beginning of a new relationship and a new project, Lambert-Ryan said by phone, as she touched down between concerts. Her band has come to the Choctaw nation hoping to work with musicians there to create original music.
“They opened their entire community to us,” she said.
More than a hundred people came out to meet them in celebration and welcome. It was humbling, she said.
Their collaboration begins in a meeting of Irish and Choctaw people more than 150 years ago. In March 1847, at the height of the Irish potato famine, the Choctaw sent the equivalent of $5,000 (in today’s dollars) to Ireland for famine relief.
That kindness moves her, all the more because the Choctaw knew hunger and struggle and courage themselves.
“They had just been on the Trail of tears,” she said.
They had come to Oklahoma barely 16 years before, when the U.S. government had forced them to leave their land in the Southeast, more than 10 million acres in Mississippi, and travel in winter to a place they had never seen.
“It is part of their culture to give,” Lambert-Ryan said, “regardless of how much they have. … The world could benefit from the hope of an act like this. We were met by untold generosity when we were out there. It was a life-changing journey.”
Runa taught a Ceilidh dance there, she said, and Choctaw musicians performed a social dance and then sang. As she looks ahead, she imagines overlapping Choctaw chants and Irish and Gaelic.
This new partnership grows from an open delight Runa has had from its beginning in opening their music in a warm communion with the influence of many people and places and rhythms.
The roots of Runa’s music are Irish and Scots, Lambert-Ryan said, and the branches are places Celtic people have traveled, from Newfoundland and Cape Breton to Appalachia to the Delta.
They might play a Hoagie Carmichael tune with a kind of 1930s swing, a Cab Calloway feel, she said. Or they might lift a traditional New Orleans waltz into a reel tempo and add an accordion player from Nashville, to give a sense of Cajun and Island sound, to recognize people who have come to Louisiana from Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the Caribbean.
The band began 10 years ago at a folk festival where Lambert-Ryan met her husband, Dublin-born guitarist Fionán de Barra, and also percussionist Cheryl Prashker of Canada. The three of them formed the core of Runa.
Over the years, they have drawn in musicians for a quartet or a quintet, Lambert-Ryan said, and each one added sounds from their own tradition — jazz fiddle, bluegrass. She has loved playing with all of them, and learned from them. A year ago she and de Barra and Prashker got together with Jake James of New York on the fiddle and Caleb Edwards of Nashville on bluegrass mandolin and vocals.
“Both of them are talented in their genres and gifted in other areas, and they’re also great people,” she said. “We were laughing at the end of the week, and we thought this is the band we’ve wanted for 10 years.”
Runa is working now on music for a new live album they plan to record in mid-March, and they are performing songs from their 2019 album, Ten: The Errant Night. They are celebrating 10 years as a band, Lambert-Ryan says, and the title is an allusion to the wandering knight, the mythological seeker of knowledge and light. The band’s name, Runa, is Gaelic and means a mystery, secret lore, a secret love.
So on Sunday night, listeners in the Berkshires may hear Lambert-Ryan sing a ballad named for a wide lake near New Orleans and the gulf in her clear voice, over lightly fingered strings and hand drumming.
Or they may find themselves moving with a tune from the North Carolina roots band Delta Rae, a tune Runa has filmed with children running on the grass and and Lambert-Ryan dancing with her 21-month-old son, singing I don’t want to rest in peace — I want to dance in joy.
This story first ran in the Arts & Entertainment section in the Berkshire Eagle. My thanks to Jeffrey Borak.