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Ensemble Ibérica Explores Spanish Connections To Irish Carols

In the 1720s, after studying in Spain, a young priest returned home to Ireland. He started writing Christmas carols influenced by Spanish liturgical music. Now known as the Kilmore Carols, these carols are still performed during the holidays in the small Irish village of Kilmore —and this year, in Kansas City. 

"We are currently practicing for this year's season and are looking forward to keeping this long tradition going," said Robert "Bobby" Devereux, by email from Ireland. He's been singing the carols since 2007. "It is privilege and an honor to sing these carols and it is fantastic to see how widespread they have become over the years." 

It's a family tradition. Devereux's grandfather sang for 62 years, and now he and his father sing the carols. "It has always been six men that sing them here. I would have no issue if a lady wishes to sing them, it's the older generation that believe that it should be men only," he says. 

Next weekend, Ensemble Ibérica — the Kansas City ensemble which performs the music of Spain, Portugal, and the Americas — performs its own version of the Kilmore Carols, exploring the connections the songs share.

Interview Highlights: Victoria Botero, Beau Bledsoe and Trilla Ray-Carter

On finding 'places to breathe'

"I am just fascinated by the text itself," says soprano Victoria Botero." They are not traditional carols. The kind of words that we’re used to of happy, happy, happy all the time."

"The phrasing is not typical Western music and so finding places to breathe is challenging. But I’ve listened to recordings of the original Kilmore singers and other Irish groups that have done these and they just kind of breathe wherever they want to."

On the sounds of Spain

"We noticed that the melodies were sort of very Arabic in nature, very melismatic, florid, lots of ornaments and really long in structure and then, you know, just did a little bit of research and figured out the guy who compiled these carols was a young friar in Salamanca, Spain, and that’s what was in his ears when he was putting these together," says guitarist Beau Bledsoe, artistic director for Ensemble Ibérica.

"He went back to Wexford County, which is in the Southeast part of Ireland an there’s a little village in the town next to Wexford called Kilmore. They’ve been sung there ever since for about 250 years, and it’s just you know a bunch of fisherman singing these carols."

On the chant-like songs

"Really, they are meditations," Botero says. "They are very chant-like and you are meant to as you are singing them reflect on the text and reflect on your own life and what that means to you and you come and you revisit these texts every year as your family has for hundreds of years."

On the different soundscape of Christmas

"It’s the story of Christmas in a really new way, in a different color, a different soundscape," says cellist Trilla Ray-Carter. "As a bass instrument, that can also do melodic things. It's finding a balance between finding what notes really work best that don’t get in the way of the ornamentation."

On discovering connections

"I just wouldn’t think that the repertoire that Beau and I have been working on with the oud would somehow be related to Irish Christmas carols, but to find the seeds of how all of these things connect is fascinating to me," says Botero.

"Finding the connections through these various musical worlds, maybe that’s the story for the season is to find the connection to everyone," Ray-Carter adds.

Ensemble Ibéricapresents The Kilmore Carols Friday, December 19 at 8 pm, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 11 E. 40th St., Kansas City, Mo.

The Artists In Their Own Words series is funded by the Missouri Arts Council, a state agency.

Julie Denesha is the arts reporter for KCUR. Contact her at julie@kcur.org.
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