For several years now, Celtic fiddler Jamie Laval has crafted a special December program for audiences. He presents “Celtic Christmas,” a family-friendly performance that showcases not only Christmas traditions, but observances of older Pagan rituals centered around the winter solstice. Laval will play a show at Isis Restaurant & Music Hall on Thursday, Dec. 29, and another at the Tryon Fine Arts Center in Tryon on Friday, Dec. 30.
Laval won the U.S. National Scottish Fiddle Championship in 2002; that same year, he performed for Queen Elizabeth II and presented the TED Talk “How a Fiddle Tune Can Change the World.” Murmurs and Drones — his third album, released in 2012 — won the popular vote for the Best World Traditional Album at that year’s Independent Music Awards.
Each year, Laval builds his winter program around a theme — for 2016, it’s “Music and Stories for the Deep Midwinter” — and every presentation balances music, dance and storytelling. Laval promises “some really early, almost prehistory legends from the far-out reaches of the British Isles. They have that dark, midwinter atmosphere.”
Laval makes sure that every year’s show is different from those he’s done before. Describing the 2016 concerts as “the culmination of several years of labor of love,” he says that the cast for Celtic Christmas is the largest he’s ever assembled. Rosalind Buda, from Asheville, is featured on bassoon, bagpipes and bombarde (a double-reed instrument closely associated with the Breton peninsula in France). “She’s a sublime poetry reader as well,” says Laval. “Rosalind doesn’t just [recite] the words and the rhymes; she brings a Druidic element” to the poems.
Celtic Christmas musicians also include Laval on violin, harp, bagpipes and storytelling, plus Haley Hewitt — a Boston-based graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland — on Celtic harp. The instrumental quartet is rounded out by 17-year-old classically trained soprano Claire Griffin, who made her professional debut at the Flat Rock Playhouse in the 2015 staging of Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz.
Laval’s 2016 production will feature an Irish step dancer and four traditional Scottish Highland dancers. In addition to those, Laval’s performers will also put on displays of Breton dancing. The fiddle player explains that Breton dancing requires more participants to execute the movements. Unlike Irish dancing, “it’s not percussive; it’s more of a display type dance,” he says.
And unlike Scottish dance, with its colorful tartans, Breton dancers wear “traditional garb, sort of black-and-white, really puritanical type of outfits,” Laval says with a laugh. “I’m kind of on a Breton kick right now. I just visited Brittany this summer, and I thought that would be a really nice thing to feature.”
There’s a close relationship between Celtic traditions and Appalachian old-time music, one that helps explain the former’s popularity in America. The music’s “modality and tonality are a direct lineage,” Laval says. “So if a person is exposed to old-time Appalachian music, they’re automatically going to find in the Celtic music a familiar sound, one that resonates with them.”
And, on a wider level, the popularity of national touring companies like Celtic Woman, Riverdance and Lord of the Dance have all done much to increase the profile and popularity of Celtic music, dance and storytelling traditions.
“When people aren’t ever exposed to something, it seems foreign,” Laval says. “And then they’re not as apt to respond to it immediately. So exposure is essential.” He says that as more and more people become familiar with roots music in general, so will the appeal of — and interest in — Celtic traditions.
“There are some superstars touring now who have brought Celtic music and old-time music into the more public eye,” Laval says, mentioning Asheville-based Rising Appalachia as one of his favorites. “They’re just tearing it up,” Laval says. “They’re bringing this type of music to a whole new, wider audience.”
Laval believes he also understands why Celtic music and stories have become closely associated with the Christmas season: “I think it’s in response to a lot of people’s frustration about the overcommercialization of modern holiday time.” Reacting to the product orientation of the season and the associated glitz, people find Celtic traditions “an antidote to that. They enjoy a more traditional atmosphere, one harking back to days of old.”
That valuing of traditions also explains the enduring popularity of sledding, caroling, baking and the exchanging of Christmas cards, Laval believes. Reaching all the way back to pre-Christian traditions in France and the British Isles, “the early Celtic holidays are rooted in nature and a very simple lifestyle,” Laval says. He notes the popularity of Pagan ideas about being in touch with the forest, the seasons, with the movement of the sun and moon. “I think these are simple values that people enjoy getting back to for a little while during the holidays,” he says.
WHAT: Jamie Laval’s Celtic Christmas: Music and Stories for the Deep Midwinter
WHERE: Isis Restaurant & Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Thursday, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. $24 advance/$20 day of show/$12 students with ID
WHERE: Tryon Fine Arts Center, 34 Melrose Ave., Tryon, tryonarts.org
WHEN: Friday, Dec. 30, 8 p.m. $24 advance/$20 day of show/$12 students with ID