Iona Unifies Celtic Music

Iona Unifies Celtic Music

<bt>Northern Virginia's own pan-Celtic band, Iona, is touring along the East Coast and internationally this summer. Having just released its eighth album, “Branching Out,” the band continues to spread its own blend of traditional and nontraditional Celtic tunes.

“What we have kind of shifted our gears to do is show how the Celtic music, all of it, from all various cultures have come together in America where so many immigrants arrived and brought their music,” said Barbara Ryan, Iona's co-founder and lead singer.

In "Branching Out," Iona uses American tunes with Celtic influences. Songs span from Breton, Galician, Asturian, Manx and Appalachian to Scottish, Irish, Welsh and Cornish.

In “King William Was King George’s Son,” Iona fuses an Appalachian gaming song with a tune band members heard while on the Isle of Man. Typically, Iona finds various tunes from different Celtic cultures or those influenced by Celtic culture that work together melodically in a set. This technique is often used to inspire their songs.

“You try to find common themes. The link can just be about anywhere,” said bass guitarist Chuck Lawhorn, who joined Iona in January 2001.

Through this technique, Iona has made melodies that are "almost impossible to copy because they are so intricate," said Ryan.

“[Celtic music] is not just a static tradition. It is something we can enhance and develop,” said Bernard Argent, Iona's wooden flute player.

Ryan and Argent started Iona in 1986 with former Iona members Barbara Kelly and Alan Oresky.

At first, Iona played strictly Scottish and Irish music. Accordingly, Iona was named after the island between Ireland and Scotland. Eventually, Iona explored other Celtic music including Welsh, Breton and Manx.

With different music came the different languages Ryan had to learn. Iona is one of the few bands that performs in all Celtic languages and mixes different Celtic tunes together in one song.

"We really believe at a certain level in the unity of the Celtic traditions," said Argent, "that there is an underlying Celticness in this whole tradition."

While band members hope to show the unity of Celtic traditions through their music, they also hope to expose the wide variety of Celtic music to their audience.

"I'm hoping we are helping our audiences widen their Celtic scope as well, because we play different types of music that they might want to learn more about it," said Lawhorn. "I know I did."

LAWHORN is one of the many musicians who have played with Iona in its almost 17 years of existence. Iona’s sound has adapted to the musicians who have joined, including a cellist and a fiddler.

"They lead us into new sounds," said Lawhorn.

Likewise, when Lawhorn joined, he learned how to fit his bass guitar. Besides the bass guitar, Iona's instruments range from the Highland great pipes and Scottish small pipes played by Robert Mitchell to the Irish flute, whistles, doumbeck, eggs, bodhran, Celtic bouzouki and washboard.

Mitchell plans to retire from the band, as Ian Lawther anticipates joining. He will bring along his abilities to play the pipes, to whistle, and to sing and clog.

In addition, Iona's official dancer, Susan Walmsley, who joined in 2000, performs Scottish Highland and Appalachian clogging in concert. During the concerts, Walmsley and Argent teach and encourage the audience to do the Breton dance and other group dances.

Iona, supported by the Virginia Commission for the Arts, tours in Celtic festivals and concerts. In August, Iona will be touring in Scotland and England and return to perform in the Kingstowne Concert Series in Alexandria, Va.

Besides performing in concert, Iona also offers holiday programs and workshops about the Celts. For more information on the band, go to