Roman historian Diodorus described the Celts as men “very tall in stature” who looked like wood demons as they gathered on a hill, smeared in blue body paint. Butt-naked, their hair bleached and spiked with lime, they would begin the most ear-shattering din in order to rouse themselves and terrify those who foolishly set foot on their island unwelcome. For the Celts, there was no war without sound.
Nowadays, the Irish may have no need of lime in their hair or group shrieking — laptops and lattes do fine. But they continue to fit the ancient description as unruly lovers of language, song, and dance. When the Anatolian geographer Strabo portrayed them as “high-spirited and quick to fight, but otherwise straightforward and not at all of evil character,” he could have been talking about traditional Irish music. There is the thrillingly belligerent war of the bodhran drums, juxtaposed with the high jinks of tireless fiddling, undergirded by sweet, direct ballads that draw sorrow from their listeners like water from a well. For a people whose ancient past has no written record, it seems fitting that the Irish remain wedded to poetry and the music that carries it.
This Friday (8 p.m.), the ferociously able Donegal band Altan arrives in town to stir the air of Zellerbach Hall (tickets: $18, $24, $30; 510-642-9988 or www.calperfs.berkeley.edu) with the rich musical traditions of the northern Irish counties in an evening of song, dance, and story in “The Year’s Turning.” Buoyed by the fiddling of the firebrand with the ethereal voice, Altan cofounder Mairead Ni Mhaonaigh, and her violin-playing compatriot Ciaran Tourish, the band narrates the descent into winter, with dancing by the West Kerry Set Dancers, harp interludes, and poetic readings. It is a lacework of pagan, early Christian, and modern traditions held together by Altan’s robust sound. If you’re looking for some entertainment to get you in the holiday mood, this also presents a welcome alternative to the stupefying reprise of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker and Irving Berlin sing-alongs.
But what, exactly, is an Irish Christmas pageant? Every culture that’s endured the passing of seasons and the waning of the sun has paid homage to the changing earth and light at midwinter. We all know that. What we didn’t know is that in Ireland, winter began November 1, ushered in by the ancient feast of Samhain, or Halloween, when spirits took over and people coped with the darkness by partying. Winter ended with the twelfth day of Christmas.
Altan’s pageant leads us from the launch of the season, with its pagan echoes, to masked theatrics and the peculiar old tradition of Hunting the Wren. The wren was believed to be the Druids’ sacred bird, whose flight patterns were used by the priests to predict the future. The wren of this rite is hunted and brought back dead, and some correlate the blurred tradition with early Christian efforts to obliterate the wizardry of the priests. But Altan never lets the lore get so thick that the music is hidden. With Kieran Curran and Daithi Sproule on bouzouki, Seamus Begley on accordion, and Jim Murray on guitar, Altan lines up dizzying reels, wistful Gaelic songs, and accompaniment to poetry. Like the bards, Altan keeps the music central, because as the ancient Celts knew, music is the language of the gods.