"When a song can quiet two dozen drunks, you can be confident that there is something there that's worth listening to," says Seán Dagher, music director of Sea Songs & Shanties, the latest album from La Nef, due out May 5 on ATMA Classique. "I have sung some of these in pubs for years and I was confident that they would suit a listening audience just fine."
Most of the album's 16 tracks come from Stan Hugill's collection of sea shanties. "Stan was of the last generation of sailors to work the sailboats, before it was all steam engines, and he collected hundreds of songs from his colleagues," explains Dagher. "It's impossible to tell the exact provenance of most of these. They travelled with the sailors wherever they went. But some are clearly American and some probably Irish."
For over 25 years, Montreal's La Nef has been creating concerts and recordings at the intersection of world, traditional, contemporary and early music, with consistently astonishing results. On Sea Songs & Shanties, Dagher shares arranging credits with Dave Gossage and Nelson Carter, but points out that it was an organic process: "The skills that [Gossage and Carter] have that really make this work is their improvisational arranging. I wrote out a few parts for them but mainly I would tell them what I was looking for in a given section and they would make up something as we went. It was never the same twice and it never will be the same again."
It's not the first time I have taken oral tradition music and tarted it up for the [concert] hall.
"It's not the first time I have taken oral tradition music and tarted it up for the [concert] hall," notes Dagher. "If you choose the right songs it can work quite well. The difference this time was that I was careful not to make it too 'nice.' I left lots of room for the boys to be piratey."
The boys in question are classical singers Nils Bown, Michiel Schrey and Clayton Kennedy — "I asked them to use a whole range of styles, from pirate to crooner to choriste to opera star" — plus Gossage (flutes, voice, percussion, harmonium), Carter (violin, voice, percussion), Andrew Horton (double bass, voice) and Dagher (voice, cittern, harmonium, shruti box). This is music conceived by sailors, to be performed by (all-male) crew-members. "No women on a ship," Dagher tells us. "It's bad luck."
If you're a gamer, you may already be familiar with these shanties from Assassin's Creed, the popular video game set during the American Revolution. Gossage has been producing the music for Assasin's Creed games since 2012, and he hired Dagher and company to sing shanties on the soundtracks for several games in that franchise.
"We were American soldiers, British soldiers, tavern singers and sailors," Dagher says. "Apparently, in the game, you can go into pubs and there is a band playing. That was us."
"The sailor portion of the music was so popular with Assassin's Creed fans that they decided to base the next edition solely around that," he continues. "We recorded 53 shanties for Assasin's Creed 4 ('Black Flag') in 2013. I think players can collect songs as they sail around. People have told me that you can skip directly to your next destination but they don't because they enjoy listening to the songs."
The "Black Flag" instalment was such a hit that Assassin's Creed released another shanties-based game called "Rogue," for which they recorded 30 more songs.
"I'm glad that the Assassin's Creed phenomenon has brought this music to popular attention," Dagher confides. "I get a kick out of seeing teenagers flip out when they hear the start of one of these songs and then sing along to the whole thing."
Sea Songs & Shanties will be released on May 5. You can pre-order it here.
Watch the promotional video below, and scroll down for tour dates in support of the album coming up in 2017-18.
Catch La Nef and Seán Dagher's Sea Songs & Shanties in concert in the Greater Montreal area over the coming year:
- May 11, 2017, 8 p.m.: Église de la Purification, Repentigny
- July 30, 2017, 11 a.m.: Place de la Seigneurie, Chambly
- July 30, 2017, 4 p.m.: Zone Musique, Montréal
- Sept. 17, 2017, 4 p.m.: Parc Davies, Montréal West
- Oct. 13, 2017, 7:30 p.m.: Église St-Joachim, Pointe-Claire
- Dec. 5, 2017, 8:30 p.m.: Maison de la culture de Côte-des-Neiges
- Feb. 23, 2018, 7:30 p.m.: Centre culturel P. B. Yeomans, Dorval
- April 5, 2018, 7:30 p.m. Maison de la culture d’Ahuntsic
- April 6, 2018, 7:30 p.m.: Centre culturel de Pierrefonds
- April 27, 2018, 7:30 p.m.: Maison de la culture de Rivière-des-Prairies