McKennitt finds common ground in Celtic, Arabic music

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Thanks to the MTV "UnLedded" special, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant have gotten a lot of attention lately for combining Celtic and Arabic elements within what would otherwise be considered a rock-based sound. But they aren't the only pop musicians playing around with those particular ingredients. Loreena McKennitt's album, "The Mask and Mirror," draws from many of the same elements -- and beat Page and Plant to the punch by several months.

Coincidence? Synchronicity? A trend?

"It doesn't surprise me as a musician that we're working in similar territories," answers McKennitt, over the phone from a promotion stop in Los Angeles. "Once you have a curiosity in a particular way, and a particular creative inclination, it kind of follows that this kind of mixture of influences would come about."

Granted, her point of entry was a little different from theirs. Page and Plant spent more than a decade in Led Zeppelin, and tempered their interests with more than a little rock and blues. McKennitt came in through the Celtic music circuit in her native Ontario.

"My own, my musical attractions, if I were to analyze them, lie more in the rhythmic aspect of Celtic -- and particularly of Irish -- music," she says. "It seems that, whether it's Arabic or even East Indian with the tablas, I become fascinated by how they would blend together, how they might work off each other.

"Then there are the ornaments that you'll find in some of the older Irish music, that are very, very similar to some of the Arabic music or the East Indian music. What originally drew me to it was this fascination of glancing around various ethnic musical expressions in Europe or North Africa and seeing what might blend in with the Celtic thing."

Exotic as it may seem on paper, McKennitt's stew of musical styles is wonderfully relaxing and accessible on album, making "The Mask and Mirror" one of the year's true finds. Generally, all it takes is a single hearing for many listeners to fall for the album. But as McKennitt admits, getting to those listeners isn't always easy.

"The thing that repeats itself now, the world over, is that people are very surprised when they hear the music," she says. "They say, 'Why don't we hear it on radio? Why don't we see it on MTV? I never heard of it, and I wish I had.' The music industry at large has slowly narrowed the spectrum of musical expression, and in the process have slowly disenfranchised a lot of the population from hearing a wide range of music.

"But there is an audience. How big it is, I don't know, but there certainly is an audience, and people are not being exposed to a very wide range of music. We've really had to look toward alternative methods that focus primarily on allowing people to hear the music and make their own minds up."

Loreena McKennitt

When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Shriver Hall, the Johns Hopkins University

Tickets: $21.50

$ Call: (410) 481-8327

Putting on "The Mask"

To hear excerpts from Loreena McKennitt's "The Mask and Mirror," call Sundial, The Sun's telephone information service at (410) 783-1800. In Anne Arundel County, call 268-7736; in Harford County, 836-5028; in Carroll County, 848-0338. Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6240 after you hear the greeting.

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