Cíana is an Irish word meaning roughly “distance and space,” particularly the distance and space encountered on a long, and perhaps lonely, journey, like driving Nevada’s famed stretch of Highway 50.
“It’s a name that seemed to fit in Nevada,” says Tina Carlsen, the fiddle player for the musical group Cíana, a band specializing in traditional Irish music.
The Carson Valley-based trio consists of Carlsen and husband and wife Joe and Kathy Bly. Joe plays whistles and flutes, and Kathy plays guitar and octave mandolin—a larger version of the familiar instrument that’s pitched an octave lower. Carlsen and Joe both sing, though the groups’ repertoire is split between instrumental tunes and vocal-led songs.
“One of the biggest things about Irish traditional music is that we’ve been carrying some of these tunes since the 1600s,” says Joe.
Not all of the group’s tunes are 400 years old—or Irish. Some are Scottish or French-Canadian, and some are fairly contemporary, though all the tunes are in traditional Celtic styles.
“We do all traditional tunes, though some were only written 30 years ago,” says Joe, with a laugh.
The group’s instrumental tunes move with toe-tapping bounce. Kathy’s guitar and mandolin playing provides a rhythmic center, and the fiddle, whistle and flute lines provide catchy, intertwining melodies.
The vocal songs, in contrast, tend toward melancholy. Joe sings “May Morning Dew,” for example, in the traditional, unaccompanied sean-nós style. He credits the melancholic underpinnings to the music to some of the social context of the music.
“Irish history is one misery after another,” he says.
The group’s new self-titled debut album features one original song, “Back Home to Athenry,” a response to traditional song “Fields of Athenry” co-written by Joe and Patrick Moriarty, and sung by Carlsen.
The Blys connected with Carlsen two years ago, during Irish music sessions throughout the region. These sessions are informal gatherings of musicians, picking and playing traditional tunes.
“The difference between a bluegrass jam session and an Irish session is that, at the Irish session, you have to know the tune,” says Joe. Bluegrass jams can be competitive, with each musician trying to outperform the others with better, faster solos. Irish sessions are more ensemble-oriented.
Ceol Irish Pub hosts a session every Tuesday night from 7 to 10 p.m.
“Ceol’s been really great about supporting Irish traditional music,” says Joe.
The pub hosts Cíana’s record release party for the new album on June 22. In contrast to the Tuesday night sessions, the group will be presenting carefully rehearsed sets of music.
“The sessions are for the musicians; the band performances are for the audience,” says Kathy.
She says some traditionalists object to the use of guitar in traditional Irish music because the instrument didn’t exist when many of the tunes were written, but it’s an accessible and practical instrument. She uses an open tuning and a capo to create some of the harmonic drones of the traditional music.
Each of the musicians came to Irish traditional music in different ways.
“My family came over during the famine in the horrible coffin ships,” says Joe. He grew up with the music, sung in the house by his mother and on records by groups like the Clancy Brothers and the Dubliners.
Carlsen and Kathy both connected with the music later in life. Kathy, a classically trained musician, didn’t appreciate the music until after she and Joe were married.
“I thought it was godawful,” she says. “It made no sense to me whatsoever.”
Then, one day, she found herself humming the tunes, and it clicked.