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Band makes music with "liberated" Irish sounds at its core

Tyler Duncan and John McSherry from the olllam.

As part of Michigan Radio’s Songs from Studio East series, this year we are exploring music that combines both contemporary and traditional music from around the world.

Today we met Ann Arbor native Tyler Duncan and Irishman John McSherry. 

Despite being an ocean away, they play in a band together, called the olllam. The two have toured across the U.S. and in Europe producing a fusion of pop, rock and Irish music.

Duncan's musical career has included a variety of genres, like pop, rock and electronic. He has won international awards for playing traditional Irish instruments, like the uilleann pipes, a lighter version of Scotland's bagpipes, and whistles, a staple in Irish music. 

He discovered Irish music when he was 11, when his aunt gave him a VHS copy of Riverdance?. A pipe solo in the middle of the show grabbed his attention.

"As a kid I just was like, 'Woah, what is that? What is that instrument?'" he said. "And that got me really interested in the pipes."

Years later, as a 13-year-old Duncan moved to Ireland for a year with his family. His father took a sabbatical there.

He was given a tape he loved, which he later learned featured John McSherry, a rising star in the traditional Irish music scene. Then, when Duncan was in western Ireland, he had a chance to meet that musician.

He said it was a "serendipitous" meeting at a jam session in Milltown. Someone told Duncan that McSherry was at the bar. So Duncan started to stare. When McSherry's girlfriend noticed, the two introduced themselves.

That was the origin of the friendship that lead to the olllam.

"I think, in a lot of ways, the olllam is a very liberated type of music." - Tyler Duncan

Irish music is alive and well, but according to McSherry, that wasn't always the case. When England tried to take over Ireland, the English would punish anyone dancing to or playing Irish music. Some were even hung for playing Irish instruments.

McSherry has heard stories, from as recent as the 1920s, of people being punished for speaking the Irish language in public.    

"I think, in a lot of ways, the olllam is a very liberated type of music," Duncan said. "Like, we have been freed to kind of make any sound we want, combine cultures and do it across an ocean and do it in a way without any sort of fear of backlash or controversy. Those safeties and those securities that allow us to be experimental weren't necessarily in place for the people we've been influenced by. It's a very fortunate place to be."

Songs from Studio East is supported in part by the Michigan Humanities Council, an affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs. 

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