With newly-popular ancestry tracing kits encouraging us to spit into tubes in the name of  genealogical self-discovery, Chris Thile and friends contributed their talent and sweat in order to explore this same idea from the perspective of our shared cultural DNA.

This Live from Here concert marked the official start of exploratory events that Carnegie Hall are running under the banner of Migrations: The Making of America. The two-month festival runs across New York City, setting a melting pot of cultures on the kitchen counter and inhaling the different flavours that found their way in to begin with along with the new ones that have been created through collision. Whereas Julia Wolfe’s immersive Fire in my Mouth production constructed a skyscraper of a monument to New York’s immigrant voices, Chris Thile’s approach was a more intimate study. Instead of meditating on entire ships of migrants and over-populated factory floors, this episode of Live from Here took us into the closer sounds of bars, living rooms and personal ruminations. The tone was spritely and wistful, none more so than the vocals of Gaelic-singing Julie Fowlis. Hailing from North Uist (in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides), Fowlis sang of the mythical seal-people —Selkies— who change form to walk among humans on the islands. Her voice has that enchanting quality that makes this sort of transfiguration almost believable.

Continuing the welcoming bar-side theme, fiddler Tony DeMarco (Italian by name, Irish by musical inclination) transported the Sunday afternoon jam session of the East Village’s 11th Street bar onto the stage of Carnegie Hall. With Chris weaving his narrative mandolin lines between groups, the evening moved deeper into the sounds of the Celtic diaspora with the nimble-fingered assistance of banjo player Béla Fleck and double-bassist Edgar Meyer. Thile and Meyer are regular collaborators (duos, trios with Yo-Yo Ma, The Goat Rodeo Sessions) but its rare to hear the three of them together and there’s fire in the stove tonight. Banjo and mandolin duel, allowing Meyer’s bowed bass lines to ground the capricious voices of the plucked/strummed strings. Not only are the audience hanging on ever note, the other guest performers do not leave the stage, preferring to sit in a horseshoe behind the house band, taking in the spectacle as much as the paying guests.

Although she didn’t bring an instrument with her, author Maeve Higgins has a reading voice that might as well be an instrument in its own right. The author and comedian read pieces on the peculiarity of a new land, drawing on her own experience as an immigrant to the States and reflecting on the 2 million Irish immigrants who arrived between 1845 and 1945. Hers was a timely reminder that migration did not ‘make’ America in the past tense, it continues to make the country today: provoking all of us to question who we are in this community of migrants and misfits. This was a fine overture to a wide-ranging festival, and while more probing questions about identity will be asked in the events that follow, the collaborative spirit of this evening is all any young country really needs as a blueprint for cultural exchange and civilised success. We shared a parting glass under Thile’s supervision and joy was with us all.

Migrations: The Making of America runs from now until May with events at Carnegie Hall and across New York City. Explore the festival here.

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