Colm O'Riain is an Irish violinist. Pireeni Sundaralingam is a Sri Lankan Tamil poet. They’re married and have created a unique music that sounds out their common experience of exile and immigration.
Perhaps the best way to introduce the marital and musical pairing of Colm O’Riain and Pireeni Sundaralingam is from the first time his Irish and her Sri Lankan parents met.
"We initially were rather concerned as how our parents would react, as we came from different religions, different backgrounds, two different parts of the planet," says Sundaralingam. "When they did meet, they found they had many stories in common, stories of colonialism, of resistance, also of poetry and literature and the music that springs out of that. My father said, 'I don’t know what you were so worried about. They’re just like our people.'"
The British declared the Island of Sri Lanka a Crown Colony in 1802, one year after they attached Ireland to the United Kingdom, and that Crown unity led to the suppression of the Gaelic language in Ireland.
"If caught speaking Irish, you could be sent to jail," says O'Riain. "If caught teaching it, you could be deported."
The Tamil language in Sri Lanka faced similar challenges.
"Tamil language could no longer be used in law courts and schools," says Sundaralingam.
From that common colonial experience grows a song and poem called "Celtic Raag," in Tamil, Gaelic and English.
"If I could choose the language in which I spoke to you,
I would chose the dark, red tongue of the Tamil Lands,
the yearning notes, the desert drone,
the heated hum of the monsoon rising.
If I could choose the language in which I spoke to you,
I would choose to speak in Gaelic,
the sliding scale, the sussuration of breath,
The sound of water beating between us."
"We both come from small islands surrounded by large oceans," says O'Riain.
"I’m sure that the sounds of both Gaelic and Tamil were influenced by the fact they evolved right there beside the ocean," says Sundaralingam.
The couple has performed at the English National Theatre in London and the UN Headquarters in New York as well as at arts and literary festivals around the world. They see a natural meshing of their two arts forms.
"Pireeni’s poetry is naturally lyrical, and the basis of all lyrical poetry is music," says O'Riain. "And I grew up in Ireland where there’s a very strong poetry movement."
"It was once said that every poet lives as an exile within his own language, and to write poetry that you have to look at the world sideways on, to feel slightly at odds with the world, to look at things with fresh eyes," says Sundaralingam.
The two have released a CD called “Bridge Across the Blue,” which brings together musicians and writers from different ethnic traditions to tell the immigrant stories of America.