Fonn Aniar

Tune from the West


Music is an ephemeral thing. It has no form, shape or substance but yet can change the way we see and engage with the world; it is all-pervasive and today we could not imagine our lives without a soundtrack. To understand music we must transform it through metaphor, imagining it as things in order to engage with it intellectually and ultimately emotionally. Music ‘soars’ like a bird, music goes ‘fast’ like a train, music ‘seduces’ like a lover, music ‘provokes’ like an antagonist. Traditional music making generates its own images where we imagine it to be any number of ‘things’. It is often seen as a river to be fished in, with rapids, it can be polluted or diluted. It is often represented as a living plant or animal that can be nurtured, can defend itself, can grow, can die and can be killed.


We all engage in the metaphorical reimagining of music as something that we can relate to with our bodies and the parts of our brains that control language and the way it works. No one – whether we be listeners, journalists, musicians, or especially musicologists – is immune from this process. The well-known ethnomusicologist (a music academic who studies ‘music in culture’ and in particular world musics) Philip Bohlman presents us with a common model for our understanding of a tradition. He sees it simply as a two dimensional object with a border and a centre containing elements that can be seen as central or peripheral. This implies that the ‘central’ aspects of tradition are more important than the aspects of the tradition that live on its outer limits. He envisages a porous border through which elements of tradition can pass in either direction, allowing things to be ‘outside’ of ‘inside’ the tradition as well as being at the core, heart, or at the edge. Therefore, for Irish traditional music, the uilleann pipes are central while the piano accordion is peripheral, but the piano accordion has, to some extent crossed a boundary into the tradition.


This all makes perfect sense but imagining any tradition like this has its problems and must always be critically assessed. What is core and what is peripheral or external are aesthetic and ultimately political imaginings created in the often turbulent debates of the communities that create and sustain this music. This way of phsically structuring our musical experience, which is essentially a biological imagining of music as a single-cell organism, is incredibly useful and one that pervades talk about music in many different contexts. Central to rock music is the guitar, the piano is more peripheral – central to classical music is Mozart, while the symphonic works of Paul McCartney, no matter how wonderful, are at least currently peripheral.


This is particularly prevalent in the way we imagine traditional Irish music to be organized. We know that the pipes are at the core of the tradition, as well as a historical repertoire of Irish language song, dance and harp music. Equally we know that it is more peripheral to play the contemporary compositions of Brian Finnegan on an Indian bamboo flute or go to the trad disco at the fleadh. These are obviously contested discourses. Some might say that the compositions of Carolan are central while others maintain that the Italianesque influences on his music make him more peripheral. Also, in such a structure, the peripherary can be the site of creative practice and this creative practice can be seen as a peripheral activity, a perception I would believe is detrimental to the life of any music as an artistic form.


This model is particularly relevant to the music you hear now. Here are three artists who have played a pivotal role in the shifting of once marginal music practices to the core of what is seen to be traditional. They have all taken a traditional music practice that was seen as outlying and even external in the grand scheme of things, and put it in the centre of the discourse about what is at the heart of this music.


Perhaps the starkest journey has been taken by the harp in recent years. Considered as a practice peripheral to the mainstream dance music tradition it was, until very recently, still the music of respectable, middle-class ladies performing a peculiar historical repertoire in the comfort of their own parlours and drawing rooms. Laoise Kelly changed all that. I have vivid memories of her as a young music student in UCC, dressed in jeans and t-shirt, pushing her harp into the middle of the session in the college bar with one hand, pint in the other. Since then she has reimagined the harp in a contemporary traditional setting, taking her inspiration from the rugged west. She hasn’t merely recreated the harp as a cumbersome fiddle but created a new place for it, respecting what she sees as important in its turbulent history – in particular the male, profesional world of the Gaelic harp – while absorbing the newer contexts and practices of the Irish tradition. Her right hand fires out tunes with a fluidity, creativity and clarity that has revolutionised the harp as a solo instrument; her left hand is the source of a new voice in the world of accompaniment and groove, rooted in her engagement with the contemporary world of guitar, bouzouki, bodhran and keyboard while being distinct in its own right. Laoise has made it OK for a harp to sit in the centre of the session and be the heart of the trad band headlining the festival.


Kerry is such a multi-dimensional cultural space that describing it accurately in words is an impossibility. In the soundscape of traditional Irish music it is prominent through the music of Sliabh Luachra, that equally indefinable region of east Kerry, west Cork and the extremities of Limerick promoted through the music of Padraig O’Keeffe, the ‘Waiver’ Murphies and Johnny O’Leary. West Kerry has always been important as a Gaelteacht and as such a centre for sean-nós song. Prominent in the promotion of this central part of our native song tradition are the Begley family. Families are important to traditional rural culture in Ireland and this is equally true of traditional music. However, Breanndán and his older brother Séamas, have shown us all that they are not just singing in west Kerry style but are generating their own take on the classic Kerry repertoire of polkas and slides and the national repertoire of jigs and reels. Again, they do this not by imitating their Sliabh Luachra cousins or the pervasive box style typified by the great Joe Burke but by creating their own sound rooted in a west Kerry sean-nós lyricism and the exuberance of the set dance. This has become a new voice of authenticity in the few that are at the core of our music.


However, perhaps the most complete journey has been made by the fiddle music of Donegal. Donegal fiddle music wasn’t just seen as peripheral to the tradition – many saw it as not Irish at all – closer to the continuum of Scottish music. The founding father of traditional music studies and the most important collector of the mid-twentienth century Breandán Breathnach did not collect or publish music that was distinct to Donegal and what little music he did collect from fiddle players from Donegal was usually music they learned from recordings of Sligo players. Central to the revival of Donegal music is of course the great travelling fiddler Johnny Doherty but perhaps more central to stitching Donegal music back into the heart of the contemporary tradition is the ledgenary fiddle player Tommy Peoples. Tommy, as well as being a member of the huge community of Donegal fiddlers, was one of a select community of virtuoso musicians who reshaped the world of traditional music in the early seventies, taking the concert band model of O’Riada but placing it firmly in the contexts of popular music and the folk musics being revived elsewhere in the western world. People for the first time started to consistently go to concert halls, clubs and festivals to hear bands perform music arranged and prepared solely for listening to. Tommy engaged this world through his work with the Bothy Band, a band that established the rules of what it was to be a trad band, that every other band has been measured by, and also his ground breaking recording with Matt Molloy. By putting his distinctive Donegal stamp on the music he played and we all listened to, Tommy instigated a musical northen peace process that integrated Donegal music into an Irish music context that celebrated and delighted in this particularly distinctive northern voice.


These three musicians have shifted tradition through the strength of their artistry. They have relocated their practices from what would have previously been perceived to be peripheral or external places to the heart of tradition. This is true traditional creativity and innovation but as a process it is surely not innovated at all. All aspects of what is central to traditional music making have been proposed through the artistry of individual musicians. Innovation and creativity are essential in the creation of the core of what is traditional music. Of course there is a lot more to the creation of traditional music than this but if the heart of the tradition is beating, it is doing so because the heart is being massaged by the creative practices of musicians like these.


Niall Keegan.