2013 “trad” albums: stuff is happening

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Though some of these albums could be called straight-up Irish traditional music, many could not. But even those that could not do  either come out of the tradition in some way or contain elements of it mixed with other elements. There’s nothing new about that graded and gradual movement of culture through time: residual, dominant, emergent cultures etc.

However, looking at this year’s all together here (it’s a selection of course – ones I’ve received or wish I’d received for reviewing), one thing stands out for me: scale. Have we ever had a year so full of new and varied approaches to the styles, tunes and songs of Irish traditional music? (And have we ever had so many pipes albums in one year?!!!) From Lúnasa’s work with the RTÉ National Concert Orchestra based on Niall Vallely arrangements and Peter Carberry and Padraig McGovern’s pairing of accordion and pipes in a totally new way, to Ensemble Ériu’s combining of jazz and contemporary music with tunes and Superbelle’s use of dance grooves and pop structures, we seem to have reached a new level of playfulness.

Some of the people here were mentioned by Nialler9 in his undeservedly contentious post last year (which he unfortunately titled Five Reasons Why Irish Trad has Been Reinvigorated in 2012), and while I didn’t accept his sense at the time that they were “reclaiming trad from the brink of folk obscurity” and agreed with Rosa Ó Snodaigh that “traditional music is a nuanced and robust living entity that is about a way of being in the world, communicating, constructing meaning and community”, I do think Niall was right in identifying something being sent out beyond trad’s traditional community and being picked up on radars that usually don’t notice that culture (for very complex and unfortunate reasons).

None of this is surprising considering the music the latest generation of professionals players have been exposed to growing up and have embraced in their listening and playing – somewhat like the influences that led to the music of Planxty, the Bothy Band and Moving Hearts. It’s just the scale of it in this generation that is noteworthy.

The likes of Aoife Ní Bhriain, Padraig Rynne, Edel Fox, Niamh Ní Chara, Ronán Ó Snodaigh, Cormac Begley, Daire Bracken, Caoimhín Ó Raghallaigh, Emer Mayock, Roisín Elsafty, Oisín MacDiarmada, Zoë Conway and Toner Quinn, while totally at home playing straight tunes / singing old songs in a pub in the West of Ireland, are not by a long way purists (there have never been that many of those anyhow), but even when they are looking back (as some of them do on these albums) many of them tend to add a wayfaring touch to their playing … and are worthy of as much attention for that as the more easily spotted and discussed “fringe”stuff.

Others still at times cut themselves loose entirely and find themselves “where traditional music begins to disintegrate” as Ó Raghallaigh has described it. Not that they are bored with the sound of previous generations – on the contrary, I think huge respect and love for the likes of Dónal Lunny, Mick O’Brien, Liz Carroll, Martin Hayes, Peadar Ó Riada, the senior Begley generation, and the generations before that, is very apparent in the music and/or personnel on many of these albums; just that the best players of this generation have been masters of the playing from such young ages (partly due to the professionalisation of music) they have found themselves looking beyond for new challenges, new modes of expression and (only because they could) may have gone further than previous generations.

Groups that aren’t here but are very close to releasing albums that will probably be considered emergent are The Gloaming, Moxie, Kíla and Steve Cooney’s Éiníní (and from the other direction, similar to Turrisi: Leafzang, with their extemporising interest in traditional songs). (I’d also hope that Dave Flynn’s Clare Concerto might find its way soon onto CD.)

Other interesting signs of change to point to:

  • The inclusion of some of these musicians in the Kaleidoscope series.
  • The interest of the likes of composers like Linda Buckley and Donnacha Dennehy in traditional material, as well as Dave Flynn’s continuing love for the tradition.
  • John Kelly playing Peter Carberry and Pardaig McGovern’s CD on his Lyric FM programme, and playing four tracks in a row from the This is How We Fly album (though God only knows what’s stopping him from playing many others).
  • The involvement of the likes of Sylvain Barou, Nic Gareiss, Cleek Schrey, Solo Cissokho, Dan Trueman, Tyler Duncan, Francesco Turrisi, Thomas Bartlett in the music of some of these musicians. (– “new meanings and values, new practices, new relationships and kinds of relationships are continually being created,” to quote Raymond Williams).
  • The Tradition Now strand of the Perspectives 2014 series at the National Concert Hall.

A worry for me is the very small audiences I have observed at some of the performances by some of these groups. As Martin Green of Lau says: “It’s really important to go see stuff or no stuff will happen anymore.”

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