Report from the front lines of trad

[PS from ghostwriter: It seems I need to state that I am not in any way satirising the NPU. What’s there to satirise? A fantastic organisation that the country owes a huge debt of gratitude to. It is the bee’s knees as far as I’m concerned. I was satirising an imaginary reviewer from say a 1950s edition of Treoir, using language that has cropped up in the comments I’ve been reading online in a debate about traditional music culture. Nothing personal about it, either, just a bit of fun for me and … well maybe just me.]

 

I was at the Session with the Pipers gig (too late) last night in the Cobblestone and can report that things are much worse than I suspected. The fact that I had to pay in was not a good start. Is this really the debased direction we want our dear traditional music to go? GAA players don’t look to be remunerated for giving up their lives for their craft.

The young “masters” Toner Quinn and Malachy Bourke – who I understand are being touted as the “latest thing” to break new ground (wind, more like) in trad – opened up with a few sets of tunes on their fiddles. It puzzles me why you want to have a duet of the same instrument. Second fiddle, indeed. A disturbing new trend, spawned by that Murphy-Clifford pair, no doubt. And, anyhow, this pair couldn’t even blend for more than a bar or two at a time! The way they played was painfully dizzying. Far too slow some of the time and totally self-indulgent in terms of ornamentation with more harmonies and chordal double-stops than nice cuts and rolls. They flattened out the natural shape of the tunes so much you could barely tell when the repeats started or identify which was the first half and which the second. It was almost development. Horror! Worse still, they played songs. How dare they, I say. Appropriating the material of the Connemara song tradition for instrumental faffing. And, shockingly, they altered the melodic line of the songs so much and even the rhythm, adding in non-existent bars and twisting the essence of the song for their greedy egocentric purposes. Quinn even had the audacity to fashion a “new” jig and reel (oxymoron, surely) out of the Pádraig Ó hAolín song ‘Cóilín Phádraig Shéamais’.

I assume that by putting them up on a stage and promoting the event in the media, the musicians and NPU are actually expecting us to like this stuff, and I suppose people are entitled to like it if they wish, but please don’t tell me this is traditional in any aesthetic/stylistic sense. This is robbery, pilfering and patronising of our cultural riches based on skint perceptions of what it’s about. The commercialism that drives this hyped tripe was clearly flagged by the duet’s declared associations with Frankie Gavin, and by the organisers suggesting that if they had CDs we could buy them at the door. Leave the CDs with Radio Éireann, I think.

Thank God for Peter Browne. I can’t say I know who he is – clearly the media in my community haven’t paid him enough attention – but he is the real deal, a living museum of traditional music (tautology, perhaps). It seems he knew and was taught by all the great pipers of the last generation, including He-Who-Must-Be-Named, and is faithful to their ways at least as far as my relatively untrained ear can ascertain. (Pipes are not my thing: the piercing sound reminds me of the wittering of teenagers.) Straight up tunes, though, played at a decent speed with neutral and clear expression, delicate ornamentation and modest use of those distracting regulators. Lovely stuff. He knows his arses from his elbows … and bellows, that’s for sure.

I was in a rapture (I think, that’s what it was), myself, though I can report, dear reader, that I may have been alone in that state (and hid it well, mind – wouldn’t want to give a musician a bit of praise, you know). For I noticed a lot of the crowd shifting on their feet and starting to chat and move about. I even sensed that some people were growing impatient, anticipating the tunes closing in on themselves, seeing the end of the repeat so clearly up ahead that they were almost wishing for the end before they’d even registered the melody being stated. (Unfortunately, his set was sullied by the inclusion of a slow air: why would he not have sung the song the way it was originally conceived with beautiful words and a story that though most of us wouldn’t have understood we could at least have had our fix of vague sadness at the loss of our culture and the general fallen state of humanity.)

I’m sorry to say that Noel Hill, though revered by so many of late, has never been my cup of tea as a soloist. I’m with the Pogues in disliking his attitude. As a dance caller he is wonderful, but otherwise in my eyes he is the father of “messing with tunes”. (Not sure who the mother would be. That Ivers one, perhaps.) As far as I’m concerned (and that’s all that really matters at the end of the day) he plays punk-trad: constantly on the brink of smashing the tune up altogether. I suspect, and no one will convince me otherwise, he actually hates our music but that it’s all he knows and all he has in his genes, so he’s stuck with it. He pushes the crochets so far off their natural positions as if he is looking for something else to play altogether. Too bloody many notes, too. I didn’t even recognise tunes likes ‘Banish Misfortune’ and ‘The Maids of Mount Cisco’ from his playing. Even his body language – looking intensely to either side or even up in the air as if he’s having a religious experience –; jerking aggressively on the bellows as if to teach the concertina manners or break it open altogether, prove to me he is impatient with the material (including more songs, the thief) and the sacred, circular forms of our ancient jigs and reels handed down respectfully from generation to generation of Celt. (A tradician whom I very much respect described it nicely to me the other day as “a very diverse, unique and interesting set of socio-cultural phenomena and enduring aesthetic movements”. Sin é.)

A word on the make-up of the audience. I think I may have been the only non-NPU member or relative of a musician, or at least the only person that didn’t know the rest of the room personally. It was great to see so many of our most revered musicians out showing their support for their fellow musicians. Where would traditional musicians be without other traditional musicians, I ask you. (Though I despair at the lack of a formal dress code these days; not a tie in sight, never mind a suit. Disgraceful lack of self respect. More post-colonial insecurity making people follow modern, international fads. Even the jazzers dress better and look at where they have come from!)

Finally, I find myself wondering, why if this was clearly marked by the organisers “a listening gig” (as opposed to a drinking and talking one), were people making those intolerable attention-seeking interventions during the tunes, those ‘Hups’ and yelps on the repeats or changeovers in the sets, as if to declare to one and all their familiarity with the make-up of the music (there was even one person near me lilting occasional bars!). You’d never hear the like of it in a concert hall. Maybe it was uncontrollable expression of rapture but such dangerous emotions should surely be kept personal and under the lid. God forbid that such practices should be reported in the media and suddenly adopted unquestioningly by everyone as the norm.

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4 thoughts on “Report from the front lines of trad

    • I know. You’re right. I forgot to say something about the instrumentation. Here am I only just getting used to the fiddle as a traditional music instrument and yet now I’m expected to embrace the concertina! What next, the harmonica?

  1. I better state, in case there are others like Ryan, that I am not in any way satirising the NPU. What’s there to satirise? A fantastic organisation that the country owes a huge debt of gratitude to. It is the bee’s knees as far as I’m concerned. I was satirising an imaginary reviewer from say a 1950s edition of Treoir, using language that has cropped up in comments on social media about traditional music culture. Nothing personal about it, either, just a bit of fun for me and … well maybe just me.

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