Why are there so few female-dominated traditional music groups of late? Why are so many of the groups who are getting the most media attention at the moment all-male groups? Are there more male than female musicians in Irish traditional music, is that the reason? Are there more male than female professional musicians, in particular, as in making some kind of living from performing? Surely there aren’t more boys than girls learning the music? Are they being taught differently, or led to believe different things about the place music has in their lives?
How do women differ from men in how they like to work, who they choose to work with, how they present themselves, tour etc.? What are the determining factors in the different decisions they make about bringing their music to audiences? Simply chances of friendship, or the “harsh realities” of life on the road, or aesthetic considerations? Dynamics?
How does the media respond? And radio presenters? Who do they favour? Why?
I’m looking at some recent, mostly instrumental releases, playlists of radio programmes I listen to, and line-ups for recent festivals, and find myself asking a lot of questions. I don’t have the answers, but want to maybe make a few people think about the patterns.
Consider the all-male personnel in groups from Planxty to Moving Hearts etc. and now in The Gloaming, Notify, Moxie, We Banjo 3, Fidil, Mórga, This is How We Fly, New Road, Lúnasa, the Máirtín O’Connor band, Slide, Triad, Triúr, Treelan, Buille, Aldoc, Deep End of the Ford, the Ghost Trio. Caoimhín Ó Fearghaíl, Seán Ó Fearghaíl and Tomás Ó Gealbháin opted for an all-male affair. Téada is all lads and recently decided to add a singer to the line-up and chose a man.
Where are the corresponding female musicians in the context of groups? There are the groups like Altan, Dervish, the Sharon Shannon band, Niamh Ní Charra’s touring band (as far as I know), both De Dan(n)an(n)s, Danú (Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh), Clannad and others that have one female, often, in a sense, the lead, and in most cases a singer as well as an instrumentalist. Solas has Winifred Horan on fiddle of course, and has always had a female in the singing role. Goitse features one woman, as do The Bonny Men and Beoga and the Alan Kelly Gang. Kíla has one woman in the line-up (Deirdre Armstrong), as does Ensemble Ériu (Maeve O’Hara), as does the new Liam O Maonlaí group, Ré (Eithne Ní Chatháin) and the young Réalta (in which quite unusually Deirdre Galway plays guitar and bouzouki as well as singing). At First Light’s line-up usually features Ciara McCrickard singing and playing fiddle. Seán MacElwaine of Téada recently announced a project called Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It, featuring two other male musicians and one female, Laura Beagon. The Chieftains have always had a core of all men but of course Alyth McCormack and Triona Marshall have been on tour with them for quite a while now. (Kevin Conneff teamed up with Mary Bergin and Tim Edey recently for some gigs and one can hope that they record and tour some more.)
In terms of mostly-/ all-female line-ups, Líadan, and (consider the names) Cherish the Ladies and the London Lasses (who are just out of the recording studio), are the only relatively established and active groups that I can think of in that category. Like many of the male assemblies, T with the Maggies is more an occasional grouping and there are probably a few other such casual associations I’m overlooking. Perfect Friction is the only new female-dominated group I can think of in recent years and they haven’t yet released a recording (and interestingly their style of presentation on their television debut drew quite a lot of wry commentary on social media). There are some female duos that we should by rights hear from again: Laoise Kelly and Michelle O’Brien, Triona Marshall and Alyth McCormack. (The only recent trio that I can think of involving two women is Aoife Ní Bhríon, her father Mick O’Brien and Emer Mayock and all we can do is hope that they continue to perform together after their fabulous album of tunes from the Goodman collection).
I’m thinking of those female “soloists” with a really strong musical vision like, to name just a few, Liz Carroll, Siobhán Peoples, Laoise Kelly, Zoe Conway, Winifred Horan, Niamh Ní Charra and so on, and wondering would they ever consider leading a group made up of all or mostly women? If not, why not?
Where are other professional female musicians to be found? Mostly solo or with male parters (sometimes husbands) and male guest musicians, of late, it seems: Zoe Conway, Karen Ryan, Edel Fox, and (shortly) Caitlín NicGabhann all work closely with their partners as equals or near equals musically speaking. Many others feature male guest musicians accompanying either almost throughout or accompanying on a few tracks. This isn’t surprising in relation to the guitar and bodhrán which are so much associated with males. But what about other instruments? The only recent solo CDs from female instrumentalists I can see that feature a good few female guest musicians (among many males), are Liz Carroll’s On the Off Beat (Catriona McKay, Natalie Haas, Winifred Horan) and Niamh Ní Charra’s Cuz (Liz Carroll, Nicky McAuliffe, Anne McAuliffe).
In terms of presentation, considering so much of the female instrumental output is solo, it is not surprising to find the CD covers featuring photographs of the artists. Albums from Caitlín NicGabhann, Mary MacNamara, Winifred Horan, Sinead Healy, Michelle Mulcahy, Louise Mulcahy and Aoife Granville (with the latter two, both feature only one female guest musician each – who happens to be a sister … playing harp; Louise only has one other guest musician, Colm Murphy on bodhrán, who also guests on Aoife’s cd where there are considerably more male guests I think), all have a photograph of the musician on the cover, and there were very carefully produced photo shoots behind those photographs, by the looks of it. While Winifred’s solo album is portrait-covered, her trio album with Colm O’Caoimh and Mick McCauley has a print of a sailing boat on it.
And you’d think it might be the same for the solo male players. Indeed, there was a batch of CDs from solo male instrumentalists last year and earlier this year featuring photographs of the musicians on the cover, although some of them are, shall we say, somewhat informal in terms of the photoshoot: Paul O’Shaughnessy, David Doocey, David Power, Seán McKeon, Harry Bradley, Ronan O Snodaigh, Damien Mullane, Colm Naughton, Stevie Dunne, Gavin Whelan, Eamonn Cotter, Colm Gannon. (A lot of the male duo cds I can think of feature a portrait on the cover, with the clear exception of Toner Quinn and Malachy Bourke’s Ergodos release, Live at the Steeple Sessions, as well as Mick Conneely & David Munnelly’s Tis What It Is, and John Cronin & Daithi Kearney’s Midleton Rare.) However, more recently Gavin Whelan (again), Martin Tourish, Danny Diamond, Michael McCague, Leonard Barry, Kevin Madden have all released solo CDs without pictures of themselves on the cover. (Guest musicians on the ones I have are mostly male, so far as I can see from a quick glance, though Nollaig Casey features on Michael McCague’s album, alongside three fellas; and Triona Marshall, Floriane Blancke, Niamh Varian-Barry and Síomha Ní Chasaide Ní Aonghusa guest on Martin Tourish’s among 15 male musicians.)
(Male and female traditional solo singers more often than not feature portraits on their album covers. The only recent exceptions I can think of among women is Saileog Ní Cheannabháin’s debut and among men is Iarla O Lionaird’s Foxlight. (Why hasn’t Nell Ní Chroinín recorded yet, can someone tell me, by the way?))
The only CDs of late from female instrumental artists that I can see with non-portrait covers are (coincidentally) Liz Carroll’s On the Off Beat and Niamh Ní Charra’s Cuz, and neither album is what you could call very “solo” in terms of the arrangements, and Aoife Nic Cormaic’s Cuas na bhFáinleog/The Hollow of the Swallows and Triona Ni Dhomhnaill’s The Key’s Within. Neansaí Ní Choisdealbha’s album cover features just her fingers on the flute. Laoise Kelly and Michelle O’Brien opted for a portrait cover for their duet album and notably it was shot while in concert with mics and leads and dodgy seats and all!
Then, in terms of group presentation: Moxie and We Banjo 3 both have very elaborate group shots on the covers of their albums. Mórga’s recent album featured etched images of each member. However, Téada’s recent In Spite of the Storm is an atmospheric interior; The Gloaming’s debut cover is photographic art; This is How We Fly’s debut cover is a graphic of the band’s name; Ensemble Ériu’s album artwork doesn’t have a photograph of the group, and nor do Notify’s, Slide’s, Fidil’s, Triúr’s etc. etc. etc.; Aldoc’s album cover is a drawing; Caoimhín Ó Fearghaíl, Seán Ó Fearghaíl and Tomás Ó Gealbháin have a non-portrait photograph for their cover. Lúnasa tend to go for abstract covers. The only all-male well-established group I can think of of late that have a portrait shot on their recent CD cover is Máirtín O’Connor’s band (Going Places). The Alan Kelly Gang’s new release has a group portrait on the cover.
Dervish’s latest compilation album is, understandably, a group portrait, but their last studio album was a landscape painting by their very own Brian McDonagh and many others have been non-portrait based. Altan’s last one was a group shot, but very often they go for landscape and abstraction. Goitse’s last two are not group portrait covers, nor was The Bonnymen’s debut or any of Beoga’s studio albums. Our Dear Dark Mountain with the Sky Over It is a landscape image. Sharon Shannon tends to go for portrait covers. The London Lasses have group portraits on most of their albums, as do Cherish the Ladies (I think), and Líadan. The covers of the céilí band albums (which usually feature a good female representation) are almost all based on group portraits as far as I can see.
Are there any significant patterns here? Definitely at the level of the number of all-male groups, there is, I would think. Otherwise, perhaps not.
Ultimately, I’m looking at our local group of young musicians aged between nine and fourteen, and noticing how confidence levels are different in the boys and girls, how they dress and present themselves differently, how differently they speak out and how loudly they play, as well as how very early on the boys have started branching out from their main melody instrument (mostly fiddle) to experiment with guitar, mandolin and bodhrán. Are the differences constructed along gender lines at all? Is there something we need to do about it? Or is it just how our differing natures come though the nurturing, and we should just let them make music in whatever way they wish?