Traditional Irish Music
I started playing Irish music more or less 10 years ago. I am Italian. After a brief experience with classical music as a child, I played the guitar for years, mainly rock and acoustic blues. I went to Dublin after finishing the University, and I literally fell in love with the music: I loved the melodies, the rhythm, the instruments and the technical skills of the players. It was, in a way, the music I had always been looking for, without knowing that it was there.
I was admired (and I still am) at the fact that the Irish are so keen to preserve the tradition and bring this treasure of tunes and musical skills to the new generations, so that we can enjoy it today.
Now, after a few years spent living in Ireland, developing my playing, meeting other musicians at sessions, and reading about Irish music, I am enjoying it more than ever, but at the same time I am starting to get more and more puzzled by one recurring question: "How comes that an Italian plays Irish music?", often followed by the question: "Do you play Italian music?"
As legitimate as these questions are, I wonder how comes that I played for years the music of another race coming from another continent - Africa, emigrated in yet another continent - America - without ever being asked by anyone: "How comes that an Italian plays blues?" and without anyone even thinking of saying that I should play "Italian music". Curiously enough, now that I play a kind of music that is, in fact, much closer to my cultural background than blues (Irish Slides, for example, sound amazingly similar to Northern Italian traditional music) it is perceived as doing something peculiar, exotic and strange.
Now, the reasons for that are actually well exposed. The first reason is commercial: blues and jazz have enjoyed a commercial success that has "internationalized" the music itself, so that now it's perfectly normal for everyone, of any race and continent, to play it. This is unknown to Irish music, which is still a "niche" thing (and I don't necessarily mean this in a negative way, as in many ways it is a positive thing).
The second reason is that it is not only music to the eyes of the Irish: it is a fundamental part (if not THE fundamental part) of their cultural and national identity. This is mainly due to the persecution of Irish musicians during the worst centuries of the English colonization, where it was seen as an obstacle to the project of “anglicising” Ireland, project which only had the result of strengthening it as a mark of cultural identity, and giving it that “Celtic” aura – historically unmotivated - destined to become the contemporary and successful commercial label that we all know.
But being part of the national identity has, unfortunately, many downsides, first of all the trivial representation of it that Ireland gives to tourists. I am thinking, for example, of the background music in souvenirs shops, like "Celtic Melodies" or "The Best Irish Pub Songs", where tracks of more than arguable quality are packed with covers showing a pint of Guinness and a shamrock (the other icons of "Ireland for tourists"), and so on. But I'm also thinking of noisy and alcohol-intoxicated audiences which populate the most touristy pubs, and that inevitably get to see Irish music as something loud and messy, best enjoyed with shouts, claps, and lots of drinking - which is actually, in my own view, the worst way to appreciate it, unless, of course, we are talking about the above mentioned "pub songs" - or "drinking songs", to which inevitably Irish music is sadly reduced in the eyes of so many, Irish included.
In other words, the music is seen as an image of Ireland for the consumption of both Irish and foreigners: you can take a picture in Temple Bar putting your face behind the figure of a Leprechaun with a bodhran, or you can dress yourself in green and hang a shamrock on the scroll of your Irish flag-painted fiddle at St Patrick.
On a more "high" and "acculturate" level, you can see documentaries about Irish music and musicians on TG4 - the TV channel in Irish, of which the two main subjects of interest, apart for Irish music, are Irish language and Irish history.
As an Italian, I inevitably get to feel, in a way, as an outsider doing something strange. Why should an Italian want to get into something “so much Irish”?
The answer is that, for me, it's not about the "Irishness", it’s about the music. And it’s the music that I happen to like playing. It’s notes, it’s vibrations of the air that reach the ear, as much as classical music, blues, jazz, rock or any other kind of music which is not as much identified with any particular nation. Music doesn’t have a nationality for me. Not Irish, not Italian, not African-American. Of course, every kind of music originates from a particular place and culture, but music itself, for its very nature, belongs everywhere. It’s the most universal language that mankind has, which goes beyond national borders and travels the lengths of history and space and talks to everyone.
It is accepted by most historians of music that jigs originate from Italy, hornpipes from England, and reels from Scotland. Concertinas came to Ireland from England, the violin was created in Italy and came to Ireland through Scotland. Polkas and Mazurkas are of Eastern-European origin. Carolan was highly influenced by the continental baroque composers of the time. And so on. In other words, if you look at historical facts, Irish music is actually less peculiar to the Irish than blues or jazz were to the Afro-American.
But this would be a matter for historical research, which actually has little to do with the music itself. Music itself doesn’t have borders, and doesn’t have a nationality. Neglecting this would mean neglecting music as a form of art.
I remember the words of the fiddle player Martin Hayes in a TV interview: “This music is, at this stage, so much wrapped of Irish identity, that we might need to undo that process, if we want to rediscover it fully”. And, as an “outsider”, I completely agree with him, as much as I enjoy playing and listening to the music.
What are your thoughts about this?
Hi Alessandro, I sure agree with a lot of what you say in your nice discussion. Thanks for exposing your idea so clearly. Being French Canadian myself, I get asked the same question.My answer is always the same. I'm also Irish descent from my mother's side During the great famine, in around 1840, my great grand mother came from Dublin to Pier 21 Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. She found employment in a railway station as a chambermaid. In these days,train stations had rooms upstairs where the incoming train crew could rest before boarding the train that would bring them back home. The great grand father to be was a conductor on the trains. The conductor collects the tickets and see to the problemsolving of the passengers. So, although I wasn't there, I figure that this is how they met. Since he was French Canadian, he settled in the heart of the French community in Quebec. No English spoken anywhere for miles around. This is where she lived with him for the rest of her days. So I get asked if I play French Canadian jigs and reels. Of course I do but I also feel the magic of Irish music. I love anything Irish. As a seaman I was in Ireland many times and always had a good time. Never met an Irish man or Irish lass I didn't like. The music and he peoples have character and I love this. I prefer the fast rhythmic music and the dancing music. This goes well with the younger generations and the older folks also take very well to this music. This is why I say that no matter what nuance of celtic music y7ou play, the magic it generates is always there. here is my advice in a nutshell. Nice having this talk with you and I hope to hear from you again.
Hi Alsessandro. Although I have Austurian & Galician Celtic roots, with a name like "Lopez", I am obviously not Irish. My wife is, and she is somewhat responsible for my interest in Ireland and it's people. Because of her we took a vacation in Ireland where I grew to love it's beauty of people, land, culture and music. However, long before any of that took hold I was always drawn to the "old traditional music". Being a musician, and especially liking the uniqueness of indiginous folk music from all over the world, I quickly found the "identity" of Irish music as something special. I am not locked into only the "old Traditional" Irish music, but enjoy it's influence on all music in general. With the booming & sudden appearance of "Celtic Music" (here in the States: River Dance, Celtic Women, etc.) the acceptance of Irish Music became phenomenal,....although at the time termed "Celtic". Many (too many) people of Irish descent (at least here in the States and in my experience) were seeing the term Celtic as meaning ONLY Irish. But with time and education hard to ignore, the term Celtic was accepted as what it truly is: the eight Celtic nations.
The "traditional end of things" with ITM was a journey into uncharted waters for myself; cautiously approached with respect and fascination. Attending my first seisiun was exciting and scary. I wanted so bad to jump in but did not wish to offend anyone. It wasn't a "jam", but a carefully choreographed specific way of playing music. At the same time it was a free-flowing expression of music,.....one only realized if you were born into it. Through great players (teachers???) bonded by a love for the music, as well as their patience and tolerance, and a humble approach on my part, I was allowed into the "experience" of what ITM was really all about. Being an "IRISH WANNA-BE" isn't a bad thing,....especially when it comes to the music.
Lovely topic! Can I just state up front that I don't think there's ever a reason to explain why you listen to/practice/play/love something as awesome as music? Music is how emotions sound, it's a very human thing. Just because it has roots is another country doesn't make it weird.
That said.... Irish trad music is actually not even that original (not the Gaelic type), I mean, we know that Bluegrass is very similar as is Scottish music, in the Netherlands the Dutch traditional music also contains reels and jigs, apparently in Italy this is the case as well, in Bretagne and other parts of France I've heard very similar music, I know Polka's are around in other parts of the world.
However, the big difference with Irish trad is that in Ireland the music was presevered and still widely practiced. Irish people have gone around the world and made people fall in love with their music. In comparision to the Netherlands you need to look really hard to find anyone practicing Dutch traditional music. It's very poorly preserved unfortunately.. Maybe because there have been so many Irish immigrants that were proud of their culture and wanted to preserve their culture, the Irish tradition has flourished as much as it did. But that's just guessing..
I think what makes me like this music is not so much because it is Irish, but rather its intention; folk music often is part of a ritual of dancing and getting together, that's what I love about the traditional Irish music, it makes you happy when you listen to it, isn't that the most important thing?
Good discussion here. I'm very much Irish, from Co. Westmeath in the heart of Ireland. I describe myself as a traditional Irish musician, composer, singer and teacher. But I would agree with Dhomhnaill that our music extends and originates to the eight Celtic nations. But what makes our music traditional Irish is that we have made it our own. Dance and rhythm has always been a part of Irish culture as far back as the eight century. So yes we might have taken reels from Scotland, hornpipes from England, polkas from eastern europe etc.. but we have made these forms of music our own with our distinctive rhythm and dance which has always been there.
The reason I think that our music has survived is the togetherness and pride of the Irish people. Remember we have went through a lot as a nation with the Famine, English rule, troubles in the North etc and Irish people seem to look on our music, song and dance as a sense of freedom, pride and celebration. Most music is and has been passed on from generation to generation. Families stick together and so the music sticks together.
But I will go back to what makes Irish music Irish and its all about rhythm. That wakes make the feet tap, the shoulders moving, the head swaying! It seems to be inbuilt into the Irish people. Why do we have so many gifted composers in our tradition like Paddy O'Brien, Paddy Fahy, Vincent Broderick etc..? The rhythm was always there and now we have endless melodies to go with it. With globalisation of trad music, long may our Irishness continue.
Thanks for the clarification, Enda. I believe that you cannot separate the music from the traditions involved with it. Alessandro,...your reference to "Black-Wannabes" is exactly what happened with Jazz (and continues to happen) here in the States. Historically, some in the "White Culture" were turned on by the free flowing forms expressed in the new Jazz music of the early 1900's. Acknowledged greats like Glen Miller, Artie Shaw, etc. were frequently going to Black Clubs in Harlem, NY to listen to this unique form of music. They COPIED the music and claimed it as their own, thereby influencing an acceptance and promotion of the music. Musicians like Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington were accepted and made famous because of these white musicians and what they did with the music. The same thing happened with Rock & Roll and Blues. While many considered Elvis as the King, people like Little Richard and Chuck Berry were glossed over, even though they originated the music. Also, Blues went through the same thing.
The point I'm trying to make is that many originators of these two (three) forms of music would say: "That's not REAL Jazz!!!", "That's not REAL Rock & Roll!!!" or "That sure ain't the Blues!!!". A certain connection exists between people of a culture and their music. Just playing, loving & appreciating a type of music doesn't mean you FULLY understand what's connected to it. Sure, maybe you can play with the best of them, maybe even be invited into the door and "shown a thing or two", and get as close as an "initiated musician" can be,.....but you haven't lived it. My father used to say: "You can read a book about how to fly an airplane, learn and know everything about it, but until you're in the seat with your hands on the wheel and DOING IT,...you don't know squat!!!" Such things as Seisiun Ettiquette, Traditional Instruments, regional differences, etc., are very real to many (as far as preservation of traditions) and shouldn't be ignored because the world is changing. Here in the States, some seisiuns allow ANY & ALL to play, sheet music, different genres of music, different instruments, etc. in hopes to promote the music,....but what about the continuing "living tradition". THAT,...is what the "IRISHNESS" truly is,...along with the rhythm, moving shoulders, swaying heads,....and let's not forget the tapping feet. Great discussion. Cheers everyone!!!
I understand perfectly what you mean about the living tradition, the spirit of the get-together which is typically Irish. That's actually what fascinated me in first instance. I kept saying to my friends in Italy that Irish music is much more that what you hear when you put a cd in a cd-player, and that you need to come to Ireland to see what it really is - something to "live" and not only to listen or play. I also agree on the Irish "groove". You can tell if a fiddle or flute player is Irish or not on a "blindfolded test". But that said, there are many Irish who don't have a clue about Traditional Music, or about session etiquette, or don't have any sense of rhythm. And many not-Irish who are much better that many Irish (we always have some visitors from other countries at my local pub in Dublin). There is too much stress, I believe, on the issue of being Irish or not (or even being part of this or that Irish family), instead of the real issue - being a good musician or not. As I said, I still believe it's music in first place, and Irish in second place, not the other way around.
As a brazilian in love with with trad too, I'll sign under what you said Alessandro. Couldn't have said it better myself. Lovely topic too.
Thanks Caetano! I knew that some other 'not Irish" players would have understood and agreed with my point..:-) It is probably a common experience. How did you get into Irish music? Do you get many "How comes that you play Irish music" or/and "Do you play Brazilian music" yourself.. ?
As a relative newcomer to Irish music I have read all the comments with much interest. I learn more and more every day about Irish music and culture and history, and I love playing Irish music. I think it boils down to respect. As someone who did not grow up in Ireland or in a musical Irish family, I need to approach the tradition with respect and recognize the value and uniqueness of those who grew up in the tradition. And being clear what is truly traditional, and what has been altered for "commercial interests" or "modern ears", and to know the difference. However, I also think that "outsiders" need respect as well, and to be valued as people who appreciate the music deeply and love to play it. To be given credit for recognizing what is special about Irish music, and for being musicians who want to be a part of it.