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? Feel free to share your views (that’s the purpose of my article), and thanks for reading...!
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