Fiddle Me This

What’s the most important element of trad culture? The session of course. So why do so many end in rancour?

Traditional music occupies an odd enclave, like Beirut in the mid-’80s. It’s hauntingly beautiful but siege-ridden. Some of its exponents are like that too, with a morbid capacity for isolationism and more splits than the Republican movement. Its central premise is the session. Like that bit in Where The Wild Things Are when one of the monsters says, ‘Let’s all sleep in a pile’, there’s a big idea at the heart of traditional music and that idea is that people can play together harmoniously. Then one of the monsters started lobbing stones and another went off in a huff. That doesn’t simply happen in the movies. Egos and harmonies don’t sleep in a big pile together. They’re very strange bedfellows, if you get the mixed metaphor. The fiddle-player thinks they shouldn’t allow bodhráns, the box-player reckons the fiddle-player is hogging the spotlight and everybody hates the singer. So – disharmony rules.

It takes a hell of a person to overcome those cosmic forces. It’s like watching someone trying to suck the universe in after the big bang. From time to time though, one of these mystical creatures gets thrown up by the universe and appears on the scene as if born fully formed from the head of Zeus. If you saw Jonny Tennant on TG4’s Glas Vegas, baiting Pairic Breatnach with a version of ‘My Lovely Horse’ sung as Gaeilge in the sean nós manner you’ll see where I’m coming from.

Cutting a swathe through the massed ranks of Irish dancing toddlers, he flabbergasted Breatnach (and neither Evelyn O’Rourke nor Ciara Newell looked as if they had too much of an inkling as to what he was driving at either) with a performance that was at once unreservedly silly, incredibly surreal and utterly convincing. With an anarchist’s innate understanding that confusion is one of the powerful weapons in the underdog’s arsenal and a shape-shifter’s ability to make himself appear something other than what he is, he bamboozled the judges one time too often but succeeded in pitching a hand grenade over the barbed wire fence and sending the forces of convention scattering.

Jonny Tennant is also the originator of the Traditional Arts Collective, around for a while but which now seems to have found a home in Dublin’s Grand Social. The idea is a simple one. Irish traditional music is at its essence dance music. So get people dancing to it. The purists might want a sign hung over the door to the effect of: ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here’, but the ones who brave the portals and throw caution to the wind will end up having all the craic.

The TAC pulls in traditional talent from right across the spectrum and lets them loose on an audience of dancers. The whole thing is led by Jerry O’Reilly, well-known as a singer and organiser himself of An Goilin singing club, who is steeped in the preservation-through-song of the history and music of Ireland. It’s no surprise to see him quote the late Frank Harte on his own website: ‘Those in power write the history and those who suffer write the songs, and given our history we have an awful lot of songs’. Although he has just released another CD himself, in the TAC he saves his voice for calling out dances like the ‘Virginia Reel’ and the ‘Circassian Circle’. With a background in teaching set dancing all around the globe going back to the ‘80s, even the most novice dancer can feel that the MC has their back.

The rest of the band (and it is a band because this is a céili we’re talking about at the end of the day) is drawn from all points along the musical wavelength. Drummer Phil Gaynor gives the proceedings the kind of drive and energy we normally think of as the sole preserve of rock music. The rest of the line-up features Colm Delaney on concertina, Peter Staunton on box, Isabel Ni Chuireann on keys, Alison O’Donnell from ‘70s acid-folk outfit Mellow Candle and Katerina Garcia on vocals, Richard Gill on bass and the aforementioned Jonny on bouzouki, vocals and pre-Celtic horn. There is sean nós dancing courtesy of Mary-Beth Taylor, Siobhan Doyle and others and at the recent night in the Grand Social, there was bodhrán courtesy of a percussionist who had spent the earlier part of the evening playing at a performance of Madame Butterfly in the Grand Canal Theatre. Better dust off those dancing shoes.

Although they’ve now been around for so long that they seem like a part of the establishment, you have to remember that Kíla came from the maverick side too and still have that streak just below the surface. Since their inception, Kíla have always kept focussed on the twin stars of energy and beauty. And in everything they’ve done along the way, and they’ve done plenty, energy and beauty have been central in ensuring that they are never dull or disappointing. Beyond the strictly musical, where they rarely drop below magical, they’ve collaborated on films, brought some of the most visually rich stage sets to life, and written poetry. Now, after what might seem like an extended wait they, have published Leabhar Foínn/Book of Tunes, the most prosaic title anyone could imagine for a book that is like an explosion of creative energy between its rather sombre covers. Plenty of these tunes will enlighten and baffle novice and expert alike. But there’s much more than that. Even if you don’t play, it’s a volume well worth owning.

 

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