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Fiddle Me This
What’s the most important element of trad culture? The session of course. So why do so many end in rancour?
Greg McAteer, 16 Apr 2012
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.
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