- 05 Oct 12
Across the world musicians are honoured for their contribution to society, even if the exact choice of artists is often contentious. Why can’t we do the same in Ireland?
Every year the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts awards, obviously enough, the Kennedy Centre Honours. Recently it has thrown a bewhiskered family pet amongst the pigeons with the announcement that, as part of the 2012 ceremony, it will give a prize to Led Zeppelin.
Buddy Guy is also being honoured, but that news has almost been ignored in the furore over the Centre’s decision to make an award to a non-American. It’s not, just so we’re clear, the first time an overseas musician been recognised in such a fashion.
Elton John was a recipient of the same award in 2004, while The Who’s Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend were recognized in 2008, as was Paul McCartney in 2010. So why has this drawn so much ire? Possibly because Led Zeppelin spent so much of their early career lifting licks and riffs from the back catalogues of blues musicians (see the aforementioned Buddy Guy).
For my money, though, it has more to do with the downtrodden condition of the American music industry. Nothing breeds protectionism and xenophobia like a spot of good old-fashioned poverty.
This throws up some interesting, if ugly, questions about national pride and what exactly it means for a nation to pay tribute to a musician.
The United Kingdom has it honours system and acknowledges, on occasion, the contribution of performers to British society. So they have Dame Vera Lynn, Sir Paul McCartney and now Sir Tom Jones. In such cases, longevity is, dare we say, as much a factor as talent.
Who makes these decisions, exactly? In the US, the Kennedy Centre is deeply embedded in the cultural life of the country. In the UK, the honours are decided upon by a civil service with no great involvement in the process of artistic creation.
Then there’s us. What do we have? Well, in Ireland we appear to disdain all artists equally. The closest we can manage is Gay Byrne’s For One Night Only. Yes, there is Aosdana. But it only has 30 musicians in its ranks, of whom around 20 are classical composers. Granted, there are a couple of jazz players, with Donal Lunny and Tommy Peoples representing traditional music. Only Trevor Knight could claim any link to ‘pop’. Added to which, awareness of Aosdana is low. No-one makes a big song and dance about the organisation. There is no awards ceremony and you don’t get your mug in the paper when you’re voted in.
From as far back as Count John McCormack, and encompassing Van Morrison and The Chieftains in the mid-’60s, the Irish music industry and specifically Irish musicians have done for the country what saints and scholars did in the Middle Ages. They have given the country a veneer of civilisation and allowed us, as a nation, to stand eye-to-eye with the rest of the world.
You might, of course, be tempted to represent the absence of any Irish awards system as a reaction to the hammy sash-and-medals type of schtick that our neighbours and former colonial overlords cling to. In truth, it has much more to do with the fact that we’re a nation of boney-arsed begrudgers.
Which may explain why so many musicians of the calibre of Máire Ní Chathasaigh and Chris Newman choose not to live here any longer. The pair are, however, visiting for a short series of gigs over the next couple of weeks.
They arrive Saturday, October 6 for a show in Nobber, Co. Meath as part of the O’Carolan Harp, Cultural and Heritage Festival which takes place in O’Carolan College. The following weekend sees them in Down Arts Centre, Downpatrick (12), the Island Music Club at Minogue’s Bar, Tulla (13) and in the Village Arts Centre, Kilworth Co. Cork (14).
As part of this year’s Sligo Live Festival, the Hawk’s Well Theatre will be presenting a couple of double bills which have the potential to upstage headliners Pokey Lafarge and Van Morrison. Fidil, the Donegal fiddle trio awarded the Music Network ‘Young Musicwide Award’ only a few months after getting together, aren’t too far from their home turf and the substantial trad community in Sligo will be cleaning the plate when it comes to a helping of some of the finest fiddling in the north-west.
Team them up with I Draw Slow and you have a strong contender for one of the gigs of the year. They hit the Hawk’s Well Friday, October 26. The following evening, you can look forward to Lau, described by Channel 4 as, “Quite frankly, the best band in the world right now”.
To be blunt, they’re also one of the very few bands to transcend the dowdy norms of how traditional or folk groups are supposed to style themselves visually. They also take things way to the left of anyone’s tepid vision of ‘folk’. Working with sound engineer Tim Matthew, they pay more attention to the sonics of what they do than any other folk band I can think of. They’ll be joined for their double header by Buille, built around the engine of Armagh-born brothers Niall and Caoimhin Vallely.