SHEARING THE ROOTS
THE DECOMMUNALISATION OF IRISH TRADITIONAL MUSIC
On a recent visit to Brittany, in north West France, in
the mediaeval village of Josselin, we sat down on a tier of wooden seats
in the village square to enjoy an evening of music and dance, free of charge.
Young and old were there. Two
musicians, the Guichen brothers, held the stage for the evening with a
guitar and an accordeon. The ancient village church, once razed to the
ground by an English king and then rebuilt, presided quietly over the musicians
and the dancers. For dancers there were many, a hundred at any time, perhaps,
linked often only by the entwining of their little fingers, in a snaking
line; the dance was clearly a mediaeval courtly round, for in few parts
of France is music more preserved in a mediaeval aspic than in Brittany.
The music and dancing were communal
— that is, they replied to the integral need of a community to celebrate
and communicate its one-ness. To have charged money for dancing or listening
would have blasphemed against the whole idea of communal historicity, a
remembering of a time when music was there when money was not. The dancing
made a clear statement about tradition and its role in uniting diverse
individuals in a central communal activity as venerable as hay-making;
in that square, there was no possibility of outsiderness.
For many years I have had a
foot in the camp of Irish traditional music, playing and recording since
I was a teenager. I am inclined to the view that, since roughly the nineteen-eighties,
when public houses all over Ireland, desiring to attract tourists, were
willing and ready to pay musicians in money rather than in pints of Guinness
and soggy ham sandwiches, the notion of traditional music and its point
of contact with community had been eroded.
Before this period, money payment
only ever arose when a particular musician or group of musicians were on
stage at a well-known music venue; the spontaneous ‘session’, whereby musicians
wandered in to a pub and sat down and played, was never subvented by financial
considerations. Musicians played for love, to meet old friends, to learn
new music. The notion of musicians coming together to form a unity of music
within a laissez-faire communal atmosphere was paramount; dancing, quite
often, arose from the music. One went to a session specifically to relax
into community, to make music with other musicians; to earn the applause,
hopefully, of an audience. But the interplay between audience and musician
was not impeded by the notion that the musicians were being paid; there
was no dividing line on the floor or invisibly in the air between the performer
and those performed to. The music was created for its own sake.
In big towns such as Galway,
on Ireland’s West Coast, traditional Irish music was abhorred in every
public house and bar; a bastardised form of Country and Western music was
the only kind permitted, and this was piped from radios and speakers. At
least one fiddler was threatened with expulsion from a pub if he took his
fiddle out of its case!
But the music persisted, drawing
on the exploratory exodus of musicians from the city of Dublin to the West
coast in search of tunes and songs; at some stage, when tourists were so
obviously — and profitably — showing a keen interest in pub session-music,
a strong competition arose among bar-owners to have traditional music played
on their premises. Money was offered to musicians, in twos or less often
in threes, to leave their impromptu sessions and play for money up the
street; since the greater number of traditional Irish musicians were and
are on the dole, the lure of money was irresistible. Friendships died,
musicians grabbed hungrily at whatever gig was going, ignoring any sort
of common ethics or decent behaviour; money had bought souls. There was
and is something very sad about half-alcoholised traditional musicians
fighting over the difference in a €50 or a €40 gig in a pub.
Or, worse, treated appallingly, good musicians cleaning tables for the
bar owner at the end of the night, because they have managed in the course
of the evening to drink their paltry wages. This is indentured slavery
by another name. Tourists remain unaware of it. Attempts by some musicians
to ‘unionise’ were destroyed by in-fighting and a grab-it-while-you-can
philosophy. The whole business of playing music in the pubs became, even
morally, a shambles.
Now and then attempts are made
to communalise this disenchanted and disenfranchised music; singers’ evenings
are organised, for example. But there is an invisible but strictly drawn
line now between the ‘professional’ musicians who will only play for money,
and the ‘amateurs,’ who will play anywhere. Virtually every session nowadays
in Ireland has at its core two or three paid musicians, with the others
‘welcome’ to join in. Because of the frequency with which the paid musicians
acquire gigs, there is a tendency not to learn new music but to rehash
old tunes over and over tiredly. Playing music is now a job, a task, something
to get through between the hours of 9. 30pm and midnight. Singing is frowned
upon. Fast jigs and reels are noisier and therefore more crowd-pulling.
Many pub owners do not hesitate to wield a life-or-death sanction over
paid musicians, blaming any fall-off in audience numbers directly on them.
In any financial restructuring of a pub business, musicians are always
the first to be fired.
Ireland’s reputation for being
a place of music has not been enhanced by the American creation, ‘Riverdance.’
Rather, the notion of music as being a communal and free creative act is
all the more banged into the floor; lavish production, studio tweaking,
big name producers — these have become the most recognisable components
of a traditional music more divorced than ever from the small country pub.
The community is the record-buying public, not the villagers.
In the Breton village of Josselin
something very old was rehearsed and danced out, the idea of music as belonging
to everyone and being a product of unhampered interaction with a given
public. In Ireland the spontanaeous session of music is more of a novelty
than a communal actuality. We who once championed the world in traditional
music have been swallowed by it.