No. 7


Fred Johnston  



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. 



The copyright of 
everything published 
here remains 
with the authors.


Main Page | Current Issue | Contributors| News | Where to Buy | Links | Contact us | Archives

© 2003-2005 Ars Interpres Publications.