When you hear the phrase Irish music, what do you think of?
The first response for many is some part of the Celtic traditional music catalog. While I was in Ireland recently I had a chance to think and talk with others about this and realized that there is much more to Irish music than we would think of at first.
When I was a teenager the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were Irish music. Their heavy fisherman’s sweaters and sea chanteys were an easily recognized “brand” in world music. (The entire world music scene has changed greatly since the sixties, but that is a separate discussion.)
On the instrumental side of traditional Irish music, the Chieftains have dominated the center ring for years. The fiddle, the bodhrán (drum), and tin whistle are iconic instruments in such a group. Recently the Chieftains have collaborated with musicians from other traditions with great success. Earl Scruggs’ banjo teamed seamlessly in the group’s blue grass crossover album “Down the Old Plank Road” which was well received by both audiences. Irish pop singer Van Morrison (“Brown Eyed Girl”) has also worked with the Chieftains for a multi-layered combination of Irish sounds.
One other musical application we have all encountered is Irish folk dancing. Young people learn jigs, reels, and hornpipes – often through private lessons or informally at family and community gatherings. Here is a very low-key, traditional version of step dancing. The form has been popularized to the rest of the world (in a rather jazzed up form) by the shows River Dance and Lord of the Dance.
But there is so much more on the Irish music scene!
I suppose in terms of gross income and name recognition, the band U2 tops the list of current Irish musicians. How Irish are they beyond their personal histories and passports? Certainly they are like many other mainstream rock bands, but only U2 sings “Sunday Bloody Sunday” about sectarian violence in Northern Ireland. No, I take that back. Another Irish group, the Cranberries, also sing about this in “Zombie.“ Conversation with young Irish folk taught me that there are several other Irish bands with worldwide followings: the Saw Doctors, Westlife, Hothouse Flowers, the Corrs, and the Coronas.
Another group of Irish artists are variously catalogued as New Age, World Music, or Alternative. Enya was the first I noticed in this category. Her melodies with lyrics in English or Irish touch on elements of Irish mythology and sweep you away whether you understand the words or not. Clannad and Heart of a Woman offer similar recordings.
But wait! I have forgotten the premier Irish classical musician, Sir James Galway. There are not many flutes more magical than his! When Galway ended his performance with the Boston Pops thirty years ago, for his encore he played jigs on a tin whistle. So there we are, back where we began.
Certainly Irish music is rich in tradition and it shows up everywhere. Like every other living art form, it is constantly being re-shaped from its earlier incarnations. At the Irish tourism event I just attended, we knew there would be live entertainment in the evening. I thought we might have a traditional band and some step dancers. But the group on the ballroom stage looked like a rock band – guitars, bass, drum set, big speakers – ah, but they also had a fiddle and wooden flute. Irish fusion rock maybe? Before long many in the audience were dancing. The Irish women were doing genuine dance steps as the lines moved forward and back. Women from the States and Canada were just moving to the music. Next morning the locals were teasing the North Americans, “What was that you were doing? It looked more like The Wave at the ballpark than a reel.” But everyone had loads of fun! Nothing compares with hearing national music live in its home. I highly recommend traveling to Ireland to experience the current forms of music available there.
Errors in the article above are all my own, and I apologize for all I do not know. I have had fun collecting this much, and appreciate the comments some of you contributed. Surely I have left out many worthy of mention. Please reply: what and who would you have included without fail?
17 September 2012
Boundaries divide. Travel unites.