Music Without Borders: Keeping Ireland’s Traditional Music Alive in 2015

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Original piece for Wax And Stamp, Nov 2015 – https://linernotes.waxandstamp.com/music-without-borders-keeping-ireland-s-traditional-music-alive-in-2015-875a272ffc3a#.9nrhl546x 

Ireland has always had a strong sense of who it is as a country. From its Fjords to its mountains, its leafy dock towns and its agriculture — Ireland is a country built on hard work and pints of Guinness. It’s a country where a smile can say a thousand words, and despite its financial problems, it’s a place where everyone is still smiling. People are finding new ways of pulling together to work — to build senses of community — and one of those ways is through their music.

This is a trip that will take us around the West Coast of Ireland, on a journey to understand just how music underpins the community culture here. Following a hunch that Ireland’s traditional music scene might just hold some answers for how London could settle some it’s cultural grievances, this is a two-week discovery mission as we hitchhike our way from Cork to Donegal. We’ll have no Internet — and only a map to guide us — as we make our way across a country, eating, breathing and living through its music.

Firstly, we should begin with an explanation of ‘community music’. What community music isn’t — at least in the context of this article — is a church group gathering where djembes and tambourines are forced into the hands of bewildered local folk as a means to foster benefit out of participation. Instead, this is a kind of music that fosters identities — driven by local people, and backed by the local pubs and venues.

Our journey begins at An Spailpin Fanach, a big old boozer right in the heart of Cork. It’s a pub with an old feel — furnishings scattered everywhere — and one that highly resembles most drinking holes we’ll end up visiting. There’s Guinness and Beamish (the local draught stout) on tap, old drinking trinkets on every wall, and a solid flow of older guys sitting in unison against the bar. Having got ourselves a pint and tucked ourselves into a corner, we spot a group of musicians rehearsing in the corner. There’s an accordion player, a fiddle player and two guitarists nestled around a table quietly fiddling away to themselves. Half an hour later and the room is an eruption of lively Irish music — the boys in the bar are now tapping their feet, while those at tables are singing along.

This is an experience that’ll become more and more familiar as the trip progresses — as night after night, pubs and drinking houses host open sessions where the local musicians sit informally around a table, pint in hand, instrument in the other, and jam away until the final bell tolls. Seven nights a week, most boozers here will play music. Whether it’s trad folk, blues or punk — scenes brew here within the boundary walls of a respective local area. Beat and rhythm form the backbone of every small town.

Before coming to Ireland I was querying the music scene in London — whilst it’s a city where music is on offer night after night, its quality can often dwindle. Bands come and go — a passing phenomenon that’s usually left the mind by the time we’re ready to get the tube home. Scenes are born and die in a heartbeat. In Ireland though, the musicians are local heroes — respected but never thrust onto a pedestal. They go about their business by day, and play by night. It’s as simple as that.

Many musicians can make a living from just this. Yossi, one of the players we see nestled away in the corner on that first night, is one example. He’s an ex-chipper (owner of a chippie) turned professional player, and turns up in three separate venues over a 24-hour period. Touring the sessions across Cork, we find out Yossi is a member of CIT — Cork’s School of Music. Having left the fish and chips business and having suffered long-term health issues Yossi turned to music for answers. Yossi found his feet in Cork, after being given a small bursary to attend CIT. At 53, he’s a success story of the Cork music scene, playing five nights a week across the city. Whether busking or at a session, or tucked away with musicians in the corner of a backstreet boozer, he earns enough in tips and playing to keep him afloat, as do many of his friends at CIT.

The scene here is not only confined to Cork, either. As we tread North along the Wild Atlantic Way, we’re greeted again and again with bustling groups of musicians charming us in pubs. From Kinsale to Donegal Town, each local scene brews with the same fire. Local musicians join touring ones to build unique jams every evening. In Kinsale — a small fishing town an hour outside of Cork — it’s much the same. Small pubs breed huge talent from local and further afield — whilst half the audience are tucking into a bowl of fresh mussels, the rest are all feverishly gathered round the front, watching eagerly as a mix of blues and rock and roll fills their ears.

As we glide from pub to pub, those same sounds fill the streets through open windows — making walking around feel like one constant flow of music. Even at a sensory level, walking around towns in Ireland can fill you with a sense that every town here burns with the same love for its local players — a sense we really don’t get in London. In comparison, the London music seems cold and foreign much of the time. Buzz bands and A&R’s are all about the next new thing, but artists are known to regularly burn out after only a single record. In Ireland, things seem to hold much more longevity — the scenes here feel timeless. The same music feels as if it’s been playing from the 1950’s right through till today. Generation after generation of talented players each live in the limelight of the previous.

In the quiet coastal town of Doolin we come to start to learn about the origins of these players too. One night at Fitzgerald’s — a characteristic little pub set on the main road of Doolin’s quiet little highstreet — we witness a session in full flow. The jam brings together 12 musicians on one stage from all walks of life — there are hostel owners, landlords, professional musicians and tourists, all jumping in to play. It’s this nature that gives each town it’s own unique twang; a mesh of local personalities who cobble together to bandy through traditional Irish music — celebrating their heritage through their instruments. Homebred musicians, with homebred histories playing music that’s steeped in with its own local identity.

All this breeds far more open ideas about the ways that we listen and consume music. While the Internet has opened the door to us being able to share music across different words, it’s also disconnected us from the music that exists around us in everyday life. Most areas have a huge breadth of talented local players, but with no one to watch them, many are finding it tricky to sustain careers. The same goes for local venues. Back in London, 35% of its grassroots venues have been forced to shut since 2007. With fewer options for grassroots musicians to play the scene, and less venues willing to put up promoters who stray from the norm, the climate in Britain’s capital doesn’t look promising.

What we can learn from Ireland is that with a sense of longevity and a strong local connection, communities of musicians and fans can be born. Countless times across our trip, we were welcomed in with open arms as we stood gazing over a room of musicians playing their hearts out as they bury into a pint or two. And for me and just about anyone, that’s what music should be about — the love of playing. I’m not saying we’re by any means at an end — just in need of new ideas, and fresh energy. Ireland’s legacy feels like it could be the answer, and I for one champion their incredible support for those local players who keep the community spirit alive.

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