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Traditional Music And The Role Of The Festival

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“Music functions on a whole lot of different levels,” said Daithi Sproule from Altan. “But an interesting thing about music is that it is funny to look around and realise that music is everywhere. And it wouldn’t be everywhere if it wasn’t for the some reason. It’s in lifts, and it’s in shops…” He smiled, and tapped his finger against the table. “…And there is actually music for people who aren’t very musical. Muzak! Yes!”

Traditional music definitely can be found everywhere; after all by definition, folk music has been around for as long as there has been the folk to make it. Yet from an historical perspective all the different types of traditional music which developed, while distinct to each ethnicity, also share some common characteristics - the music is closely related to a national culture, it often memorializes historical and personal events, and it is preserved and passed down through the generations and centuries via an oral tradition. A side effect of this oral tradition is a useful lack of copyright on many of the songs - great news for folk singers everywhere - and myriad versions of countless tunes, which are a reflection of both the passage of time and the journeys that the music took over the years as it travelled far and wide alongside those from whom it originated.

Traditional music has its roots in ordinary working people. Rarely described as the music of the nobility, it belongs to the proletariat, many of whom prior to the 20th Century were illiterate which explains its reliance on the oral tradition. Folk music tells the stories of the people, and gives their version of history. As traditional song collector and singer Frank Harte said about an important distinction between folk music in relation to the history books is that “those in power write the history, while those who suffer write the songs...”

In the 19th Century academics and amateur scholars started to take notice of traditional music in relation to its preservation. That traditional music passed from person to person, and only rarely and relatively recently by written word, was one of the many ways that it was differentiated from more “formal music” and herein lays both its strength and its weakness…people and their memories.

Many people have dedicated their lives to collecting songs and preserving them in the written word in an effort to ensure their survival in ways that was impossible not so very long ago. From the efforts of Francis J Child who collected what came to be known as the Child Ballads, to the US Library of Congress which during the 1930 and 40s collected a vast number of traditional songs which might have otherwise been lost, there have been many dedicated efforts to preserve and pass on traditional music by using not so traditional methods. Thanks to the advance of technology people can learn old songs from recordings, or find them bound in the written word, collected over the years by those interested in preserving them for posterity.

It could be argued that that is a good thing too. For many the opportunities to learn traditional music, or even just to get to listen to traditional music in the old way might be hard to come by, and these new ways to access old songs may have also helped to preserve the interest in the traditional music, as well as introducing changes of its own. One of the major changes over the years has been that traditional music has moved onto the stage, a place where once it would not have been welcome.

Whether from a parent to child or from musician to musician, or some mixture thereof, traditional music learned in the oral tradition was often set in the least formal of settings, in homes, in bars and at informal social gatherings.
Both Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh from Altan, and Angus R Grant from Shooglenifty credit their childhood exposure to traditional music through family members and friends - described by Mairéad as “that lineage of old” - as being hugely influential and educational in their early lives, giving them an opportunity to learn the music from those who had learned from those before them, in the true oral tradition style.

Yet today for many people, watching staged performances at festivals and concerts is one of the few ways that they get to experience traditional music live. It used to be that traditional music was part of the fabric of people’s lives, now it is more often a thing that has to be sought out.

But is the move towards staged performances good for the survival of traditional music? Do organized events and festivals such as the North Texas Irish Festival, encourage people to learn as well as enjoy? In what ways can the more formalized form of today’s folk scene ensure that the tradition will not be lost but rather thrive, and not as some kind of selective institution in which only professional musicians can perform? Do festivals help to preserve and encourage the tradition?

According to the musicians interviewed by the Living Tradition at the 2011 North Texas Irish Festival they certainly do - both by introducing future musicians to the music itself and also by providing easy access to the various elective educational Traditional Music programs in Ireland, the UK and abroad.

“Some people who don’t seem to understand the tunes have been moved by a gig,” said fiddler Ciaran Tourish during Altan’s interview at the NTIF in Dallas. “They find themselves reacting to it, and they don’t know why - they react to the energy. And the reason we started playing music hasn’t changed – it is still all about the tunes.”

“There is playing music and then there is performing the music,” explained Daithí Sproule. “And it much more important to play the music than to perform it. Some people think that it is all about getting on stage, but we play the music because we love the music. We just happened to have gone into performing.”

“I would say to young musicians, and to new musicians, just listen to the older musicians,” Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh added. “If it is traditional music that they are going to do, I think that that is something that people don’t do enough of.”

Interest in traditional music has seen many fluctuations. From its suppression in medieval Europe because of its association with heathen rites, to its glorification in the late 18th Century by various intellectuals, its decline in the early 20th Century and its revival in the UK and the US in the mid 60’s - it has certainly seen some ups and downs. But even when it has been down it has never been entirely out, and it could be said that today folk music is enjoying a fresh renaissance as new traditional musicians continue to push the boundaries of their respective traditions. Perhaps the time-honored methods of keeping traditional music alive are not being lost… they are simply evolving into a new living tradition, with music festivals providing opportunities for education as well as entertainment, with performers becoming involved in teaching music too. Jim Flanagan, a regular performer at the NTIF also teaches during the summer at some of the various music retreats promoted during the festival, and is a firm believer in the positive effect that such festivals have on helping traditional music pass from one generation to the next.

“These kinds of festival events are generational. You see people here with their kids, and it’s a social engagement that involves the entire family,” he said. “And I think that places like the Swannanoa Gathering, Elkins College in West Virginia, and the O’Flaherty’s Retreat are immensely important.”

“On the music side of things you see some of the young stars, on the tin whistle, the fiddlers, the flute players and the pipers who are coming up in this country now, and they all started at these kinds of places. And it’s not all about what happens in the class rooms, it’s what happens afterwards, and also the personal contact with the teachers. I think it helps if you have contact with people you admire, you know performers in the tradition – it sort of mimics the traditional way of learning things.”

By Sharon Armstrong