Sunday, January 17, 2010

100 Days of Practice Round 2 Day 95: Welcoming the Stranger

I've spent the last four days pondering tradition and innovation, caught between wanting to spend the next 100 days exploring the question "What IS Irish music, anyway?" and "Who the heck cares? Just shut up and play." Many of these questions surrounding what is traditional, what is not, what is acceptable variance from the tradition, what music goes too far -- much of this comes down to a question not of "tradition and innovation," but rather simply, taste. And perhaps even more to the point, custom: what you've been surrounded with, what you've first heard as Irish music. What you identify with.

Was it: The Clancy Brothers? Seamus Ennis? The Tara Ceili Band? The Tulla Ceili Band? The Pogues? Noel Hill and Tony Linnane? Joe Heaney? Nioclas Toibin? The Dubliners? John McCormack? Bing Crosby? Christy Moore? The Dropkick Murphys? The Wolfe Tones? The Bothy Band? Lunasa? Beoga? Seamus Connolly? Joe Derrane? The Saw Doctors? Maura O'Connell? Liz Carroll? Steeleye Span? This could go on and on. Someone shoot me.

A friend responded this way to the last blog post:

"...the choices a person makes musically will most often reflect their experiences--in my view, particularly their INITIAL experiences with not only the music, but the time, place, and with whom it was experienced. Irish traditional music for me has been one of the most personal musical experiences--as Jerry O'Sullivan once said, each tune brings to mind those above things--where you got it from and with whom you played it and where--and the people you meet playing music are some of the nicest people you could ever meet--as fellow musicians and friends. The music of today is STILL Irish traditional music, but it is the music of TODAY--evolving side by side with the times and its country of origin. It is the tradition of today. What I heard 33 years ago was the music of THEN--fitting in with the country of THEN--which is no more--and that is OK. I have laughed during 'serious' performances--just as an expression of the joy of the music--both as I was playing, or listening. It was an expression of joy, not criticism. If I can't have that, then for me the music loses its meaning and purpose!"

Joy as purpose. Who would deny that!? There are many technical ways to define Irish music: timbre, pitch, repertoire, form, instrumentation, rhythm, harmonic characteristics, melodic tendencies... but what draws many in more than anything is purpose and context. What environment is it being played in, what social relationships does it depend on and build, what friendships are being cemented? In other words, What are you getting out of it? And perhaps more important: What are you giving to it?

For many, the session is not so much about Irish traditional music as it is about the people, and as a result, the average session will include an astonishingly broad range of people, and of skill levels. The bodhran gets a bad rap (no pun intended), because so many public sessions are crowded with rows of bodhran players with widely varying skill levels. And SOMETIMES this can murder a session, if the point of the session is to make high-level, tight, rhythmically sharp music. But that is absolutely NOT the point of all sessions, and one thing I've become convinced of over the years is that when people see the warm camaraderie and joyfulness of music making that marks the average session, they want in! So, they take up the bodhran, thinking it's the easiest instrument to get up to speed on (still, no pun intended). That's honest, and earnest. Maybe we can give those folks a break.

It can be difficult to divorce Irish music from its social side. When I think of Irish music in Boston, my first thoughts often go to Comhaltas, to great joy, and to Larry Reynolds, cofounder and longtime president of the Boston chapter of Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann, the international association of Irish music. I remember going to Larry's long-standing Monday night session at the Green Briar in Brighton, Mass. Not just my thoughts go to Larry, but also my deep appreciation. Much of the reason I've continued to play Irish music for some fifteen years or so is due to his initial: "Go on, give us a tune there, Susan." I will be forever grateful to his encouraging wink-and-a-nod to me across the session--urging me as a beginner flute player to start a tune, back when I could barely get a note out of my entry-level Ralph Sweet Sweetheart flute. (Check him out; great affordable flutes!)

Even when I flubbed, crashed, burned, Larry would ask me to do it again the next session. Or if I wasn't playing because I didn't know a tune, while playing his fiddle he'd look at my flute, nod to me, and motion to me to give it a try anyway. Then there was Jack Conroy, box player and flute player, now in his 70s, who I would seek out and sit beside every week because he'd name the tunes for me, encourage me to play, give me tips, make me feel welcome. That will forever define how I view Comhaltas, despite the many criticisms that get leveled against the organization.

The sort of treatment Larry and Jack gave, that also is the nature of Irish tradition to me: welcoming the honest stranger. In this case, a stranger with a Lithuanian name and a strange tendency to unwittingly lapse into a fake Irish accent or a strong Boston accent, depending on who she was talking to. Larry and Jack didn't know that someday I'd write a book that featured them and their early days of playing on Dudley Street, or that I'd be a music writer and columnist for the Boston Irish Reporter. Larry didn't know that fifteen years later, I'd play in a band with his son, a band that paid tribute to his own Dudley Street era of music. Honestly? They didn't care. And today, they still don't, in the kindest possible way, and for that I am so thankful. They didn't ask questions and still don't, except a genuine "How are you?" and then it's all about the music.

Most likely, what they saw back then was a young person that was just learning to play, but clearly really wanting to get it right, and having a great deal of fun at it. And maybe that was all that mattered.

Isn't that what it's about?

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