Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Looking to the music to lead us back

THE ARTS: It shouldn’t be left to politicians and economists to show the way forward for Ireland’s economy – our traditional musicians have their own story to tell and a long history of healing ills, writes SIOBHÁN LONG

SEPTEMBER LOOMS large, and with it the prospect of a raft of swingeing cuts that threaten to decimate the arts. There’s no doubting the need for some radical reform, but since when did we define ourselves primarily as an “economy”? Is there more to Ireland and to the Irish identity than a dumpster full of bad bank(er)s, errant developers and slumbering regulators? Do we run the risk of tossing the baby out with the bathwater if we respond in purely economic terms to our current crisis?

For years, we’ve dined out on the kudos that came with the success of Riverdance and its countless spin-offs. We revelled in the perception of Ireland as a country rich in a tradition which we carefully stewarded into the 21st century. But is it possible that some of the answers to our current crisis of identity and confidence may lurk in the corners where our traditional arts – our music, stories, songs and dance – thrive? Many of our singers and musicians think so, and are adamant that they won’t sit idly by while our future is brokered solely by economists, accountants and solicitors.

Clare fiddler Martin Hayes is convinced of the centrality of our traditional music in this debate. It’s as much about re-shaping our identity as it is about rebalancing our books, he believes.

“I think the music becomes a metaphor for life, in a way”, he muses. “Traditional music continually struggles with the need to retain things of value from the past. It also examines those things in our past that are particularly unique. It’s always trying to navigate its way into being relevant today and tomorrow, in a wider world. And if you look at the economy at large, you’d have to say that for many years, we were abandoning a lot of who we were and how we recognised ourselves, in favour of saying that we were the most dynamic economy in Western Europe. That, in large measure, became our identity, particularly outside of Ireland.”

We’ve seen our own artists take action in the past in response to key events in our social history. The Carnsore Point campaign of the 1970s and Self Aid in the 1980s are just two instances where artists sought to galvanise public opinion, to stimulate it into taking action about its own future. More recently, a contingent of Irish harpers marched to the Dáil in protest at the building of the motorway at Tara. Should our traditional musicians be taking up the gauntlet at a time when the arts are under such explicit scrutiny on foot of the McCarthy report? It’s not necessarily a question that will be answered on the picket lines, Martin Hayes believes.

“Ï’ve always felt that there’s an implicit sense of the value of our music, and what’s being said,” he offers. “You don’t always have to say explicitly what you believe and what you feel, but musicians, poets, artists, intellectuals, historians, anybody who is not part of the process of generating wealth and affluence, are regarded as being simple-minded almost, and are regarded as not having anything to contribute in real terms to our way of life or to our identity. It’s as if these things were very nice attachments but not central – as if you have to be a property developer or a businessman to retain true credibility in what people refer to as to the ‘real’ world. But the real world encompasses everything. The loss of a central narrative for us to hold on to at this time is a big loss, and it’s a big gaping hole that people are filling with anger and resentment and fear and doubt and humiliation and all kinds of other things.”

Gerry Godley, director of the Improvised Music Company, again curated the OPW Summer Salon Series of free concerts at Farmleigh this year, which included performances from Julie Feeney and Martin Hayes and Dennis Cahill. The intimacy of the performance in a convivial setting was a timely reminder of what it is that’s at the heart of great music and great art.

“There’s something that happens that’s not just the music and not just the great communal spirit that it engenders,” Godley observes. “It’s a swelling of the collective breath. It’s where we realise that this is ours, and it’s something of which we must be rightly proud. And maybe that’s the most tangible thing that music can do right now, to sit there as a counterweight against the feeding frenzy of negativity that we seem to be collectively involved in.

“The last decade has been very challenging for artists, not to get suckered into what was going on. And I think a lot of us did,” Gerry admits. “We may have to look into our own conscience and ask if we were complicit in all of this. And if we were, perhaps we were human and went down the same acquisitive road that the vast majority of our society did, but the job of the artist is to be a constant, to be there when society chooses to turn back to it. I think that orbit is always an elliptical one and not a circular one. What we’ve witnessed over the last number of years is that we’ve now passed through the apogee of that orbit and we’re now coming back towards each other. The artist’s job is to be that constant, that lodestone.”

Muireann Nic Amhlaoibh, flute player and singer with Danú, is equally sanguine about the role our traditional arts can play in our national recuperation.

“One way I would see traditional music as a whole helping us emerge from all this is to continue on just doing what it says on the tin,” she offers. “By that I mean that the real essence of traditional music to me is a coming together of people, a sharing of culture and heritage, and a language that joins old and young, rich and poor across many boundaries.”

LEADERSHIP IS CENTRAL to our way forward, Martin Hayes suggests. As a long-time US resident, he’s had some experience of what shape that might take.

“This is an opportunity for re-invention”, he suggests, “to re-chart the course, politically, economically, socially and culturally. It’s a chance to sit back and take a look at the long-range future of the country, and I think that artists and poets have every right to be involved, and not to feel peripheral to those discussions.

“For me, living in America, watching the election of Barack Obama was like watching America re-forge its identity and reshape its past, and he was able to get people to align along principles of identity. It’s a long time since we had politics like that in Ireland, where someone’s been able to shape it in a way that we can wake up and say ‘yes, this is why we are who we are. This is what we’ve been and what we can be’. For example, traditional music is a non-hierarchical music, a music of community, and I’m sure we have that latent in society as well, in that it’s part of what we are, that we can instinctively relate to. We’ve tried capitalism on hyperdrive, and it’s really not who we are. There’s some part of us that not 100 per cent comfortable with that.”

Petr Pandula is a Czech-born music promoter and owner of one of the last 10 traditional music shops in the country, the Magnetic Music Café in Doolin, Co Clare. He is agitated by the seeming absence of traditional artists from the current economic debate.

“Many musicians today are apolitical and complacent,” he says. “I was in Prague in 1968 when the Russian tanks drove into the city and I returned to Prague during the Velvet Revolution [of 1989]. What inspired me was the fact that this revolution was, in large part, triggered by artists, writers, actors and musicians. But here, I don’t see the same potential in the Irish cultural scene, yet I’ve seen what kind of power cultural forces can produce to implement change in my own home place.”

Lasairfhíona Ní Chonaola, a sean nós singer from Inis Óirr, is convinced that our music can be a touchstone in this age of anxiety.

“Music is how I interpret the world”, she says, “because that’s the world I grew up in. Recession or no recession, there will always be people craving music, and a sense of identity. By definition, sean nós songs were handed down through many generations and through many recessions and the songs survived. There’s joy and sadness in music, and I think it helps us to deal with all kinds of problems in our lives, whether emotionally, financially or spiritually.”

THE HEALING POTENTIAL of our music can’t be underestimated, according to Siobhán Warfield, one of the harpists who participated in the march to the Dáil recently.

“We musicians can make a difference to public opinion,” she says. “Most recently, the murder of Manuela Riedo in Galway two years ago sent bad PR messages across Europe about Ireland. No longer were we seen as a safe, friendly place to send a child to university. Just a few weeks ago, musicians got together in Switzerland to help counteract this bad feeling about Ireland . . . by staging a concert in Basle for the Manuela Riedo foundation. This is just one example of how traditional Irish music can help heal wounds.”

The music, song and dance that define us are resilient as old boots, and Gerry Godley is adamant that we need to recognise this for what it is, and what it can offer us.

“What we have, you can’t wipe it out,” he insists. “A couple of generations of economic growth can’t alter the fabric of how we relate to music. Many other countries don’t have this amazing ecosystem of music that we have, which hasn’t bent the knee to globalising forces. It hasn’t smoothed out all the rough edges. We have something that’s ruggedly individualistic.”

For Godley, the McCarthy report may be a point of departure, but we can’t allow it to write the entire script for our future.

“There is an aspect to our psyche which is on the one hand very discursive, thoughtful and serious, and that manifests itself in our artists and writers, and allows us to grapple with big, philosophical questions.

“Then we have this infantile side to us which is the party that can’t end and the craic, and we are both people. I think the last decade has been about that infantile part and I hope that over the next while, this other side of our character will come back into focus.”


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