Coming in out of the cold


There is widespread support for Comhaltas and its work for traditional arts, but its relationship with the Arts Council is still on thin ice, writes SIOBHAN LONG

THE LAST THREE years have seen many positive developments in traditional music, not least of which has been the exponential growth in status and funding afforded to it by the Arts Council, following the publication of the council’s Traditional Arts Strategy in 2005. What puzzles many musicians and listeners alike, though, is the silence that defines the relationship between Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (CCE) and the Arts Council.

Most lovers of traditional music, song, dance and storytelling have nothing but praise for the grassroots work that Comhaltas has undertaken since its foundation in 1951. Labhrás Ó Murchú, Fianna Fáil senator and lifetime ard-stiúrthóir (director general) of Comhaltas, says his organisation’s role is one of inclusion, first and foremost.

“We see traditional music as a form of community expression,” Ó Murchú says, seated behind his ample desk in his Kildare Street office. “We’ve always been anxious to make sure people have access to the music. There was no longer the certainty that in a kitchen some night, people would see and hear an instrument being played. So we felt we had to fill the gap, and education was a very big part of our work. But we know that the music session is still the bedrock of the community aspect of the music.”

Comhaltas has steered countless musicians through competitions, with its stated aim of raising the standard of performance. Some feel this is a double-edged sword, in that it takes scant account of the player’s individual virtuosity. However, Ó Murchú is adamant that this approach does not run roughshod over the musician’s emerging individuality or homogenise their artistic impulses.

“Young people demand standards,” he insists. “They’re used to being challenged, whether in sport or at school. We see it not so much as competition, but as pacing each other on the road to excellence. I’ve also always believed that the artist must be free to do whatever he or she wants to do. [There must be] a focus on where it all started, because if you don’t, after 10 or 15 years, the player risks losing the connection with tradition.

“If you look at all the great musicians, like Paddy Moloney and Martin Hayes, they all won at the Fleadh Ceoil, but they still went on to establish their own names in the tradition. Still, they needed the rudiments, and without that you’re on shifting sands.”

The music of east Clare fiddle player Martin Hayes is indelibly marked by the fact that he grew up in a household steeped in traditional music. His live performances, though, display a jazz-like love of improvisation and in recent times Hayes and guitarist Denis Cahill have performed alongside jazz guitarist Bill Frisell.

For Ó Murchú, this is a positive innovation. “I love jazz and jazz musicians improvise in exactly the same way that traditional musicians do, with the grace notes. So there was always this connection between traditional and jazz music. What I am a little cautious about is that when you try to categorise it in a debate, you’re putting down markers that mightn’t even be necessary, because the people who love tradition will look after it, so I don’t think that protectionism is necessary. Traditional music is healthy enough to be comfortable in that environment.”

Notwithstanding the current healthy state in which the tradition finds itself, are there threats on the horizon? “What makes it distinctive should be maintained at all costs,” he says. “That means acknowledging regional styles of music, for example. We need to cultivate them but I don’t think we should apologise for being purist either. If an individual artist wants to expand their horizons, it would be wrong of us to say that a person shouldn’t do that. Comhaltas’s job is to maintain a well spring. If there’s a danger to traditional music, it’s only if that’s not being done.”

COMHALTAS HAS just completed digitising more than 16,000 archive items collected over a 35-year period, and will launch this archive in March. However, the archive will only be available to visitors in its key centres dotted throughout the country. “There are copyright issues, and there are certain constraints on how you use material such as this, so people can only access them under the guidance of our centres,” Ó Murchú says.

This control is in contrast to the Irish Traditional Music Archive’s (ITMA) online library, launched last year. With the support of the Arts Council, lTMA places a premium on making basic information available to searchers online.

Would it not be better to merge the various archives, such as those in the ITMA, RTÉ, UCD’s Folklore Commission and Comhaltas?

“Of course,” Ó Murchú nods. “We’ve promoted that idea before. There’s a corpus of material there that belongs to the nation, and we should all work together in that regard.”

For those unfamiliar with the workings of the traditional-music fraternity in Ireland, confusion can arise from the apparent lack of communication between Comhaltas and the Arts Council, whose traditional arts strategy over the past three years has seen it steadily increase its annual investment, which now stands at almost €4 million. Comhaltas derives most of its development funding, €1.25 million, from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, and has secured additional capital funding of €19 million over the past five years from the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism.

Ó Murchú is circumspect when it comes to the notion that communications between Comhaltas and the Arts Council will improve in the coming months, in an effort to maximise value-for-money from a shrinking public purse.

“There’s friendship now, as there should have been always. The difficulty has been that Comhaltas was so multifaceted, and the Arts Council, in the main, tended to deal with an individual artist, so to engage with the extent of what we have, was always difficult. We’re able to get funding to do our own work and we cooperate with the Arts Council if there are any ways we can. But it’s the same kind of relationship as would exist between the GAA and the Sports Council.”

Paul Flynn, the head of Traditional Arts with the Arts Council, is unequivocal in his enthusiasm for collaborative developments between the Arts Council and Comhaltas and credits Comhaltas with his own musical development during his formative years.

“The Arts Council recognises the contribution Comhaltas has made to the traditional arts over the last 50 years and the crucial role it has in promoting and preserving our traditional music, song and dance.

“On a personal level, having been a member of my local Comhaltas branch in my youth, the work being carried out at grass-roots level is essential for the future growth of the sector and has had a positive influence on me as a musician.”