Finding the finest between the jigs and the reels
Séamus Begley, Traditional Singer of the Year
Accordion and melodeon player Dermot Byrne, Traditional Musician of the Year.
Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples, this year's Traditional Composer of the Year.
This year’s eclectic list of recipients for the TG4 Gradam Ceoil awards mirrors the diversity of our indigenous music although, disappointingly, not one woman features.
Proinsias Ní Ghráinne, TG4’s commissioning editor, says that while women featured in the shortlist, ultimately “six names were chosen based on musical excellence and the panel felt strongly that it would do a disservice to female artists if awards were chosen on the basis of gender”. Notwithstanding the lack of female presence among the nominees, this year’s list of recipients contains some intriguing choices.
Recognising Na Píobairí Uilleann for its eclectic activities, which include music tuition, training in the art of pipe making, an instrument-loan scheme and an online digital archive, this year’s Gradam Ceoil sheds light on the many backroom activities as well as technological innovations that characterise the nurturing of traditional music in the 21st century. At its heart is an acknowledgement of the evolution of traditional musicians, such as Lifetime Achievement Award winner Michael Tubridy, a founding member of Ceoltóirí Chualann and The Chieftains.
Tubridy ultimately forsook his professional music career in favour of a career in structural engineering, but he has continued to enjoy a parallel existence as a traditional musician (he released a solo album, The Eagle’s Whistle, in 2003).
Traditional Musician of the Year, Dermot Byrne is a musician who has long skirted the limelight: revered for his virtuosity on the accordion and melodeon (and the reason, it has been said, for Steve Cooney’s immigration here from Australia in the 1970s), he has enjoyed two decades at the beating heart of Altan. In-between he has found time to collaborate with Parisian harpist Floriane Blancke with Brendan O’Regan, Brid Harper and Steve Cooney, Dezi Donnelly and Jim Murray.
Clearly not a man to be tethered by musical boundaries, Byrne has had what he calls “great fun learning some rock’n’roll and salsa while guesting on tours with two great bands, the Stunning and Salsa Celtica”.
The power of the session as a source for new music is one that Byrne rates highly. Both he and Floriane Blancke play regularly in Connolly’s Monday-night session in Kinvara, Co Galway. Playing with different musicians guarantees that boredom is never likely to set in, he reckons, as well as ensuring that he’s always learning something new.
Byrne, who lists his father Tommy Byrne, John Doherty, Tommy Peoples and Joe Burke as his primary musical influences, is grateful for the life music has given him, although he’s unequivocal that it has its down sides, which are largely financial.
Hard times may prevail right now for many, not just musicians, but Dermot Byrne is sanguine about the future. “Live music is facing a hard time right now, for lots of reasons: financial hard times, venues closing down, free music downloads. People are having to make difficult choices, and musicians playing live music are finding it hard to tour, but somehow the music will keep going – as it always does.”
One musician who epitomises the Beckettian “I’ll go on” philosophy underscoring the tradition is Donegal fiddler Tommy Peoples, who is recognised this year as Traditional Composer of the Year. Peoples was the first recipient of the Gradam Ceoil Traditional Musician of the Year award in 1998. He’s the first traditional musician to be accepted as a member of Aosdána and has composed more than 150 songs to date. A veteran of the groundbreaking Bothy Band, and long admired as a player with a highly individual style, his solo albums, including the 1998 classic The Quiet Glen, play a crucial part in the jigsaw of traditional music, luring both listener and player into the minutiae of a tune where it can be relished in all its clear-eyed glory.
“I think in fact that traditional music has everything within itself to satisfy anyone’s taste,” he says. “It doesn’t need to be dressed by rock or pop or any other genre. The scope is there within the tradition for each musician to dress the music as his or her taste will allow. The truth is that there’s some element of composition in every player who brings their own little element to tunes, which might be 100 years old.
“I love composing and I’m lucky to be able to do it without an instrument. I can hear the melody and just put it to paper, so it’s handy when I’m having a coffee or just sitting quietly somewhere.”
Peoples is unperturbed by concerns that traditional music is awash with highly proficient players who might sacrifice emotional depth for technical precision.
“I hear some people complaining about speed, but that might just have something to do with youth. Everyone’s feeling will surely manifest itself anyway. It will come to the top no matter what. If it’s there it will and if it’s not, it won’t. There’s no blessed way to engineer it.”
Peoples is philosophical about the circuitous path of the tradition. Times change and, inevitably, traditional music has seen its fortunes rise and fall on that tide.
“I remember when I was in national school, playing the fiddle, I was the only one in the area,” he says. “Everyone at that time was accepting what was outside of home as being better, whether it be games or music or whatever.
“In that sense, there’s a huge difference now. In the past, a [traditional] fiddle player might have been seen as someone of no great importance, a time waster even, and yet that would never have been said about a classical musician. I’m sure there’s a psychology study to be done on that some time.
“But everyone ultimately brings their own style into the music. They might be influenced by a teacher or a local player, but they will bring their own individual influence to bear on the music. It’s like a fingerprint.”
The Gradam Ceoil Concert takes place in University Concert Hall, Limerick, on March 30th, and includes all award winners along with Altan, Dónal Lunny, Mary Black, Sharon Shannon, and more. TG4 will broadcast the concert at 9.30pm on March 31st. uch.ie
TG4 Gradam Ceoil 2013 recipients
Traditional Musician of the Year/Gradam Ceoil: Dermot Byrne, accordion player
Young Traditional Musician/Ceoltóir Óg: Dónal McCague, fiddler
Lifetime Achievement Award/Gradam Saoil: Mick Tubridy, flute, tin whistle, concertina
Club na bPiobairí Uilleann/
The Pipers’ Club
Traditional Composer/Gradam an Chumadóra:Tommy Peoples