Probing traditional views with words and live music


IN Cork city over the weekend UCC Music Department's Eigse na Laoi settles itself in for the sixth year. Reflecting the increase in debate within traditional music, its energies are shared between the self explanation that is live music performance, and the precision of prepared words from carefully chosen speakers. The latter is incorporated as "The Sean O'Riada International Conference on World Music", a two day series of papers exploring popular manifestations of folk music in Afghanistan, South Africa, Indonesia, India, Algeria, Crete, Nigeria, Kentucky and Ireland.

"The debate since River of Sound and Riverdance threw up the idea of having a conference this year, and of putting that into an international context," says one of Eigse's organisers, Mel Mercier. "Traditional music is now recognised as a core element of the music syllabus in Cork," he explains, "and Indian, African and Indonesian musics are now a core part of that, in particular the developed popular music of those places." This "developed" music he puts on a par with the music of The Chieftains, Sharon Shannon, De Dannan and their likes in Ireland. Hence the weekend's main concert features a triple bill of Davy Spillane, Nomos and Deiseal, all associated with breaking the mould in group performance.

The inclusion of these three is in itself a strong statement of difference, for the band scene in Ireland has currently other choices notably De Dannan Dervish, Deanta and Altan. Allowing for unavailability and for cost factors, the choices of Spillane's rock base, Deiseal's jazz thrust, and Nomos's high energy, tune led virtuosity, are all indicators of Eigse's assessment of where leadership in music ideology and market are most strongly expressed. Contrasting strongly with this in style and ethos is a separate unaccompanied singers' concert with Len Graham, Maighread Ni Dhomhnaill, Padraigin Ni Ullachain and Iarla O Lionaird.

The conference programme suggests a clearer explanation. Here is an impressive collection of some of the best known names in what is cumbersomely known as "Ethnomusicology" the anthropological study of musics. Simon Frith, one of the science's clearest and most accessible writers, particularly on "pop" music, leads off discussion with a topic central to the arguments in Irish music "Ethnicity and Authenticity". John Baily explores the related territory of "Music and Ideology", gleaned from his study over many years of Afghanistan. Catherine Foley brings this on to our own patch, looking at national identity in Irish step dance, and Colin Hamilton explores the changing public perception of post revival Irish music.

A series of papers interrelate the mass media, the "popularisation" of traditional music, the industry and identity. Noteworthy among these is, however, the meat of the process for Irish pundits Dr Micheal O Suilleabhain speaking on "The Evolution of Irish Tradpop".