Bringing it all back home
Gael Linn is celebrating 50 years of preserving and promoting traditional music, writes Siobhán Long
With CD releases tumbling from the shop racks, it's hard to imagine a time when it might have been otherwise. A time when musicians rarely had their work committed to any kind of disc, when someone with a grá for the music had no choice but to seek it out in 3D. This year marks the 50th anniversary of Gael Linn, a company born out of an ambition to promote the speaking of Irish, which metamorphosed into one equally hell-bent on preserving and recording the music and songs of the tradition.
Gael Linn was the brainchild of Dónal Ó Móráin, a Co Kerry barrister whose imagination was evidently as exercised by the curlicues of Irish culture as it was by the finer points of Irish law. From an early start, recording the likes of the great sean nós singer, Seosamh Ó hÉanaí, to Sliabh Luachra fiddler Dennis Murphy and Dublin piper Tommy Reck, the company has set about capturing the essence of the music with forensic determination.
In those pre-TV days, songs and tunes were shared across the kitchen table. Influences were fewer and further between. Life undoubtedly poured ordinary plenty, as poet Paddy Kavanagh memorably noted. Now, however, Gael Linn operates in a world where it's as easy to hear the music of Malian singer Oumou Sangare or Brazilian diva Virgínia Rodrigues as it is to catch a tune from Seamus Begley or a song from Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill. But the question of whether the music has been changed irrevocably by such diverse influences, or whether Irish artists now approach it with an ear trained as much to Havana as to Hackballscross, is a complex one, and one which none of those due to perform at Féile Gael Linn's celebratory concert on April 26th take lightly.
Féile Gael Linn's MC, Connemara singer Róisín Elsafty, is unequivocal in her enthusiastic support for cross-fertilisation, just as long as the identity of the music isn't compromised. "All music comes from the same core, a need to demonstrate and celebrate life, and so each and every music ever created is related to another. I can hear distinct similarities between the music emanating from the eastern part of the sphere and what abounds here at home. That aside, it's obvious that Irish musicians have also absorbed some of this distinctly foreign-flavoured music and incorporated it so easily into Irish traditional music that it often goes unnoticed by the audience. This is a good thing in many respects, in that Irish traditional music is always evolving and this is part of life. However, I'm sure Irish traditional music will always remain recognisably Irish."
Maighread Ní Dhomhnaill, a member of the late-lamented Skara Brae (who reunite with firefly brevity just for the concert) shares Elsafty's enthusiasm for musical exploration, having travelled from Dublin to Nigeria and Brazil in both celebration and pursuit of music.
"Back then [in 1971, when Skara Brae's one and only album was recorded] we were just so young," says Ní Dhomhnaill, who was just 15 at the time. "Daithí Sproule and my brother, Micheál, were experimenting with arrangements with guitar and we were doing different things with songs. It was very new at the time, and not only were we doing it, but we were doing it in Irish. We got a lot of criticism at the time from people who said that we were destroying the tradition, but as my father said, as long as we kept the melody and pronounced the words properly, it was fine."
It's simply impossible to deny the influences that inevitably jostle for space in a world where multi-ethnic sounds, smells and sights are now commonplace, she believes.
"Of course, the influences have to be there. I've got very fond of Malian music lately, not to mention that wonderful Brazilian singer, Virgínia Rodrigues. You're influenced, of course, but I don't think it's something that has a direct impact on style. It builds up your own confidence, when you see other cultures, you begin to appreciate how strong and how rich our own tradition is."
Dáithí Sproule, Altan guitarist and a co- conspirator of Ní Dhomhnaill's in Skara Brae, views the possibilities of cross-fertilisation with caution.
"Cross-fertilisation is a delicate business. Every musician should ultimately do whatever moves them, but, though exposure to various rich traditions is great, the use of those traditions has to be handled with a lot of respect. If you love a music, you should respect it enough not to dabble in it badly. If you introduce elements of one music into another, you should be able to play both well. I've heard blends of rock and Irish music, for example, to name two musics I have some familiarity with, where the end result was neither good Irish music nor good rock. You want to avoid that!"
Co Clare accordionist Tony Mac Mahon views the easy access to different types of music as a boon, though he laments the passing of Irish traditional musicians whose places remain unfilled - so far at least.
"When I was growing up in Clare, it was my good fortune to meet quite a number of very important traditional musicians, like Seamus Ennis and Joe Heaney. All those people have passed on and their places have not been taken by anyone who can even remotely approach them, in terms of a heart for the music, the soul for it, the spirit for it."
Mac Mahon's appetite for musical diversity hasn't waned. If anything, it's probably grown in recent years.
"At the moment, I'm listening to Japanese and Chinese music most of my time. If I can't sleep at night, or if I want to get my spirit softened out and the corners of the day knocked off, I listen to Chinese music. If I need a bit of sensual excitement, I listen to Middle Eastern or Arabic music. Their melodies are so complicated and so innovative, there's no way we could even attempt to write what they're at. When I go to Granada in Spain and listen to flamenco, I'm listening to the old heart of the Arab world. It's aesthetic eroticism. It's excitement of a very pure order. And when I listen to that music, it doesn't impact on my playing, but it impacts on my musical spirit, which is the fuel I burn when I play."
Féile Gael Linn at the NCH on April 26th features Altan, Skara Brae, Tony Mac Mahon and Steve Cooney, Peadar Ó Riada and Iarla Ó Lionáird, Josie Sheáin Mac Donncha and Róisín Elsafty. Booking: 01-4170000. www.nch.ie