An Irishman's Diary


SOMEHOW, the North Atlantic Fiddle Convention – or NAFCo as it’s known for short – sounds more like a military alliance than a musical event.

One imagines it as a vestige of the Cold War era, in which the violin players of Western Europe and North America combined against the threat from Warsaw Pact fiddlers attempting to invade their pub sessions.

At the very least, the name suggests a international treaty among fiddle-playing countries, perhaps committing member states to address such well-known session problems as piano-accordionist proliferation, or to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in the number of live banjo players by the year 2040.

In fact, it’s none of these things, exactly. But the serious name does betray serious origins. Academic ones, anyway. Founded a decade ago in the University of Aberdeen, NAFCo was and remains an event at which fiddle playing is debated and studied.

It is also, however, a major festival, as Ireland will find out next month, when the biennial gathering comes to this country (on both sides of the Border) for the first time. To date, “the Olympics of the Fiddle world” – one of its less serious titles – has been held in Scotland, Sweden, and Newfoundland. Now NAFCo 2012 is heading for Derry and Donegal. And although it will be by any standards a foreign invasion, the conference delegates come in peace.

IT’S A TRUISM that very good fiddle players can make the instrument talk. It’s also true that, sympathetically treated, the violin is closer than any other instrument to the human voice. This being so, fiddles will be speaking for themselves at NAFCo, albeit with skilful prompting from the likes of our own Martin Hayes, Canada’s Troy MacGillivray, and Norway’s Annbjorg Lien (who plays the Hardanger violin, with its doubly-haunting eight strings).

But the actual human voice will get plenty of space in the schedule too, via keynote addresses, discussions, and public interviews. There will also be – and it had to happen sooner or later – a series of talks on “Safe trad: Preventing performance-related injuries”, with advice from physiotherapists, Alexander Technique practitioners, and others.

As for the formal conference stuff, the co-ordinator is Fintan Vallely, a man who has written the book on traditional music. Literally. When his even-then encyclopaedic Companion to Irish Traditional Music was published in 1999, the New York University Press called it “a landmark in the study of one of the western world’s most universally recognisable forms of cultural expression”.

The book has recently been published in a second edition, expanded to 850 pages. So suffice to say, it’s an even bigger landmark now. At this rate of growth, the third instalment could be a shipping hazard, in more ways than one.

IF THERE really were a military alliance of traditional musicians, Ireland might be a super-power. Certainly this country played a lead role in the folk revival of the 1960s and 1970s. And it still has some of the internationally- recognised big guns, including the Chieftains, who will be playing at NAFCo in between tours of Europe and Japan.

Also, crucially, Ireland has a secret weapon. Or maybe not-so-secret, now, but still unique. This is the musical apprenticeship system whereby, in pubs and hotel bars and other places they probably shouldn’t be (at least after 9pm), even the very youngest musicians can learn at the feet of masters. “The Irish model” it’s known as in music-academic circles, and it excites much fascination in places like Scandinavia, and a certain amount of bemusement elsewhere.

On the other hand, we in this country don’t know everything, even about stringed instruments. There’s a whole other world of fiddling outside Ireland. So as well as promising a week of entertainment starting on

June 27th, NAFCo should be an education for those attending, whether for workshops and conferences, or only to watch or listen.

More than 300 performers are already confirmed for the event. A further 200 young student musicians are coming for a series of special workshops. And all-told, it’s expected that the convention will attract 40,000 visitors to Derry and Donegal, making it worth – the entertainment and edification aside – several million euro to the local economy.

There is also, by the way, a large dance component to the conference, again both practical and academic. The practical part includes something called the “North Atlantic Céilí” on June 29th, which sounds exciting. In the interests of global harmony, however, those intending to participate in the scheduled manoeuvres are advised to undergo at least some preliminary training.

Among the dances due to feature at the céilí are the Allemans March (from Sweden), the Dashing White Sergeant (Scotland), and the Military Two-step (ditto). All suggest the potential for international incidents. Happily, the NAFCo website offers advance guidance in the form of both dance notation and video tutorials. Provided this advice is followed, the céilí is expected to pass off peacefully.

The North Atlantic Fiddle Convention runs from June 27th to July 1st in Derry City and various venues in Co Donegal. More information is at

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