Photo courtesy of Maurice Gunning
Photo courtesy of Maurice Gunning
Nostalgia and music are not often discussed academically. This is perhaps peculiar when sound often has such an important role in the sensory memory of human beings. Traditional Irish music is intrinsically bound by ideas of nostalgia, where we take comfort and refuge in the reimagined sounds of past generations of musicians.
The music you will hear in this collaboration between Softday and staff and students of the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance is a reimagining or re-mediating of certain soundscapes of the celtic fringe and its diasporas from the 1960s - a pre-pop era, for Ireland in particular, that is traditionally regarded as bland and creatively sterile. The Céilí band, the Scottish dance band and the showband are commonly regarded as musical dead-ends. Even the most nostalgic of us often disregard the musical impact of these movements.
Jimmy Shand and his Scottish country dance bands were hugely influential in Ireland, his repertoire and approach having a massive impact on the music of Cork and Kerry. His occasional visits to Ireland were attended by the sort of numbers and hysteria associated with later pop bands, but in the heartlands of rural Ireland. Oola, in East Limerick, saw a performance by Jimmy where the walls of the specially imported marquee had to be lifted to accommodate the thousands of extra fans who turned up in the hope of hearing him play. The tune we are re-mediating here (from the album Jimmy Shand and his band, Awa frae Hame, EMI label 1963) is one common to both Scottish and Irish traditions, The Flowers of Edinburgh and was recorded in Watford Town Hall, north-west of London, to an audience drawn from a ‘celtic diaspora’ that would rarely be drawn together, but are done so here under a common tune and aesthetic.
The Liverpool Céilí Band (Liverpool Céilí Band, Champions Twice, Rex Records, 1965) have a special place in the hearts of many traditional musicians, in particular those who pursued their art in the often less–than-friendly context of England in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Liverpool is home to one of the largest and oldest Irish communities outside of Ireland since pre-famine times, a community that has managed to hold on to its identity over several generations, when it has lost its cohesiveness after two or three generations in other places. In this context the Irish accents of newly emigrated Charlie Lennon and Tomas Ó Cannain mix with the strong Liverpool brogue of Sean McNamara and Eamonn Coyne. Most importantly, this Céilí band held its own in Ireland. It had a residency at the Fleadh Nua in Ennis for decades and won the Oireachtas and All-Ireland Céilí band competition twice. Such success from a band, many of whom sounded as Irish as the Beatles, was invaluable to an Irish community seen as being English in Ireland and viewed, at best, with suspicion in Britain.
The Bonny Boy is one of the great songs of English language balladry. It has been sung by the Dubliners, Joan Baez, Donavan and Altan and arranged by no less than Benjamin Britten. All nations with a stake in the English language song tradition seem to claim it as their own. In Ireland this ballad is particularly associated with the iconic sean-nós singer, Joe Heaney. However it also made a massive leap into the world of the showbands in its interpretation by Larry Cunningham and the Mighty Avons. This recording arranged by Noel Pearson (The Two Sides of Larry, King Records, 1966) was a stunning marriage of the aesthetics of Jim Reeves, smooth light jazz and a ballad that perhaps goes back to the middle-ages and the very origin of the English language as we know it.
Meanwhile in London, I Hear a New World - an Outer Space Music Fantasy an electronic concept album devised by experimental music producer Joe Meek was released in 1960. In Germany at the same time, Karl Heinz Stockhausen, is experimenting with recordings of a variety of traditional ethnic music’s from around the world, intermodulated on tape with electronically generated sounds to produce odd hybrid-types.
What is attempted in this performance is a reimagining and re-mediating of the music’s written about here - a contemporary expression drawing on the much-maligned artistry that meant so much to past generations. One could argue that by denigrating the music’s of our nearest ancestors we allow ourselves to view more contemporary sounds with rose-tinted-glasses. However, in the long run, nostalgia will hopefully conquer all and we hope here to reawaken it with the humour and regard that adds colour and light to our personal and communal soundscapes.
Niall Keegan & Softday 2011.