Music With Matthew

I. Wind on water

For the first time since we arrived, the water this morning down at the pier was choppy. We’re back in Ballyvaughan after two days on Inishmor (inis = island; mor = big), the largest of the Aran Islands. The ferry rides to and from Aran on the vessel Draiocht na Farraige (“Magic of the Sea”) were by contrast thankfully smooth, Galway Bay completely placid. The weather deities there gave us one day brilliant tempestuous clouds and sun punctuated by quick showers (which allowed us to tramp all over the island), and the next day steady rain (we took an earlier boat back to Galway). The students attended their first pub session of traditional music on the island, featuring banjo, accordion, and bouzouki players. Earlier in the week we learned from ethnomusicologist Méabh Ni Fhuarthain that the accordion and banjo came into Irish music early in the 20th century from the USA, part of a bi-directional exchange process across the Atlantic. Musicians in their thousands emigrated to the USA, where the first recordings of Irish music were made and then exported back to Ireland where they became huge trend-setters. The robust banjo and accordion, introduced in Irish-American dance halls, filled those cavernous spaces much better than the softer fiddle or flute, and after their import from the USA gradually became accepted here in Ireland as ‘traditional’ instruments. As for the Greek bouzouki at an Irish session, it’s another cross-pollenization: many young Irish musicians traveled to Greece and Bulgaria in the 1960s and brought back the long necked bouzouki as well as dance rhythms in unusual meters like 9/8 or 11/8.

II. The County Clare Fleadh Cheoil (lit. “Feast of Music”)

This past Sunday our musician cohort took a trip down the coast to the town of Miltown Malbay, site of this year’s County Clare Fleadh Cheoil. These festivals are part of a national system in which young people compete on their chosen instruments first at the county level, then the province, and finally at the national “all-Ireland” competitions. We arrived just in time to see our friend Edward MacMahon excel (albeit in a field of one) in the senior ceili band drumming competition. The judge heaped flowery praise on our friend, saying that if the drum could make notes, Eddie would be playing the tunes. Eddie was an exchange student at Wheaton last year, and is now finishing his music degree at University College Cork. Then came the culminating event of the festival, a performance by the venerable Kilfenora Ceili Band on the gig-rig, a portable stage set up on Main St. About a hundred dancers formed sets of eight and pounded the plywood dance floor to the entertainment of several hundred more people standing around them in a circle watching. Right on cue, the skies opened up but few folks appeared to take any notice of the wet, the band leader intoning into the mic, “Sure we’re all here dancing anyway.” – M.A.

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