An Irish Music Magazine article by Sean Laffey
Published in FolkWorld with friendly permission of the Irish Music editor
Sean Laffey meets Senator Labhrás Ó Murchu, the influential Ardstiúthóir (Director )of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann.
I caught up with the busy Senator one Saturday lunchtime in the Brú Boru Heritage Centre in Cashel. County Tipperary. I arrived expecting a brief 45-minute interview slot between a business lunch and his final preparations for the forthcoming visit of the Brú Boru troupe to China. But this is Ireland and hospitality is as much an art form as the music. I was treated to a three-course lunch of carrot soup, Irish stew and a light mouse to complete the meal. Over the lunch table we discussed his travels abroad as the Director of CCÉ (the Irish Association of Musicians).
North America has always been an important destination for young musicians and Labhrás has been a regular visitor to the New World since the mid 1970s. I asked if CCE are still touring the States?
" Oh yes, this year we are sending out our 27th Comhaltas tour of North America, with the Echoes of Erin group of 20 musicians, singers and dancers. They will perform in 18 venues over the time of the tour. The importance of these annual tours is that they have helped to establish 38 branches of Comhaltas in North America. We send a different group of musicians out each year; they are selected from the four provinces of Ireland and also from Britain. By this we can ensure there is plenty of variety from year to year, as well as representing, different regional styles with each tour."
Isn't there also a debt of gratitude to be paid to Irish-American musicians who have helped keep the music alive?
"Certainly, people who went out from Ireland in the early years, from the time of the Famine onwards brought the music with them. Unfortunately the language didn't survive but the music has, and through the work of American collectors and the early recordings of traditional music, tunes and styles found their way back to Ireland and certainly prevented the tradition form dying out."
Comhaltas tours to the USA and Great Britain are easily explained these are the two main countries where the Diaspora has concentrated, but what of Continental Europe and Asia?
"Traditional music has been expanding its appeal to non Irish audiences for at least the past twenty years. Firstly it became popular in Continental Europe; latterly it is winning fans in the Asian countries. In 1990 our Brú Boru group visited Osaka in Japan for the World Expo, performing three shows a day to an audience of 4000. We expected the Japanese to be very reserved and we were warned that they were a formal people. We were prepared for more of an opera response, and we were absolutely taken aback by the response we got, it was as vocal and enthusiastic as we'd get back home in Ireland."
Kathleen Mullen is a Chines Doctor married to an Irish man, and they are settled in Dublin. One night she visited the Comhaltas show in the CCE Headquarters in Monkstown. From that one concert a cultural exchange has developed. In 1997a group of Chinese artists visited Bru Boru; this year the Cashel group is returning the compliment.
I asked if he considered there were any spin-offs or tangible benefits from these exchanges?
"Certainly the musicians often develop a sense of enjoyment in their audiences, so much so that they some begin to search for the history and sources of the music. And when they eventually come to Ireland they begin to look for the music they enjoyed so much when we played for them. It's a great marketing tool for tourism."
There is a danger if traditional music is too readily associated with cultural tourism it will start to become another corporate package and not be a living thing shared by real folks on the ground. There is another problem; tourists need to be able to find the music when they visit. I wondered does he believe there is enough support and official recognition for these aspects of our culture?
" The Irish Arts Council is now seeking submissions for a millennium plan, and with regard to traditional music there are a number of key issues we are addressing. Firstly there is the issue of accessibility to traditional music. In a lot of places this is only through the local pub. Some years ago we had a nation-wide scheme called Season. This ran for fourteen years and Board Failte (the Irish Tourist Board) funded it. It provided a platform for traditional musicians in a number of different venues across the country. Then there was a rationalisation of funding and eventually the control passed to the Arts Council; they ran it for three years and then withdrew funding. There were fifty centres all over the country; each venue had nine artists and a producer. Each group collected and researched local tunes, dances and stories, and visitors could get a glimpse of the cultural life of the regions in which they were staying. It is still a bone of contention with Comhaltas and the Arts Council."
Seisuin gave students valuable work experience during their College vacations; and the money they earned could be re-invested into new instruments and books to further their musical studies. The project was low cost, community based, and allowed musicians and visitors alike time to explore regional cultures. However, the Arts Council chose to invest in bigger projects aimed at minority urban interests.
How does Senator Ó Murchú view the main challenges for traditional music?
"Issues of copyright, the right of traditional musicians to play tunes, make variations and the venues in which they play these tunes to be free from levies imposed by IMRO (Irish Music Rights Organisation) is a battle to be fought in the coming years. There is a danger that the rush to invoke copyright on only slight variations to traditional pieces will force the music out of community venues. Already some publicans are wary of running sessions, just in case a copyright tune or song is played and IMRO come looking for Royalties. I have no argument or problem with IMRO collecting money for genuine composers, but traditional music, belongs to the people. We should treat it like say any discovery of Celtic art from our past; it is a national treasure. There is another aspect of all of this which is very worrying, say a collector goes into a locality, notes down tunes from the local players and then that collector publishes those tunes – does the copyright remain with the community from which the music sprang or does it pass to the collector."
This is clearly an area where some form of conflict resolution will be needed. Historically when the Dance Halls act forced the music out of domestic houses, the tradition carried on in the pub, perhaps a new shift will be needed if official bodies once again try to tax the culture?
I then asked him about a number of his recent speeches where he has been vocal on the issues of parity of educational esteem for traditional musicians.
"There are hundreds of excellent young traditional musicians, who are technicality proficient on their chosen instruments and can play with great emotional depth, yet there is no officially sanctioned qualification which they can use as currency for either Higher Education or the world of work. Recognition for traditional musicians is an area we need to work on. Presently the Department of Education has just two music inspectors for the 700 schools in the country. They are only qualified to inspect classical music. Currently Comhaltas has four hundred qualified teachers of traditional music, many of whom could inspect students in schools, but it will take a fresh approach from the Department of Education, before young players can gain credits for their achievements."
Finally, where will traditional music fit into the New Ireland, how will cross-border initiatives deal with the shared cultures? I wondered if traditional music would be handled as a tourist or heritage issue?
"Our heritage is way older than our political divisions, certainly before partition, traditional music was part of a common heritage, and the Presbyterians in particular were very much to the fore with the music. Now there is a danger that in the cross border bodies, they will play safe and say 'leave that to one side'. The same as happened in the 1920's. It is the biggest mistake we could make, because eventually, this common heritage will become a cohesive influence for healing the wounds of the past 70 years. My hope is we wont make the same mistake again, and there will be a vibrant policy for arts and culture, people will congregate for the sheer enjoyment of the music, and we wont have to think of it in terms of political divisions."
Photo Credit: (1) The Brú Boru Troupe on stage; press photo; (2)/(3) Photo by The Mollis
NOTE Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú is a member of Fianna Fail, and is a representative of the Heritage and Arts section of the Senate, he speaks for Heritage and the Gaeltacht. The Senate is the upper house of the Irish Parliament. Senators are elected by members of the 26 county Councils; graduates of the National University of Ireland, a number are elected directly by the Taisoeach of the day.
Sean Laffey, author of this article, is the editor of the excellent monthly Irish Music Magazine, one of the best and most professional folk magazines around.
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