Tuesday, July 31, 2007

That's Keadew For You

OK, so if music is so important here, where do people learn to play it? In summer school, of course.

Keadew is a tiny village north of Boyle, and once a year they have the O’Carolan Harp Festival, a traditional music festival, with summer school classes in all the traditional instruments. They study each day for a week, then there’s a recital at the end, with competition in each age group.

As you walk through town, music comes out of every window and doorway. Everyone carries an instrument, even the smallest children. We come to the town hall, where an accordion lesson is in full swing. Mothers an their kids play along together, breaking into small groups to practice. Here the kids learn the music that their grandparents knew. You can tell they are proud.

The bodhran lesson is in the pub next door. Fifteen people, from 5 to 50, sit in a circle holding bodhrans and listening to the teacher as he plays an amazing tune on his own drum.

In the afternoon there is lecture at the school on the music of the area. One of the flute teachers talks about local musicians who were never famous, but were great players. At one point he asks, “Who remembers Joe McGoohan?” and half the audience raises their hands. “He was a good fiddler,” he says, and the others nod.

These are the daughters and nieces of the town, and they all remember. Their ancestors were their teachers. They passed down the tradition to them, and they pass it to their own daughters.

Then, amazingly, he hands out a whistle to someone in the audience. “Play for us, Dierdre.” She does. It’s beautiful. Then she hands it to her sister, and her niece, and they can all play, even the youngest one. One woman sings a tune, another sings one about the English oppression. It’s like watching living history.

That night we return to town for the Ceili Dance, which starts at 9:00. At 10:00 we’re still waiting. It’s Irish time, not American.

The band begins playing, the flute teacher from the lecture along with an accordion, drums, piano, and banjo. By then crowds of people have arrived, and they all hit the dance floor. They move into groups of eight and begin the traditional dance moves. It’s a lot like square dancing, with better music.

It seems the whole town is here, along with some from neighboring towns. Young girls dance in pairs, hoping to join the grownup groups. Dancers from Limerick and Dublin are here. The community is on its feet, dancing together.

At one point the band picks up a new drummer, some American. He is OK, basically doing exactly what the real drummer did the song before. Check the photo.

It’s the highlight of our time in Keadew, at least for me. For Dave, the highlight may be when he comes back for summer school with his own kids.

Monday, July 30, 2007

The Mystery of Sheep Bottom

The Connamara coastline is known for its beauty, with rocky shores, sparkling waves, and bright red sheep butts glistening in the sun.

Wait -- why are the sheep painted bright colors? We assume it’s to keep them all sorted out, in case one goes over a fence, but we don’t know for sure.

This morning we leave the castle and make our way to Westport, a famous planned town. The town fathers left a river running through the middle, with a tree-lined mall and a one-way system of streets. It’s nice, but mostly we’re here because of a pub.

Matt Molloy is the flute player in the Chieftains, the Irish band the made Irish music famous around the world. His pub, Molloy’s, is legendary for its sessions featuring the greatest Irish musicians. Music every night, that’s their motto.

We stop in the afternoon to check it out. Hanging in the back are photos of Molloy with some of the greats in music. The Rolling Stones, the Corrs, James Brown, Paul McCartney – you name it. We can’t wait to go back that night.

In the meantime, we meet Pavel at a local pub. Here in Ireland, people like to talk to you, especially when they find out you are American. Pavel says he is from Poland, and he shakes our hands four or five times each. He loves America. He is wearing a Snoop Dogg sweatshirt.

The bartender, Dawn from South Africa, tell us a different story about the sheep. “They are marked by the Ram,” she says. “They paint his underbelly. Then they can tell which ewes he has … kissed.”

It’s a much better story than ours, but Pavel says no, and in fact, tell us he is a vet. His accent is disappears, and, in fact, he now says he is from Dublin. He just does the Polish thing for laughs.

I’m all for a good joke, but this is just weird, so we leave Pavel an Dawn and head for Malloy’s. The crowd is thick with tourists like us, but all we find is one ancient Irish guy with an accordion case at his feet singing a Gaelic tune. Apparently, it’s not a legendary night at Molloy’s.

Luckily, down the street I find a session of fiddles with few tourists. I can tell it’s a real session because they take 15 minutes between songs. I’m tempted to conduct a crowd survey on the sheep butt issue, but I resolve to believe Dawn’s story and tell everyone I meet. Dave says it’s irresponsible to spread the story unless we have proof, but I tell him it will be OK.

As long as it doesn’t get on the internet where people can find it by googling "painted sheep butts," things will be fine.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Bodrhan Piano Lounge

Everyone knows where Roundstone is, and that’s mostly because of Malachy Kearns, the world-famous Bodhran maker. His shop sits just outside the tiny, seaside town, and it’s where we spend the morning.

Naturally, the shop is full of the round hand drums, along with every kind of Irish souvenir you can think of. Although the Man himself is not there (under the weather, or out of town, or on a business trip, depending on which excuse you believe) one of his workers is able to show us around the place. His name? Patrick. (“Sure, what else? At one time there were five Patricks workin’ here.”)

The last remaining Patrick takes us through the steps of the process, showing us how the special wood is formed into a circle, and how the goat skin is soaked in lime and stretched across the frame. They put out maybe 1,000 a month, from cheap tourist quality to the professional models, although with only 11 professional Bodhran players in the world that market may be pretty well covered.

According to our Patrick, everyone in Ireland has one of these things, even if they don’t play it. Sometimes it just hangs on the wall as a decoration, where it doesn’t bother anyone. Which is more than I can say for mine.

That afternoon we drive to Clifden, where we check into our spacious accommodations, Abbey Glen Castle. It is a real castle, with turrets and huge wooden doors. It also has a tennis court and a talking parrot, but it’s still a castle. We even had tea at 3:30, with scones and cheesecake, a dangerous tradition.

Dinner is delightful, and we sit near the window overlooking the helicopter pad. (One rich couple arrived that day via heliport while we watched. It was like a carnival ride.) Afterward, we retire to the bar. The piano player, Mary, is about 70, and she knows the music to every song ever written, although not the words. The older guy from Dublin in the corner knows the words.

Mary coaxes, she pleads, she gently urges, and one by one, everyone takes the microphone and gets up to sing. “Sing your song,” Mary will say, “And I’ll follow along.” As if everyone has a song. Do I? I'm not sure what it is.

I do Nat King Cole and Elvis, Dave does some of our stuff, with me and my new Bodhran irritating everyone in the background.

Then Peter sings some songs from the early 1900’s. That’s because Peter is 79 years old. He walks up to the castle twice a week for the singing. After a particularly moving duet, Trudy, one of the girls from Cork, gave him a squeeze and a kiss. I was sure we would be doing CPR. But Peter survived, and soon he strapped on his orange safety vest for the long walk home.

The rest of us spent the evening singing old songs with Dutch tourists and people from Claddaghdun until the wee hours.

This kind of thing may happen somewhere in America, but I haven’t seen it. I wish I would.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Markets And Music

Just like in every town in Europe, the Street Market is open this morning.

They set it up behind a church, a hundred stalls and produce vendors with the occasional snack wagon in between. One guy has an espresso machine in the back of a VW van. I need one of those.

A lot of the best stuff seems to come from Italy, just like me, and I hear several people speaking the language. It figures -- who else would sell peppers stuffed with Mozzarella? If Italian isn't the best in the world, why can you find it everywhere you go?

The Galway Arts Festival is not just about music, but also consists of theater, dance, opera, poetry, and , of course, twelve foot-high giant insects roaming the streets and preying on humans. As it says on the poster for one of the more colorful acts, called Warlords of the Pez: “Please mistake us for Art.”

The could be a good motto for many of the acts, like the "performance installation" about feral children called "Slat," or an audience with cross-dresser extraordinaire, "The Divine Peaches."

But that's OK, because we are focused on the traditional music. It's another concert over lunch today -- lunch once again being Guinness -- and the same kind of crowd shows up. This time a banjo player and mandolin are the stars, with a flute thrown in occasionally. It’s fine music, the crowd tapping and whooping again like before.

What does it mean to be good at music like this? Does it mean playing it exactly like people have been playing it for hundreds of years, or is there a way to put your own personal stamp on it, to express yourself while hitting the exact same notes? I don’t know, and neither does Dave, but these guys are clearly in the big leagues.

The highlight comes that evening, when we go to an album release party for singer Roisin Elsafty. Singing almost all in Gaelic, she holds the room in her hand for over an hour. The musicians are all excellent, and they can really rock out on these antique instruments. She sings lullabyes about fairies as well as political activist songs, often written by her mother, about tragedies in Iraq and Palestine.

And there we sit, two citizens of America.

The Galway Arts Fest is winding down. It's been terrific. We’re ready to move on.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Are You Art?

It doesn’t rain all the time in Ireland. Oh, it rains every day, but maybe just a sprinkle, for maybe only a few minutes. They are in the midst of a long wet spell here, with fifty days of rain in a row. (Headline: “NOAH HAS NOTHING ON US. FORTY DAYS? BAH!”)

Still, we are lucky. Today is beautiful. I go for a long run along the sea into the nearby town of Sandhill, which is a suburb of Galway with its own amusement park. The ocean is quiet today, and people are playing on the beaches. Sitting on one sidewalk is a man playing his flute, just enjoying the sea air.

The biggest problem with an Arts Festival is you don’t always know who is creating the art.

There is music all over Galway, in the concert halls, the pubs, even in the streets. Some of it is official sanctioned art, but some is made by street performers who are trying to earn a living. You can’t always predict which one is better, either, like the flamenco dancer with the flying castanets who drew a huge crowd in the interesection of the street. She was amazing, and apparently she just showed up with three guitar players and her own plywood square.

In the evening we head to the pubs to see some sessions, which is where people just show up with their instruments and start playing. At least that’s what they say, although the pubs all list specific starting times, which would be hard if they really left it up to chance.

The pub Tigh Coili is famous for these sessions, and we arrive in the middle of a song. There are people playing guitar, banjo, and Bodhran, with a fiddle just watching.

I believe they are not getting paid, because they take way too long between songs. They chat, they drink, they laugh. It’s hard to tell the performers from the audience. I hope they at least get free beer.

The players are all young, in their 20s. Several are women, although they aren’t into it like the men are. These kids are playing Trad music, jigs and reels that are hundreds of years old. At home, we think it’s cool when teenagers play the Beatles.

People come, people go -- it’s a free form session. Eventually we wander into another, and it’s the same story, only with a piano. Players get up and move on, and others wander in to take their places.

Apparently, music is everywhere because everyone is a musician, like the middle-aged British woman we met at breakfast. She comes across the water for all the big music events – for Brits, it’s like going to Wisconsin. “Oh, yes, I play the Bodhran,” she told us. “My husband gave me one, and, well, there you go.”

I’m not sure if she'll be sitting in at a pub session tonight, but I’ll watch for her.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Driving Me Crazy

The plane touches down at Shannon airport, and Dave turns to ask me, “Isn’t it strange? Four years ago we learned a few Irish songs. Now we’re sitting on the ground in Ireland.”

When you go to a new place you want to see what’s different. Instead, you notice what’s the same. Like Subway sandwich shops. And Coca-cola signs. And, of course, McDonalds. When you’re driving down the road you could be in a smaller, greener version of Wisconsin, except for one thing: you’re driving down the WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD AND GIANT TOUR BUSES ARE TRYING TO KILL YOU AAIIEEEE.

I don’t care what they say. It’s the wrong side. Just because they build cars with the steering wheel on the other side doesn’t make it right.

Soon we arrive in Galway, on the western side of the country. We will be attending the Galway Arts Festival, looking for traditional music. We waste no time, heading off to a concert event at a pub on the other side of town. The media people have set it all up so we can get in, although not with actual tickets. “Don't worry," they tell us. "Tell them Tracey talked to Gugai, and he said to ask for Simon.” Right, we think, like that's going to work. When we arrive, the line is out the door and into the street, but apparently Simon got a message from Gugai, it works, and we're in.

There is a traditional music group playing in the Pub - slash - theater. (They call it “trad,” but to us that sounds like a kind of pizza.) There is an accordion, a fiddle, and a piano, but the crowd goes wild like they were seeing the Stones live at Altamont. The Trad group has managed to fill the place for a lunchtime concert, and these people clearly love their jigs and reels, whooping and shouting at the end of every tune.

At one point I notice everyone in the place is tapping their feet. I can feel it through the floorboards. I’m sure if any of the songs had words they would be singing along, except it would make it hard to sip their pints of Guinness.

And these aren’t grandparents, either. The band is in their twenties, and the crowd isn’t much older. They love their trad music like they love their U2 and Corrs.

At one point they bring up a guy from the crowd, who starts tap dancing on the stage. He does a great job, and he doesn’t even seem worried that he got fired from his job to come dance at a pub during the day.

The concert is terrific, and of course, being in a pub means we have pints in the afternoon, followed by pints at lunch. Then in the evening we head out to a four hundred year-old pub, The King's Head, founded in 1624, to try some of those pints we’ve heard so much about.

See? I'm already learning something about Irish music. It can make it hard to type.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rogue Roots

Who knew anything about Irish music?

Not me. I’m in an Irish band only because a pub in Maple Grove needed some music on short notice. They called Dave and asked if he knew any Irish bands.

“Yeah, I have an Irish band.” Of course, “band” was overstating it a little. It wasn’t so much a band exactly, but more a loose collection of people who had once played some sort of instrument.

Why me? He needed a drummer.

So I don’t really have any deep roots in Irish tradition. I heard the Unicorn Song on the radio in the 70’s, and I knew what a Bodhran was (although I didn’t know how to say it yet.)

But once we learned a few songs and started playing for crowds I realized how many people love this stuff. Grown men break into tears when we play “Irish Rover.” Women dance to the jigs – without moving their arms. College crowds start slam dancing to “Mari’s Wedding.” (Well, that might be because of the way we play it.) And everywhere we go, people have requests for their favorite Irish song, typically either Fileds of Athlon or the Unicorn Song.

So although I didn’t get the Irish music thing at the time, a lot of people do. And the more I saw how people responded, the more I had to wonder -- what’s up with that?

Why are people so tied to this music? How do they know all the words? Why would they bring their own instruments to a pub when there is already a band playing there? Would it be legal to kill the person who wrote that frickin’ Unicorn Song?

We’re on a journey for answers. We’re going to Ireland to find the roots that we never knew, the memories we never had. And it’s all because of one important, overlying reason – someone was willing to send us.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Adventure Begins

A woman comes up to an Irish band in a bar.

“You guys are good,” she says. “I know. I work for Tourism Ireland. “

“Really? What do you do?”

"We send people over to promote Irish culture and travel. You should go. You’d love it there."

“Really?" I say. "You should send me. I would write about the music. We could do a blog about all the places we go and how Irish music affects the people who live there. We could even do a podcast with our own music.”

“OK,” she says.