Looking at the All-Ireland Fleadh in a new light

By Susan Gedutis Lindsay
Special to the BIR
While her Irish music colleagues were still coming down from the high of the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann in Derry this August, the author and occasional BIR contributor Susan Gedutis Lindsay was drawing her own conclusions about traditional music and innovation over a newspaper and coffee in a Kuala Lumpur hotel.
KUALA LUMPUR, MALAYSIA, and HONG KONG – In August, the Malaysian Ministry of Education announced its Education Blueprint (2013-2025), a plan built upon six attributes, one of which is national identity. Earlier in the week, while in Malaysia on an educational/business visit with the Berklee College of Music, I sat beside Tuan Haji Zainudin Abas, Malaysia’s Director of the Department of Curriculum and Arts, at a press conference luncheon at the International College of Music. In informal conversation, he pondered one of his charges under this new plan. He wondered aloud, “How can Malaysia establish formal performance and learning benchmarks in the study of its native traditional music?”
May I humbly suggest: Look no further than Ireland, Minister. Therein may lie your answer.

Today in Malaysia, school music educators, depending on their location, may teach both traditional music and/or Western European music. Malaysia has a lively marching band scene and several universities at which students can study music, and traditional Malaysian music is also practiced actively throughout the nation. Still, as yet, there is no governing body to oversee standards within its traditional music.
Worldwide, there is a centuries-long example of the teaching and learning of Western music, not to mention conservatories on every continent whose curriculum is similar, by and large, regardless of country. Aspiring musicians study theory and harmony, musical analysis and music history, Bach and Beethoven, counterpoint and serialism. They master their instruments using methods tested and proven through centuries of study. Pianists have Hanon; violinists have Suzuki. What do traditional musicians have?
In Malaysia right now, nothing, it seems, at least not from the government. But it appears that the Ministry of Education is interested in establishing benchmarks in Malaysian traditional music similar to those used in the study of Western European music. This would help the national board measure the performance of both students and teachers of traditional Malaysian music, and it may also serve the greater nationalistic purpose of legitimizing traditional Malaysian music and culture as the county establishes its unique identity in the wake of several centuries of British rule.
How familiar this sounds, yes? Sixty years ago, policymakers in an Ireland only recently liberated from centuries of British rule faced a similar challenge. They had been stunted on the world stage by centuries of colonialism that had denied the country its ability to establish a national identity. Fully aware of the implications of culture on national identity and political strength at the dawn of its nationhood in the early 20th century, Ireland’s first taoiseach, Éamon De Valera, set national identity on a pedestal beside politics as he crafted an independent government. De Valera saw religion and language as dual crucibles, but many in Ireland still looked to Europe and America for the coveted essence of modernity. As they did so, traditional music and arts began to wane and a small group of pipers in Mullingar began to wring their hands. By the late 1940s, it appeared that traditional music was in decline.
In 1951, these musicians convened a summit of sorts, and together, they founded two efforts that today are the hallmarks of Irish traditional music: first, an organization that was to become Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and, second, the annual festival, the Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann. Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which literally translates to “Society of the Musicians of Ireland,” was founded to promote Irish music and dance in all its forms worldwide, and to foster and promote the language. Over time, Comhaltas established the Scrúdu Ceol Tire, a graded system of 12 progressive exams utilizing teachers certified in a national diploma course to teach Irish traditional music.
Every year, students gather for the Fleadh Cheoil to compete for the All-Ireland, a coveted title that rewards musicians who best represent the performance standards set by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann. Sixty years later, branches of Comhaltas have been formed in every county in Ireland and in 15 countries and 4 continents. These branches host concerts, offer courses, and sponsor sessions in their local communities, ensuring that the Irish diaspora remains as connected to the traditional ethos and style as it is “back home.”

The standards set by Comhaltas have played a pivotal role in the survival of Irish traditional music. Setting standards and awarding achievements for exemplary performance has helped to protect the purity of the central canon, the most traditional aspect of the music, from outside influences. It has also helped to elevate and legitimize the traditional style of teaching, which to some might appear old fashioned. In most cases, worldwide, traditional musics – often also referred to as “folk” musics – are taught and learned through the oral tradition, by ear, directly from teacher to student, with no notation to intervene. Like countless traditional music styles, native Irish music was most often taught in a close master/student “apprenticeship” in which the master is the arbiter who ensures strict adherence to the conventions of performance technique and repertoire. Though many continue to learn in the “old way,” over time Comhaltas has established schools, courses, and books that suggest a central repertoire and approach.
If we allow a whiff of Western European musical colonialism to waft in, we may notice that once a music can be written down and learned according to notated, articulated performance standards, it advances its position on the world stage. Dress it up and you can take it anywhere. Do you question this? Well, take seven brilliant traditional musicians, add tuxedos, take them away from the hob, put them on a stage, and voilá: a contract with National Public Radio and a CD/DVD that will be given away to wealthy arts patrons during the next fund drive. This is no longer your granny’s kitchen, lads.
In Irish music this attempt at standardization and this glorification of “model” representation of the Comhaltas standard has led some Irish musicians to complain of conservatism and “Machiavellian” tactics in the Ivory Tower of Irish music. Many resent the control that Comhaltas exerts over Irish music as a whole, its perceived role in the dissolution of regional accents in music, and its apparent institutionalized denial of outside influences. Maybe. Maybe not.
But let us remember why Comhaltas was formed in the first place and celebrate its immense successes: It has managed to bring Irish traditional music from the hearth to the world stage and it has helped the music to survive intact, despite the relentess pounding of newer influences, particularly in popular music.
Still, we must leave room for innovation. Prince Charles Alexander, a Berklee professor, music producer/recording engineer, and two-time Grammy winner, was also in Malaysia on the Berklee trip this week. Prince Charles is a thought leader in the world of music innovation, and he came to Malaysia to speak with music educators and young music teachers about music production and innovation. Specifically, he wanted to encourage young Malaysian musicians to explore how they might fuse traditional musical sounds with modern innovations like hip-hop as a way to help bring the nation into the future. He suggests that within every tradition, we should create an “innovation zone” where visionaries can create something that is informed but also innovative—evolutionary but also revolutionary—without fear of retribution from the guardians of the tradition.
Interesting. What would happen to the popularity of Irish traditional music worldwide if we decided we wanted our music to reach not just thousands but millions? What would happen if we sampled a fragment of a concertina riff and gave it a hip-hop beat? (Is there a doctor in the house! Bring your man Paddy here some smelling salts.) What if we allowed ourselves to act on this question, “What if?
I hear you: The rhythm of traditional music is part of what defines it, not just the melodies. And nothing will ever replace the sound of a fiddle and a concertina together in a quiet room, jigs and reels wielded with the same skill Leonardo used when he painted the Sistine Chapel. If we remove that rhythm and that spirit, do we still have that music? If we only sample two bars out of a tune’s typical 16, do we still have the Irish thing? Or do we have something else? And if so, is that ok? Is there room for that? To be fair, some exceptionally talented musicians have attempted to explore that question in their music –Kíla, Damien Dempsey, and Michael McGoldrick’s Wired project come to mind—but as yet, the attempts are limited and not genre changing. And perhaps that is as it should be. But it would also be a pity if the vast majority of young Irish people felt that the traditional music was not relevant to their experiences.
What, then, of this national identity? Comhaltas may yet have more to offer. Malaysia can look to Comhaltas as an example of a successful method to standardize, protect, and preserve its traditional music. But to help restore its national identity and to help it emerge on the world stage, it may need more than preservation. It may also need to leave the doors open to “non-members”… to fuse what is most sacred and most essential to its tradition with outside influences. From here, a unique and modern national identity may emerge along the continuum of its own rich history.
If we wish to use music to nation build, we must think differently. If we forge radical, disruptive innovation, we are not selling out. We are buying in. We must celebrate all that Comhaltas has done and will continue to do, but also leave room at the table for the innovators. A culture that wishes to move forward cannot do so by looking back – but a thriving nation will never create a sustainable identity if it leaves the past entirely behind.
Susan Gedutis Lindsay is Associate Director for Instructional Design at Berklee College of Music in Boston and author of “See You at the Hall: Boston’s Golden Era of Irish Music and Dance” (University Press of New England, 2004). She plays Irish traditional music on flute, whistle, and (gasp!) saxophone.