Travel has frequently been an important facet of musicians’ lives. This is the case in Ireland as elsewhere, with its history of travelling musicians, from the early harpers, pipers and fiddlers, to céilí bands and showbands trekking to halls around the country, to the seasonal mass-migrations to summer schools and festivals. Contemporary bands and groups of course journey on a wider scale than their predecessors, tracing well-trodden songlines across the international concert scene. These peregrinations produce an intensified form of encounter, beyond the everyday mediated form, between artist and audience, and between artists themselves. These encounters also facilitate the fusions that predominate in the world music sphere, and Kíla’s new CD, Kíla & Oki (Kíla Records), a collaboration with the Ainu musician, Kano Oki, is the result of a meeting during a Japanese tour by the band.
Like many other Western musics, Irish traditional music has a certain niche popularity in Japan, but there’s also been some exchange outside of this, with a range of traditional musicians appearing with Soul Flower Union (a Japanese band who blend traditional and popular musics) and Oshima Yasukatsu (an Okinawan musician), and Thomas Charles Marshall’s successful adoption of the biwa, a Japanese lute. Much of the discourse surrounding these exchanges focuses on the commonality of island cultures, but this particular partnership is all the more interesting given Oki’s position as a musical representative of the Ainu, a people indigenous to HokkaidÅ� in Northern Japan (but formerly more widely spread among other nearby islands) and unrelated to other Japanese. Although their culture was long suppressed through discrimination and government-led assimilation, recent activist organisations, the introduction of new laws, and wider international recognition have contributed to its revival. Oki’s music revives the tonkori, an Ainu stringed instrument, but in a neo-traditional style – blending in dub reggae, electronica, and traditional musics, notably those from other indigenous cultures.
There is a common ground here then in the artists’ unfettered approach to the traditions that they draw on, but also in that both are perceived as representatives of these traditions – at least from the more distant perspectives of world music audiences. On the other hand, both have been criticised for their transformations of these musics, and regular readers of this magazine will hardly need reminding that there are complex issues concerning the ownership of traditional musics, and how musicians’ identities as ‘traditional musicians’ are controlled. But this is a side issue here, as the music on this CD is unabashedly contemporary, and certainly from an Irish perspective has much less traditional input than previous Kíla albums – the Irish-language tracks here are all fine contemporary songs, co-written by both, and enlivened by the tonkori, which has a distinctive sound.
The other tracks have featured on previous Oki releases, but now in new arrangements and with new lyrics. The music of these is credited to Oki, but because of the scarcity of recordings of Ainu music, it’s extremely difficult to determine their relationship to more traditional forms. For instance, the opening track seems to be related to the type of epic poetry, the yukar, and is close in style to ‘Shamanic Dub’ from the album Dub Oki. One notable feature is the emphasis on nature in the songs, which plays a crucial role in Ainu cultural practices, and is emphasised by activists as a means of establishing their identity as separate from the Japanese. The tracks are all similarly constructed – lots of riffs are skilfully layered together to underpin the vocals – which makes for a very approachable sound, although also leads to a certain sameness of approach, and results in the music often sounding very static.
The Third Twin
Albums of newly-composed tunes appear on a fairly regularly basis, ranging from the more conservatively traditional in style, such as those of Josephine Keegan, Vincent McGrath and Iomar Barrett, to CDs whose music inhabits a locus at the tradition’s boundaries. Of course, these boundaries are subtly changing, and the exotica of the margins of twenty or thirty years ago are often now rather commonplace, so that there’s little surprising about the syncopations, cross-rhythms and chromaticism on display here. Yet at the same time Eoin Dillon’s first CD as a soloist away from Kíla, The Third Twin (Kíla Records), is a retreat of sorts from their more flighty departures, adopting a more orthodox approach in its texture of solo uilleann pipes, accompanied by the familiar pairing of guitar (Des Charleson) and bouzouki (Frank Tate), which in places are complemented by drones and harmonies on the fiddle (Steve Larkin). And while it is definitely an album of contemporary traditional music, in that it draws on many modern idioms and techniques, it’s possible also to consider this as a journey back into the tradition, re-encountering the forms and presentation style of its roots, and contributing to the stock of the tradition.
This may seem like a contrary description of a CD of new material, and it’s been argued before that such tunes can’t be considered truly traditional without being adopted (and adapted) by musicians through the process of transmission. But yet these tunes are created out of the precedent of tradition, and thus are informed by it – they emerge from an ‘integrated style of creation’, to use folklorist Henry Glassie’s phrase. It’s also the case that they contain the potential to become part of the ‘living tradition’ at any stage – a process that is currently highly visible in the mining of manuscripts, prints and older recordings for material.
Returing to The Third Twin, all the tunes are Dillon’s, with the exception of ‘The Bearna Waltz’, a pleasant if unremarkable tune written by fellow Kíla member Dee Armstrong, and the whimsically-titled ‘Marcus McSpartacus’, the contribution of bouzouki player (and maker) Frank Tate. Here the music most closely approaches the style of Dillon’s regular group, Kíla, with its riff-centred arrangement dominated by the string instruments. Similar passages appear elsewhere as breaks within tracks, and while they do vary the texture, it has to be said that if anything contributes to the sameness of many group and solo CDs, it is this convenient over-reliance on banal strumming. On the other hand, the most pioneering tune on the CD, ‘Length of Space’, which demonstrates impressive musicianship in dealing with its rhythmic complexity, might have benefited from some additional accompaniment (aside from the intermittent foot tapping) to emphasise the shifting beat.
The reel sets on the CD are similarly contemporary in style – the opening track has typical three-against-four cross rhythms, and ‘Joxer’s Parallel’ is saturated with syncopations and almost obsessively-repeated figures, as is the closing reel of ‘First Ave’. In contrast, the two jigs of ‘Australian Kiss’ use a more traditional palette, Steve Larkin leading off to good effect on the second tune, a meaty three-part jig.
But dance tunes, unusually, are in the minority here, and the two most attractive tracks belong to that nebulous category of modern pieces which lie outside the usual dance or air forms. Compositions in this style have become quite popular recently – it’s easy to understand why, given the need for variety on CDs spanning fifteen or so tracks. Despite this, many of these tunes fail to convince, being overly saccharine and bland by turns, and perhaps they will remain at the periphery, rarely encountered outside of CDs and concert performances. These tunes are perhaps the clearest indicators of the popularisation and classicisation of the music, as they owe little to the prior conventions and categories of the tradition. Of the two tunes of this kind here, ‘Paddy’s Perambulation’ seems to hark back to Carolan and similar harp tunes in 3/4 time, with its hypnotic phrase repetitions and sequential figures reminiscent of the Baroque-style variations transcribed by Edward Bunting and others. ‘Codladh Sámh’ is a gentle piece played on the whistle, somewhat in the style of a slow reel or hornpipe. The air ‘The Moon on me Back’ is really effective in its stark presentation, but the two marches are to my ears uninteresting tunes.
Overall the playing here is polished and professional throughout, but there weren’t many moments of real inspiration, and surprisingly for someone from the Kíla stable, the arrangements for me don’t have the sophistication or complexity to counterbalance this. There’s no question that Dillon is a good composer – but it seems as if all the creativity on the album has been directed at the constructing of the basic material, so that the interpretation of the tunes doesn’t receive the same attention.
Published on 1 September 2006
Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.
Adrian Scahill is a lecturer in traditional music at Maynooth University.