The Trad Session, Davoc Rynne

In the 1960s if you were young and could play an Irish traditional dance tune – you were King! You did not have to have a huge repertoire – heavens no, if you could play a half a dozen tunes with a minimum amount of skill and a maximum amount of bluff, you were elected. You could pull a crowd around you at a Fleadh Ceoil before you got to the second part of the “Sligo Maid”. I once played the reel “The Boys of Ballisodare” to a bunch of set dancers in a town square. Fifteen couples dancing and one tin whistle playing the one tune! I must have played it a dozen times, yeah, but it was three in the morning and the tune does have three parts!

Later on in the 60s it got even better, young beatniks, college students and gorgeous tourists followed the music in awe. And as for the young wans! Let’s not go there!

But we settled down in the 70s. Got married, reared a family and literally stopped playing. But for heaven’s sake we were no good anyway! The few that were good, the Barney McKenna’s, the Liam O’Flynns and the Paddy Moloneys formed groups and made a career out of it and the best of luck to them all. For us we continued to play the half a dozen tunes to the kids to keep them quiet and that was about the height of it.

About five years ago I went to a few sessions during the Willie Clancy Week in Miltown Malbay. Mind you that’s no big deal – I live about a mile from the town. I was drawn to one session – a mixed group of young musicians, by the fact that I knew some of the tunes they were playing. But by the time I had pulled out the old whistle and settled myself down, the two reels I knew were gone! They were playing hell for leather into the next set. They played for over an hour and a half without playing any other tune that I knew. This was typical of the whole week and all the sessions. This kind of put me off playing for another couple of years – but not completely.

Two years ago I realised that playing music, even poorly, with a tiny repertoire is great therapy. If I become agitated with work, mortgage, or life in general, I just get out the whistle and blast away! Maybe the constant breathing clears out the oul’ lungs, maybe the oxygen makes you a bit high – I am not sure – but certainly five minutes playing calms me down. Better still, if you can go outside, although that depends on tolerant neighbours – not to mention the singing birds who seem to tacit on as a challenge, some even entering into a competition with me! Mind you, I envy them – they have a built in facility for notes. A poor human has to pick notes, turn them into a key and then make rhythm of them. But therapy breaks were becoming boring with only a limited number of tunes. Now we come to the really hard part. I have always said that if there were 200 tunes – well grand – we could sit back and slave away and learn them. But a dozy, geriatric whistle player like me, well with a bit of work and less pints of porter I might do it in a year! But ….. There are not 200 tunes to learn – there are thousands and thousands and thousands of them. All of them with titles, styles of dancing, strange keys and with various parts in each tune. And we are still in Ireland with just jigs, reels, hornpipes and slides. God forbid if we went down the road of barn dances, Lancashire clogs and strathspeys (whatever they are!) – It is mind boggling!

However as time goes on we do the best we can. We listen to Radio na Gaeltachta, local radio stations, tapes and cds. We plough through O’Neill’s 1001 tunes, Brendan Breathnach’s Ceol Rince na hÉireann, cuid 1, 2 agus a 3. Sometimes picking tunes at random, learning it maybe forgetting it again.

Now we are back at sessions – but a whole new ball game has developed. All the musicians seem to be experts at their music; they know nearly all the tunes, play the right key and stay in tune. They can add wonderful decoration and notes, superb timing and sometimes even regional or classy individual styles. Mind you I did say, “Seem to be”. When you sit in at the raw edge of an Irish traditional music session all sorts of strange energies begin to unfold. The politics of playing in a session can be extraordinary. First you get the types of people who play. As diverse a group of people as you could imagine. Really only one common denominator is apparent – they all love to play music. Now they also appear to have a strong preference for Irish Traditional Dance music. There the sameness ends. Some are male, some female; some are ancient, some not yet in their teens. Others are complete chancers, more professional and making a living from it – they can be chancers too! Some spend two hours tuning and ten minutes playing. Others come into a session with large swanky polished mahogany cases which remain unopened – they just sit there and soak up the session and observe. I wonder is there anything inside the swanky case? Hardly a toothbrush and pyjamas – maybe a machine gun! Who knows, it’s never opened. Some sit in and seem to know the names of all the tunes, this is very impressive especially when you get amazing titles like “Fasten the leg on her”(should this read “Fasten the leggings”!), “Upstairs in a Tent” and “Touch me if you Dare”. But is knowing titles important? At a recent session we had a name dropper like this, a cynical fiddle player beside dryly remarked, “I’d hate to know the names of a 1,000 tunes and only be able to play 10”!! Then there is the player who is constantly fiddling with his instrument. Taking the flute asunder, cleaning it, putting it together again, checking the joints and looking up through it like a telescope. Or the whistle player who is constantly blowing hard through it as if trying to dislodge a nest of earwigs, to shaking it or sticking it into his pint of porter, everything and anything except playing it. The fiddle player who is forever rosining his bow, plucking strings and tightening and loosening keys. The uileann piper who is always giving out about the temperature. The regulators are too hot; the drones are too cold or is it the chanter or maybe his fingers! But by far the worst is the tuner I mentioned first. “Will someone give me an A?” is a cry that rings out at every session. Fiddlers and flute players are always asking. But who’s A do you want? If there is an accordion player at the session, he is a good supplier of the elusive A. Some fiddlers pass their instrument around to some other fiddle player for tuning. I have seen complicated and sophisticated electronic tuners and ordinary old-fashioned tuning forks. The tuning department can be hilarious. Lots are willing to their A – “A is a very easy tune to play”!! Often the whistles are called on as they have a fixed key so you can assume that the little tin whistle is in tune. Wrong! I have been told manys the time that I am out of tune. I should prise off the red mouth piece, put some Vaseline on the brass part before it will come right. What?? Where would I get a vice-grip, a workbench and a tin of Vaseline in the middle of the night at a session! Fanatic tuners are great for building confidence in musicians!

Let us move to the tunes. Oh my God, the tunes. The two women in the corner would drive you mad – besides knowing every tune played from Cork to Donegal, they roll tunes together with nothing more than the lift of an eyebrow to indicate the next one. Away they go again leaving a bunch of us behind still thinking of the first tune played. But then, they play together all the time and are well used to certain sets of tunes. If the rest of us don’t know, well tough cheese, there are always more tunes and other sessions. Or introduce another set of tunes and see what happens. The young guy beside me has just finished his Leaving Cert; he takes out his flute and assembles it. Says he hasn’t played since Christmas. For the first half dozen tunes he worries about being in tune. Don’t worry – sez I – you’ll be grand, the flute will warm up soon and come into tune. He still worries – I wonder it is a cover up for a lack of confidence or indeed a lack of tunes. Ten minutes later, in walks a well-known flute player, a very accomplished musician indeed, who teaches music. She moves in quietly beside the young flute player, joins the session without fuss or much notice. Very gently she lifts the music to a higher plain. What she does to our Leaving Cert student is truly remarkable – I can hear him play superbly in my left ear and in my right ear is a really good fiddle player – I’m in heaven. Then the next set of tunes is started by the two flutes, – I give up, put down the whistle, the fiddle player follows suit and on it goes round the table – the 15 odd musicians all stop playing, leaving a wonderful flute duet to die for! And to think I thought he couldn’t play! This set of magic tunes gets a great response from the audience. Aha – but I’d forgotten we had an audience. What is an audience? How does it fit into a session? How long have you got? The audience in this particular pub are just ordinary folk who, on a long Monday evening, have dropped in for a pint. They did not pay in to hear music, nor indeed did they ask for it. You could say it was imposed on them. It might even interfere with good conversation – an art in itself. It certainly would upset anyone that wanted to watch TV, that torture, thank the Lord, is switched off. Musicians and a casual audience – a funny mix. The best of musicians can be totally ignored and the chancers and noisy musicians can have an extraordinarily attentive audience. Old Mick has had too much to drink – he shouts from the bar, “Play the Drunken Landlady” – a tricky tune at the best of times. A fiddle player says, “Play the Bucks, he won’t know the difference”. The Bucks of Oranmore has at least four parts and takes a while to get through. Mick listens and looks happy. We finish the tune and slug our drinks. Old Mick slides over and in a loud voice declares: “ye didn’t play The Drunken Landlady”!!

Now the Willie Week has come around again. Music is flying out of the pubs; the town is saturated with it. Every type and variety of musical instrument is pulled out for the session. “Oh my God – is that a saxophone he has? Is he going to play it?” What is that young woman in the corner playing? She appears to have a swank keyboard instrument on her lap and is blowing softly through a long white plastic tube. For some reason I am thinking of a hospital bed and a drip!

I head for my local – the place is jammed. I push my way in to the session room. Only last week this was the family’s private sitting room. Now devoid of TV and easy chairs, these have been replaced with stools and make shift benches. The room is packed, wall to wall top class musicians. No spectators here – only the crème de la crème of traditional Irish musicians. Ah – but I see an empty seat and it right beside the overworked fear a’ ti – on a break – he looks wrecked but relaxed. “Is this seat available”? How are you bearing up”? He has no chance to answer either of my questions. In the corner of my eye I see a fierce, familiar, famous looking fiddle player approaching. OOPS – I’ve taken his seat! I hesitate for a split second – long enough for people to shove up and make more room for the young famous fiddleBut the session is now raised to mighty heights – the word fantastic would be an understatement. An hour later I notice a lot of shuffling. Had another ‘famous’ musician arrived? I dunno – I know nothin’! Weird things were going on. Flute players were getting closer to each other, fiddlers were leaving the room but leaving their fiddles behind was a way of booking their seat. Good-looking young women had come in and were given seats. The famous concertina player left but did not leave his classy instrument behind; instead he plonked it on the lap of one of these gorgeous looking women with a knowing nod of his curly head and a winning smile! I wondered would that work with a mere tin whistle. Mind me penny whistle while I go for a wee!!

But the session continues and is really too good to be disturbed by either gorgeous women, famous, fiddlers, drink or going to the bog! The music floats up the stair, out the window and down the town. It reaches high levels of euphoria, some musicians look totally spaced out on it. The centre core of four musicians are now steering the ship. Dictating the tunes, speed and mood. Two and a half hours later it peters out. It runs out of energy, all the tunes are played, tired, emotional, thirsty and hungry – who knows? Most just packed their instruments and went walk about.

Four hours later, another venue, another session and a very different energy. A bunch of musicians from County Down and County Armagh are dodging the marching season and dreaded Orange Parades of 12th July. Three fiddles, a flute and concertina play fast brilliant, staccato style music with great gusto. The 70 year old flute player beside me laments the fact that they play so fast. He can’t keep up with the speed the rhythm, the way reels are played today. “The basic tune is spoiled and there is no room left for decoration when played so fast”. Another not so old flute player and no longer play because his bottom teeth are loose – he can’t hold the flute to his gob anymore. He is reminded that the famous flute player Pakie Duignan from County Leitrim had only one bottom tooth. Now I know why he played the instrument at that extraordinary angle. He was trying to stabilise the old flute to his jaw and searching for the one tooth!!

The stories are endless and the next session is just about to start.

Categories: Davoc Stories, music