Innovation and Fundamental ‘Character’ of Irish Arts

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When the world’s performing arts emigrated to America over the last couple of hundred years, they inevitably looked backward, intent on resisting influences from other cultures that would negate the essence of the traditional forms.

Irish traditional music and dance are exceptions; their basic structures have allowed for a sizeable degree of repertoire fusion and stylistic innovation that never substantially altered the tradition’s fundamental “character”. They’ve absorbed change for centuries, and they’re still thriving — educating and entertaining in ways no one could have imagined even a generation ago.

I really love this quote.  It’s from the article, Can Culture Create Community? by L. McCullough.  The article outlines the community efforts in the area of Pearl River, New York, to maintain and invigorate the Irish cultural traditions.  The results from the efforts of dedicated arts activists, most notably three women musicians, are nothing short of astounding.  The Pearl River School of Irish Music and the Inishfree School of Irish Dance have sent students to compete in the All-Ireland Music Competition. This year, the school’s céilí band in the Under 12 Division won 1st place.  The All-Ireland Under-18 Fiddle Championship was awarded to Sarah Buteux from Pearl River.  Seven other musicians from Pearl River also won prizes at this annual competiton.  These accomplishments are all the more astonishing considering that very few non-Irish born competitors make the cut to the finals.

 As for the vitality of Irish arts and the ability of this tradition to thrive in today’s electronic, YouTube and Twitter web-world, I believe that the willingness of Irish ‘Trad’ musicians to explore the use of other instruments and build on influences from the past while borrowing from other genres like American jazz or other folk traditions have carried the day.  Hollywood still has some heart for the Irish.  I was delighted to see a fight scene from the 2009  Sherlock Holmes movies (the ones starring Robert Downey and Jude Law), featured a fast-paced Rocky Road to Dublin played by the Dubliners.

One of the Croí na Céilí Band’s favorite set pieces that we play at dances is Ballydesmond Polka no. 3 with the Finnish Polka.  The Finnish Polka in particular has that decided pentatonic modality, like something you might hear at a Jewish wedding or Russian folk dance.  It’s all the more distinctive in that its B-minor key is an unexpected key for Irish tunes.  The dancers like it and it seems to add a little bit more kick to their steps when we drive into it.  Here’s the written out version that’s pretty close to how we play it (thanks to Vashon Celtic Tunes).

Finnish Polka

Finnish Polka

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