SYDNEY FESTIVAL REVIEW: Masters of Tradition

Elisabeth Meister

"The fact that none of my friends wanted to come along to this concert is probably the best proof that people tend to have strong preconceived notions about traditional Irish folk music."
SYDNEY FESTIVAL REVIEW: Masters of Tradition
The fact that none of my friends wanted to come along to this concert is probably the best proof that people tend to have strong preconceived notions about traditional Irish folk music. Having heard this type of music mostly in films as a background in busy pubs myself (Pierce Brosnan in Laws of Attraction comes to mind), I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this evening, but very curious to experience a different side of Irish folk music. The concept sounded promising: The yearly Masters of Tradition festival in Bantry presents more and less well-known masters of Irish music in a more quiet setting than your traditional pub - truly a festival for music lovers who want more than just some folkloric background tunes. Martin Hayes, director of the Bantry festival and an acclaimed fiddle player himself, has brought a selection of these very special and unique musicians to Australia, presenting Irish music in all its scope and glory. The first part of the concert consisted of more quiet, melancholic tunes and for the most part didn't sound like you would expect traditional Irish music to sound. It began with an unaccompanied solo by Iarla Ó Lionáird (of Afro Celt Sound System fame) that was more reminiscent of African-Islamic melodies such as you would hear from Rasha or Salif Keita than what is typically perceived as Irish folk music. The beauty of his sublime voice remained one of the highlights of the evening - it made you want to fall down at his feet and beg him to marry (or possibly adopt) you, just so you could hear him singing all day long. He was followed by a solo by David Power on the traditional Uilleann pipes before Australian-born Steve Cooney (guitar), looking like Sean Connery with dreadlocks, joined him on the stage. The musicians were funny and humble, truly endeavouring to bring the traditional music of their home to an audience that might not know all that much about it. They briefly introduced almost every piece, and David Power took a moment to explain his Uilleann pipes which must be the devil to play: the player controls some parts with his wrist while simultaneously playing the chanter with the fingers of that hand. Another highlight was the famous duo known to Sydney audiences from the 2007 Sydney Festival, Martin Hayes (fiddle) and Dennis Cahill (guitar), who played until the break. Incredibly attuned to each other, anticipating the other's every move, every change in the music, they started off quiet and restrained with the guitar as a counterpoint to Hayes' fiddle, moving effortlessly and seamlessly from one tune to the next, sounding almost Baroque at times, only to become gradually wilder, with Hayes close to jumping out of his seat, hair flying, before announcing the next number, slightly out of breath, and the cycle starting all over again. Their skill and almost telepathic coordination were nothing short of awe-inspiring. After the break, Máirtín O’Connor (accordion), Cathal Hayden (fiddle) and Seamie O'Dowd (guitar) launched into more "typical" Irish music. This more boisterous, louder and riotous style had a large following among the audience - there was a lot of cheering and clapping along as well as massive applause, whereas I personally had preferred the quieter, less popularly known pieces of the first half. Their version of Händel's Arrival of the Queen of Sheba proved that you can make anything sound like Irish folk music by using an accordion. All musicians were on stage for the grand finale, one instrument after the other setting in then dropping out again, playing a tune with a jazzy touch before reverting to a full traditional sound. The energy of music and musicians alike was tangible and infectious and was greeted with standing ovations and much stamping of feet after the last song - the audience clearly wanted more. And they got it - with Steven Cooney starting off on the didgeridoo, joined by accordion and banjo before moving back to his guitar, and the whole group playing a few more exuberant, joyful pieces. I went home with a much broader and better idea of what Irish folk music can be, marvelling at its range and beauty and pitying my friends who will continue to associate it with background noise in pubs when it is so much more, and so much deeper, than many of us know. Masters of Tradition ran as part of the Sydney Festival over the Australia Day long weekend. The Masters of Tradition festival is held annually each August in Cork, Ireland

About the author

Elisabeth Meister is a Sydney-based translator and writer.