Guide to Irish Traditional Music
Ireland’s outgoing culture continues to foster musicians and storytellers in every town and cove.
If you are out enjoying an Irish seisiún or music session in one of the many pubs along your coastal journey you are likely to meet some of these fellas!
The Bodhrán ( “bow-rawn”)
This is a traditional Irish hand drum usually made of goatskin which is played either with the hand of with a small wooden stick. Popular throughout North Africa and undoubtedly related to the Moroccan Tambir, the Bodhrán, like all hand drums finds it’s ancestor in the ancient sieves once used to separate the wheat from the chaff. To play this instrument, it is usually balanced on the knee and a player places the left hand as a balance while playing with the right. As an instrument, evidence suggests that it was not much used in traditional Irish music performance until the twentieth century. Since Ó Riada’s innovation, however, the bodhrán has been an almost indispensable element within Irish music groups. There is an energy and vitality in the music of Ireland that can equal anything popular music has to offer.
The Tin Whistle An Feadóg Stáin (“fa-oak stawn”)
Beloved of Irish school children, the feadóg or Irish penny whistle or “tin-whistle” as it is sometimes called, is a versatile and portable staple of the Irish music scene. Every traditional musician has one in his musical armoury. If you are starting out in Irish music, this is an instrument of choice. With this you can learn the many traditional airs of Ireland’s rich musical repertoire. From here, you can progress to the more elaborate fingering of the Irish flute, the Pipes or the finger-stretching Low Whistle.
The Irish fiddle, fidle, is an instrument mentioned as early as the Book of Leinster, a manuscript written in 1160 , in an ancient poem describing the Fair of Carman. This was not of course the modern form of the violin which was developed in its present form in only the second half of the sixteenth century in Italy.
Although the fiddle is in surface identical to the Violin, four strings wooden body and played with a bow- the Fiddle is played in an entirely different manner and in a variety of regional styles. Mostly known for fast snappy reels and jigs this versatile instrument can also draw out Irish slow airs once played by sensitive hands.
Where a classical repertoire may demand precision and clinical adherance to notation – traditional music prides itself in a virtuosic individuality. As part of an oral tradition, the music is optimally learned by ear; notation is sometimes referred to as the “hanger” upon which the tune must take form. The beauty of this distinction is that a player of traditional music is not as such always putting on a show nor is he or she slavishly following the dictates of another. Rather, a culture bearer of this tradition allows something to flow through that belongs neither to him nor to those who are listening. A spiritual dimension is at play here and who knows where the music will take you, if you can still your mind and only listen. Irish music can rather be understood as a gateway to one’s interior landscape. Musicians are often seen, eyes closed, transported to another world. There is at times a kind of reverence that descends upon a room when such special musical magic is about to happen!
Like the various accordions and the harmonicas available, the Irish concertina is a free-reed musical instrument. It has a bellows, and buttons typically on both ends of it. Unlike accordion buttons, when pressed, the buttons travel in the same direction as the bellows which travel perpendicularly to the bellows.
Various forms of Concertina are also used for classical music, for the traditional music of England, and South Africa, and for polka music.
Dedicated players and a rousing repertoire ensure the continued popularity of this distinctive instrument.
The Uileann Pipes (Uilenn – “ill-in” means “elbow”)
To play the Uileann pipes may appear a bit of a feat at first viewing but this mystery can be explained. A small set of bellows is strapped around the waist of the musician and the right arm (in the case of a right-handed player) is used to inflate this bag. The bellows not only relieve the player from the effort needed to blow into a bag to maintain pressure, they also allow a dry air to power the reeds, protecting against the effects of moisture on tuning and longevity. You might see some dextrous pipers chatting away or singing while playing.
Distinguished from many other forms of bagpipes by their tone and wide range of notes – the chanter of the Uileann Pipes has a range of two full octaves, including sharps and flats – together with the unique blend of drone and regulators. The regulators are equipped with closed keys that can be opened by a piper’s wrist action thus enabling him or her to play simple chords.